The road is only a lane wide, with turnouts on its blind curves. Yet it's smoothly paved. It's a working Forest Service road, No. 2102, mounting the steeply pitched western slope of the Cascade Range, above Oakridge, Ore. Down it, on a sunny day last October, plunges an immense truck. It's 40 tons of steel, rubber and Douglas fir logs 10 feet thick, and it passes with such a violent roar of mechanical protest that one expects to see the driver leaping from the cab, abandoning a runaway. But he keeps control of the truck, and it disappears down the mountainside. The reverberations recede, leaving a shocked stillness. Even the jays are stunned.
Then you hear Bill Koch (as in Coke), coming up. There's a curious clicking, which is all but lost in a growl that sounds like a blender making a puree of ice cubes. As Koch breaks out of the cover of the trees below, one sees that he's on roller skis. The clicking comes from the sharply filed points of his poles, the growl from wheels on asphalt. He crests a rise, shoots down a hill with astonishing speed, and then attacks the next ascent with a clatter of effort.
He has on shorts, revealing calves of Vermont maple. Over his T shirt is a white elastic harness holding an electronic pulse monitor. For the next 23 miles and 2½ hours, he will keep his heart rate at a steady 170 to 180, which he knows is the stress that yields him the greatest return in this off-season training.
Whoa, a runner would say at this point, there's some kind of mistake. A workout of such length and intensity, if one could do it at all (180 beats per minute is the limit for most runners), is the equivalent of a full-out marathon. It doesn't help your training; it wrecks your legs and makes you feel washed out for a week.
Yet as Koch continues his climb, doing sub-seven-minute miles uphill, striding not with light running shoes but four-pound roller skis, driving with his poles almost as powerfully as with his legs, his expression is incongruously gentle, often filled with a fine appreciation for the passing forest, the expanding vistas. Though it seems impossible, he's clearly not anywhere near his maximum effort.
This, he'll later say, has to do with the nature of his discipline. Skiing, like cycling, absolves an athlete of pounding, of shock fatigue. Therefore, cross-country skiers can do prodigious amounts of work before they begin to crack. As well, hard striding combined with hard poling makes for greater cardiovascular demands on them than on almost any other athletes. Cross-country skiers are our species' hottest metabolic furnaces.
Clearly it's with good reason that Nordic competitors are symbols of rugged-ness, of an almost animal imperviousness to strain and the elements. They race through rainstorms and blizzards, over mountains, across ice fields "and through cow pies," as Koch says of a memorable West German course. And they don't complain. "The thing is," Koch remarked on the drive up to the start of his roller-ski ascent, "it's almost never perfect, training or racing."
A Nordic ski race is won by the athlete who covers the course in the shortest time, but there the resemblance to foot-racing ends. "Runners have knowledge of pace to guide them," says Koch. "A track in L.A. is just like one in Moscow. With us, it's harder to nail down. Every day we go out, there's not only a different glide speed, but also the grip of the ski during the kick can vary with a hard or soft snow. With turns and hills, your technique is never the same from step to step. We have to go by feel."
Skiers tend to speak of improving as a mysterious process, as something that results from getting in closer and closer harmony with cold, frictionless surfaces. "You just get to know instinctively how to go fastest at each part of a course," Koch says. "Picking up a hundredth of a second here, a hundredth there. It all adds up." It does only if yours is a temperament that lusts to seize those fractions. As Koch puts it, "There's a voice saying, 'You can always do better.' "
To know the power of that voice is to see Koch in full flight across a snowy landscape. Cross-country skiing, by one kind of gassy, promotional definition, evokes thoughts of gentle gliding—"Like dancing on snow," a recent Reader's Digest article called it. Koch, moving by means of a lunging series of explosions, driving all-out over the top of each hill, twisting through turns in a muscular blur, gone before the snow his poles have uprooted returns to earth, is a vision of compulsion.