When the glamour boys of the ski world—the jumpers and the downhill skiers—gather at Iron Mountain, Mich, or Aspen, Colo, you can expect spectators to turn out in the thousands. Not so for the tassel-topped cross-country skier who is lucky to have 150 on hand to see him push off on a punishing 15-kilometer race, and luckier still if half that many stick around for the finish. Cross-country skiing is just not the ideal spectator sport. The typical run is an uphill-downhill slog over rough, bone-chilling terrain, with no grandstand facilities whatsoever, and the cross-country men like it that way.
So do the small but hardy breed of true cross-country fans. Some 200 of them gathered at Rumford, Maine the other day and shivered through a snowstorm to catch glimpses of the U.S. championships run over a 15-kilometer course.
The highlight of the show was the performance of Florida-born Leo Massa, 28, currently a carpenter in Red Bank, N.J., who spent five of his pre-teen years learning cross-country skiing in his father's native Finland. Nothing Massa did at Rumford could match the spectacle of a jumper flying 250 feet through the air or of a downhill man cartwheeling through a spray of snow after a bad spill, but let nobody imagine that his run was any the less testing.
Snow was falling hard, but preceding runners had marked a clear track for Massa. He set off rhythmically through the cold, piny stillness, a stillness broken only by the effort of his breathing and the scraping noise his skis made on the snow. Some 40 minutes out he reached the old trapper's line shack marking the halfway point. The shack also marked the beginning of the long climb which zigzagged up the mountain for two and a half miles. This stretch of the race would be a long, tiring pull, yet somehow he would have to save energy for the finish.
Massa had started last in a field of 22. The skiers, or runners as they like to call themselves, had been sent off at one-minute intervals from the school-house down in the village of Rumford. By the line shack, Massa had overtaken four runners and was moving easily, effortlessly in the long, gliding stride that marks a good cross-country man.
That morning, when he drew the last starting position, Massa had been pleased. A misty rain which had been falling since dawn had formed an icy crust on the trail, and he knew that the first runners would have rougher going. Fifteen minutes before Massa's own starting time the temperature dropped 2� to just below freezing, and the rain turned to snow. Most of the skiers, including Massa's five teammates on the American Federation Internationale de Ski team (FIS) had waxed their skis with a soft klister wax—good for an ice track. The fresh snow presented an entirely different waxing problem.
Massa hurried to the boiler room of the schoolhouse and dug into a canvas sack. He pulled out a can of red klister wax (soft) and a can of green klister (hard). "What do you think?" he asked Sven Wiik, coach of the FIS squad.
"I think we'd better mix the red and green," said Wiik. "If you use too soft a wax, this new snow is going to stick to the bottom of your skis."
While Massa burned the old wax off his skis with a blowtorch, Wiik mixed the red and green klister. The two worked quickly to apply the new mixture to the bottoms of Massa's slender Finnish cross-country runners; then Massa went out into the snow for his start.
"It's the best we can do," said Wiik. "I hope it works."