This cross-country skiing adventure begins in a New York health club, on a stationary bicycle, the wheel whirring, the spokes flashing, with me, the adventurer, expending my excess energy and gaining aerobic fitness by pedaling, as well as by jabbing my arms in all directions. Other club members are forced to bob and weave and duck to avoid hitting me. I worked out for months that way, until the low, acoustic-tile ceiling of the club caught a wayward fist and acquired some inappropriate ventilation. I returned to simple pedaling then, dismayed that the stationary bicycle would do nothing to improve the circulation in my arms. I'd heard of serious runners who had suffered coronaries while shoveling snow.
I could have switched to swimming, I suppose, but I was lazy. Not about exercising, but about getting to a pool. The nearest available pool of any decent size was 46 blocks away, in midtown Manhattan, while my health club was only half a block from my door on the Upper East Side. What I really needed, I decided, was a new exercise machine, one that would tax my entire body and stand ready beside my bed.
Shortly thereafter I discovered my Dream Machine.
One day I was reading a magazine, and I came across an ad for a $470 contraption called the Nordic Track. It showed a man on a sort of platform, one leg and the opposite arm thrust backward. The copy read: "Total Body Cardiovascular Exerciser. Duplicates XC Skiing."
Cross-country skiing in my New York City bedroom? Now, that appealed to me. But I wanted to investigate further. I found a Nordic Track in a high-tech midtown gym. It looked like a great, gleaming praying mantis. The platform stood on three-inch-high steel legs and was roughly four feet long, and running its length were slots for two oak slats—the skis. They passed over a roller that drove a flywheel through a one-way clutch, which engaged under adjustable tension when the skis were thrust backward. The "bindings" on each ski were rubberized pockets for the front part of the skier's feet; any pair of low-heeled, non-slip running shoes would serve as boots.
Rising vertically from the front of the platform was a four-foot steel shaft. Near its top was a 33-inch-long steel arm, extending up and away at 45 degrees. At the top of the arm was a spool on an axle, wound with a heavy cord; at each end of the cord was a handle, the skier's "poles." The idea was for the "skier" to pull alternately on each of them—hips set against a Naugahyde pillow—while the drum revolved one way and then the other, under adjustable tension.
I begged a workout, and it was a revelation. I used more muscles than I did when swimming, especially in my thighs. The sweat was flying, and my pulse rate was climbing, but since my feet were moving horizontally, not vertically, my legs and back had no shock to absorb, the way they did when I ran on the road. I hurried home, phoned in my order to the manufacturer, PSI, in Chaska, Minn. and soon I was stepping from my bed to the trails, so to speak.
My 12th-floor view is of a Consolidated Edison plant, whose billowing clouds of steam I likened to a classic Northeast blizzard. (You need a rich fantasy life to keep going on the Nordic Track.) The only sounds, aside from the hiss of steam and the low-level whirring and clacking of my Dream Machine, were an occasional crunch of glass and steel from York Avenue and, whenever I skied in the evening, my downstairs neighbor hammering away on his ceiling—building things, I decided. Two years have passed, and he still chooses my workout times to build things, but I've decided not to complain about the racket. Pausing to do so would interrupt my concentration, and in bedroom skiing, that is no less important than a fantasy life.
The Nordic Track is the best aerobic exercise machine I know of—and I've seen virtually all of them. But it isn't for dilettantes. Using it requires a lot of determination and inner drive. You have to make up little games. Mine revolve around my pulse rate, that all-important barometer of cardiovascular fitness and training intensity. In a typical 45-minute workout I start off with no ski or poling tension. I fasten my digital stopwatch to the steel arm, and for nearly 10 minutes I warm up all my skiing muscles and break a sweat. At the 10-minute point I stop poling for 10 seconds and take my pulse. On a typical day it has risen from a resting rate in the mid-50s to, say, 118 beats per minute. Then I tighten up the tension a bit, and just before 10½ minutes I begin a 30-second sprint. At 11 minutes I take my pulse, and at 11:30 I sprint for a minute, stopping at 12:30 to take it again. At 13 I sprint for two minutes, concluding the sprint with another reading at 15 minutes. By now my pulse has risen to 130 or more. Then I tighten up the tension and repeat the five-minute cycle of sprints and pulse reading. I do this to the 40-minute point—on hard days, during sprints, my pulse climbs to more than 160—and then I start backing off and cooling down.
It isn't necessary to take one's pulse even once during the exercise session, though being aware of it keeps you from redlining too often. What is necessary, however, is a method that enables one to get through those 45 minutes with enthusiasm. So, when I'm not taking my pulse, I'm out winning races. I've won hundreds of gold medals in the Winter Olympics while skiing in my bedroom, just as I've won marathons while running on the road.
I don't love every second on the Nordic Track, but I love the way the time spent on it makes me feel. And I love to eat, too. My ski workouts burn a lot of calories, and they do it with no wear and tear on my skeleton. I could conceivably ski on the Nordic Track with a stress fracture in one of my legs. That's the kind of thing I was headed for two years ago when I was running six times a week and hurting. Now I'm running half as much, pain free. In 1981 I completed the New York Marathon even though my training consisted of running only 17 miles two or three days a week. My time was a slow 4:14, but the training mileage could have been inadequate for even slower marathons than mine, had I not added my skiing workouts. I may not have run fast enough in the marathon to utilize the heart-lung power those workouts had built for me, but the non-pounding miles in my legs were a definite plus.
Another thing my Dream Machine is good for is initiating conversation. Until recently when people asked, "What sports do you compete in?" I'd reply, "I'm a runner, I swim occasionally and I cross-country ski." Then, even when they didn't ask, "Where do you ski?" I'd tell them.
In late January, though, after having bedroom skied for two years, I began to wonder about what real cross-country skiing was like. I'd never so much as seen it done. What would happen if I tried it? Would I win a race my first day, winding up a few weeks later in Sarajevo, clad in a red, white and blue uniform? Maybe. So I hied my way to Londonderry, Vt., to the much recommended Viking Ski Touring Centre and signed up for a novice lesson. What more dramatic way to be "discovered" than in a beginner's class? I anticipated my instructor's shouts: "His very first day, and he went by me like this...."
The truth was that two years on the Nordic Track had equipped me with more endurance and better conditioning than I needed in Vermont. But it did nothing for my cross-country-skiing technique. The machine wasn't designed for that purpose. The conditions on my 12-floor trail were always the same—perfect: no hills, no ice, no trackless snow—so I had visions of striding powerfully through the forest, arms and legs in perfect unison. But a rare midwinter rain and a subsequent freeze had left an icy crust on the snow, and at first I was nearly helpless at coordinating the basic, diagonal stride. When I began to snowplow on the day's steepest downhill, the wooden edges on my skis were far less effective at braking than were the metal ones on the downhill skis I'd used in the past; out of control, I had to bail out in a trail-side drift. But the day ended well. I was conducting an experiment, hurrying up another hill, long and steep, striding effectively, poling hard, and trying vainly to get tired after five hours of cross-country skiing, the first of my life. I was puffing when I reached the top, but I recovered quickly and that night I didn't have a single aching muscle.
On the second morning I decided I was ready to advance to an intermediate lesson. I learned to herringbone and sidestep up hills; to step-turn and snowplow turn; to double-pole down easy grades for more speed; and to brake with my poles. Then, with the sun softening the snow, I skied the day away, practicing my lessons, getting more and more glide with each stride and searching again for fatigue.
The next day, my last in Vermont, I joined five experienced skiers on a 10-mile "wilderness tour." There was Stan, the group leader from Viking, and two couples from New York, and we headed single-file up a quiet logging road. I held up the rear, gazing at the tops of my skis, wondering how much I'd appreciate a solitary snack of birch bark at 3 a.m., assuming I'd live that long in the sub-zero cold, after being left behind. Then a voice interrupted my reverie: "Do you want to pass me?"
I heard that three more times in the next. 10 minutes, and finally I was close behind Stan. To the rear, four dark specks in the snow inched uphill. We stopped, waiting where the trees closed in and the trail narrowed. A sign, more important in warmer months, stood prominently nearby: ROAD NOT MAINTAINED FOR TRAVEL BEYOND THIS POINT. There I was, a bedroom skier, heading into the unknown. Stan called back, "Bear in this area. See a lot of sign in the fall." We glided on. Pillowy snowdrifts rose beside a half-frozen stream. I thought of my 12th-floor trail, the hiss of Con Ed steam, the head-on view of shiny spots on my bedroom wall—my spatterings of sweat. But I thought, too, of the gold medals I'd won there.
We ate our lunches in a wide, silent valley, full of beaver dams on a boggy brook, now covered with snow but unmistakable. Then we struggled back along the day's most daunting trail. Deep, untracked snow on an icy base blanketed a long uphill. Now my conditioning only helped me to rise when I fell. And fell. I dropped far behind the others, occasionally pausing as I rose to listen for a reassuring echo of conversation from the woods ahead. But finally the couples grew tired, and I caught and led them down a long, gentle grade, only to give way at Stan's "big hill near the end." It looked like a toboggan run, packed down, very narrow and at least 300 yards long, with nowhere to rest and plenty of trees on which to crack a skull. My companions peeled off like kamikaze pilots, and soon they were gathered safely far below, waving me on. I stepped to the edge, started down and was instantly sorry. The trees looked like the view from a moving train. My snowplow wasn't working, so I hurled myself into a drift. I got down the hill that way, alternately spurting out of control and crashing.
And then there was only a mile to go, half of it up a smooth, gentle grade, half of it down. I think I became a skier of sorts in that mile. It was Stan and me again. I strided way out and kicked way back. I dug in and poled efficiently. And I felt the sweat rise. If there's a skier's high, I think I felt that, too. I let 'er rip down the last half mile, and I didn't fall once.
The moon had risen. A hunter stood nearby. Up the valley I could hear his dog, baying after a rabbit. I wanted to stand around for a while. As a local boy had put it once, the woods were lovely, dark and deep. But I had promises to keep, a wedding celebration to attend in Boston that night. So I got into my rented car. I was in the peak of condition—not a twinge, not a bruise—and I drove nonstop for three hours. But once in Boston I was almost unable to get out of my car. The drive was by far my toughest workout of the week. I've come to the conclusion that sitting for long periods, for me, is only slightly more natural than breathing under water. I could barely hobble my way to the dance floor that night.
I'm now waiting for someone to invent a cross-country driving machine.