I came seeking sweat and found only enlightenment.
It was the first day of January, and I was checking in to the Kripalu Center, a "holistic retreat" in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. I'd come to meet Rob Sleamaker, who had agreed to help turn me into an athlete—to coach me for a year until I was as tough a cross-country ski racer as my genes would allow.
Wandering the halls in search of Rob, who had been hired by Kripalu to teach a weekend course on yoga and skiing, I came across the dining hall, where they were serving butternut squash for supper. "They've put orange juice on the squash," said the woman next to me in line, in a tone that implied orange juice was a tangy form of arsenic. I took my tray to the nearest empty chair, which turned out to be next to a man describing craniosacral massage. "You know," he told me in a confidential tone, "if you're generating mucus in one membrane, you're generating it everywhere."
For some reason I ate more quickly than usual and then checked the bulletin board to see if Rob had left a note, but found only posters for upcoming events: "Healing Ourselves/Healing the Planet with Grandmother Rainbow," "The Weeklong Never-Ending Chant," "Living in the Higher Worlds Without Getting Altitude Sickness," "Somatic Explorations of the Jaw." I wandered into a room where a man was orienting first-time visitors. He himself had moved here full-time, he explained, and changed his name to Domadaar. "I want to thank you for coming to share your energies," Domadaar said. "Don't worry about remembering what I'm going to tell you—what's important for you will stick with you, and the rest will dissolve into air." I was beginning to develop a rash. I had come here to jump-start the process of jockification. Forget Grandmother Rainbow; I was looking for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or so I thought.
Finally I found the room where the cross-country skiing group had gathered. They were sitting cross-legged, listening as a man talked. It must be Rob, whom I'd spoken with on the phone but whom I had never laid eyes on. I'd read his book Serious Training for Endurance Athletes, which was filled with lots of graphs of things like "Ventilation and Lactic Acid Changes at the Anaerobic Threshold." The blurbs on the back came from people who, collectively, had won the Ironman triathlon twelve times. And yet as he spoke he sounded sort of like, well, Domadaar. "There's a lot of synergy between yoga and cross-country skiing," he was saying. "You perform so much better when you're relaxed." He glowed with the same sanctified sheen of good health as the other people here.
Happily, though, he proved more than willing to get an unorganic beer in town that night. As we sat, he told me about his life—a boyhood spent playing every possible sport, a degree in exercise physiology from the University of Arizona, a stint working with the U.S. biathlon team. "I started to see the threads of truth that ran through all the various coaching philosophies," he said. "Most of the athletes I knew, their training programs made no sense. Everyone talked about how many miles they'd run, but no one talked about how hard they'd run them." As he warmed to the topic, he took his knife and started drawing a graph on his napkin. "Here's the intensity of your exercise," he said, charting one axis. "Right now, you'd start to get overcome by lactic acid down here, going pretty easy. We want to get you going faster and farther before that buildup starts. That's what racing is—it's the ability to endure the high production of lactate for a long time."
This is more like it, I thought. Enough about the spirit—finally we're getting down to bodies, mine in particular. Finally we're concentrating on what the next twelve months will bring. "After a while you'll get to know your body," Rob said. "After a while it's like getting up in the middle of the night and going to the bathroom—you know where to go. You'll get to the last two kilometers of a race and know that you're not going to bury yourself by going too hard."
But then Rob mentioned in passing that his dad was a preacher, and his granddad too, and just as suddenly the mood shifted. He'd left the church behind, he said, but not an abiding interest in "the process of living." Maybe I rolled my eyes, because he began to speak more quietly and firmly. "Look, life truly is a journey. One of the ways we become whole is to embrace the integration of mind, body, and spirit. If it happens simultaneously, so be it. But we have a whole lifetime. If there is any kind of higher power, I think what it wants is for us to learn as much as we can. You have a mind, you have a body, you have a spirit, and it's important to learn in all three realms. If you want to use just your intellect for one long period, that's okay. But you were born whole, and you can get back to that." Day one of my new life, and already more than I'd bargained for. I had a coach, but I had a guru too, and I was starting to wonder how much difference there was.
For three days our small band skied and stretched; indoors for yoga in the early morning, and then out into the cold. Few in the group had skied before, and since I'd been skiing the woods and lakes of my Adirondack home for a decade, I was the fastest and most fluid. But every once in a while I'd look at Rob or his girlfriend, Carol, who was helping him teach, and be reminded what a real athlete looked like: the economy of motion, the quiet body. Me, I strained constantly, trying to look good. On the last afternoon, I was skiing up a long hill when I noticed Rob behind me. I poured on the coal and powered up the slope, but when I got to the top Rob just said quietly, "You're pushing real hard." I knew that in order to race I'd eventually have to push harder than I'd ever pushed before, but I also knew I was a long way from figuring out the time and the place. For the moment I just relaxed and tried to glide.
That night, after a particularly evolved dinner of something called seitan burgers, I had a dream, one of the few each year I manage to recall. I was the captain of a small tour boat taking sightseers around an improbably compact globe. Though it would have taken just a few minutes to visit the tropics, I kept my boat up north, in the Arctic Ocean. Ice loomed up in great mountains, the winter sun hung low on the horizon, the aurora borealis turned the night sky green and gold. The beauty of this winter was so total it made me tingle while I slept. Omen one.
After I woke up, I came down to breakfast—some new form of soy mush—and read the local paper. A boy from down the road, Patrick Weaver, had just won a spot on the U.S. cross-country team for the upcoming Nagano Olympics, despite a virus that had kept him vomiting throughout the race. "All the time I've been skiing, people have asked me if I was going to the Olympics," he said. "And I always told them, 'Maybe.'" Sign two.
After that, I found our group for our last yoga session. (If I was the most seasoned skier, I was also the most miserable stretcher, hands barely dangling past my knees, groaning as I tried the Warrior Lunge, toppling when I tackled the Tree.) When we had finished our final bends, Rob called me aside and gave me his heart rate monitor to use for a few weeks until I found my own. He showed me how to strap it across my chest—it felt like some kind of talisman, as if I'd wandered into one of those scenes where the hero hands over his sword or his lariat.
The symbols were piling up too fast; I had to nasally generate some mucus to cover my emotions. But I was launched.
From the sublime to the sopping wet. I left the Berkshires that morning and drove due north, nearly to the top of Vermont, to the calendar-perfect New England village of Craftsbury Common, and then a little farther still to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. I came because the most reliable snow in the East covers Craftsbury each winter; hence it has become a station of the cross for New England's Nordic skiers, especially those who are serious about racing. On this day, though, it felt more like Savannah. The temperature had begun to rise steadily and the rain to fall steadily. Though I didn't know it at the time, the drizzle marked the start of the most meteorologically bizarre week of the decade in the Northeast; before it ended, a mammoth ice storm had toppled whole forests across northern New York and Vermont and southern Canada, leaving millions without power. But that was down low; higher up, due to an odd temperature inversion, places like Craftsbury never saw ice. It just rained and rained and rained, with an occasional boom of January thunder to add to the biblical feel.
Craftsbury had begun the week with piles of snow, and the trails were impeccably groomed—against all odds it remained just possible to ski. And so ski I did, sweating in the dank humidity. But by week's end it was utterly comic. I went out for a long session one morning, dodging the puddles and growing bare spots, kicking on through the slush. Nine miles into a twelve-mile loop, though, I came to the Black River, which had unfrozen, swelled, and now flowed fast across a fifty-foot section of trail. It was either turn around and head nine miles back, missing lunch, or plow on through the water. Soon I was thigh-deep in the rushing snowmelt, and as branches swept by on all sides, all I could think was, what on earth am I doing here? Is this really me?
To answer that question means going back some years, back to a boyhood spent as a wimp. I'm not sure where my wimpiness came from—maybe from moving from southern California to Toronto when I was five, and hence already hopelessly behind as a hockey player, and then from Toronto to Boston when I was ten, too late to effortlessly acquire a jump shot or a home-run swing. When I ran, I ran slowly; but no gym teacher ever explained that might mean I was built for distance, not sprinting. Instead, gym became a recurring bad dream, highlighted each year by the President's Physical Fitness Test, when I got to prove to myself that I still couldn't do a pull-up. Other people despised Richard Nixon for the war in Vietnam, but I hated him because of the 600-yard run, a distance that seemed to me unimaginably long. Soon I figured out a dozen ways to stand on the sidelines or make the most token effort. If I didn't try, I couldn't humiliate myself.
By the time my father was in high school, he was tall and gangly, his hair was starting to recede, and he had a goofy happy grin. I know this from a picture that hung in the bathroom, where I saw it several times a day—the team picture from his high school baseball squad in Kirkland, Washington, now a Microsoft suburb but then a small shipbuilding town. Dad was in the back row, surrounded by lantern-jawed Swedes in their baseball flannels, young men already wearing the character of adulthood in their faces. These were the war years—no slack fleshiness. His great boyhood passion was the Seattle Rainiers, champions of the Pacific Coast League when he was nine, ten, eleven. He'd ride the ferry to Seattle and take the trolley to Sick's Stadium, to watch his hero, player-manager Jo Jo White. I once saw a flickering film of the speedy White, who used to slide into second, spikes high. "Baseball is no sissy game, and I always play for keeps," he said.
I stood the same six feet three by my senior year, with the same lanky slouch, and the same widening forehead, but if my father and I shared genes, our worlds were different. I lived in an education-obsessed suburb, where baseball was one of a thousand choices life offered a high school boy. The options ranged from dissipation to dissertation—there was a fellow in my class so mathematically advanced he was widely believed to be teaching a course at MIT. Our classrooms had the first generation of high school computers; most of my friends, even in high school, were already pre-med or pre-law or pre-something lucrative.
And yet, almost by instinct, I followed my father into the atavistic craft of journalism. He had been a newspaperman all his life—in college, and after he got out of the service. He'd worked at the Wall Street Journal, and at Business Week, and then the Boston Globe, where he ran the business page. By the time I reached high school, I was writing news stories and features for the local paper, but my deadline job was covering high school basketball. And what a team—state champions my senior year, beating a young Patrick Ewing in the playoffs. On Tuesday nights, Dad would drive me from the gym to the newspaper office, where he'd help me type my cliched masterpieces, full of references to "cagers" and "hoopsters," prose that paid me twenty-five cents a column inch. He was proud of me, I knew, but I think some part of me always wondered if he'd have been prouder had I been out on the court myself.
Having convinced myself that I was a brain, not a jock, in many ways I truly ceased to care. Debate team absorbed my competitive urges—I was state champion by my senior year. I constructed my identity successfully enough, which seems to be the task of adolescence. But that identity always had a hole—the shameful sense that my body really didn't work—and that hole caused me more unhappiness than I cared to admit. I got through high school and then college without ever putting on a uniform or pinning a number on my chest, without ever challenging my assumed weeniness. In the world my dad had grown up in, I think I might have been a sissy.
Then, in my late twenties, after a stint in Manhattan writing for The New Yorker, I found myself living in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the most rugged and remote corner of the East. Larger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone combined, larger than Vermont or New Hampshire, the Adirondacks harbor only about 100,000 people. But they contain three thousand lakes, innumerable mountains, and huge unbroken forest. Growing up, I hadn't much cared for Dad's summer hiking vacations—I'd rush up trails so that I could rush back down them and return to town. But without realizing it, I'd reached an age when I was ready for the world outside. I knew I was home almost the moment I arrived in the Adirondacks—their landscape drew me in on the most visceral level. And on the most literal level too; soon I was hiking deep into the woods, paddling, snowshoeing, skiing everywhere.
My body slowly started to feel different, its inherent toughness emerging for the first time. I found, before long, that I could backpack great distances, that I loved to paddle long lakes, that nothing made me happier than all-day ski trips back of beyond. My notion of myself changed considerably, but not completely. I'd risen to some challenges (twice I traveled out west to climb Dad's iconic peak, Mount Rainier, for instance), but I still never thought of myself as an athlete. I'd never competed, taken on that risk to my body and my ego. In that, I was not unusual. Spectator sports have become our passion. Fewer and fewer schoolkids play sports each year; lots of schools have even given up on gym. And like most suburban guys my age, I'd managed to avoid the other experiences we think of as tests of manliness. There was no draft and no war when I was the right age, thank God; I never struggled to find work. Life had been—life had been easy from the start. Sometimes I felt as if I lacked something, as if the quiet strength and stability I saw in my dad had never quite taken hold in me.
Thus it was, at age thirty-seven, the age when age starts to seem like age, that I undertook this project. I decided to spend a year in real training, putting in nearly as many hours as an Olympic endurance athlete spends prepping his body. After that I would spend a winter racing. I knew I wouldn't win anything. And I knew it wasn't exciting by the standards of men's magazines: I wasn't climbing Everest on inline skates or crossing the Atlantic in an inner tube. No Raids-Gauloises for me—no eight sleepless days of kayaking Class V rivers and rappelling off thousand-foot faces. No Marathon des Sables, the week-long Saharan marathon where last year some competitors got lost in a sandstorm and spent nine days eating raw bats and sucking the water from moist towelettes. For me, just training and racing.
But that was drama enough. I wanted to see how my body would respond, and my mind, and my spirit. Partly it was pure selfishness; after a decade as an environmental writer and activist, I needed a break from failing to save the world. But mostly it was curiosity that drove me. By year's end I hoped I'd have more sense of what life lived through the body felt like.
Anyway, almost no one writes about sports from the point of view of the mediocre, offers insight from the middle of the pack. Thirty million Americans belong to health clubs; thirty-eight million run on treadmills, up from four million in 1987. Fifty-five million lift weights once a week, more than drop a fishhook in the water. Even if half of them are just dutifully following doctor's orders, that's a lot of athletic daydreams. And among the much smaller ranks of serious amateur athletes, I found endless frustration with the too-few hours most people had available for training; everyone wondered what it would be like to train full-time. So Walter Mitty it was.
I never had any doubt about what sport I'd pursue. Winter in the Adirondacks can last a long time, Thanksgiving to Easter in a good year. And from the moment I'd arrived in Johnsburg on a cold, snowy afternoon, it had been my favorite season. Clean, crisp, crystalline, quiet—and a pair of skis abolishes friction. Abolishes it! Perhaps because I'd spent so many years being slow, I adored the speeding glide of Nordic skis; I'd never felt graceful before, never felt elegant.
In any event, cross-country skiing meshed perfectly with my experiment, for there's no more physically demanding sport on earth. Just as swimmers use different strokes in different races, cross-country skiers compete in two separate disciplines—classic skiing, the traditional side-by-side stride that dates back to prehistoric northern Europe; and skate skiing, which uses a push-off to each side to generate momentum and which dates from the 1980s. In each case, you're using both arms and legs; you need to bull uphill and dance down; fifty-kilometer races are commonplace. When exercise physiologists rank athletes by how much oxygen they can burn per minute, the biggest and best hearts and lungs in the world belong to the Norwegians, Finns, and Russians who win cross-country World Cups; they edge out even the great rowers and marathoners and Tour de France cyclists. There's nothing harder your body can do, so I figured I'd give it a try.
Exactly how hard I learned the next evening, when Rob drove over to Craftsbury from his Burlington home for dinner, and to give me my training schedule for the year to come. He decided my body could theoretically tolerate about six hundred hours of training in the next twelve months, right around the bottom of the scale for Olympic athletes. It might be too much, he stressed; I'd have to monitor myself carefully to guard against injury. He'd printed out a daily schedule, which changed through the seasons. As the year progressed, I was to work more and more on going fast. For now, though, I was to concentrate on long, slow distance, watching the readout from my heart rate monitor to make sure I didn't go too hard. "I want you spending your time in zone 1," he said, which he'd calculated by my age to be between 135 and 145 beats per minute. "You're going to be walking up hills and feeling stupid, but you need to tell yourself it's for a reason," he continued. "Before long you'll be able to ski uphill at that same heart rate."
Rob gave me one more piece of news, too. He thought I shouldn't wait until I was fully trained to begin racing; indeed, he thought I should start as soon as possible, to give my body some sense of what to expect, and my head as well. "You've got to get some experience pinning on a number," he said. In fact, he added, Craftsbury had a big race scheduled for that very weekend. "Jump in the 20K," he said. "See what it feels like."
And that's how I became a Nervous Wreck. But instead of obsessing about junior high school gym class and the state of my manliness, I channeled all my worry into wax. In the brain of a committed cross-country skier, wax occupies the amount of space allotted to sex in a normal mind. Perhaps sex and money both. Wax permits you to ski uphill; if you pick the right one, the wax will grab the snow crystals as you kick the ski backwards, then release them when you glide. But if wax allows cross-country skiing, it also bedevils it; different waxes work only at certain temperatures, and if you put the wrong one on the bottom of the skis, it will either clump the snow beneath your heels and act like a brake, or it will fail to grip and you will flail like a cartoon character when you try to go up even the slightest incline. On new snow, when the temperature hovers between about 20 and 27 degrees, it's easy to find the right wax. Any warmer, though, and it's very nearly impossible. That's why the pros have dozens of tubes of gooey klisters, and vials of $100-a-gram fluorocarbons; they travel to races with wax technicians and snow thermometers and electric eyes to set up elaborate speed traps and test different pairs of skis. Most purely recreational skiers, on the other hand, use skis with plastic scales on the bottom to grab the snow, but they're hopelessly slow for racing.
I had no idea what to put on for the Craftsbury race; it had finally stopped raining the morning of the race, and now the temperature was dropping fast, turning everything to ice. An hour before the start, I was still wandering around, trying to cadge advice. I asked the head of ski manufacturer Rossignol's race team, who was busy waxing skis for Olympian Marc Gilbertson, what I should use; he just glared at me as if I'd inquired about his wife's phone number and mumbled something about klister. I suppose I should have been flattered he considered me a possible threat, but I was too busy trying to get a better look at what he was spreading across the skis. It appeared to be a purplish goo, and in the small waxing hut I found another skier who lent me something vaguely similar. I smeared some on my skis, ran off to the start, and got there just as the bell sounded.
The Olympians leapt off the front of the start line, and the rest of us, maybe three hundred in all, began to sort ourselves out. The tracks were set five abreast for the first eighth of a mile, then four abreast, then three, until finally there was just a main track and a passing lane. For a couple of kilometers it was too crowded to hit any rhythm. I rode down a hill onto the back of someone's skis and knocked him over, which made me feel guilty for about a hundred yards till someone did the same to me. I was too busy dodging people to think—or really to hurt, either, though we were going hard. Then, four kilometers into the race, the course swooped down a huge hill. I snowplowed the entire way to curb my speed, and I knew as soon as I got to the bottom that the ice had scraped all the purple goo off the bottoms of my skis. Sure enough, as soon as the tracks turned uphill I started slipping backwards. Forget the graceful gliding; now there was nothing to do but herringbone, spreading my skis like wings on the snow to keep myself from sliding backwards. As I started to pant, my glasses began to fog, and soon it was like skiing through a San Francisco summer. The course looped back through the start area at 10K, where they'd mercifully set up an aid station. I drank some water and tried to wipe my glasses, but one lens immediately fell into the snow. Eventually I found it, and set out on the second lap, this time more or less by myself.
I began to calm down a little, just enough to be amazed at how fast the time seemed to pass; I'd been so focused that the forty-five minutes it took me to cover the first 10K had flown by. I didn't slow down on the second lap, either; my body was tired but not broken, and as I realized I could sort of do this, a kind of creeping exhilaration overtook me. It's true I managed to ski the wrong trail at the finish, but eventually I found where I was going—and came in under an hour and a half, a bit faster than Rob had predicted. In fact, I was right in the middle of the pack for my age. Hey, I was blooded. A new man. I probably should have quit right then and there.