Learn to cross-country ski, and you'll get life lessons along with your workout

Amy McConnell

Gear up for less than $365

"Don't think" and "remember to breathe." Though they soundlike meditation guidelines, the activity in this case iscross-country ski lessons. I'm spending the weekend at Royal Gorge,Northern California's largest cross-country ski resort, learning touse my new nordic boards and, as a bonus, getting a refreshercourse on how to relax, breathe, and live in the present.

What the self-actualization stuff has to do with cross-countryskiing is this: It's a peaceful, meditative sport. I had thisrevelation after spending many years alpine skiing, blazing downhills kamikaze-style and impatiently standing in line betweenadrenaline rushes. As the lift lines got longer and tickets moreexpensive, I started to consider replacing my downhill skis withskinny ones. I'm not alone: The transition from alpine tocross-country is not uncommon, says Bill Sterling, cross-countryskiing representative for the Salomon sports-equipment company anda nordic ski-team coach.

"People who were once die-hard downhillers often take upcross-country as they get older because they no longer have time tospend six hours on the slopes. With nordic skis, you can take justan hour to enjoy the outdoors and exercise," Sterling says. Plus,he adds, "These days nordic skis turn easier and grip better, whichmakes it easy for beginners to learn."

Indeed, the first thing that strikes me when I step into mycross-country skis is how light and agile I feel with them on. Ieven feel stable enough to jump up and down with my skis on, whichis exactly what our Australian instructor, John Stoddart, has us doon our first morning.

Once we all feel comfortable on our skis, Stoddart talks to usabout kicking and gliding. "What would happen if you were wearingwoolen socks while bowling? You'd keep gliding forward. That's whatwe want."

With his Paul Hogan-like accent and graceful manner, he makes itseem easy. But each time I focus on using my poles to propel me, myarms and legs get out of sync. When Stoddart brings out his videocamera, I try even harder - and end up even more befuddled.

"Don't think about it," Stoddart tells me. "Pretend you'rewalking, and instead, ski."

Lighten up

"The biggest mistake people make is that they concentrate toomuch," Stoddart says. "They expect to get it too quickly. I tellpeople they're here to have fun-lighten up."

Lightening up isn't easy when you're falling down, sosnowplowing is one of the first things Stoddart teaches us. Eventhough the snowplow is familiar to me from my downhill days, it'sdifferent on skinny skis. As my husband puts it, "You feel like anewborn reindeer on ice." Just about everyone in our group falls atleast once going downhill. But Stoddart turns our mishaps intolessons: If you need to pass a fallen skier, simply step out of onetrack and into another. I begin to find metaphors in everythingStoddart says: If you don't like where you are, change tracks; lookahead to where you want to go; learn to stop so you won't feel outof control; don't think; breathe.

I fall asleep that night with the light on, I'm so spent fromthe day's exertion. But in my dreams I can feel the hypnotic motionof kicking and gliding. As soon as the sun rises, I slip out for apre-breakfast private session with Stoddart. Refreshed from a goodnight's sleep, I ease into a comfortable rhythm right away. "Good!Now relax your neck!" Stoddart bellows. "Let your shoulders hang!Swing your arms like a gorilla loping through the forest!"

I know I probably look silly in my forward-thrust position, myface barely concealing the elation of finally getting it right. Butwhy hide it? I grin as I glide past him, thrilled to be striding,skiing, breathing, enjoying every moment.

NORDIC SKI SCHOOLS IN THE WEST

Though few resorts offer as comprehensive a beginners' programas Royal Gorge, mountain retreats throughout the West offer nordicski lessons. The Cross Country Ski Areas Association (www.xcski.org) provideslistings of member resorts by state. Here are a few of ourfavorites.

BIG SKY, MONTANA
Lone Mountain Ranch. Weeklong packages (including airporttransportation, meals, lodging, group ski clinics, trail passes,and educational programs) from $1,896 for the first person, from$1,148 for the second person, and from $746 for each additionalperson. Private or group ski lessons available for an additionalfee. www.lmranch.com or (800)514-4644.

LAKE TAHOE, CALIFORNIA
Royal Gorge. Two-day packages (including meals, lodging, skiinstruction, and trail passes) $169-$179 per person per day. www.royalgorge.comor (530) 426-3871.

SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST, CALIFORNIA
Montecito-Sequoia Resort. Packages (including meals,lodging, and trail passes) from $105 per person per day. Skiinstruction offered for an additional fee. www.mslodge.com or (800)227-9900.

WINTHROP, WASHINGTON
Sun Mountain Lodge. Rooms from $140; or three-day skipackages (including breakfast, dinner, lodging, and trail pass)from $393. Group nordic ski lessons (offered daily) $20 per person.www.sunmountainlodge.com,(800) 572-0493, or (509) 996-2211.

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