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Skiing's Fast Track

Skate Skiing turns up the Nordic pace


Skiing has a long and interesting history. Over 4,000 years ago, skiing was begun by reindeer hunters near the Arctic Circle. Their style was a bit crude by today's standards, but it got the job done. More recently—as in 800 years ago—skiing put Norway on the map, literally. King Håkon, a Birkebeiner, was in big trouble because he wanted to unify the country, although other tribal leaders wanted nothing to do with unification. After Håkon's death, dissenters targeted the king's infant son and heir to the throne. In order to preserve the lineage, the young prince was sent away on a dangerous journey to safety with two brave Birkebeiner skiers. The courage and speed of the two Birkebeiners worked. The prince, Håkon Håkonsson IV, lived and went on to become one the greatest kings in the history of Norway. The Birkebeiner Race, named after the skiing heroes of Norway's past, is a 58-kilometer race occurring annually in the United States, Canada and Norway.

Skiing may trace it roots back to wooden planks, but today, the sport uses a variety of techniques, as well as materials more advanced than wooden planks. It was during the 1980s that cross-country skiing evolved into is its fastest incarnation: skate skiing.

Olympic Nordic skier Bill Koch is generally credited with first using a skate ski technique, a method he called "marathon skate," based on the style of ancient Scandinavian hunters. The first time Koch used the technique in competition was at the 1982 World Cup race, when, towards the end of a long race, he jumped out of the groomed tracks and used the method to win a gold medal. In a 1996 interview with the Seattle Post, Koch had this to say: "I generally have been over-credited with the skating thing. I was the first to use skating as a dominant technique in World Cup racing, but I didn't invent it. I merely took something I saw and applied it in my own arena."

The skating style was fast and it caught on with both the pros and the recreational skiers. Because skate style proved so much faster than traditional Nordic skiing, the Olympic committee was forced to make two versions of cross-country ski races—one where skate style was permitted (called classic races) and another where it wasn't.

To understand skate skiing it's necessary to first understand classic cross-country skiing. Decades ago, cross-country skiing was made possible by using the resistance of wax or scales on the bottom of the skis. The skis were placed in groomed tracks and the actual cross-country skiing was much akin to walking or running, albeit with two poles. Skate skiing however, is different than cross-country skiing, but it looks just as it sounds. The skier pushes an angled ski outward as if it was an ice skate and then glides on the other ski. Rather than being done on groomed tracks, skate skiing is done on hard packed snow. It's not easy. Skate skiing is a study of efficiency, power and control. Some movements make a skier faster, and some movements just as easily topple a skier to the ground. According to long-time Idaho skate skier, "It's a challenge. There is so much with technique, balance and power that translates into speed on the snow ... then you have to hold that technique for 10, 20 or 30 kilometers."

It's the demanding mix of technique and endurance that draws endurance athletes to skate skiing. Road cyclists, mountain bikers, triathletes and marathon runners all look to skate skiing as a way to stay competitive and maintain fitness throughout the winter season. Boise, with its high population of endurance athletes and four separate seasons, is the perfect place for would-be Kochs to see how fast they can get.

Enter Idaho Nordic. Idaho Nordic is a club of skate skiers and classic-style cross-country skiers that was put together by brothers Erik and Joe Jensen. The Jensens wanted to start a club to promote their love of skiing. Idaho Nordic, which began four years ago, does plenty of good for Idaho skiers. This last year, they helped install lights for the course at Bogus Basin Mountain Resort. They also purchased Bogus culvert pipe to install on the cross-country courses to prevent the areas from being damaged by surface water runoff.

"[Idaho Nordic] members include skiers who have skied nationally and complete beginners," said Idaho Nordic Events Coordinator Erik Jensen. Some of the great skiers include Matt Grover, John King, and Erik's wife, Michelle Jensen, a former national collegiate champion and last year's national masters champion. The group focuses predominately on skate skiing, offering free clinics to help skiers fine-tune their technique. They also put on races throughout the state (the first race took place at Tamarack January 14 and 15). Idaho Nordic also welcomes skiers of the classic style and says that even the most hardcore skaters are also classic skiers.

"A lot of skaters are going back to the classic style ... [classic] skiing is a lot easier on your body. You can't beat your body up every day," says Erik.

Though Idaho's Nordic skiers aren't relying on skis for hunting reindeer or saving baby princes, it is still a great way to get in shape. There are fantastic places to skate ski all over Idaho, and if you get the hankering for some instruction, the Jensens and company at Idaho Nordic would love to help you out. Check out for a list of races and clinics around Idaho.

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