Sunday, January 25, 2015

Puppy stabbing

One of the instructors at Jackson Ski Touring used metaphors masterfully to convey the basics of classical technique. He would talk about kicking a ball down the track or sliding in socks on a hardwood floor to describe kicking and gliding in a way that would actually make the student's muscles start to engage in the way they should, rather than using abstract theory and anatomical terminology.

He instructed students when poling to think of pulling a little puppy forward with a leash rather than stabbing forcefully downward at the snow with the vicious metal spikes on the ends of their poles. "Pull the puppy, don't stab the puppy," he would say. Emphasizing the hand coming forward rather than the pole jabbing down helps create a fluid stride that relies on timing rather than force.

The snow hasn't been so good this winter, so I haven't put any time in on the trails. Yesterday I got out for my first quasi-groomed skiing on the Super Loop section of Sewall Woods. Three inches of fresh on top of the pocked and trampled remnants on which the die-hards had been subsisting allowed for a semi-refined slither over the irregular surface.

I noticed right away that I was doing a lot of puppy stabbing. Because the snow did not provide consistent support I was only able to connect two or three fluid strides before some jolt would break the rhythm. I would spear the snow abruptly as I put the the kickstand down on one side and the other. It occurred to me that puppy stabbing is the norm in bushwhacking and trudging along hiking trails and logging roads. Wherever conditions don't favor the beauty stride the rhythmic plant, plant, plant of puppy stabbing suits the abbreviated glide and lateral surprises found in that kind of terrain.

Another thing I noticed after I got home. My house was the temperature it always is at the end of a work day in winter: mid 50s. The fires had burned down. The gas heater maintains a baseline so the pipes don't freeze, but I need to get the woodstoves going to get back up into the 60s. Usually the house feels chilly when I come in after eight or nine hours of incarceration at the shop with a half-hour drive on either end. But after a mere half hour of puppy stabbing and determined trudging I felt warm when I walked in and was warm for the rest of the evening. I lit the fires, but without the usual sense of urgency.

A bigger storm seems to be on its way to open up the rest of the trails to a depth that will permit more technically precise skiing. In cross-country skiing, a little bit does a lot. Smoother trails just mean you cover more ground for your effort. It becomes more like flying than walking. Kick the ball. Pull the puppy. Slide.

Monday, December 15, 2014

We've got you covered

Finally went out for a ski in the woods out back. What I found did not surprise me, though I marvel at it every time I encounter it.
Snow cover is very complete, even after many days with high temperatures solidly above freezing. The sun is so weak this time of year that the snow is actually dense and crunchy nearly everywhere.

With rain and warm temperatures, we don't have the full depth that 12 inches on Thanksgiving and a couple more storms with two to four would leave us if we'd gone into a real winter deep freeze. But the same weather pattern in late February would have melted the snow so fast you could practically hear it sizzle.
Warm water lies close to the surface in the saturated, unfrozen ground. You ski where you can, because you can, not because you have to. In a full-on winter with complete coverage of deep snow, a ramble in the woods would require skis or snowshoes. That's the kind of winter we hope for every year. Optional skiing is different. You get to slide and glide on thin cover rather than just trudge, but you could trudge if you had to. You can ski on snow so thin that snowshoes are ridiculously unnecessary, using the gliding qualities of the medium more than the flotation ability of the ski.

Looks like one more good day of this kind of skiing before another rainstorm. We're in the last shortening of the shortest daylight, so the snow cover may actually continue to hold up in a lot of places. But where it has been groomed it has been thinned and damaged by the machinery, making it more vulnerable to hostile weather.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Just when you thought NNN couldn’t get any cheesier...

This doughnut box of NNN Basic bindings just arrived from Fischer. The Big F shows no qualms about throwing in with No!No! No! regardless of what tumbles out of the pipe.

The front end has one less screw securing the toe piece. And they've gone back to a completely detached heel plate. So drilling remains more complicated, just to attach a less secure binding. They get kudos for consistency.

In the end I suppose it only matters as much as which way you have the toilet paper come off the roll. Of course I have an opinion on that, too, but it's no more a winnable argument than the much stronger one against NNN. For some idiot reason the system thrives in the marketplace. Since it basically does what it says it does, holding your boot on the ski and imparting some measure of control, its inferiorities survive under the aegis of marketing. Make it cheap and available and you will sell a bunch. Sell a bunch and you will be viewed as a serious contender.

Rottefella may have realized that most skis get purchased and set aside. They might get used a little at first and occasionally thereafter, but why lavish materials and good design on something that is going to spend most of its time leaned up in a corner before being donated or unloaded at a yard sale. Since the screws are probably the most expensive parts in the binding, eliminating one from every binding adds up over the course of a production run.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Granulated grind

March sun combined with resurgent polar temperatures create transient snow conditions that drive classical skiers insane. So much for the idea of using classic skiing to build my fitness base. These are skating conditions until the definitive warmup makes either klister or a non-wax grip pattern work consistently.

Because the temperature has been dropping sharply at night, any areas that thawed because of the strong sun or an overall daytime high that went above freezing turn into chopped chunks, cobblestones and curbs. Don't stay out too late, no matter how good things seem during prime time. "Fast" is fun, but sliding out of control on a bumpy, icy chute will be more of a workout for your whitened knuckles than any other part of your physique.

After some sort of brush with a nor'easter Tuesday into Wednesday the temperatures appear to be on the rise. Could we at last have reached the mooshier phase of spring skiing and the real onset of cycling? It has to happen eventually. Even in the Year of No Summer (1816) the weather during the absent summer was more like a particularly nasty April than an endless winter. And the factors that led to that are not repeated now.  The June blizzard of 1816 would have presented tricky waxing conditions in spite of wintry snow depths. The temperature rose after the storm, it just didn't stay up in good agricultural range.

I'll take my June skiing in a high-elevation ravine, thank you, and enjoy real summer conditions down where we all actually live.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Hunting the Wild Cream Cheese

The Year of the Polar Vortex seems to be grinding glacially toward the inevitable end of winter's reign. March has come in like January. No telling how it will go out. Perhaps like a "normal" March comes in. We're still looking at daytime highs only in the 20s, with nighttime lows in the single digits below or above zero until the end of the week. At that point the forecast shows the days warming to the mid 30s. If this signals a change to genuinely warming temperatures, cream cheese season may be upon us.

When the snow base is beyond firmly frozen, more like sedimentary rock than anything that wafted down from a cloud as mere water, the thawing process softens the top layer each day as the sun gets strong enough, to create a layer like the food cited in the title. It takes an edge and guides a turn with savory sweetness. Each hard-frozen night saves the leftovers for another serving the following day.

In the Great Ungroomed, this process is all that makes skiing possible when the surface would otherwise be boiler plate. On groomed trails the morning granules provided by the tiller give way to this accommodating surface just in time to let the later skiers enjoy a treat after the early chirpers have shoved the granular surface aside in their haste to grab something more like the winter now slipping away.

Cream cheese also allows for ski skating on terrain that was never groomed for it. The firm support under the soft top layer lets skinny racing skis venture well off the trail where terrain and forest cover permit it. Access still depends on a very smooth snow surface, especially if you find yourself shooting some tighter gaps on purpose or accidentally.

At the end of the day, be off the snow before the temperature drops below freezing again! The cream cheese reverts to ice until the sun returns.

Daylight Relocating Time starts this Sunday, moving cream cheese hours later in the day. If you use trails that are regularly groomed this may actually add a full hour (or more) to the skiing day. If you have to wait for softening it merely shifts the usable period. But if you get stuck having to go out after work this will give you a bigger window. And if the temperature returns to mid-winter range you always have your trusty groomers to granulate it for you each morning.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Muscle Memory Encore

On Sunday another unusual opportunity to ski came up late in the day. To get the most out of the short time slot I used skating skis.

Skating isn't really harder than classical, but it uses the skiing muscles differently, which can feel harder when you're out of shape. In classical the skis stay together, parallel, so when you're reduced to trudging it feels more natural. The same plod on skating skis really feels like a pathetic waddle. So I went harder than I should, to try to stay in a speed range that flowed smoothly.

Almost the same distance I skied on Friday using classical skis took only two-thirds as long.

I was already stiff from the classical skiing. It tormented muscles that had been unmolested for more than a year. At my age the pain ramps up over a couple of days, so I was peaking when I went out to skate. Interestingly, the pain of skating decided not to wait. It detected the pain I was feeling from the classical outing and said, "hey! Me too!"

In spite of my stiffness, muscle memory provided accurate technique, as it had on Friday. I went through the motions. Fatigue made me sloppy, but I had no doubt about what I was trying to do.

Experience hurts at a time like this, because the body remembers moving at a certain speed. I wasn't trying for race pace, but I'm so deteriorated that even an easy pace was shredding me. I never had much patience for dry-land training. Back when I got out regularly I could fudge the dry-land phase and make it up in the early season. Now that I can't count on getting out there at all, let alone early, I would have to choke down a much longer period of dry-land alternatives to be almost ready for my chance at real skiing.

A longer period on classic skis would help. If more opportunities come along I will try to use the classic skis to regain some sort of fitness base. Skiing is absolutely the best exercise to get ready for skiing. Everything else you might do is simply to get you to the snow again.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Who woulda thunk it?

Muscle memory is an amazing thing.

I went out on the groomies on classical skis this afternoon for the first time in at least a year, maybe two. Admittedly, waxing conditions were as perfect as they get. Still, I never expected to be able to set the kick and lay down such a fluid stride when all my groomed-trail classical has been imaginary for so long.

I have no stamina. I can't maintain the rhythm on the climbs. But the body remembers even if the cardiovascular system and all the tweaky little supporting muscles burn out quickly.

Classical requires precision that skating does not. Skating requires some basic commitments, but classical depends on repeated subtleties to get sufficient grip from a ski without too much grip wax on it. It's easy to remind me of playing music, so it reminded me of playing music. To get a good sound you have to be in the right place at the right time with just the right amount of force.  This is especially true on a fretless, bowed instrument like the fiddle.

As it happens, the weekly String Band has finally come around to playing a tune I took up as a challenge on my own about five years ago. I downloaded some sheet music for it because I had it on a Darol Anger CD and wondered if I could ever get a handle on it. Turns out that five years of practice will get me a half-decent toehold. Hell, I've got my whole foot on there.

Ordinarily I set my chair back just a little at the weekly jam and struggle gamely with the tunes. I make no pretense of being one of the top players. But the evening our leader introduced the idea that we might take up Banish Misfortune, the others in the group each gave an opinion and then turned to me.

"It's like this," I said. Then I ripped through the A part with a precision that surprised even me. Apparently, the practice had set the tune in my mind and muscles so thoroughly that I couldn't even mess it up when playing out loud, alone, for a room full of people. Muscle memory.

"You can wait in the hall," said Big Scary John. He's a kidder, that guy, but he sure looked scary to me when I first arrived.

Muscle memory. The version of Banish Misfortune we're learning is a tad different from the sheet music from which I began my work. Of course it is. That's the nature of these folk tunes: endless little variations. Sometimes the same title will have two or three unrecognizable tunes under it. Fortunately this isn't one of those. But the variations interrupt the flow of the version I know. I feared it might be catastrophic when our leader first mentioned the title as a future selection. As it turned out, the autonomic nature of the tune gets me back on track immediately, even when my attempt to assimilate a variation derails me momentarily. Likewise, on the trail today, slips in technique did not break up into total turbulence. The body remembers.

As far as skiing goes, I wish I was in better shape. Never a racer, I still got a lot of satisfaction from knowing that I could surprise a few people. It's also just nice to lay down a powerful stride for mile after mile. No telling whether this will be my only indulgence this winter or if I might get into something resembling a routine. It depends on factors entirely beyond my control.

Getting my skis ready yesterday, I taped off the ends of the kick zone so I could get a clean, crisp edge on the glide zone. The memories and the longing it evoked, as I started the ritual of glide waxing made me think of an addict in a movie, holding the tourniquet of surgical tubing tight with his teeth. It's a powerful thing, skiing. Withdrawal had been brutal. I've suffered depression, genuine, medically treated depression, since regular skiing dropped out of my life. I'm taking a risk to dare to take a taste again. I've never managed to stop wanting it. And why should I? As addictions go it's pretty darn wholesome. But it has an undeniable effect on brain chemistry. Thus it has a power that I can prove to you can turn dark. To have a little is to want more, for a host of excellent reasons.

The body remembers. The connections spark with the familiar electricity. The rhythm wants to assert itself. Getting winded is like hearing a tune in my head and lacking the chops to play it at that speed. It makes me want to practice, so when practice is denied the frustration is that much worse. It can grow into despair.

We'll see what happens with the rest of the winter. At least I know I'll be back at String Band next week.