by Marja

The notable proverbial phrase says: “Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse.” (Translation: To sail is necessary; to live is not necessary.)  I decided to reformulate and update this ancient Latin proverb: “Cross-country skiing necesse est.”  The latter’s compelling imperative leads me to another famous citation by American poet, T.S. Eliot: “April is the cruelest month.”  I agree with T.S. Eliot 100 percent!

 The logical connection between the two phrases, derives from the destined struggle between the withdrawing winter and the advancing spring.  Winter facilitates skiing conditions, whereas April destroys them by melting the snow. In the North, March is often a white month, when nature is still covered by pure snow which glimmers in the sun as if zillions of tiny diamonds were sparkling on its surface.  The sky is bright and blue, creating a wonderful contrast with the alabaster snow. April, by contrast, is muddy, lifeless, brown-gray and unpredictable. April’s sun is pale, cold and ruthless; April’s wind is chilly, bleak and unfriendly.

Late winter is the gentle grandfather who spreads tranquility, safety, continuity, and soft mildness.  Early spring is the young cruel conqueror that crushes the tender white harmony and introduces confusing disorder with windy days.  In the end, the harsh contestant drives away the gentle grandfather to the North Pole without mercy. Hence, April is a hard, sad month which carries along a pain of loss – namely the loss of a kind, old friend.  As a result, even a hardcore ski fanatic must finally bow out of his/her cherished leisure time activity and, instead, start raking the backyard or washing the windows, which is deadly boring.

As an unshakable winter lover, I always try to postpone the inevitable “defeat”, as long as possible, by driving North whenever Southeast Michigan is already running out of snow.  Hiawatha Highlands has become my favorite weekend getaway since it offers first-class Nordic ski trails in the midst of a beautiful nature conservation area. Hiawatha Highlands is located in the north end of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, just 20 minutes from the US-Canadian border.

In Helsinki, I sometimes walked a mile, carrying my skis on my shoulder, only to reach the very last remaining spot of trails with snow. The place was situated on the shady north side of a wooded ridge, which preserved a faint memory of the withdrawing winter from the pervasive April sun.  In the nearby field, bird watchers were observing migratory birds with their binoculars and off-road bikers were riding around the bumpy country roads.

I am like a migratory bird that is flying in a reverse direction after losing my compass.  Alternatively, I could define myself as a winter refugee who is desperately chasing after snow and escaping the spring.  

Effective Exercise Elevated by Nature

One of the positive externalities in Nordic cross-country skiing is that it is performed outdoors in nature, which makes it a relaxing holistic experience, nurturing all senses.  While skiing, I may observe the dance of the sunbeams on tree trunks; I may smell the fresh scent of proud pines; I may hear the twitter of birds or an owl’s whoo-hooooooo; I may detect mysterious paw-prints in the snow, which will make me wonder what kind of wild animal has run there before me – maybe a wolverine or a lynx.  Should I make the choice between a forest versus a windowless concrete hall, between fresh, clean air versus a whirring air conditioning, or between a scenery panorama versus restless TV screens…?

It is thus easy to intuitively accept research findings that spending time outside in any green space has a real impact on mental well-being.  According to several scientific studies, nature provides stress relief, increases social interaction, encourages physical exercise and even helps soothe mental illness.  

As for stress relief, I can personally testify to the calming effect of cross-country skiing firsthand.  When I was passing the final exams of the secondary school – i.e. the matriculation examination (cf. high school graduation exams or A levels) – I always went skiing on the snow cover of a frozen lake after each day’s long, heavy exam in order to clear my head, relieve stress, and boost my energy for the next exam.  The horizon together with the white landscape in the reddish sunset, was calming to me. I was in harmony both with myself and the surrounding landscape.

Moreover, the traditional Nordic sport of cross-country skiing links me to the chain of generations, incorporating an ethnographic dimension into a plain physical exercise.  I identify myself with my imaginary ancestors who were skiing hundreds of years ago and were sensing the same joyful feelings as I do today. I also think of my parents who, as youngsters, once enjoyed skiing in their childhood landscapes.  Respectively, I recall iconic poems by some of the greatest Finnish writers, who described beatific impressions of a free-living skier. Exploring a winterly wilderness does create an illusion of inner freedom. In this sense, a pair of skis is far better than a pair of Camel boots if you wish to follow your own path like the Camel man.  (Here I refer to an old, well-known Camel boots commercial.)

First and foremost, cross-country skiing provides superb physical benefits which are proved by a number of studies and tests.  Cross-country skiing activates basically all of our muscles, substantially stimulating cardiovascular function and metabolism. It is also a great “natural” interval training, even when practiced at slow pace, particularly when you are skiing in mountainous terrain. (Heinonen 2017.)  Its health and fitness benefits look as follows (see UW Health 2015):

  1. It is widely accepted in the field of exercise physiology as the best cardiovascular exercise known.
  2. Cross country skiing uses a large percentage of your muscle mass, and is more efficient and effective than activities using legs or arms alone.
  3. The low impact nature of the activity reduces impact loading on joints; this is particularly important for individuals with arthritis or joint surface defects.
  4. Gliding over uneven surfaces increases your “kinesthetic sense”, in other words, your body’s ability to perceive its location in space.
  5. The weight shift in ski-skating and the diagonal stride techniques while gliding on snow increases your balance, and balance is critically important in all sports and as we age to prevent falls.
  6. Skiing increases your cardiac output (your heart’s ability to pump blood) and increases your oxygen carrying capacity (your body’s ability to take in, oxygenate, transport and extract oxygen at the working muscle), or stated another way, increases your cardiovascular fitness.
  7. It improves your visual acuity, which is your ability to sense terrain changes and snow undulations in bright and low light conditions.

The physical advantages gained from cross-country skiing are summarized below (see Health Fitness Revolution 2015):

  1. You get a full-body workout. Nordic skiing combines both a lower body and upper body workout, while simultaneously working both the “pulling” and “pushing” muscles of each region. The workout comes in the fact that you use your own locomotion to move through the terrain. Even muscles that don’t seem to be in use are actively involved to balance and coordinate the entire body.
  2. Burns lots of calories. Cross-country skiing energizes the body and turns up your metabolism. This will help you burn calories more efficiently.  Nordic skiing burns more calories than any other form of exercise or sport — up to 1,122 calories per hour for vigorous mountaineering!
  3. Improves cardiovascular endurance and health.Cross-country skiing is an excellent aerobic workout, and because no single muscle group is overstressed, the activity can be sustained for hours on end. Maintaining an elevated heart rate during exercise can strengthen and improve your heart’s capacity to pump blood efficiently and effectively.

When I finally have to shift from cross-country skiing to jogging and hiking in April, I miss the aerodynamic smoothness of ski movement.  Jogging, by contrast, feels lumpy, clumsy, slow and dull. Hence, I will start counting the days to the beginning of the next ski season.

Vulnerability of Cross-Country Skiing to Climate Change

Climate change is threatening the snowy, frosty winters.  My ski enthusiasm is an extra reason to support the various measures to fight global warming.  It feels terrible to fear that a common, self-evident activity that used to be an accessible everyman’s right is now becoming a rare luxury which depends on a scarce resource, namely snow.  Besides, it is not environmentally friendly to drive or fly far away with the snow in order to catch ski amenities. In the past, I could put my skis on at my house door.

Climate change and deforestation do not only endanger my ski trails but, more severely, they result in the rapid extinction of species, among other things. The world is currently facing the greatest rate of extinction since we lost the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago.  Therefore, the 2019 theme for Earth Day pleads for the protection of threatened and endangered species.  Earth Day is an annual event celebrated worldwide on April 22.  Since 1970, diverse events are being held to demonstrate support for environmental protection.  (Earth Day Network 2019.)

In Ann Arbor, the Earth Day Festival takes place on Sunday, April 28, 2019, noon–4 p.m. at the Leslie Science & Nature Center, 1831 Traver Road. This free, family-friendly event features displays from over 30 local environmental, non-profit and governmental organizations; hands-on activities; live animal demonstrations; learning presentations around sustainable living, energy and agriculture; live entertainment; crafts; green building and commuting solutions; water awareness displays; proper recycling clinics; and much more.  (City of Ann Arbor 2019.) Take a look and get involved!

Sport in Society

The latent connection of the Nordic winter sports with the global climate policies hints at the socio-political aspects of sports.  Sport is not restricted to individuals’ private sphere exclusively, although a lonely wanderer in a remote wilderness may conceive his/her physical activity as pertaining to him-/herself solely.  Most countries invest in both high performance sports and mass sports.

In the latter case, the motivation is obvious: the pronounced goal is to take care of the nation’s public health by encouraging citizens to take on exercise and adopt a healthy lifestyle.  It is directly related to the healthcare and welfare spending of the state, as well as people’s ability to work productively in the economy and achieve long careers before retirement. A more complex question is respectively why countries are keen on competing for Olympic Medals and World Championships, although the organization and training facilities requires public funds.  Why is sports news so important and popular? Sociologists, social psychologists, political scientists, historians and other scholars have investigated these issues, but it is not my intention to dig deeply into them. I just assume that the ambitions of the elite sports have something to do with national identity, self-esteem and unity, possibly also with international country marketing.  

During the Cold War, from the late 1940s to the early 1990s, high performance sports were harnessed to serve as an ideological instrument of the systemic competition between the Communist and Capitalist blocks.  Unfortunately, mixing politics with sports caused adverse side effects, such as state-run doping programs in some countries.

However, international success in sports has also played a positive role in nation building processes of many young or rising states.  In shaping the future of a nation, the physical education of the youth often reflects the belief “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. Sports also provides an excellent forum to bring people together for a common cause and promote unity in spite of divisions in society.  Both sportsmanship and fan cultures create bonds within communities. In the same way, international sports events, such as the Olympic Games, are bringing together thousands of athletes from all over the world and are likewise inspiring millions of spectators who represent different cultures, ethnics and religions.  The shared enthusiasm unites all of them.

Finland belonged, in the 20th century, to those young nations where sports contributed to nation building.  It was claimed, in Finland, that such legendary athletes as Hannes Kolehmainen and Paavo Nurmi (both were multiple Olympic medalists and record holders in long- and middle-distance running in the 1910s and 1920s) “ran Finland onto the atlas”, i.e. raised international awareness.  When Hannes Kolehmainen won three gold medals in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Finland was not even an independent state. Kolehmainen was the first in a generation of great Finnish long distance runners, often named the “Flying Finns”. He competed for a number of years in the United States, too, and became a U.S. citizen in 1921.  (Wikipedia/Hannes_Kolehmainen 2018.)

Long distance running remained one of the most beloved sports in Finland throughout the 20th century.  It embraced both elite and mass sports as well as spectator sports.  Other traditionally popular sports included cross-country skiing, ski jumping, javelin throwing and Finnish baseball (pesäpallo).  In the new millennium, the preferences of Finnish people have altered to some extent so that new favorites have replaced the old darlings on the top three.  Nowadays, ice hockey is the most popular sport in Finland. Formula 1 racing is very visible on media since the late 1990’s, thanks to such star drivers as Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen.  In addition, more “exotic” newcomers, such as snowboarding, e-sports and basketball, are attracting the attention of the young generation in particular. Basketball is nothing new in general, but it has recently generated more interest in Finland than in the past.  One explanation may be Lauri Markkanen who is playing for the Chicago Bulls in the USA.

All these novel sports, favored by the young, have also introduced a more joyful culture and laid-back attitude to the Finnish sports scene.  The young snowboarders, e-sport gamers and basketball players take it easy as they emphasize the need to have fun and enjoy what they are doing, instead of competing in a grim, uptight and straight-laced fashion.  Traditionally, you were expected to sweat until you tasted blood in your mouth (a Finnish proverb). The youngsters cooperate rather than envy or grudge other contestants. They can even rejoice for the success of their rival.  Generally taken, team-oriented sports, like ice hockey, soccer and floorball, have gained ground at the cost of individual sports, like gymnastics and skiing. This trend matches the demands of the modern working life which requires team player skills.

These examples point out how societal change affects sports as well, since sport is part of culture.  Unfortunately, not all trainers, sports managers and parents have learned yet the new rules of the game as described above.  Every now and then, one hears stories of how overly ambitious parents are fighting among themselves on the side of the field where their children are playing, or how angry fathers are yelling at them with inappropriate advice, spiced by curse words.  

A further contradictory trend accentuates the strengthening role of semi-professional sports associations in determining children’s leisure time activities.  Guided hobbies are increasingly superseding informal, self-motivated yard games that are invented spontaneously by kids themselves. Some hobbies are so expensive that their fees exclude poorer families from their reach, creating inequality. School children and teenagers are divided into two groups: those who play a lot of sports versus those who do nothing.  The former group may train until exhaustion which makes them suffer from severe stress symptoms, eating disorders and burn-outs.  It is my personal impression that children’s sports hobbies are a status marker among the competitive middle-class families. Too many parents are realizing their own ambitions or wrecked dreams through their offspring.  

From Self-Reflection to Self-Positioning

Based on my outdated, old-fashioned sports preference, I should belong to the generation that was born before World War II.  President Urho Kekkonen (1900–1986) was known as a passionate cross-country skier who did long ski tours in Lapland. Sauli Niinistö (1948–), the current President of the Republic of Finland, likes roller blading and ice hockey.  Well, I can at least ice skate, if it brings any comfort…


City of Ann Arbor 2019

Earth Day Network 2019

Heinonen 2017

Health Fitness Revolution 2015

UW Health 2015

Wikipedia/Hannes_Kolehmainen 2018.

The author of this article owns the copyright of the photos. All rights reserved.