Why Skiing? How A Sport Saved My Life

Chelsea LittleMarch 28, 2016

About the author: Scott “Bjorn” Cummings is a Postbaccalaureate student working towards his Academic Behavorial Strategist K-12 (ABS) Special Education License at the University of Minnesota Duluth. When he is not in school or on the ski trail, he enjoys biking, reading, cheering on the Minnesota Twins and cooking.

After completing my second American Birkebeiner this year I asked my old mathematics professor and current mentor Lawrence Gray: why did skiing make such a positive impact on my life?

He himself had run marathons and was a block from the finish line when the backpack bomb went off during the 2013 Boston Marathon. Point is, he knew the dedication that endurance sports demanded and how it translates into success outside of training. For a man who works daily at the University of Minnesota solving abstract mathematical proofs, he put it simply.

“A couple of reasons:  Having a healthy passion outside of work helps keep things fresh. 

Preparing for something like the Birkie forces you to structure your life and builds discipline. 

Having something to talk about (besides work) gives you confidence and makes you a more interesting person. 

Doing something regularly for your health supports everything else in your life.”

-Lawrence Gray

If I’d heard that math professor’s words before, maybe I would have picked up skiing much earlier. I wouldn’t have guessed it in the beginning as a flailed and crashed on my skis, but cross-country skiing was what would give me confidence and happiness in a dark time of my life.

I got a call center job post-graduation.
I got a call center job post-graduation.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mathematics, I was lost both professionally and personally. I moved back home to Chanhassen, a Twin Cities suburb, and lived with my parents. I enrolled in graduate school for math education but soon dropped out after finding that the program and timing was not a good fit.

I made a half-hearted attempt to pursue my other passion, baseball, as a career. I landed a couple interviews with the Minnesota Twins for internships but none panned out. Both anxiety and coronary heart disease ran in my family and then surfaced in my own life. At 220 pounds, I was overweight and worried about my next step. And at 22 years old, I was a part time math tutor, still living at home with my parents and actively searching for a full time position.

After about a year of searching, I landed a temporary full-time job that didn’t even require a college degree. It was at a call center for MNsure, the Minnesota Health Insurance Marketplace. It was a start. Soon after I began to work, however, I realized that job was extremely toxic and a dead end. But that is another story.

To be honest, I missed working with kids and needed a new fiery passion. At that point I was out of shape, overweight, and in a job I hated. Little did I know just how much skiing would ignite my life.

*        *        *

As a child, I enjoyed downhill skiing once a year with Boy Scouts, on winter field trips with school, or with other groups. But as an adult I couldn’t justify the startup cost of equipment or lift tickets to get into the sport. I never cross-country skied in high school. Classic skiing seemed to boring to me. In general, I was more interested in watching sports than playing them.

My introduction to cross-country skiing came later. As an undergrad, I studied abroad in Birmingham, England for a two-week January term class through the University of Minnesota-Duluth called “History and Soccer.” Since I would be across the pond anyway, my parents suggested that I visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Norway for a week during Christmas. While there, my cousin took me classic skiing in the mountains.

In my family's homeland!
In my family’s homeland!

I was so scared that I only skied one kilometer. My uncle gave me a chocolate bar on the trail and took me out for porridge and hot chocolate afterwards. For my Norwegian Christmas, I received a Bjorn Daehlie ski jacket and pants, with a red Swix VR70 Klister wax hat.

After Norway, it turned out that I kind of liked skiing and the gear that comes with it. Plus, my family had a history of skiing. All four of my aunts and my even my grandmother completed the Korteloppet in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But only my Uncle Mike had kept up the annual pilgrimage to Hayward, Wisconsin, for the American Birkebeiner since then.

“The endorphins are free,” he would always say about skiing.

Currently he has finished 29 Birkies and is another mentor of mine. Any question I had about the sport I could always ask him. In his basement, he had racing bibs from just about every race he completed in his career. As a kid the shrine seemed foreign to me, and somehow like the man version of a funny wall quilt. But really, I needed someone to teach me the basic skate skiing technique.

The next winter on a beautiful weekend afternoon my parents said they were going skiing to Carver Park with my Dad’s old work colleague named Jack.

He was 70, addicted to skating, on no medication, and said he actually lost weight in the winter. I was curious to his secret.

But I also had no clue what to I was doing on skis and the difference between skate and classic skiing. I loved to go fast and just glide on the snow, even though my basic technique was duck walking: stepping on the left and the right without any weight transfer.

I needed encouragement to keep me positive while trying to learn actual technique. Jack needed someone to ski with. It was a good match and he became my unofficial ski coach.

Jack saw my Bjorn Daehlie jacket and pants coined the nickname Bjorn for me. One day at Hyland Lake Park Reserve, with my all Norwegian gear and Scandinavian blonde hair and blue eyes, we convinced a Three Rivers Park Employee that I was from Norway. All I did was nod and quetly say yes quietly. The nickname Bjorn stuck. I started to grasp proper skate technique, and more importantly, to have fun.

*        *        *

But I remained out of shape and overweight for regular ski racing.

Baker Shaker 20k - Scott Cummings
Here I am before my first ski race, the Baker Shaker 20 k.

Slowly but surely, I bought some of my own equipment. There was some end-of-the-year sale, where I bought Fischer RCRs and some poles on the cheap; boots at a ski swap; lobster claw gloves, which were hand-me-downs.

Yes, cross-country skiing is expensive. But once you have your base gear, it’s not so bad.

I realized that I like skiing and that it was an excellent way to fight anxiety and heart disease. I liked the endorphin high I got after a long ski, the feeling of gliding on the snow, the way it brought you out with nature, the camaraderie with fellow skiers. And, of course, skiing fast.

Just like as a kid at the downhill ski slope, I wanted to go fast. But going fast on skate skis was not as simple as running. You needed the technique. So it began: the never-ending challenge of finding a great technique and maintaining my fitness. I was determined to find that good technique.

Unfortunately, the reality was that I had a call-center job and I found it hard to put in the time for ski training.

First off, there was the terrible commute from my parents home in the southwestern suburb of Chanhassen 37 miles to downtown Saint Paul. Then there was the fact that the job itself was not healthy. In fact it was an extremely toxic work environment.

I needed a job that I actually liked and would allow to me ski more. So I started to plan my life around skiing.

I realized that I missed working with kids. I’d had a faint interest in teaching mathematics, but never really pursued it. But before working at my toxic call-center job, I substitute taught quite a bit in special education and enjoyed it. So I researched graduate special education teaching programs in the state of Minnesota.

It came down to two choices, Bethel University and the University of Minnesota Duluth. I couldn’t even fully apply through Bethel’s application system, and my old math professor couldn’t submit his letter of reference.

That turned out to be fine. Duluth has its famous 700-foot hill, Lake Superior and 47 kilometers of ski trails within city limits. I chose UMD.

I strategically put in my two weeks notice to my call center job in January before the spring semester started, and upon moving to Duluth, immediately joined the UMD Nordic Club.

*        *        *

While training with the club in the hilly Duluth my overall health, career, and skiing technique immensely improved. At UMD, I made friends who pushed me to race more I found a group of friends who I could race with in the cites of Hayward, Ashland, Houghton, Marquette, and of course daily training in Duluth.

In addition, I taught myself how to V2 and open field skate so I could cruise while skiing. No longer were hills a burden but strength, because now I could count on passing other skiers on the hills.

After the completion 2016 race season, my time and energy put into training started to translate both on and off the trail.

The change of scenery brought on by skiing was just what I needed in my life.

The book Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein is a must read for anyone who raced the Birkie and loves the Birkie lifestyle. In the end of the book, Rhein describes what Birkie Fever means to him.

“It’s a lesson that’s far more valuable and far more empowering than a mere helping hand. It’s a lesson you can find solace in during all of life’s inevitable highs and lows. Having someone there to carry you is nice. Cross-country skiing, however, teaches you how to carry yourself.”

-Walter Rhein, Beyond Birkie Fever

How did my life change? I left that call center far behind. I’m now 2 months away from completing student teaching and earning my K-12 Academic Behavioral Strategist Teaching License from UMD.

I started eating a high protein diet, cooking for myself, and eating proper food proportions. I even discovered a favorite cooking tool, the cast iron skillet. In the 14 months since moving to Duluth, I lost approximately 40 pounds.

My hard work is starting to pay off in ways I didn’t even imagine.

All thanks to skiing.

Here I am about the finish the 2016 Great Bear Chase with my PR!
Here I am about the finish the 2016 Great Bear Chase with my PR!
Date and Location Skate Race Wave Time
Medina, Minnesota 2014 20k Baker Shaker Mass Start 2:20
February 19, Cable, Wisconsin 2014 23k Korteloppet Freestyle 8 03:11:26.7
February 14 Ashland to Washburn, Wisconsin 2015 10k Book Across the Bay Mass Start 44:44.4
February 18, Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin 2015 51k American Birkebeiner 7 05:33:04.5
March 5, Calumet, Michigan 2015 50k Freestyle Great Bear Chase Mass Start 4:22:33
January 23, Ishpeming to Marquette, Michigan 2016 50k Freestyle Noquemanon 8 3:54:24
January 31, Duluth Minnesota, 2016 26k Nordic Spirit Mass Start 1:53:24
February 14 Ashland to Washburn, Wisconsin 2016 10k Book Across the Bay Mass Start 00:48:51
February 20 Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin 2016 51k American Birkebeiner 7 4:20:19.3
March 5, Calumet, Michigan 2016 50k Great Bear Chase Mass Start 3:24:27 ***** PR!


Scott Cummings can be reached at Cummings.scottr@gmail.com.

Do you have a personal skiing story you’d like to share? We sometimes take submissions. Email info@fasterskier.com or get in touch with one of our staff members.

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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