I get to trot this grainy photo out every four years, my own personal Olympic medal. There I am in the bottom right wearing team-issued Jackson Pollock spandex, flanked by advertisements for Red Lobster and a local brewery, my mouth open as though I’m screaming in sheer agony.
It’s important that I stop here to inform you this picture was taken in January 2000, before digital and phone cameras were ubiquitous. It wasn’t until my friend’s mom picked up her film at the local pharmacy weeks later that she discovered she had accidentally taken the perfect cross-country skiing photo: She had captured me in the exact moment before I proceeded to barf all over the snow.
This is not an unusual thing. The finish line of a cross country ski race looks like a technicolor 10-car pileup—legs and poles and skis strewn across the snow. Just look at this picture from the 15 kilometer women’s pursuit at the 2010 Vancouver Games! Or the Men’s 10 kilometer pursuit at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. There are casualties at every race.
And every Olympic cycle, when Americans spend two weeks pretending to care about weird and esoteric winter sports, there is a perverse curiosity that surrounds the sport. Why do these incredibly fit athletes just, like, collapse? I have been asked that question countless times during the Olympics in the decade since I moved to New York City, where there is not exactly a robust cross-country ski racing scene. “I’ve never pushed my body to that point,” a friend told me recently when I showed him the photo of me mid-puke.
Cross-country ski racing—not to be confused with the enjoyable act of leisurely touring through the woods with a flask full of rye—is, to put it lightly, insanely difficult. It is the definition of a total body sport. It makes your legs and lungs and arms burn, all at once. Rowing and swimming are also total body sports. But rowers and swimmers don’t have to contend with climbing formidable hills over the course of, say, 50 kilometers. There is no terrain in the pool.
“It’s often called ‘the ultimate endurance sport,’” Stacy Sims, an exercise physiologist and senior research fellow at New Zealand’s Waikato University, says. “Primarily due to the high aerobic and anaerobic demand, need of muscular strength and power, as well as the need of efficient techniques (think swimming: better technique means faster with less effort), and a total body ability to resist fatigue to reach and maintain top race speeds.”
It’s exhausting just to hear Sims explain it. But the thing that has always fascinated me about the sport is that I’ve never found anything that matches its prolonged and hallucinogenic intensity. When I asked Sims why it’s more difficult than, say, marathon running or cycling or triathlon, she hammered the same point: You’re pushing everything your body has to offer to the absolute limit.
“Imagine running in soft sand, and how hard that is. Now add upper body muscle demands to that, for 10-15 kilometers at 20-25 kilometers per hour,” she told Deadspin via email. “The cardiac output demand is super high.”
I’ll say it again: It’s aerobic and anaerobic. It’s like running wind sprints during a marathon while carrying kettlebells. If you’ve paced your race properly you have redlined your engine and simultaneously drained your gas tank. Which is why these freakishly fit athletes simply fall down as soon as they cross the line. It’s all their bodies are capable of.
“Elite XC ski racing is essentially non-stop intervals which, of course, is highly reliant on both anaerobic energy (dominant during the intervals) and aerobic energy (dominant during the recoveries) to be successful,” Dr. Dan Heil, an exercise physiologist at Montana State University, explained via email. “There is certainly no other endurance sport that equals elite XC ski racing’s high reliance on both of these systems. When played out perfectly, both of these systems will have been exhausted for both the upper and lower body. Thus, it’s much easier to just collapse in the snow rather than stand or rely on your ski poles to hold you up.”
I didn’t win that race, by the way. I wasn’t even close! That’s what’s so hilarious to me about the photo. I was Just Another Guy. I wasn’t sprinting for a medal, I was just trying to beat my friend, Andy.
In the winter of 2000 Andy and I were the absolute slowest skiers on our team. A couple of goofy freshman who were so lanky that our spandex was baggy on our 14-year-old frames. We spent most weekends jockeying for second or third-to-last place—not just on our team, but overall. I puked after a lot of races that year. There is old camcorder footage of me vomiting at a race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and you can audibly hear all of my teammates—and I do mean “all,” I was one of the last guys across the line—scream with laughter.
I distinctly remember passing Andy around the final bend in that picture—it was the North American Vasa, our hometown course—and hearing the roar of the crowd, which I’m sure was actually, like, 17 parents and a few coaches. The results say I edged him out by two seconds, 43:43.53 to 43:45.20. Just enough time for me to collapse and photobomb his finisher picture.
Many of the winter Olympic sports are entirely inaccessible to regular people—people don’t just play, like, pickup skeleton, and I don’t know anyone who bobsleds or ski jumps on the weekends. But all over the country there are teenagers and adults and middle-aged hotshots in spandex who cross-country ski and get to experience the full-body pain and horror that comes at the end of a race. And even though they, like me back in 2000, might be hilariously slow and inept, they’re still emptying the tank like American gold medalist Jessie Diggins. They’ll likely never win a medal, but they will at least get to prattle on about having competed in the most physically grueling of endurance sports.