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A rookie points his skis at the Boulder Mountain Tour


Approach outdoor gear salesmen with questions, and they begin their assessment of you immediately. They have to. In the rarified and baffling world of Nordic ski racing, salesmen have to wade through a thicket of skinny skis and poles so light they make capellini seem portly. From within this pile they must select just the right setup for each and every skier who comes through their door. For the newbies, they give them one set of gear. For the weekend warriors, another grouping of skis, poles and boots will do. For the elite, only a few high-end brand names and models will suffice.

For me, what?

Standing in front of an incomprehensible pile of shiny Nordic skis last month, the clerk and I faced one another.

"I'm going to learn how to skate ski," I told him. "So I need some Nordic skiing gear."

His eyes brightened. He made a barely-perceptible turn toward the beginner-level equipment.

"And I'm going to race the Boulder Mountain Tour this year," I added.

And his jaw dropped.

The Boulder Mountain Tour is a 32-kilometer Nordic ski race held in the Ketchum area on February 2. The course begins at the historic Galena Lodge and runs to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters.

Forget the quaint metrics: It's 20 miles long. Oh, and the other way they like to fool participants is by telling them the "gently rolling" track has an overall elevation drop of 1,100 feet over the length of the course.

"It's a net downhill," my skate-skiing friends have told me, over and over again.

This does not, however, mean that you get to just click into your skis, point them toward Ketchum and glide, waving at the fans as you swish by. Oh, no.

"The Tour," as its devotees refer to it (notice any resemblance to bike racing's premier event, The Tour de France? It doesn't end here), is what's known as an open skate race. (The race is also reverently or casually referred to as "The Boulder," a nickname that evokes either fear or practiced nonchalance, depending upon your audience.)

Nothing about skate skiing remotely resembles the placid poke-and-shuffle movement of classic Nordic skiing. Instead, imagine ice skating. With longer skate blades. Picture yourself sweeping legs and arms across the snow in a baffling rhythm designed to hurl you down a perfectly groomed track. Now, imagine doing this with hundreds of other people who started this race at your elbow. Imagine they all want to beat you to the finish line. Imagine doing this together for a couple of hours.

Skate skiing is to classic Nordic skiing as road bicycling is to mountain biking. One involves speed, grace and endurance, and has really odd fashion dictates (lycra, shimmery fabric and loud colors, are norms in skate skiing and road bicycling). The other is mainly about fun and scenery.

I've wanted to learn how to skate ski for years. I've tried classic skiing, and have been a backcountry skier since the early 1990s. But skate skiing seemed like an alluring mystery. The movements, the equipment, the clothing—none of it made sense. But it was fast. And its devotees talk about experiencing a feeling akin to flight.

At my own pace, the dalliance with a new sport might take years. Instead, why not enter a race in which your success—nay, your survival—depends upon a bit of mastery. What better way to force your commitment?

The gear salesman and I made it through our transaction, me walking off with an armload of foreign equipment and him walking off with a significant chunk of my credit card.

Since then, I've been skiing in McCall, where Idaho's slim snowfall has been focused so far this year. I've spent two weekends awkwardly chasing people for whom the speed and glide of skate skiing are second nature. I was briefly encouraged when I found I would be skiing with a woman with two kids, one of whom is barely 2 months old. Perfect, I thought. Wrong, I found.

As she and a friend effortlessly glided away down a forested track, and I stabbed frantically at the trail with my poles, huffing like an old dog and sweating like a pig, I made an important discovery: If you're good at this, you don't need to work as hard. Each sweep of the ski propels you that much farther. Poles become almost superfluous. In fact, the two skiers I was desperately following often carried their poles without using them, just gliding along, chatting and laughing. Later, they cautioned me against leaning on my poles so hard that they bent like a parenthesis. The poles are often made with carbon fiber, built to be lightweight and practically an afterthought when it comes to stability.

McCall, fortunately, has the snow that no other Idaho resort has just yet. It also has mile upon mile of developed Nordic skiing trails. Although the Boulder Mountain Tour will be held in Ketchum, where miles of groomed carpet typically await Nordic skiers, I expect to do much of my training on the various trails, new and old, around McCall.

I was aware that many people around me were chatting about "The Boulder" or "The Tour," but few of them asked me about my participation. Maybe it was because I was still scrambling up a hill, cursing quietly, while they nonchalantly waited at its summit. Invariably I get a repeat of the gear salesman's reaction when I tell them, yes, I too will be "racing" in the Boulder Mountain Tour. The more socially adept ones get over their obvious shock more quickly.

Time's a-wasting. By the time you read this, I'll have barely seven weeks to get over the nearly-dead feeling I get after a skate-skiing outing. I'll have to be well past the stage I'm in now with my ski poles; my technique looks like I'm trying to spear ground squirrels that are attacking my ankles. Perhaps, like some rare breed of squirrel, I'll even learn to fly.

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