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Relearning the virtue of patience and being a beginner again

In the past couple of years, I’ve been more seriously involved in two winter sports—squash and cross country skiing. I’ve blogged about my re-entry into competitive squash and my adventures in cross country skiing.  In neither case would I consider myself a beginner—I started playing squash almost 30 years ago (interspersed with long dormant periods), and cross country skiing has been a regular feature of my winter activity for the past 3 or so years, so both are familiar and comfortable.

However, I ventured way out of the zones of familiarity and comfort last Saturday, when I decided to try skate skiing. First, a few terminology notes. Cross country skiing can be done using different techniques, with correspondingly different skis. Probably the most familiar style is classic , which looks like this:

Then there is skate skiing, which looks like this:

Both classic and skate skiing are done competitively and recreationally. However, in in my area, most of the bike racers tend to skate ski during the winter; it’s an excellent and time-efficient workout, and is also good cross-training. Is it a better workout than classic skiing? Turns out that the answer is complicated, but this much is true: it’s much easier to be a beginner on classic skis than skate skis. The learning curve and fitness requirements are much steeper for skate skiing. Here’s why: if you’re not experienced on classic skis, you can still glide forward, but on skate skis you have to push yourself side to side, which is exhausting when you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, it’s exhausting even when you’re an expert.

I’ve been skiing classic regularly for a few winters now, and really enjoy it—it’s a way to get outside in the winter, get a workout, enjoy nature, and do something active and fun with friends of all ability levels. As in biking, if you’re in a mixed group, you can go slower and also stop for people to catch up and catch their breath.

In skate skiing, however, all that goes out the window. Or so I found out last Saturday.

My friend Janet and I decided to rent skate skis last weekend at Great Brook Farm,  a lovely groomed ski area near Boston. We went with our friend Jessica, who is a very experienced skate skier. She moves seemingly effortlessly, gracefully, and very fast down trails. Janet had taken a skate lesson and tried skating a few times, and I had witnessed her skating along, slowly and haltingly at first, but steadily. I thought to myself, how hard can it be?

It is shocking sometimes when you realize that something you thought wasn’t hard at all turns out to be really really hard. I had prepared by watching a bunch of youtube videos on skating technique. They all made it look easy. You put your skis in a v-position, push off one ski, and glide along, balancing on the other ski.

Surrounded by well-meaning friends, I tried to push off, but to my surprise, didn’t actually go anywhere at all. I tried again. And again. And again. Nothing. Wow—mind blown. Was I not going to be able to do this at all?

Somehow, by using poles to push myself along (skate skis are completely smooth on the bottom, so they slide very easily on snow) and stuttering along, I made it to a flat field area with a straight groomed trail. Jess was offering advice to Janet, who was making progress.

I was really frustrated—I could see what I was supposed to do, but couldn’t put it into action, and was seriously considering giving it up altogether. I had brought my classic skis with me, in case I wanted to switch.

Then something nice happened. Another friend we ran into—Dan, who cycles, skate skis, speed skates and roller blades (so he’s completely comfortable with this type of activity) said to me, “you just need to spend some time on the skis. It will take some time. Just stay on the skis for a while.” This was good advice. It calmed me down and helped me reset my expectations. I was going to have to spend some time not being able to do this, and at some point in the future, I was going to improve. Maybe not as soon as I would like (that is, immediately), but sometime.

I had completely forgotten what that was like—being absolutely at the beginning of learning how to do something. As adults, when do we experience this? Not often. It’s a scary and uncomfortable feeling. But I was intrigued and also heartened by Dan’s comments. He’s a shop teacher, so he’s used to introducing students to activities they’ve never encountered before. I decided to take his advice and just spend some time on the skis, in this one little area, by myself.

Sending everyone else on their way, with them agreeing to come back to check on me later, I proceeded to practice poling and pushing off one ski and gliding. I can’t actually say what happened, or even how long it took, but within an hour I was sort of skate skiing! It was tiring, it was solitary, and it was not comfortable. While I was practicing, a group of small children and some parents came through, with several of the kids on skate skis, just gliding along. Sigh. Well, there’s no way through it but to do it. And I did.

I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve, and (unlike Janet, who just bought skate skis at an end-of-season sale), I’m not yet ready to commit to this. But maybe after next season. It takes courage and patience to embark on something completely new and alien, and I’m working my way into acquiring enough of each to keep going at it. But I’m not giving up—there is fun out there to be had skating along on snow, and I want some more…

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