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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The case for Un-groomed Ski trails

A few days ago while cross country skiing up the Buskin River a friend of mine stated, 'I'd much rather be here than at Kincaid'. The week before he had been skiing on the groomed trails at Kincaid in Anchorage. And he brings up an important point. Skiing on un-groomed cross country ski trails is more often than not a better cross country ski experience.

And what's funny is that un-groomed trails are not only more fun, but they make you a far better skier. When I skiied and raced on groomed trails in Wisconsin before I moved to Kodiak the best I could do in a 50K skate ski race was 2:42. I raced every other weekend, and took it very seriously. After I moved to Kodiak I could no longer train on groomed trails and I started to break 2:30 routinely. I improved my times almost 15 minutes after I stopped training on groomed trails!

I personally think this is also why Scandinavians are so much better XC skiiers than Americans (it's a sore point in the nordic ski community that they always win more medals than us in international events). In America to improve our youth at skiing and to hopefully win more metals at the Winter Olympics we create more youth programs and put the kids out on skiis on groomed trails with a coach every afternoon after school. In Scandinavia the kids XC ski to school, and go out and rip around in the woods and neighborhood afterwards. Americans love structured programs while Scandinavians just love to ski.

I've noticed when I go to Anchorage that the groomed trails are pretty much always perfect. On perfect trails a cross country skiier does not have to have great technique to move along at a good clip. Consequently, groomed trail skiiers never really have to perfect their technique. The other day I had to break in a skate ski track in 6 inches of snow with a wind crust on top - there was no groomed trail option. It was brutal but it taught me to use good technique, and I glided along slowly and after about 4 2K laps I had my own 'groomed' track. Without good technique I would have bogged down completely.

I'll admit it is easier to learn how to skate ski on a groomed track, but I think it is more difficult to get really good on groomed trails. Learning on un-groomed trails has a steeper learning curve but it forces a skiier to deal with adversity and have better balance etc. Sometimes when I peruse the Anchorage Nordic Ski forum I get the feeling that if skiiers up there see a footprint or stick on the groomed trail they fall down.

All that said, on occasion I love to go to Anchorage and rip around on the groomed trails. It's like ice skating on a highway with topography and tunnels thrown in. But eventually I get bored and run out of new trails to try. I'd far rather go exploring somewhere where the conditions are not perfect. I'll also add that I've noticed that some of Anchorage's best nordic skiiers seem to share my opinion about un-groomed trails - check out 'AK crust cruising' link on the sidebar of this blog. Anchorage does have the best of both worlds with great back country skiing and an incredible groomed trails system.

The groomed trail subject is a bit of a sore point with me because I hear over and over again how since Kodiak lacks groomed trails it has terrible cross country skiing. And since Anchorage does have groomed trails it is seen as a better place for nordic skiiers to live. Every time I enter a ski race in Anchorage people are amazed that I am from Kodiak. They always ask how I train without groomed trails. Anchorage does have better nordic skiing, but I think most of the skiiers in Anchorage under value the un-groomed nordic experience. Too bad for them because I think training without groomed trails available puts me at a competitive advantage when i go up there to race.

Photos: All are from the last few days in the Buskin River area.

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