At the age of 37 Bill McKibben, a prominent US writer and environmental campaigner, was feeling that his life had become too sedentary and bookish. Although he was a fairly keen recreational cross-country skier, he felt he had never pushed his physical limits, never really tested his body. Out of his unease with that situation came the decision "to spend a year in real training, putting in nearly as many hours as an Olympic endurance athlete spends prepping his body." After that year he would spend a winter ski racing.
The book is the story of that time. It starts with his meeting on 1 January 1998 with Rob Sleamaker, author of the influential book "Serious Training for Endurance Athletes", who agreed to coach him. It concludes with his participation in the Norwegian Birkebeiner race fifteen months later.
In telling the story McKibben covers a lot of ground, mentally as well as physically, and the book serves as a good introduction to cross-country ski racing and to cross-country skiing in general.
He writes about setting goals. Asked by Sleamaker to write down his own goals, he finally came up with this: "I want to gain an intuitive sense of my body and how it works. And at least once I want to give a supreme and complete effort in a race."
He writes about endurance training. Sleamaker prescribed a tough programme of about 600 hours training over the 12 months. To begin with, most was low-intensity, long-duration work, designed to lay down a good aerobic base. McKibben would grow accustomed to long slow distance runs, up to three hours duration by the summer. But from the outset he also worked on strength and speed. In describing his workouts he writes about training schedules and periodisation, about exercise physiology and nutrition, and about fitness testing (VO2 max and lactate threshold).
By the September he was training 18 hours a week. But no matter how hard he trains, his outlook remains much more that of an intellectual than an athlete. He has an abiding interest in how much (or how little) the physical training is changing his character, his spirit. He sees similarities between endurance training and meditation. He is curious about the reasons, personal and social, why endurance athletes devote huge hours to training. And, being just as curious as to why ORDINARY people work out on exercise machinery in gyms, he digresses to consider the growth of the fitness industry.
He writes about the recent history of cross-country skiing in the USA. There was huge growth in the 1970s, a decade that saw Bill Koch win a silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck. And the 1980s too were good for US racing: Koch won the World Cup one year and USA had four or five finishing in the top twenty at all the races. But then it all fell away. Race performances worsened and the overall number of American XC skiers declined.
And, of course, he writes about his own races. Almost from the outset, Sleamaker encouraged McKibben to compete, and in the first months of training he took part in a race in New England, an event in the Canadian Keskinada festival, and in the World Masters Championships at Lake Placid. Six months into the year he flew to Australia and raced in the Paddy Pallin Classic, a 25km event near Mount Kosciusko.
And he did, finally, have his winter of racing. But it was truncated by the terminal illness of his father. And the suffering and passing of his father comes rather to dominate the end of the story. Some readers will think this enriches the book. Others will feel that it derails it, and that a more focussed volume would in the end have served as a better monument to his father's memory. Nevertheless, the book is a good one, and it deserves a place on the shelf of anyone who has an interest in cross-country skiing.