Long Distance by Bill McKibben
As the leaves started to fall earlier this month, my attention quickly turned to the approaching winter. Thus, as I was browsing Amazon.com for a new book to read, Long Distance by Bill McKibben caught my eye. It had decent reviews, so I decided to give it a try.
The book is about the author’s year-long journey to train like an Olympic skier to see how far he could push his body. This is a daunting endeavor for him, as prior to committing to his 650 hour training plan, he’d never even raced on skis before. In fact, he had never really viewed himself as an athlete. He grew up in the Boston suburbs and worked as an author in New York City before moving to the Adirondacks, where he had the chance to do a little skiing in the woods around his home. Of his body prior to embarking on this project, he reflects that “for most of my life I’d treated it like a houseplant, watering it when I happened to notice it, feeding it constantly whether it needed it or not.” His book chronicles his year of hard work as he gradually changed his body into an endurance machine under the guidance of his coach, Rob Sleamaker. He talks about building his cardiovascular base during the summer with long hours of running, adding intervals as the year progressed, and finally peaking for the racing season. In addition to being quite readable and having an intriguing premise, his book is well-researched with quotes from many leading sports physiologists of the time.
One reason I enjoyed the book is that the author and I share similar life experiences. He grew up in the suburbs, worked in the city for a while, and (at the time he wrote the book) was 37 years old living in the country with his wife and young child. Substitute being a math instructor for writer, and we have essentially the same background. Thinking back on my first few XC ski races, I can certainly relate to his telling of his rapid introduction to the sport. There’s plenty of memoirs, biographies, and interviews out there written about elite athletes. While I enjoy reading that material, this book really hit home precisely because it is written by a person who, like myself, is not an elite or professional skier. He realizes he's not going to win the races he enters, but nonetheless, he really cares about racing and wants to do well. His battle, so to speak, is within. I’ve often dreamed of taking a year off to pursue skiing myself, and I’m sure everyone has wondered what his or her body would be capable of if pushed to the limit. While this remains a dream for most of us, it was fun to read about someone who actually did it.
While this book is over 20 years old, it is still relevant. Moreover, there just aren’t that many books on cross-country skiing to limit oneself to contemporary pieces (the author himself calls it a "micro-genre"). Reading this book in 2020 gives you a chance to compare the XC skiing world today to that of 1999. At that time, the glory years of Bill Koch were passed, and Team USA rarely placed a skier in the top 30 of any international XC ski race. It may have been one of the bleakest years for skiing in the United States. As McKibben writes, “the number of just plain skiers has dwindled, too. If you want to find a gloomy group of salesmen, look no further than those charged with selling Nordic skis to Americans.”
I can remember those years well. Around that time, I skied a couple years for the Champlin Park Rebels XC ski to keep active between the other sport seasons. As I soon found out, it was not the most popular sport nor the best funded athletic club on campus. But, we had a great coach in Dean Hamre, good opportunities to get on snow at nearby Elm Creek Park (back in the days before they had a snow maker or Pisten Bullys), and a couple fast varsity skiers who were willing to help out us novices. Although I only skied for a couple years on the school team, I had a lot of fun, and I learned the basic good technique that later served me well when I got back into ski marathoning 15 years later.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before things started to change in the skiing world. Little did anyone know at the time Long Distance was published in 1999 that Kikkan Randal had recently taken up cross-country skiing. In the year that Bill was training for his ski marathon and contemplating the sad state of US skiing, Kikkan was just beginning to find success as a junior skier. About 10 years later, she’d put the US back on the XC skiing map by winning the Sprint World Cup, and in turn inspire a young Jessie Diggins from Minnesota. In the US, XC skiing still exists in the shadow of the more popular winter sports (McKibben refers to them as the “Newtonian” Olympic events), but it does seem like skiing now has a stable future, even outside Scandinavia.
After a year of training, Bill was finally ready to put it all to the test. He entered a race in Ottawa and had the race of his life. He didn't set a course record or make history in that race, but that was never his goal. As he put it: “I was just one more tired-looking guy. It was an unimportant race; I was stuck somewhere in the middle of it; from the outside there was no drama at all. And yet, for me it was an epic.” I’ve been in that same situation, and I know what he means. I’m sure my own wife doesn’t really understand why I work so hard to end up 530th place in the Birkie, but after reading this book, I know that there are others out there with similar thoughts and motivations to my own.
Bill’s year of skiing ended with a trip to Norway to ski the most famous ski race in the world, the Birkebeiner -- a pilgrimage I was able to make a couple years ago as well. I enjoyed reading his description of the race, and again I found similarities to my own recollection of that difficult race. “Adrenaline swept me up the first 15K of hills, till we emerged on a barren windswept plateau. Two mountains still loomed ahead.” He had a good race and finished in the top half of his age group, which he stated was “a great victory, considering they were all Norwegians.” (Which is the exact sentiment I have shared about my own middle of the pack finish in that event.)
Although I didn't immediately recognize Bill McKibben’s name prior to reading this, I actually am familiar with some of his more recent work. He is a co-founder 350.org, a group that helps raise awareness and calls for action to minimize the impacts of climate change. He’s written several books on global warming, including one of the first on the subject (The End of Nature, published in 1989). After reading Long Distance, I'll be adding more of works to my winter reading list.