Monday, October 3, 2016

What I Am Talking About ...


Last spring the Norsk speakers in the club were passing around a book written in Norwegian that purported to measure and quantify all the various reasons why we love to ski.  I was jealous of being left out of the conversation, because there aren't many things I'd rather talk about than skiing, so I begged Per to write a book report describing the concepts, and he generously did, and here it is.  It would be super fun to compare notes on how we each rank the five measurements.  Feel free to leave a comment at the end of this blog post, or maybe we can talk about it at the next KSC meeting or trail work party.  It's a grand subject to wrap your brain around, especially now that the days are cooler and wetter and the nights are longer and winter is finally finally coming back.

Book Report

Hva Jeg Snakker om Når Jeg Snakker om Langrenn
(What I am Talking About When I Talk About Cross Country Skiing)

Author: Thorkild Gundersen
Published by: Gyldendal, Oslo, Norway 2015

I found this book last January at one of the book shops at Gardermoen Airport in Oslo.  I was immediately interested.  I picked it up and read it on my return flight to Seattle.  I thought that the contents of the book would be of interest to my ski friends at Kongsberger Ski Club and made a 15-minute presentation of the main ideas from the book at the end-of-season meeting of the club in April.  It seemed to stir some interest and, since the book is not likely to be translated and published in this country, I promised to produce a ”book report” so that others can also participate in the self-analysis among those of us who are nuts about cross country skiing.

We recognize a kindred spirit in the first sentences of the book.  “I love cross country skiing. I mean I really love cross country skiing ….. When ski conditions are good I need to get out: I want lots of skiing; I want it often; and I want to ski far”.

He opens with a description of that near perfect day of skiing and you are nearing the end of a long and enjoyable workout. You have sunshine, great snow, fast wax, good conditioning, and effective technique, and for a short while you enjoy complete happiness.  Those moments can not be ordered up; they just happen.  Gundersen wonders what there is that produces such bliss.  He grants that such moments can occur for anyone in the middle of a favorite activity.  There is quite a body of writing in Sports Psychology that deals with similar reactions.  Concepts such as ”Flow” and ”Peak Experience” are common themes in this field.  Simply put, ”Flow” is the feeling well trained and proficient athletes sometimes experience when they are working hard, they are fast, and they are doing something difficult, yet it feels relatively easy.  An example would be what we know as the Runner’s High.  Peak Experience is that rare occasion, maybe once a year, when the hard and fast performance seems like play, and yet it is the absolute best you are capable of.

So the questions that Gundersen raises in this book are:  What is there about cross country skiing that can elavate our enjoyment to such ridiculous heights?  Why is it so important to us?  Which elements of the ski experience release such an enormous feeling of well being?

With that the author identifies five possible factors.

1.     Could it be the PHYSICAL?  Is it simply the feeing of being in good shape?  When you have skied for several hours and you are feeling strong and you realize that even when you are way beyond 40, 50 ,60, or even 70, you are strong and healthy, and age  doesn’t matter, since you ski as well and easily as you did when you were 26, maybe even better!  You simply like to be physically active, and skiing is what you enjoy.

2.     Perhaps it is BEING OUT IN NATURE.  You realize that ski trails can be incredibly beautiful.  You left the city under gray clouds and drizzle and now you are in sun, new snow and gorgeous terrain.  It is uplifting to be there and appreciate the trees, the mountains, the well-groomed trails, and the quiet.

3.     Could it be the ESTHETIC aspects of skiing?  This deals with the fact that skiing is somewhat difficult, yet you have mastered it.  Many skiers who love the sport have skied most of their lives, and the coordination of movements are nearly automatic and beautifully coordinated.  You don’t have to think about the details of efficient technique, they are already incorporated into your body.  So this means that the joy you get from skiing may come from the satisfaction from mastering the distinctive movements of the sport and, in a way, you can express yourself in how you ski.

4.     Maybe it is THE COMPETITION that is the main motivation and the greatest source of enjoyment.  Athletes who train hard are often participants in races.  For some the upcoming races during the winter are the reason for training in the off-season.  Why else would you go out on a rainy day in October to roller-ski on a pavement that is littered with wet leaves?  Skiers have goals that can be attained in competitions.  “ I want to ski the XC leg of the Ski to Sea Relay in under 30 minutes.”  I want to get into Wave 3 in the American Birkebeiner.”  “I want to beat Jim, Bob, Sue, or Linda in the Gunnar Hagen 30k race this season.”

5.     Finally, could it be something EXISTENTIAL about why I like skiing?  Here you find that nothing soothes your soul better that a long, quiet, two-hour ski trip.  You appreciate being away from the daily routine.  You can think, plan, and summarize the recent days in your mind and you arrive back at the car feeling much better than when you started.  The ski time gave you serenity, peace, and mental balance.  Some have suggested that they like the person they become when they get away and ski.

Gundersen spent the winter two years ago skiing and talking to well known skiers about their motivations to ski.  It is clear that no one gave only one source of motivation, since we can all see ourselves in any of these factors.  During his rounds and interviews he carried with him five index cards with one motivation on each card, and he asked people to put them in order of importance.

Some Results:
Petter Northug
1.     Competition
2.     The physical
3.     The esthetic
4.     Nature
5.     The existential

Vegard Ulvang
1.     The existential
2.     The physical
3.     Nature
4.     The esthetic
5.     Competition

Anders Aukland
1.     The physical
2.     Nature
3.     The esthetic
4.     The existential
5.     Competition

Ragnhild Amlie (A serious citizen racer from Oslo, in her 30s, mother of three pre-school children who has qualified to start in the Elite Women’s wave in both the Norwegian Birkebeiner and Holmenkollmarsjen.  She is no slouch.)
1.     The existential
2.     Nature and the physical (tied)
3.     The esthetics
4.     Competition

The majority of the book deals with Gundersen’s ski experiences during that winter in Oslo, the frustrations of no snow until after Christmas, mediocre race results, lots of training sessions squeezed into a couple of weeks mid-winter and some of the long tour races in February and March.

The author reveals the depths of his passion for skiing in interesting connections.  It seems clear that, if there is early season skiing in the woods around Oslo with groomed tracks, nothing else matters to him.  He will miss some work, not attend his daughter’s junior hockey game, be late for appointments, and miss dinner with his family.

His passion is also revealed in another way.  He describes a near love affair with a small pond in the woods near his home where he likes to ski.  He describes a visit there in early March, under perfect conditions, on a Thursday morning.  The lake was still solidly frozen and there was a hard crust on the snow and a 2 cm layer of new powder on top.  The sun was bright and the temperatures were right below freezing.  He hurried to his “secret lover” the lake called Nordskogtjernet, and spent a delirious hour skating back and forth on the crust, with no ambition other than to enjoy himself, with no training goals, no intervals to push through, and no distance requirements to be met.  He could think of nothing more important to do except to dance around on the lake without rhyme or reason.  To him that was poetry in motion.  At the end of the session he bowed and thanked the lake for the dance.  Then he went to work.

Gundersen comes across as a seriously dedicated skier, who trains hard and competes intensely, is passionately in love with one sport, and has also found endless rewards in it.


Per Johnsen
9/28/2016

PS.  It might be fun to conduct a short survey among Kongsberger members and see how we differ.


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