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Freedom Comes On A Pair Of Skiis

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Freedom Comes On A Pair Of Skiis


Freedom Comes On A Pair Of Skiis

Freedom Comes On A Pair Of Skiis

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Washington Post Magazine

On with the snow: Wisconsin's grueling "Birkie" ski competition

This winter, cities and towns across the country have found themselves buried under tons of snow. For most, the snow is a burden. But for some, like writer Bill Donahue, snow spells adventure. In this week's look inside the pages of The Washington Post Magazine , Donahue shares his passion for the sport of cross-country skiing.


Now it's time to take a look inside the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, where we often find stories about the way we live now. To be sure, this winter's repeated snowfalls across much of the country hasn't been all about stranded cars, digging out and racking up snow days at home. For some, like writer Bill Donahue, snow on the ground is an opportunity to grab a set of skis and head out on a cross-country adventure.

In fact, in this week's Post Magazine, Bill Donahue writes about his experience racing in one of the nation's most storied cross-country skiing events. The story is titled "On with the Snow." And Bill Donahue joins us now on the line from Ithaca, New York, where he's prepping for yet another race. Bill, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BILL DONAHUE (Writer): Hi, it's great to be on the show.

MARTIN: Well, you start the piece, and I'll just read the opening lines by saying: There are many ways to contend with the indignities of being middle aged. But the only tact that's ever worked for me involves flight - a deliberate fleeing from the grave reality that my cartilage is fraying as my teeth travel south. It's pathetic, maybe, but I like to chase that sweet weightlessness I felt long ago as a kid.

You get that from skiing?

Mr. DONAHUE: I do, yeah. Cross country skiing is really a wonderful experience. You're out there on these very skinny skis just floating along over the snow and you're self-propelled. You don't have to wait in any lift lines or buy lift tickets or shiver on the chair lift on the way up to the top of the mountain. So it's a great experience.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about the whole middle age thing. You're in your 40s, but you have been an athlete through much of your life. Is this something that you can do if you aren't already a strong athlete in another sport? Like, you had been a runner and a cyclist.

Mr. DONAHUE: Yeah. I mean, just in general, cross country skiing is a very forgiving sport. There's not a lot of impact, easy on the joints, and even if you fall, you're generally going to crash into snow and it's not going to be that bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: One of the things I thought was interesting about your piece was that some of the people who were helping you train were not initially that thrilled about it, that one of your coaches said, well, you Americans, you always want instant gratification. You know, well, what about that?

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, I think where that particular fellow was coming from is that he feels strongly that cross country ski racing is an artform that can only be learned over years and years. And the premise of my story was that I was going to learn it in one year. And I think he felt that that was a little bit of an insult to the artform. And he's right. I mean, I'm still learning. You know, I can stand up, I can go, but to get the fine sense of balance and rhythm that it entails to be a good, efficient skier, I'm far from there. My fitness level exceeds my technique.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, now, I'm not trying to be mean here, but, you know, usually guys in their 40s golf. Golf is pretty good. And with a lot of time spent on the 19th hole, as it were, which is the clubhouse.

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, you know, this is just my own form of golf. I mean, I think that the phenomenon you're hitting on is that I think guys in their 40s, it's a chance to tap back into the sort of vitality they had, maybe, you know, in their 20s. And you know, it's all about quantifying it. If you're playing golf, it's what your score is. If you're skiing, it's what your time is. So it's really not that different, I don't think.

MARTIN: Tell me what you like about cross country skiing. What did you learn to love about it? You kind of loved it from the beginning, though, as I read from the piece. It was kind of an instant love. What do you love about it? For somebody who's never experienced it.

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, just that wonderful feeling of gliding along. You're out in the cold and you're thinly clad, but you're not cold at all. And anybody can do it, but it takes a lifetime to master. And it's multifaceted. To the untrained observer it might look like you're just slogging along. But, you know, in fact you're using a different stroke when you go around the corner. When you go up a slight incline, you use a different stroke. And then when you go up a steep incline, a different stroke, you know, down a hill.

And it's got that sense of adventure and thrill, and it's also hugely cardiovascular, and it appeals to the consummate geek, which I suppose I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, I do want to know how you scammed spending a whole season cross country ski racing. And what about those of us who are a little bit more tied down and somehow can't manage to spend a season doing that? What can we do?

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, that is a little bit of a conceit to the story. I did move out to Minneapolis for the winter and I skied for about two hours every day. But the other six or seven I was sitting at a desk writing something, in Minneapolis. So I'm mobile with my profession.


Mr. DONAHUE: But...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I was hating a little bit, so I apologize for that.

Mr. DONAHUE: No, no, no. It's OK.

MARTIN: So how can the rest of us get in on this? You've whetted our appetite. What can the rest of us do?

Mr. DONAHUE: Well, I guess what I would really stress is, you know, what this story is about is cross country ski racing and going to places with green trails. But you know, when it snows in Portland, where I live, which it rarely does, but you know, I just go out and ski on the street and anybody can do that. It's a very accessible sport and it's, I think, a really splendid way to sort of become one with the wonders of winter.

You know, you're out there - I mean, some of the finest skiing I've done or the most fun skiing I've done is just on the streets of Portland right after a snowstorm and you sort of are in the same - a familiar place, but you see it very differently.

MARTIN: A word to the wise, for those of us who've been hit with these various snowstorms and had been hating life, you're saying see it as an opportunity.

Mr. DONAHUE: I think so. Yeah.


Mr. DONAHUE: I was always very happy when I was a kid when it snowed and school was canceled. And I'm still happy now when it snows 'cause it always affords a new opportunity to get out there and ski.

MARTIN: Bill Donahue wrote about his experience racing in one of the nation's most celebrated cross country skiing events. It's called the Burke. He wrote about it at this week's Washington Post Magazine. If you'd like to read his story, "On with the Snow," for yourself, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our Web page. Just go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Bill, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. DONAHUE: OK. Well, thanks a lot. It was great to be on the show.

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