By John Wood
John Wood has been an Alaska resident since age 11. You can find out more about his remarkable life in this fine first-person piece that he wrote a couple years ago. Readers interested in submitting comparable essays on life, training, or life and training should be in touch: info (at) nordicinsights.news.
I am 75 years old now and I began to play the guitar a little over five years ago when I was 69. Every time I strapped on my skis to race this past month the words of an old George Strait song I sometimes play would start to repeat in my head: “This is where the cowboy rides away.”
You see, I had decided to step back from cross-country ski racing at the end of this season, and with every race completed that time grew closer.
I have been training with the Alaska Pacific University (APU) Masters group for 15 years and had just matured into the next age group up. I was in great shape (for an old man). At this age a person loses strength and fitness every year no matter how hard you train… The slippery slope has steepened. Use it or lose it. This was the year. This was the opportunity. Now was the time. Time to seize the opportunity and go back to Europe to ski against the world’s best master skiers!
American Cross Country Skiers national director John Downing, universally known as JD, had started to organize the annual trip to the Masters World Cup, to be held this year in Seefeld, Austria, during the week of March 19-24, 2023. I contact JD in early May 2022 and tell him that I am all-in for the Seefeld trip.
Training for masters skiers my age involves compromises and tailoring exercise to bodies that have experienced a lot of cumulative life stresses as well as the daily bodily aches and pains; my compromises include those associated with living with two titanium-steel knees.
[Read more in these two FasterSkier articles: “Life at 71 on Two Artificial Knees: 2019 World Masters” and “From a Bum Knee to a 2015 Birkie Age-Group Win”]
I live in Eagle River, a suburb near Anchorage, Alaska, where summer training consists of hiking in the nearby Chugach mountains, road and mountain biking, and ski bounding. I canoe and paddle board out the back door on Fire Lake. I do not run and, at the insistence of my wife, gave up rollerskiing three years ago. During the ski season that typically starts in mid-October, I ski up to five days per week. Strength training in the gym one day per week continues year-round.
At the World Masters level the racing distances decrease at age 60, and then again at 75. At any World Masters age and distance, the pace of the competition is blistering fast. My answer to build speed this winter was to race short distances in our local citizens races, which usually means competing against 12–15-year-olds that only have one speed — all out! And these kids really don’t like to ski behind old men! My legs get weak and I gasp for air and just about fall over, I taste blood as I try to keep up, I lose a lot of my technique as I flail, but I get faster.
March 2023 rolls around and the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage is hosting the U.S. Masters Nationals in conjunction with its annual flagship event, the Tour of Anchorage. I win the M10 age group (75-79) 10km classic race by ten minutes and the M10 division of the 25km skate race by eleven minutes, and am named to the 2023 USA Masters Cross-Country Ski Men’s Team in the M10 division. I am ready for World Masters 2023.
* * *
My real adventures start at the Munich airport. It’s March 14 and I am 18 hours into my journey from Alaska to World Masters in Austria; I have been up all night flying plus endured nine time zone changes and am a bit jet-lagged. I collect my checked luggage — a heavy suitcase and ski bag — which is added to my personal roll-on and small backpack, and set off slowly to find the airport train station.
I find a baggage cart, which helps considerably, but pushing the cart while dragging the ski bag is still cumbersome and challenging, especially navigating multiple airport terminal levels. I do not speak German, but folks try to be helpful to language-challenged travelers such as me and I eventually find my destination. I show my travel agent–furnished train ticket to the station agent and he informs me in broken English that my ticket is from Munich to Seefeld and that I need to take the regular commuter train from the Airport to Munich Terminal, then transfer to the train for Seefeld. So I lug my baggage upstairs to the ticket counter, buy a commuter ticket, then return downstairs and board the next commuter train for the 45 minute ride to the Munich Terminal. My shirt is drenched with sweat from the exertions.
Onboard the commuter train, the conductor does not speak English, nor do any of the passengers around me, and I grow concerned. The ticket agent told me it was a 45-minute ride to the Munich Terminal and I carefully keep track of the time. The train stops every few minutes at stations where passengers come and go. Everything is automated, so folks really scramble in the boarding/offloading process. All kiosk and signboard words are in German, and I don’t see any words that resemble “Munich Terminal.”
So, when my watch says we have been traveling for 45 minutes and the train stops at a station, I scramble to get off. I drag my ski bag out the door onto the ramp and turn to get my two bags when the train door closes and off the train goes! With my bags!
I was shocked! Oh CRAP! What to do?
I eventually found an English-speaking vendor who told me the main station was half a mile away and I had debarked one station early, so off I went down the sidewalk headed in the direction of the terminal while dragging my ski bag behind.
The entire area soon began to look like a giant food court and, after multiple inquiries, I was able to find a kind lady who spoke English and gave me directions to the main terminal and “lost luggage” office. Off I go into the crowds again dragging my ski bag, pretty much at my wit’s end and in shock.
Things begin to look like a terminal with hundreds of people scurrying in all directions, and as I walk, I am approached by three very large young men in safety vests and one asks me in English, “Are you Mr. Wood from Alaska?” Trust me, I just about fell over! What a relief! Turns out my bags were safe in the lost luggage office that was about a block away and one floor up. I collect my bags and walk about 200 meters to Bay 28 and board my train to Seefeld, where I arrive exhausted and very much relieved at about 5 p.m. local time. Almost too much of an adventure!
* * *
It’s now Sunday, March 19, and the first day of racing at the 2023 World Masters; 1000 skiers, 25 nations, and 6 days of age group racing among many of the fastest masters skiers on the planet. I have entered three classic races and have an ax to grind… my goal at the 2019 World Masters in Beitostølen, Norway, four years ago was to finish in the top ten in a classic race and to do well in the relay. Turns out my best finish in an individual race was eleventh and I faded badly in the scramble leg of the relay over the last half-kilometer. I know I can do better and plan to do so here.
Today is the “short” classic race. My age group, the M10’s (age 75-79), start about 10 a.m. in the next-to-last wave of classic skiing for the day and compete on a 5-kilometer-long course.
The starters assign skiers to lanes, the gun goes off, and it’s a mad scramble of flying poles, skis, and growling, single-minded old men all trying to be first to the end of the stadium where the trail necks down and makes a long sweeping left downhill turn onto the course. I am in the lead mix as we start down the hill and I glance up at the skiers just ahead. My right ski catches some slushy snow pushed up by hundreds of skiers in earlier waves, I bobble, then fall! Oh CRAP! I pull my ski poles in and try to make myself small to avoid being run over by the skiers behind.
I scramble to my feet and assess the damage. I am now in very last place. Several other competitors have fallen on the hill below me, but most of the pack has successfully navigated the hill and are speeding off down the trail.
I do not see my dreams disappearing into the distance; instead, I see the full measure of the work that has been unexpectedly been cut out for me.
My skis are good, my body feels good, my mind is determined, I ski purposefully down the trail and start to pass skiers one by one. I get to the first big hill and scramble around some more skiers (this is where I discover I am the strongest hill climber in the M10s). Up and down hills, across flats, past cheering crowds, the competitors come back to me, and I go around them, skiing like a madman.
Up the last hill that leads into the stadium I fly past the Finn in full-on maniac sprint mode and take aim at the Norwegian who is in the lead. JD is now screaming at me from the side of the trail to lean into the hill and go with all I’ve got. But I run out of hill, out of trail, and up ahead the Norwegian is crossing the finish line and flashing a victory sign to the camera. I finish a couple of seconds later in second, and feel pretty damn elated! [Results here/PDF page 11]
It’s early evening at the awards ceremony and the hall is packed; the first day’s races have been completed and interest is high. The M10 podium winners’ names are called, and I bound onto the stage accompanied by tremendous cheering and clapping. I experience a deep sense of accomplishment when accepting my silver medal, mugging with the other medal winners in my age group, and waving to the crowd. Way cool, and very humbling.
I would be remiss if I did not discuss the weather in Seefeld and my predetermined World Masters race series strategy. My strong suit is the classic technique, and the longer the race the better.
When I signed up for the races I decided to enter all three classic races that were to be held in the order of middle distance (10km) on Sunday, short distance (5km) on Monday and long distance (15km) on Friday. Wednesday was to be the nations’ relay, with relay team members to be determined based on the results from prior days of racing. Based on my experience racing in 2019 in Beitostølen, I knew that I need at least a day’s rest between races in order to recover well. So my strategy was to race Sunday’s “middle distance” race, and if I did well enough to make the relay I would skip Monday’s short distance race and rest up for the relay. If I had problems in Sunday’s race I could try again on Monday.
Then the weather became a factor. Conditions in Seefeld became very springlike, with daytime temperatures well above 50 degrees, causing the courses to be rearranged at the last minute due to snow conditions and limited terrain availability. The race sequence was shuffled so that the short races were Sunday, then medium classic race on Monday, and medium freestyle race Tuesday. As a result, I skied the short distance Sunday and, because I did well, skipped the medium distance race Monday.
Over the week of competitions the trail conditions continued to deteriorate. The slushy trail conditions of Sunday and Monday became firmer and icier, but thinner, as the week wore on. The coarse corn snow was held together with nightly generous applications of salt. The trail tended to be hard and icy fast for the first racers, but degenerated to wet, slushy, and slower trails as the temperatures rose for the later skiers. Major kudos go to the race organizers to be able to hold the trails together till the end of the competitions.
Relay day Wednesday dawns clear and cool, but temperatures are forecast to rise to a high of 60 degrees! The M10 4 x 5km mixed technique relay (classic–classic–skate–skate) is the last contested race of the day, and as the starting time of 11 a.m. approaches the temperature is 50 degrees and rising. I am to ski my usual position in the scramble leg.
The gun goes off and away we go. I successfully navigate the sweeping downhill at the end of the stadium and it soon becomes a four-team race between the Norwegian, the Swiss, the German, and me for the U.S. Today the course is wet, hard transformed snow with spotty slush on top; nothing like we usually race on at home in Alaska. It’s also clear from the start that my skis are not running well on the flats, but that I am untouchable on the uphills.
I crest the big hill about halfway through the course in first place but am passed on the ensuing downhill by the Norwegian. Seeking to compensate I cut to the inside of the corner at the bottom, and DAMN, my skis get tangled and down I go. I pop up but the damage is done… the Swiss skier has passed me and the Norwegian has broken away.
I ski my heart out for the rest of the loop, but my skis just aren’t running as fast as my competitors’ and I enter the tag zone in a solid third place. My other USA team members ski well, and we ended up just out of the medals in fourth. When I look at the splits, I see that I skied the third-fastest time of the 12 athletes who skied a classic relay leg, which is a small consolation. I had targeted the relay all week as a race where I wanted to do well and I feel kind of hollow inside about the results. I try to “shrug it off,” but I have the haunting feeling of opportunity lost. [Results here / PDF page 5]
The following day, on the advice of JD, I stayed off my skis. Instead, in the morning I cheer and support my teammates from the trailside as they race in their long-distance freestyle races in temperatures that are climbing through the high 40s and headed for 60° F. The race course is getting thin in spots and the ephemeral puddles have emerged with the sunlight, but, thanks to the efforts of the groomers, it looks like the snow will last through the week. At the end of the day’s racing the U.S.A. skate skiers have done very well and are done with their 2023 World Masters competitions.
[Read more: Americans Take Home 46 Medals from World Masters in Seefeld]
And now it’s Friday, the classic long-distance races and final day of 2023 World Masters racing. Due to deteriorating trail conditions the starting sequences have been altered so that instead of starting first, the old guys get to go out last (in the warmth and slush, again). Oh well, all M10s get to ski in the same conditions.
As the 10:30 a.m. race time approaches and competitors gather around the starting pen it’s clear that there is significantly less tension in the air than earlier in the week. It’s just kind of a laid-back atmosphere with no racing around doing last-minute warmups.
However, once the starting gun goes off it’s all business. The Norwegian, Swiss, and I immediately distance ourselves from the pack and are in a real horse race. We are skiing together and we are skiing apart… sometimes one, then sometimes the other in the lead, and sometimes three abreast. There are usually two tracks set on the side of the trail, but we ski all over the trail seeking out the fastest running for our skis.
We are evenly matched for the first lap, but then the Swiss slowly begins to pull away. I can’t quite catch up to his lead on the uphills anymore. Then on the last big downhill a merging skier from an earlier wave falls right in front of me, and I need to take violent evasive action, losing momentum; the Norwegian bolts ahead and I can’t catch up. And so we finish the last race of the last day of 2023 World Masters one, two, and three. Very tired but very happy! [Results here / PDF page 7]
* * *
My horse is saddled and tied to the nearby bushes, and I am putting out the last remains of the morning’s campfire, the smoke slowly drifting into the clear morning air. The sun has crested the hills and promises to bring a warm, sunny spring day. I have reached the apex of my master skier racing career and am satisfied with a job well done. Two 2023 World Masters individual medals in two races. Third in my leg of the relay. The only classic technique U.S.A. male double medalist. The grulla [shade of horse] looks over his shoulder at me and softly nickers. I take one last look at my ski racing career of the last 15 years, climb up into the saddle, and hum an old George Strait tune as I slowly ride away.
* * *
As I was writing this essay from my home on Fire Lake a very faint whisper from the back of my mind drew me to my 1965 East Anchorage High School senior class yearbook. On the inside of the front cover, several classmates wrote about my newfound skiing abilities and commented about expecting to see me in the 1968 Olympics. Those were the dreams of the young! But 58 years later I have the satisfaction of fulfilling this lifelong dream and have medaled in the Masters World Cup 2023 championships. I feel good, real good.
Inspiring essay – congratulations John!! Particularly incredible accomplishments after your travel mayhem!!