This cross-country skiing adventure begins in a New York health club, on a stationary bicycle, the wheel whirring, the spokes flashing, with me, the adventurer, expending my excess energy and gaining aerobic fitness by pedaling, as well as by jabbing my arms in all directions. Other club members are forced to bob and weave and duck to avoid hitting me. I worked out for months that way, until the low, acoustic-tile ceiling of the club caught a wayward fist and acquired some inappropriate ventilation. I returned to simple pedaling then, dismayed that the stationary bicycle would do nothing to improve the circulation in my arms. I'd heard of serious runners who had suffered coronaries while shoveling snow.
I could have switched to swimming, I suppose, but I was lazy. Not about exercising, but about getting to a pool. The nearest available pool of any decent size was 46 blocks away, in midtown Manhattan, while my health club was only half a block from my door on the Upper East Side. What I really needed, I decided, was a new exercise machine, one that would tax my entire body and stand ready beside my bed.
Shortly thereafter I discovered my Dream Machine.
One day I was reading a magazine, and I came across an ad for a $470 contraption called the Nordic Track. It showed a man on a sort of platform, one leg and the opposite arm thrust backward. The copy read: "Total Body Cardiovascular Exerciser. Duplicates XC Skiing."
Cross-country skiing in my New York City bedroom? Now, that appealed to me. But I wanted to investigate further. I found a Nordic Track in a high-tech midtown gym. It looked like a great, gleaming praying mantis. The platform stood on three-inch-high steel legs and was roughly four feet long, and running its length were slots for two oak slats—the skis. They passed over a roller that drove a flywheel through a one-way clutch, which engaged under adjustable tension when the skis were thrust backward. The "bindings" on each ski were rubberized pockets for the front part of the skier's feet; any pair of low-heeled, non-slip running shoes would serve as boots.
Rising vertically from the front of the platform was a four-foot steel shaft. Near its top was a 33-inch-long steel arm, extending up and away at 45 degrees. At the top of the arm was a spool on an axle, wound with a heavy cord; at each end of the cord was a handle, the skier's "poles." The idea was for the "skier" to pull alternately on each of them—hips set against a Naugahyde pillow—while the drum revolved one way and then the other, under adjustable tension.
I begged a workout, and it was a revelation. I used more muscles than I did when swimming, especially in my thighs. The sweat was flying, and my pulse rate was climbing, but since my feet were moving horizontally, not vertically, my legs and back had no shock to absorb, the way they did when I ran on the road. I hurried home, phoned in my order to the manufacturer, PSI, in Chaska, Minn. and soon I was stepping from my bed to the trails, so to speak.
My 12th-floor view is of a Consolidated Edison plant, whose billowing clouds of steam I likened to a classic Northeast blizzard. (You need a rich fantasy life to keep going on the Nordic Track.) The only sounds, aside from the hiss of steam and the low-level whirring and clacking of my Dream Machine, were an occasional crunch of glass and steel from York Avenue and, whenever I skied in the evening, my downstairs neighbor hammering away on his ceiling—building things, I decided. Two years have passed, and he still chooses my workout times to build things, but I've decided not to complain about the racket. Pausing to do so would interrupt my concentration, and in bedroom skiing, that is no less important than a fantasy life.
The Nordic Track is the best aerobic exercise machine I know of—and I've seen virtually all of them. But it isn't for dilettantes. Using it requires a lot of determination and inner drive. You have to make up little games. Mine revolve around my pulse rate, that all-important barometer of cardiovascular fitness and training intensity. In a typical 45-minute workout I start off with no ski or poling tension. I fasten my digital stopwatch to the steel arm, and for nearly 10 minutes I warm up all my skiing muscles and break a sweat. At the 10-minute point I stop poling for 10 seconds and take my pulse. On a typical day it has risen from a resting rate in the mid-50s to, say, 118 beats per minute. Then I tighten up the tension a bit, and just before 10½ minutes I begin a 30-second sprint. At 11 minutes I take my pulse, and at 11:30 I sprint for a minute, stopping at 12:30 to take it again. At 13 I sprint for two minutes, concluding the sprint with another reading at 15 minutes. By now my pulse has risen to 130 or more. Then I tighten up the tension and repeat the five-minute cycle of sprints and pulse reading. I do this to the 40-minute point—on hard days, during sprints, my pulse climbs to more than 160—and then I start backing off and cooling down.
It isn't necessary to take one's pulse even once during the exercise session, though being aware of it keeps you from redlining too often. What is necessary, however, is a method that enables one to get through those 45 minutes with enthusiasm. So, when I'm not taking my pulse, I'm out winning races. I've won hundreds of gold medals in the Winter Olympics while skiing in my bedroom, just as I've won marathons while running on the road.