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Outdoor Fitness Articles

Cross Country Skiing For Winter Fitness

By Fran Call - Mercer Island Reporter

When the sometimes dreary and drizzling days of winter settle in at sea level, snowflakes are bound to be collecting in the forests and hills at higher elevations. It's time to think "skinny skis."

If you're like me, you may find that your regular fitness activities — running, cycling, walking, tennis, golf — become curtailed a bit with the shortened days.

A fine alternative way to stay active and fit in the outdoors during the winter months is to cross-country ski.

It's very easy to learn, somewhat akin to walking with a kick-off and glide. One can move along very slowly and carefully, enjoying the serene winter setting. And there are no lift lines, no terrifying slopes with big bumps, and no having to watch out for other skiers racing by, seemingly out of control.

With just a little practice, confidence builds, efficiency and speed increase, as do body heat, heart rate, and the chance of taking a spill. No harm done! A sense of humor comes in handy as efforts to regain a standing position are often quite comical. There is a technique for this, easily and best learned by trial and error.

Another bit of good news is that purchasing the needed equipment for cross-country skiing is unlikely to necessitate a bank loan. Cross-country skis, bindings, boots and poles are relatively inexpensive and can be bought more economically as a package. Many sporting goods stores rent equipment with an option or credit to buy.

While fancy and specialized ski apparel is surely available, it is not necessary and you can wait 'til later to look that good! Simple winter clothing that works well in the snow and that can be ventilated, does just fine. Many skiers don a small backpack to carry extra clothing, a map, camera, a snack and water.

Only inches, not feet, of snow are needed to cross-country ski. Unplowed roads, such as logging roads, work very well. They are far from traffic and the grade is gentle.

As you become "hooked'' and more proficient, an overnight or weekend outing is likely to be desired. If you're really hardy, you can carry a sizable backpack and ski to a campsite in the snow — or you can check into a cross-country resort, many of which feature motel and cabin accommodations and miles of machine-groomed cross-country trails. Skiers of all ages and abilities can enjoy one hour or several hours out in the tracks, or off trail in the back country, before returning to a hot drink while soaking in the hot tub, or while sitting in front of a cozy fire.

Just as recreational runners often progress from running a mile to running a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon and maybe even a marathon as a long-range goal, "skinny skiers'' tend to follow a similar pattern. In the pursuit of adventure and challenge, greater distances and slope are sought.

Several friends and I followed such a path. As a lark, we decided to enter an annual event for cross-country skiers held at Mission Ridge near Wenatchee, Wash. It is called Hog Loppet, a Swedish word meaning "high race.'' Mission Ridge's version is a ski trek from the top of the chair lifts to Blewett Pass on Highway 97, some 26 miles away.

Hundreds sign up for this end-of-ski-season event. Numbers are pinned on, and the chair lift is mounted. Terror sets in and the fun begins!

Skills vary greatly, as does equipment. Those with telemarking (turning) talents enjoy the drop from the top. We were not among them! Each time we'd fall we'd roll in deep snow down the steep slope, resembling snow bunnies when finally emerging. With luck, we regained our balance and composure before tears from laughter froze to our cheeks.

The mob near the start thinned out considerably as the mileage markers began to count down toward the finish. Those with stamina enjoyed more the later miles of rolling up and down, and the winding ribbon of ski tracks through snow-covered trees, past views of valleys and mountain peaks. We wanted a challenge, and this fit the bill!

The organizers, on snowmobiles, stocked established checkpoints with water and snacks and encouragement. We carried lunch items to munch on en route. At the finish, shuttle buses were provided to return skiers to their cars. Or a very good friend could be commissioned for drop off and later pick-up duties on Blewett Pass.

It would also be wise and fortunate to have a friend who has a large hot tub, a masseuse, and an employer who understands the need for a day off. Actually, some of us enjoyed this adventure so much we repeated it a couple of years later.

Cross-country skiing is a fine workout. Major leg, shoulder and arm muscles are used. It can be cardiovascular to the degree one wishes, similar to walking or running at a slow or a fast pace.

Balance and coordination are developed. One can easily ski and carry on a conversation, or can go faster and talk later. It's relatively safe, low impact, convenient, exhilarating, and known to be addictive.

All ages and all abilities, all sizes and shapes can be found on skinny skis enjoying the winters outdoors.

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