This morning I watched NBC’s “The Great Race”, a recap of the men’s 4x10km relay at the Lillihammer Olympics. (It’s available on Google Video if you didn’t catch it, but it costs money and requires Windows to do so.
It was an extremely well done piece, although they didn’t show the famous bit where Dahle stopped and tried to force the Italian to go ahead of him, but he wouldn’t. At least I think that was in this race – maybe I’m thinking of the 4×10 at Salt Lake?
Anyway, I’m watching these guys race in brilliant sunshine, and it’s a similarly brilliantly sunny and cold day here. And I feel every movement – my muscles are twiching in time to them, and I can feel it, I can smell it, and I can taste it. I feel the fatigue, the joy, the accomplishment. I remember the way your lungs burn and your muscles work, I remember the way you could smell the humidity and temperature, see and feel the condition of the tracks, and adjust your stride accordingly. I remember seeing and feeling every little rut and bump in the track and trying to use it to your advantage. I remember that nifty little way you’d swing one of your poles forward when you switched from diagonal stride to double poling, and how cool it looked when others did it. I remember being in packs of skiers all in synch. I remember going out every weekend that there wasn’t a race and skiing 30 to 50 kilometers, and not thinking anything about it. I remember skiing in the rain, in bitter, bitter cold, in icy conditions, in slush, where there wasn’t any snow on the ground or when it was snowing so hard that you couldn’t see the next bend in the trail. And I remember doing it all because on those days when it was sunny and about -2C and your wax was good, there was no feeling in the world like it. It didn’t matter if you won or came in slower than your personal best, it was just great to be out there. The effort beforehand, and the soreness and tiredness afterwards, it was all worth it.
After the race, I started to cry. It was the worst cry I’ve had since I was in therapy, huge wracking sobs. And all because I realized that I’ll never have that feeling again.
When I was a young skier, just starting to enter ski races, there was a skier in my club named Karl. He was older, grey haired, and had started skiing in his home country (Germany, I think) when he was quite young. I was about 15, and he was probably in his mid to late 50s. He gave me advice and encouragement. The first year or two, he was well ahead of me in every race. Then I got a pair of real Peltonen racing skis instead of my heavy old Madshus light touring skis. They were light, they were fast, and they had three grooves in the tail that were supposed to break the suction on wet snow. They weren’t the most aggressive racing skis on the market, they weren’t even the most aggressive racing skis that Peltonen made. But they were mine. And the first race I skied in them, I cut a HUGE percentage off my previous best, and beat Karl by a small margin.
Karl became less and less of a factor in my later years, but I always thought that when I got to his age, I’d be enouraging young racers the same way. Between him and Jackrabbit Johannsen, I had enough role models to think that skiing was going to be part of my life for the rest of my life.
That was before the pain. And now I have to accept the fact that pain is going to be the defining element of the rest of my life, not skiing.