The Senior in Winter: Skating Past Pain and Prejudice at 67
Distressing numbers of folks my age move to Arizona, Florida, even Mexico and Costa Rica, to escape the snow, cold, and cloudiness fragile humans are tragically conditioned to think of as winter. Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s-60s, I loved winter. My parents remembered it for the frozen pipes and window sills, paralyzing ice storms and blizzards, and shoveling the sidewalk (to more easily fall on it). But I recall it nostalgically: Christmas, playing hockey on the neighborhood pond, and the lesser-known sport of skitching (or its Wisconsin derivative “skeeching”): gripping the rear bumper of a car as it sped over snow-packed streets (an exceedingly dangerous activity only a high school boy would do voluntarily). I’ve lived in wintry places throughout my life and career in video-making: Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, Iowa, Illinois, and my current home in Utah. I love winter.
Living in Denver in my late 20s, I finally satisfied a childhood desire to ski, both downhill and cross-country. Downhill skiing was shockingly easy. The only essential skills were overcoming fear and gravity (though nowadays, one also needs to win the lottery weekly to afford it). But cross-country skiing was unexpectedly challenging. Back then, there was only one style — sadly known today, as if performed by starving artists, as “classic”. You fastened long, skinny wooden slats to ugly, uncomfortable footwear, tentatively stepped and slid forward while dragging yourself along with poles long enough to clean gutters. Looks easy. Isn’t. And unless you’re the type who truly enjoys Dostoyevsky, Wagner, or stirring risotto, it’s painfully boring. Correction: painful AND boring.
Classic XC was romanticized in the 1970s with glossy magazine images of mating pairs of shiny, happy white people sharing wine skins, munching on non-room-temperature French cheese under an idyllic, snow-covered maple. After 40 years, I’ve never actually seen anyone do this. However, I have seen people off to the side of the trail, gasping for breath, some capitulating, removing their skis and trudging, yelling at their golden retrievers and labradoodles to turn around and death-march back to the sanctuary of their Audi Q7s. More recently, I see them joyously snapping selfies (or asking me to take them) in their one-day rental gear at the launch of their ill-fated maiden voyages. Did the Titanic teach us nothing?
Since ’81 Day-1, I’ve classic skied for fitness as well as pleasure (which I’m pretty sure disqualifies me as a “true” American but is required for entry into Finland). But late in the progress-free Reagan years, the revolutionary technique of skate skiing schussed into the mainstream after years of obscurity among the burgeoning ranks of Scandinavian masochists. I first saw it in the 1994 Olympics. It was hard to imagine cross-country skiing harder and more boring (though adding guns to one XC event was real out-of-the-box thinking). The frantic, awkward strides and sadistic course terrains also added an unnecessary yet fascinating layer of schadenfreude. Despite all this, I dismissed skate skiing as the winter sports equivalent of rap.
30 years later, I moved to Utah and was XCing more than ever. Several things had changed over that period: prices rose dramatically for equipment and trail access, trail maintenance improved immensely, more people were doing it and around half of them were skating, much like snowboarding impacted downhill skiing. I watched the skaters’ fatless, willowy bodies thrash as if constantly going uphill, looking like spandex-clad storks attempting in vain to take off into a stiff wind. It did not look like fun. Again, I convinced myself I wanted nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile, the classic skiers tooled along stoically, perhaps obliviously. I grudgingly pledged allegiance, repeating to myself “Those are my people”. Then I looked closer. The classic skiers were almost all 60 and older. Some used their poles like walkers. They moved so slowly, relatively and compared to the skaters, that I was often forced to go around them. That meant I had to hop out of the safety of the exquisitely groomed grooves and onto the flat, untamed skating section of the trail and… well, start skating. I envisioned those Russian babies learning to swim by being tossed into a pool.
If you’ve ice-skated, roller-skated, or roller-bladed, you know they’re not the same. Ice figure skates have teeth in the front of the blade enabling you to push off with your toes and propel yourself as classic skis do. Roller skates have rubber pads that perform the same function. Hockey skates and rollerblades don’t have these. You propel yourself by pushing off one skate and gliding on the other. This is, more or less, how skate skiing works.
This was how I discovered one possible reason classic XC is preferred by older folks. It’s in the hips. Skate XC requires a strong push from your hips and ankles. Classic XC, especially senior style, mostly requires toe strength and the ability to walk in a straight line. Given how hips are the Achilles Heel of so many elderly, it’s arguably smart for them to avoid skate XC. However, although I just turned 67, I don’t like to consider myself too old much less afraid or incapable of strenuous recreation (please read my article about soccer playing at 66).
Hockey skating was instinctive for me, having done it all my life. So when it came time to pass the classic skiers, I stepped out of the grooves and started pushing off the outside edges of my skis. But it was more demanding than hockey skating. First, my classic skis were too wide. I needed to spread my hips wider, push harder, and use my poles faster and more assertively: basically, imitating the other, stronger storks. When I finally got around the slower skiers, I was exhausted. But in trying to continue enjoying classic XC, I’d essentially learned how to skate. And now, I wanted to feel like a young, powerful stork, not an old, lame duck.
I knew I had to learn skate XC for real — but only The Schreiner Way: no lessons. Like downhill skiing, cooking, and piano, that simply means doing it more often and, most important, buying new equipment. I started at the shop at the course where I did most of my XC: White Pine Touring in Park City. They held an equipment sale at the end of last season. I knew the folks there already and they did the rest. The entire kit of skate boots, skis, and poles cost around $600: about the same as other stores but with the benefit of a more experienced staff familiar with my needs.
As ski season approached, I realized my old classic-designed Nordic Track wouldn’t work well for skate training. So I thought about the hip-ankle pushing motion used in skating, then remembered I owned a pair of rollerblades. I dug through my boxes of misfit toys and found them. Luckily, they still (kind of) fit. I also retrofitted an old pair of classic XC poles with drilled-out champagne corks to cover the spikes and provide better traction.
I started practicing in summer of 2020. Starting was unusually hard because my balance had gotten a little shaky over the years. But because I’d been running and playing soccer as well as skiing, my legs were durable enough to work on technique for longer stretches, especially the uphill ones. I also discovered that my Nordic Track did contribute to my skate training: arm strength. With my apartment building’s weight room closed due to COVID-19, it was crucial to have a way to develop upper body strength while simulating the arm action of both skate and classic XC.
The combination of rollerblading and Nordic Track got me ready for my first long skate. Unfortunately, one substantial ingredient was missing: snow. Winter 2020–21 has been one of the driest on record in Utah. But in mid-January, just after my 67th birthday, we got our first substantial snow. I brought both classic and skate gear in case the embryonic stork in me chickened out. The surface conditions weren’t ideal but they were better for skating (flat, thin) than classic (thick, soft). I spread some purple wax (smoother gliding) on my sleek, black, new Fischer boards, strapped on my space robot-like Salomon boots, and spread my wings.
From the first push, I felt the increase in power and speed over classic XC. Training had paid off literally out of the gate. There was less stress on my hips and with improved overall leg strength, my ankles and lower legs were doing more of the work, saving my hips for the more challenging uphill grades. My improved balance gave me confidence to go faster on curves and downhill grades. All these movements were assisted by my stronger upper body and pole work, which almost deluded me into buying one of those snake-like body suits to show off my rippling, imaginary shoulders and biceps.
My first run went 7 miles and took around half the time classic XC would’ve. I’m usually pretty stiff and/or sore two days after a workout like that. This time, my hips felt better than my ankles and shoulders. But I was fine on the third day and ready to go back out. Unfortunately, the snow is still lacking in Utah’s mountains this winter. But as I write this, large flakes are starting to fall in the Wasatch Mountains and I’ll be heading up to White Pine tomorrow.
Like my soccer comeback, my experience with skate XC has taught me as much about my evolving, 67-year-old outlook on life as well as my changing body. I’d said no to a new, unusual sport for 40 years, but I’d never totally rejected it. Then, whether through maturity, financial security, or other life experience — when a number of things happened simultaneously, and I was receptive to recognizing their meaning, I found an opportunity to overcome a personal prejudice, try something new, and improve my life.
Hopefully, my experience can help anyone — not necessarily to love winter but overcome their prejudices and find the opportunities for wonder, comfort, and growth embedded in all forms of adversity. The worst that could happen is you enjoy a bucolic Currier & Ives moment. But please avoid skitching.