Learning how to Cross Country Ski in Alaska

by Mike Still
Learning how to Cross Country Ski in Alaska

I moved to Alaska almost 3 years ago and I taught myself to classic cross country ski during my first winter in the last frontier! My first two season were spent fumbling through the snow relying on muscle memories from downhill skiing in the foothills of Appalachia. You may have seen some of those ‘triumphs’ on Facebook or Instagram but I promise I’ve to a lot less snow in my beard these days and I’m excited to share a new cross country ski venture. I’m competing in the tour of Anchorage!

Nordic Skiing (aka Cross Country) consists of two styles:
Classic and Skate

The Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage (NSAA) hosts a ski swap every fall that Elizabeth was working and helped me find a great pair of skate skis. Skate skiing is a whole new style of cross country skiing and much faster than classic skiing. I’ve been wanting to learn but it requires a bit more technique and isn’t as versatile.

Skate skis are not very useful if you’re skiing across a lake. They really need some kind of trail with grooming or at least a snow machine track. The good news is ski associations in all over Alaska keep the trails well groomed!

My first skate ski ever was up and around the Independence Mine loop at Hatcher’s Pass. It wasn’t too bad duck walking up the first hill until we realized my binding had a giant crack in it stealing momentum with each push. I tried to compensate with my poles and managed to go faster than on my classic skis for just a few seconds before needing to catch my breath.

Over the new few months Elizabeth and her family gave me plenty of skiing tips (her mom even fixed my bindings!). With more practice and a better set of gear I enjoyed skiing more every day. It was still incredibly hard but I began considering the Tour of Anchorage.

The idea of competing again and having something to train for was quite appealing. It’s been years since I did any kind of competition and was taken a bit aback when I found out it was a 40 km race around Anchorage! Okay well there’s also a 25k and 50k event too but if I’m going to do it the 40k is the best. At least that’s what Elizabeth tells me since she hasn’t done the 25k since high school!

The Tour of Anchorage is a 25k, 40k, or 50k ski race across Anchorage

We decided it would be best for me to just train and then decide which event to do as we got closer to race day. I tried to ski every weekend and even took part in the Knapp Christmas Relay proudly becoming the first contestant to get snow in their beard. After recovering from my quick stumble I sprinted a few hundred meters and was promptly huffing and puffing.

I thought I was relatively fit but cross country skiing was proving to need a ton of coordination and endurance. Technique matters in all sports but I think it might be even more paramount for cross country skiing.

“Work on that weight transfer. Keep your elbows in. Try this with your poles.”

Slowly my technique improved and in the middle of January I competed in the Hickok Duathalon! This 6km race tested my classic and skate skiing skills and I finished in just under 35 minutes. Crossing the finish line I thought to myself “that’s the most difficult thing I’d ever done.” Skiing was exhausting but somehow getting less so with each day of practice.

I can’t do this… yet

I thought about the Growth Mindset that I teach my students and persevered. I knew I could get better with practice and began skiing two or three times each week. I signed up for a 4 week beginner skate ski class called Muni Masters and started going to “buddy ski” sessions with Elizabeth and her friends. They were working on speed while I worked on getting more than a dozen meters without needing to stop for a breather.

Then I had a eureka moment in my Muni Master’s class. All this time I’d just been thinking about how my feet keep me from falling but my coaches Britta and Heidi conveyed wisdom that just didn’t sink in before. We spent a half hour without poles and it all clicked. I suddenly understood how to use my feet to propel myself forward! It only took 3 months for me to feel comfortable on my skis and every day was more fun than the last.

“Your form is looking so much better! You’re doing great with the balance and weight transfer. Keep your elbows in. Try this with your poles!”

I was feeling good and accepted Elizabeth’s challenge to ski a large section of the Tour of Anchorage Trail. We covered 10 miles across town with 4 weeks to to before the race. Two weeks later I drove myself to Westchester Lagoon and skied South along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail until I got to Kincaid Park 8 miles later. This stretch is the last section of the Tour of Anchorage and I wanted to challenge myself so I turned back around and skied to my car. I covered over 16 miles in 3.5 hours. 16 miles is just over 25km which means I know I can finish the 25k in the Tour of Anchorage.

So now the obvious question. With two weeks left to train, which event should I sign up for.

The 25k or 40k?

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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