Teetering between love and hate on skate skis

This winter wonderland is one of the incentives for skate skiing in Washington.

Story highlights

  • Skate skiing is based on traditional skiing, but the skis are shorter
  • You move like a long-footed duck with a rocket on its back

(CNN)The problem with skate skiing? It's hard.

A quote to that effect appeared in a 2014 New York Times story that immediately rekindled my love-hate relationship with the sport.
    In my mind, skate skiing is a form of graceful liberation. In my body, however -- a.k.a. reality -- it's another story altogether.
    If you've never done it, the easiest way to understand skate skiing is to imagine speed skating on skis.
    Skate skiing is based on traditional Nordic skiing, which the pros call "classic," but the skis are shorter (plus lighter and shaped differently).
    But the thing that's really different about skate skiing is what you do with the skis.
    In classic cross-country, you shuffle your skis along in parallel tracks.
    In skate skiing? Well, you move like a long-footed duck with a small rocket on its back that somehow makes you half-glide, half-fly as your arms hold onto poles and the poles dig at the ground, helping propel you forward.
    It's much more breathtaking than it sounds, in every sense.

    Stunning terrain

    It turns out that cross-country skiing in general is "one of the most demanding of all Olympic sports," according to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which may, perhaps, be biased against beach volleyball ... but still.
    Based on my experience, I believe them.
    I reaffirmed that belief during a winter vacation in the Methow Valley in Washington state, home to 120 miles of groomed Nordic trails, the largest such network in North America.
    It's also stunning. You can ski around broad snowy meadows and through groves of pine trees, along quiet frosty rivers and over an old suspension bridge.
    It's cross-country skiing heaven. Unless your relationship to being on your skis is, well, maybe not hellish but somewhere in between.
    My sister-in-law Ellen, once a member of the junior Olympic skate skiing team, was also on the trip and helped me refresh my rusty skate skiing technique.
    I rented some skate skis and met Ellen in the field of circular trails sandwiched between the rental shop and the Mazama Store, a right-out-of-a-postcard little grocery store and café that makes up the center of the town at the center of the Methow Valley.
    I shuffle out in the tracks like I'm used to doing, but Ellen redirects me into the middle of the groomed trail, a wide berth of snow that looks like it's been combed. It's called corduroy.
    And here, the corduroy is pocked by angled left and right grooves that make it look like a series of Vs or arrow tips stacked on top of each other.
    I step out of the tracks, try to skid to a stop, stop briefly and then fall over spectacularly.

    Gliding clumsily forward

    It turns out that throughout my lesson, not only do I often fall over while attempting to skate ski, I fall over almost as often while just standing still.
    I'm not the best at balance. Take encouragement from this: If even gangly, un-athletic me can do it, anyone can!
    The rest of our lesson consists mainly of Ellen teaching me to skate on my skis.
    This involves shifting not just your body weight but your entire physical and mental attention from one leg to the other, left then right, left then right, pushing off slightly with the edge of the opposite ski as your being glides forward as much as possible on the leading ski.
    I'm not using any poles at this point.
    Ellen has me holding both arms parallel to the skis and gesturing in the direction I want to go. I look like a chorus girl in a rendition of "Starlight Express" at a theater in the North Pole.
    Eventually, I find a rhythm. A slow, stumbling rhythm, but a rhythm for sure.
    Men and women who clearly qualify for Social Security are passing me on their skate skis, but still, I'm propelling myself forward while staying upright and haven't broken anything or had a heart attack.
    Sooner or later, we add poles that are yet another thing for me to trip on and fall over, but eventually, I work them out too, and I'm sailing along like a gangly, un-athletic person with a tendency to fall over when stopped.
    I'm sure I don't look good, and later I guarantee I don't feel good, and I need to actually help my legs lift my body up stairs.
    But in the moment, I feel glorious.

    Less harrowing than downhill

    In my best moments, when for a second or even a few I seem to really get it, I don't even feel like I'm skating on skis. I feel like I'm dancing.
    As someone who realized later in life that I didn't like downhill skiing -- that it was too expensive and bad for the environment, and I was always having to psych myself up before starting a run and risking near-death -- I've come to love cross-country skiing.
    It's better exercise, more peaceful and less harrowing.
    Plus, add skate skiing to the mix, and it's a physical challenge and potentially magnificent payout like none I've ever known.
    All told, I probably skate skied about 4 miles during my first lesson in the Methow Valley, which leaves 116 miles of trails to explore.
    And some new leg lifter muscles to develop.