Saturday, March 17, 2012

On track skiing and the Lahti Ski Games

In contrast to the road and off track skiing we did at Kaukopartiohiihto we also did a little skiing at the Lahti sports center and at the ski trails in neighboring Hollola. These trails might be a little more like what you think of when you think of cross country skiing. Freshly groomed corduroy and set classic tracks. Needless to say this is the worst kind of luxury for someone from Iowa. It makes you think that if only someone would make some nice groomed trails maybe you too could be a contender.

These are the same trails where, while we were at KPH, world class skiers (including Kikkan Randall) were racing. In fact, the days before the race when we skied there we were skiing right alongside those skiers who were testing skis and getting warmed up for the races.
(more skis than I'll ever have)

These trails also made it clear to me just how bad of a skier I am. My classic technique is bad and skating is even worse. I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad. I don't have trails like this near home and have only been skating for a year (and a bad snow year at that).
(just a few of the fastest skiers in the world)

Since I cut our KPH experience short we were able to spectate at some of the Ski Games events including the ski jumping final and the 1.4k classic sprint races. Ski jumping is something I had never actually expected to see in person so that was a treat. All I can say is that the jumpers make it look easy. I expect that when you get to the top of the hill it doesn't look so easy anymore.
(he's there in the center of the photo)

Watching the sprint race reminded me how much different the on piste skiing is from the off track skiing we had been doing the previous day. On track skiing is all about double poling. So much so that the Vasaloppet was won this year by a skier without grip wax on his classic skis. He double poled the whole 90km. I have always been taught that since my legs are larger than my arms I should be using them to ski, a philosophy I agree with, but good double polers use their abdominal muscles more than their arms anyway. I'll work on my double poling (it needs it), but I don't think I'll ever be converted over from the kick and glide.
(now that's double poling!)

Note: The good photos were taken by Jani, the bad ones by me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kaukopartio Ski Gear

Great, you say, but what does Kaukopartio have to do with the off-track skiing gear discussion? Well, after struggling with the army issue skis for 30km or so I started to "get" them.

Yes, the boots are floppy, but they are waterproof which came in handy skiing through a section of overflow on a lake. In Iowa I am often skiing on relatively thin creek and river ice. I'm careful of were I go, but when the water is shallow and I'm close to home I don't mind risking getting a little wet. It would be handy to have fully waterproof boots at those times. Other times, not so much. In extreme cold or when working hard having a breathable boot would be much more enjoyable.

In spite of the poor fit and complete unbreathability I got no blisters after 18 hours of skiing in completely new to me boots. How does that happen? I don't know, but I'm impressed. It's something to think about.

The cable bindings are heavy, but the boots are quite walkable. Without a bail or duckbill on the front I would have no problem taking off the skis and walking a ways in them if I had to. Some ski boots I've used are very nearly dangerous to walk in. Too slippery. During KPH I didn't have to walk, but again for marginal skiing this matters.

The skis were heavy, but huge and tough. When skiing over downed logs, through brush, and over gravel roads toughness matters. As far as huge goes the float that the skis had on deep snow was quite good. Much better than skinny racing skis. That's what skis are for after all.

I know that some of you have suggested that the Altai or Marquette skis would be good for this kind of skiing. Maybe you're right. The Altais especially look promising. My main concern is that they seem to be more aimed the BC/downhill crowd. More of a go up and ski down kind of ski. Not a get there kind of ski. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

Soon: a look at the Fischer Country and Europa 99.

Monday, March 12, 2012


We were lost. It was sometime past midnight and I was lost in a swamp in a foreign country. I didn't speak the language and I didn't have the camping gear I would usually have been carrying in a situation like this. The antiquated skis we were using had felt heavy 14 hours earlier when we started. Now it took an feat of will to move them. We had to get found, but how? I couldn't remember the last turn we had taken, and now the logging road we were following was trending south. Our map told us we should be heading north. I thought the map was at fault and the road would soon turn. My two companions felt differently. Janne wanted to backtrack. Jani wanted to strike out cross country.

My trip to Finland for the Kaukopartiohiihto competition was my last chance for a good ski outing. All winter, throughout the Midwest, there had been low to no snow. In Iowa, with marginal skiing in a good year, I had only been out on skis four times. My plans to ski the Arrowhead 135 race in International Falls had been thwarted by a lack of training. Finland was supposed to be a capstone trip, an easy cruise. It wasn't turning out that way.

Brothers Jani and Janne Kohonen and I arrived at the Utti military base, just outside Kouvola, early that morning, signed in, received our maps, and checked out our army ski gear. The skis, made by Järvinen, Karhu, and Peltonen to spec, were 1985 vintage. Solid wood with a p-tex base they weighed at least two pounds each. Exel poles with huge baskets, cable bindings, and rubber boots resembling galoshes (and offering just as much support) rounded out the blast-from-the-past equipment. My confidence that we could get through 150km of off-track skiing was wavering.
Easy going early on.

The equipment was only appropriate though. Kaukopartiohiihto translates to long distance ski patrol. We were honoring the memory of those Finns who fought in the 1939-1940 Winter War and 1941-1944 Continuation War with the Soviet Union. Numerically outmatched, Finnish ski troops were reported to have out fought the Soviets 30:1. More than a race, the Kaukopartiohiihto is part military exercise, part memorial, and part pure Finnish sisu.

The route was a mix of forest roads and a single narrow snowmobile track through the woods. Four 75 km routes made up the course and participants have 48 hours to do as many loops as possible. Sometimes the roads we were sent down were too well ploughed for good skiing (though not clear enough for good driving either). The tracks in the woods were often icy and woven tightly between trees, often diving down into ditches and climbing back out again. There were, of course, no course markers. We were utterly dependent on the maps and our wits. While we could often follow the tracks of those ahead of us these often diverged and left us to decide which way was right. Not every ski track was even part of the Kaukopartiohiihto. In Finland ski tracks in the woods are not the novelty that they are in the US.
Where are we?

Heavy skis, floppy boots, and uneven tracks not to mention poor skills helped me crash many times early in the competition. Several times I found myself floundering in deep snow having once again fallen while dropping into a drainage ditch. A little instruction from my skiing companions helped me out. By giving up on subtleties and getting assertive with the skis I started to get the hang of the old equipment.

All too soon it was dark and route-finding became even harder. Several times we missed our turns and had to backtrack. By the time midnight rolled around we were tired and maybe a little confused. That's how we ended up lost in the swamp. After some debate we realized that the road we were on was not in fact a road, but a logging track not marked on our map. Striking out cross country seemed like a very bad idea. A good way to get even more lost. Backtracking it was. We found the fork where we had gotten it wrong about one kilometer back and took the correct road.

At four in the morning we were back in Utti. We had managed just one 75 km loop in 18 hours. Going out for another 75 km loop wasn't very appealing. Jani and Janne were good sports and offered to go out again, but I knew they didn't really feel like it. I know I didn't feel like doing any more. We called it quits and were awarded a bronze medal for one loop. It was a good finish to a poor snow year.


Friday, March 09, 2012

Finland is awesome and you should go there.

I arrived back in town Thursday night after having spent a week and a half in Finland skiing and otherwise lazing about. It was great and, as my co-workers know well, I can't seem to stop talking about it. I haven't managed to collect my thoughts on it all, much less write them down, but I think I have come up with a sort of outline I want to follow to tell you about my trip. I plan on doing several separate blog posts each with a distinct theme. Here they are:

-Kaukopartiohiihto: that'd be the competition (it isn't really a race) that I participated in. Including Finnish Army skis, potato soup, being lost in a swamp, and some info that relates more or less directly to my earlier blog post about off-track skiing.

-Finnish Culture: including, but not limited to; language, saunas, salmiakki, tiny apartments, and crossing the street.

-Lahti Ski Games and how double polling is awesome: some talk about skiing with professional athletes, ski-jumping, spectating at a world cup event, and how bad I am at skiing.

Travel: Getting there by plane, train, automobile, and bus. Plus, why flying is still fun for me.

My plan is to get the first post on Kaukopartiohiihto up on Sunday evening. I'm telling you so that I have to do it.