BEND, Ore. — It’s August. That means a few things to keep in mind. Out West, it’s been hot and dry. Mid-90 temps have been the norm and in places like Bend, it’s in the teens for humidity. Don’t forget to top that with smoky air from surrounding wildfires.
On the East Coast, high humidity can turn an early morning workout into a tropical death march. Left or right coast, even in the Rockies and Midwest, the phrase “hydrate or die” remains relevant.
It’s enough to tap the brakes on traditional forms of dryland training.
That brings us back to Bend. Despite recent claims, Bend isn’t paradise, and it may not be where you want to be. Some downsides here in Bend are the busy traffic circles and dusty mountain-bike trails in summer. (Yeah, all first-world problems.) If that’s not enough to dissuade you, then there’s this not-so-well-known fact: Bend’s river surfing wave isn’t always firing with a green face; sometimes a pillow of aerated water blemishes an otherwise everlasting standing wave.
The upside (yes, there’s a big upside) is that the surfing wave at Bend’s Whitewater Park serves up a great option to diversify the off-snow training.
It took a 21-year-old named Jake Ajax from Minneapolis, Minn., who currently skis for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, to show the light.
Jake actually goes by Ajax.
Ajax ended up in Bend for the summer to train with the Bend Endurance Academy (BEA) college training group. But surfing? That seems a bit off the radar from a nordic skier in the Midwest. Like any semi-landlocked kid, he dreamed big.
“My obsession with surfing started last summer when I read the book Barbarian Days by William Finnegan,” Ajax explained in an email. “I’ve always been interested in the sport but being from Minnesota there’s no easy way to get into it. Barbarian Days was my gateway that pushed me to give it a try and I love it. I have a sister that lives near Orange County, CA so that’s a great resource to have. I even managed to surf Lake Michigan last spring a couple times when storms hit.”
(If you think Barbarian Days sounds like some fluff surf book, think again. Finnegan won a Pulitzer for his cerebral surfing memoir.)
Ajax explained he learned about Bend’s Whitewater Park from a video featuring Bend local and storied pipeline surfer Gerry Lopez.
“I told myself, ‘I’m going to be good at that by the end of the summer,’ ” Ajax wrote. “When I first got here I bought a board and was surprised by the steep learning curve of surfing. For about the first week all I could do was ride the wave for a few seconds before face planting and getting flushed down the rapids.”
Ajax is not alone. Not to name names, but some of Bend’s most stout endurance athletes, some of them nordic skiers, have been seen flushed over the Whitewater Park’s drops after a split-second surf.
Including this guy:
Ajax admits he’s now a regular at the wave in between his morning and evening workouts.
“I usually try to make it to the wave about six days a week,” he wrote.
For those logging hours, Ajax noted he doesn’t include the surfing in his log book, since there’s a bit of standing around and his heart rate remains low. But Ajax asserts the surfing has put grins on his face and benefited his ski training.
“Physically, the basic surfing stance is fairly similar to skiing,” he wrote. “You press through the arch of your foot relaxing the toes and keep your ankles loose so you can turn back and forth on the wave. You press through the surfboard similarly to how you press through a ski. It definitely helps with balance. Mentally, ski training, especially in the off season, is always great to keep fresh. It’s been great mastering this new sport over the summer. Rollerskiing the same roads every week can get old so it’s nice to keep things fresh with the whitewater park.”
Ajax has been the pied piper of river surfing for the collegiate nordic crowd. It’s now not uncommon to see surfers/NCAA skiers at the wave from the University of New Hampshire, Colby College, University of Vermont, and a certain Harvard Ski Team alum on occasion.
“River surfing is a pretty cool sport so I think most skiers are compelled to try it,” Ajax wrote. “I’m just the one who drags them down to the wave to give it a try.”
If you don’t take FasterSkier’s and Ajax’s word for it, how about the word from cross-country skiing’s answer to Kelly Slater: longtime U.S. Ski Team member and longtime surfer Andy Newell? (Seriously, shave Newell’s locks, swap out the lycra for board shorts and you’ve sort of got a Slater doppelgänger.)
“I’ve never surfed any standing waves but I try to get into the water as much as I can throughout the summer to surf in the ocean,” Newell wrote in an email.
Here are some of the ways Newell believes surfing can benefit skiers:
- Mental: “There is the obvious, surfing is fun, engaging, and addicting so it is a perfect mental break for a winter sports athlete. But I think there is much more to it than that since sports like surfing practice a different type of mental/ physical connection. Skiing is a speed-based sport, it’s all about how fast you can go. Surfing is a style-based sport that is more about muscle memory and how your body moves. I think it’s great when athletes with a background in speed-based sports practice something like surfing or skateboarding because it forces us to have different mental/physical connection that is focused more on proprioception. body movement, and is 100 percent skills based. It’s good for the brain:)
- Physical: “On the pure physical side, surfing is great for balance, core strength, and upper-body strength. The paddling motion of surfing is awesome for skiers because it is a similar motion that recruits a lot of the same muscles as poling but it’s also very different in a good way. Paddling and swimming where you are bringing your arm up above your head and shoulder is great for strengthening external rotation in the shoulders which is something most skiers need. Paddling a surfboard and strengthening all those small muscles around the outside of your shoulder and back will help a skier stay injury free from a repetitive poling motion. Also, when you are laying on your stomach and paddling on a board it will improve thoracic mobility (upper-back mobility) which is another weak point for a skier.”
Go find a wave. If you’re near an ocean , that’s the best place to start. If ocean waves aren’t an option, then try a river wave near you. Here’s a tool to help locate a surfable river wave.
Although we’re no experts, river surfboards are short. Some are in the 4-foot range for more experienced surfers. A stable learner board on the local Bend wave runs anywhere from 5-feet-2-inches to 5′-7″. Most surfers here use soft boards since board dings from rocks are a reality of river-wave surfing. That said, some local shapers will handcraft a pricey glass and carbon board for your liking.
This writer makes his child wear a helmet and board leash with a hand-activated break away mechanism — it’s a river, after all, meaning natural hazards exist that may snag a leash. Better safe than sorry. Some river surfers in Bend wear a personal floatation device (PFD).
Hardy folks wear board shorts as if the Cascade’s were found at 19.8968° N, 155.5828° W (a rough approximation of Hawaii’s location). Otherwise, most folks wear wetsuits. At roughly 65-degrees Fahrenheit in summer, the water in the Deschutes River as it flows through Bend isn’t shiver-inducing, but a wetsuit makes it cozy.
The Workout: Surfing
- Focus on de-stressing
- Have fun
- Get on the wave
- Try to surf
- Maintain a Level 0.5 heart-rate zone (if your post-workout data indicates you were in L1, you are doing it wrong.)
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.