01/29/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Hate to Downhill? I've Found a Great Alternative

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This article originally published on Better After 50.

Full Disclosure: I am writing this piece while my husband squirms in the chair next to me in agony, one day post rotator cuff surgery. The pain got ahead of him, despite the prescribed doses of Morphine and Oxycodone. He is reticent and miserable, and I know just what he's thinking. I convinced him to give up snowboarding for just one day to try skate skiing with me, and he fell as we were skiing back to the car after a lovely afternoon together. Clearly, this whole ordeal is all my fault. And he's warned me this piece is probably a HIPPA violation.

So here I sit, writing about my new favorite sport -- in between rearranging pillows, scratching his back, filling up the ice machine, fetching medicine, food and water. I love a bit of irony.  Mike?  Maybe not so much -- but maybe he will appreciate it later -- like in June.

I have a love-hate relationship with skiing. In the 1970's, on a school ski trip to Cannon Mountain, I got stuck on a chair lift for a good half hour on a cold and sunless day, the wind blowing fiercely, right through the bra, double layers of long underwear, inner and outer ski jackets, hat, scarf and ski mask. My feet were painfully numb from the constricting boots and the sub-zero temps, and I could not feel the tips of my fingers. When I finally made it to the lodge, I vowed that I would never go downhill skiing again because, in a word, it sucked. And I kept that promise for quite a few years.

But things changed when I met my future husband, a skier, boater and Jewish boy who could fix things. Such a catch, I wanted him to marry me and not think I was a wimp. On our first winter together, I pretended that I actually liked to ski, which was easy compared to what I did our first summer: Pretend that I liked to scuba dive off a boat in Boston Harbor to catch lobsters (before the harbor clean up-eww). What we do for love, dum dee dum dumb.

Every summer I found myself sweating bullets, trying to pull a ¾ inch wet suit over my hips, and every winter, I found myself packing on the layers and heading for the slopes. And while the scuba diving didn't last beyond my first pregnancy, I lasted on the slopes for decades, mostly due to the invention of polar fleece, helmets, hand warmers and comfortable boots. I helped teach the three kids to ski mostly because I believed they should decide for themselves how horrible it was. Unfortunately, they loved it.

But when the kids no longer needed me to teach them, warm their hands, buckle their boots or retrieve forgotten mittens, I hung up the downhill skis and turned to cross country.  I bought a used pair of Fisher cross country skis (that I still use) and headed out to the trails on my own.   I loved the exercise, the way the sun sparkled on the snow, the lack of crowded trails and long lines, the comfortable boots, how I never seemed to get cold.  I could go out cross country skiing for a couple of hours, work up a bit of a sweat, and then spend the rest of the afternoon in front of a roaring fire with my glass of red wine and a book, while I waited for everyone else to return home.

But in the past few years, I got bit restless. Fit men and women of all ages were passing me out on the cross country trails with a grace and speed and a wonderful athleticism that I envied. They were skate skiing, and I was curious as to what it was all about. So, when I went to grab a cup of coffee in the Waterville Valley, NH town center a few weeks ago and saw that the folks at Fisher were demo-ing these awesome racing skate skis, I jumped at the chance to give it a try. And I loved it.

Skate skiing is a more aerobic form of cross-country (more bang for the buck), and when done correctly (don't look at me or my now one-armed husband- check it out at Sochi starting February 8) looks like the motions of a speed skater. If classic cross-country is a walk or jog in the woods, skate skiing is a run. Skate skiers get to pass the slower, classic skiers, leaving them literally in their tracks, and well -- not that I'm competitive or anything -- but it's totally badass. And at fifty-something, even a little badass is a good thing.

Despite Mike's nasty fall on his first day out, nordic skiing, skating or classic, on established trails in a cross country ski center is pretty safe -- most falls end only in laughter-- even at mid-life. I am totally confident that Mike's accident was a fluke (but I say that with fingers crossed, knocking on wood and worried about giving it a kinehora -- I'll probably impale myself with my poles, or get caught in a rogue avalanche.)

Sound intriguing? It's a great sport to learn with a spouse, friend or a group of friends. And I'll be happy to join you if you invite me. I'm without a partner right now --  and I'm looking for an excuse to get out of house.


Want to give skate skiing a try? If you do, you may find these hints from the people at Fisher, the cross country experts, helpful:
  • Make sure the equipment you're using fits. Most important: boots. Boots should fit like an athletic shoe, snugly but not tight or constricting.
  • Begin without poles. Skating requires simple comfort on each ski and for the time being, poles will merely get in the way.
  • Body position should be athletic to begin. Think of a shortstop, a goalie or soccer player readying for a sharp movement. Keep shoulders rolled forward. Weight on the toes and hips up and balanced forward.
  • Balance on one ski is the most crucial piece to learn. Each skating stroke is broken into two steps: a kick off phase and a glide phase. Without being comfortable on each ski, the time spent gliding is shorter and hence skating is harder. Find a gradual downhill and practice spending as long as possible on one foot.
  • In focusing on the "kick-off" phase, keep your feet roughly shoulder width apart. Draw an imaginary circle around your feet roughly three to four feet in diameter. The goal is to use a flexed knee and momentum to push out from that circle, rather than step or lift out of the circle.
  • When the basic movements of kicking and then gliding become more familiar, swing the arms together like a high jumper forward and back with each stroke. Focus on hitting the end points of each stride and each kick to gather the most glide from each push, each bit of energy.
  • Finally add poles while trying to maintain the quietest body position and movements. Shorten steps and pole strokes for climbs and relax.
  • A one-on-one lesson to learn skate specific strokes (V1 and V2) is recommended.
  • Just have fun!
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