Nordic skiing has a reputation for being a gentle, low-impact activity - more recreational exercise and entertainment than sport. But for the handful of Juneau skiers who ski competitively, cross-country skiing can make for a long, tough winter, one that gets them into both mental and physical shape.
"You just go hard and then it gets worse and worse and worse, and then you finish," said Dominic Bradford, who has been a competitive Nordic skier for most of his life. "There's nothing relaxing about ski racing."
Bradford moved to Juneau from Calgary in September. He placed first in the first Nordic ski race held at Eaglecrest Ski Area this year.
Though he used to race on a national level in Canada, training 14 hours a week and spending his Friday nights waxing his skis, Bradford focuses more on having fun and staying in shape by cross-country ski racing now, he said. But that doesn't mean the races are easy.
Nordic skiing has more "layers" than other sports, Bradford said. It requires good lungs, good technique, strength and the ability to wax appropriately for different types of snow and temperatures. These things combined make Nordic ski racing more of an art than other athletic activities such as running.
The hard work and the pain of Nordic ski racing are worth it.
"It is incredibly exhilarating," Bradford said. "It's a very nice feeling when the momentum is going and everything's working."
Bart Watson usually skies in two competitive races a year - the Tour of Anchorage and the Buckwheat Ski Classic in Skagway, which takes place this weekend.
"For me the main thing about competitive racing is it gives me the motivation to go out and ski more," said Watson. "It just kind of adds a nice little edge where when I go out, it's in the context of getting in better shape and working on my technique. It just brings it all into a clearer focus that makes it more enjoyable."
Skiers in Juneau have access to cross-country skiing fairly regularly throughout the winter, said Guy Thibodeau, who has skied on and coached collegiate teams and until Bradford moved to town was considered the best local Nordic skier.
Spaulding Meadows, located up the Auk Nu trail near Auke Bay, stays snow-covered until early May most years. Eaglecrest and the Mendenhall Campground often retain their snow cover when the rest of Juneau's snow runs off with the rain.
But the total length of the Nordic ski loops in Juneau - about 35 kilometers - do not even amount to half the distance of some races.
"You have to go around and around," said Jim Powell, who skied in the three cross-country ski races held at Eaglecrest this season, as well as the Tour of Anchorage on March 7.
Training for Nordic skiing is slightly more difficult in Juneau than in other places, said Powell. He used to live in Anchorage, where lit trails and a large Nordic skiing population made serious training easier.
"You have to be more dedicated in Juneau, more serious about it," he said.
Loppets, or Nordic ski marathons, take place around the world. The usual distance for a loppet is 50 kilometers, about 31 miles, but the actual distance varies depending on the race. The Vasaloppet, a 90-kilometer race in Sweden that attracts about 14,000 people each year, is the oldest and longest cross-country race run today.
The Birkebeinerrennet, a 54-kilometer race in Norway, has attracted some Juneau skiers, as has the Engadin ski marathon in Switzerland.
America, which is relatively new to the world of cross-country skiing, has created its own races to mimic those held in Europe.
About 9,000 skiers gather annually in Wisconsin to race in the American Birkebeiner. In Minnesota, the Finlandia is named after a Finnish loppet. Both races have drawn Juneau skiers in the past.
"It's pretty wild," said Marc Scholten, president of the Juneau Nordic Ski Club. He skied the Birkebeiner nine years ago.
"Just having that many skiers there, it's pretty exciting," Scholten said. "People are sometimes stepping on others' poles and breaking them. The first part of the race is pretty congested."
The Buckwheat Ski Classic, which consists of 10-, 25- and 50-kilometer races, is "more of a get-together," said Powell. Although serious skiers compete in the race, a fair number of recreational skiers spend more time at the rest stops than actually skiing.
Some Juneau residents have fared well against competitors in large events down South this year. Juneau resident Lisa Kirsch placed eighth overall for women in the 50-kilometer race in the Tour of Anchorage. She placed first in her age group, as did Jerry Buckley, another Juneau skier.
In the Yellowstone Rendezvous Nordic Ski Race, held on March 13, Juneau resident Glenn Frick placed first in his age group in the 25-kilometer race. Don Thomas and Christine Thomas placed 15th and 4th in their age groups in the race, respectively, and Buckley placed fourth in his age group in the 50-kilometer race.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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