No pain, no gain on slopes

Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Any NBA player whistled for a foul. The singing of W. Axl Rose. A car that hasn't been plugged in trying to start at 35 below.

Above are a few examples of wailing and violent protestation that were no match for the screaming I felt in my legs as I rose out of my car to do a little grocery shopping earlier this week.

I had just spent two hours driving back from a day of downhill skiing at Alyeska, and in those two hours, mushy pain had settled into my legs like a dark, shroudy fog.

As I shuffled into the store, an older couple shot me a dirty sideways glance. I think they took a look at my gait and figured I was making fun of them.

How had it come to this? I spend about five days a week cross-country skiing, so I'm in relatively decent shape. What's more, just two weeks earlier I had spent two days skiing at Alyeska and left with more pep in my step than college students walking out of their last final.

Something had gone terribly wrong, and as two pesky kids pinballed around the aisle ahead of me, I suddenly remembered one of the factors that had led to my current lousy excuse for walking -- snowboarders.

Due to the Anchorage schools being on spring break, the mountain had been swarming with boarders that day.

This is a big problem for two reasons. The first is the triple-threat snowboarder position. The triple-threat position is when snowboarders place their boards perpendicular to the slope of the hill and gradually ease down the mountain.

The triple-threat position makes the trailing skier produce numerous agonizing, thigh-burning turns trying to slow down and figure out the boarder's next move. Two options are for the boarder to suddenly dart right or left, as randomly as the Clinton administration or a Plinko chip.

The third option is for boarders to lean back and plop contentedly down on their butt, like a middle-aged man hitting the couch with beer in one hand, pretzels in the other and a football game on TV.

Boarders, who like recreational vehicles tend to travel in halting and annoying packs, all do the plop-down maneuver at the same time, leaving the skier behind them to feel trapped back in second-grade gym class playing a horrid version of "red light, green

light."

The other needle boarders had used to inject pain into my thighs comes from the way they fall.

When a skier falls, it's as predictable as the Legislature dragging its feet on a long-term fiscal plan. A serene, well-balanced form hits an unexpected affront, and arms start flailing in the manner of a spruce hen trying to take flight.

Immediately, the once stout body becomes as wobbly as a Jello mold. Finally, the skier spins off out of the picture, doing his or her best impression of an X-wing starfighter struck by the laser cannon of a TIE fighter.

With boarders, on the other hand, there is no warning. They float down the mountain with all the grace of Mikhail Baryshnikov one second and thud into the snow with all the aplomb of a Chris Farley pratfall just nanoseconds later. It's as random as if they'd been shot.

The sudden bursts of power required to avoid such mishaps add up, and that was probably why, as I ambled past a mother and child, the child beaded his eyes upon me and cowered behind the mother as if he was seeing a ghost. The mother, on the other hand, could only offer me a sympathetic smile.

But I can't solely blame snowboarders for my near leper-esque status that night in the store. As I lurched down aisles, hunting bargains, I had to admit my penchant for getting my money's worth had caused me pain as much as anything.

Getting one's money's worth is a good trait and all, but it can be a curse if taken too far. I always take it too far, which explains why I actually stayed in the movie theater until the end of "The Mexican" and why I still throw "Quiet Riot: The Randy Rhoads Years" into the CD player every once in awhile.

I had gotten to the mountain when the chair lifts opened at 10:30 a.m. Determined to get in as many runs as possible, I packed a lunch in my coat and spent the day riding Alyeska's fastest lift, which is ominously and ironically known as the Quad.

By about 3:30 p.m., every turn created the sensation of a hardened rope being snapped taut in my quadriceps muscles. Soon, I lost most of my will to turn at all and my skiing became as safe as a car with no brakes.

In the words of Bernard Malamud, I was a broken candle still lit.

Of course, the only reason I didn't hurt myself or anybody was that by 3:30, the crowds on the mountain had thinned considerably. They had most likely retired to a chalet -- fire roaring in the hearth, a scrumptious supper in their belly, loved ones by their side and Wagner floating through the air.

Meanwhile, there was me, thinking I was getting the better of them because I was still up there, stuttering dangerously down the mountain in search of value.

By the time I got to the checkout, I was a beaten man. As I hung on the counter like a boxer on the ropes, waiting for the customer ahead of me to find all of his coupons and give the checker updates on all of his offspring, I was drawing as many looks as a bear playing beside the Sterling Highway.

Mercifully, the checker finally rang up my food and sent me on my way.

As I lumped to the sliding glass doors, leaving the bemused and befuddled behind, my lips suddenly creased with the wry smile of knowing something nobody else in the room knows. My walk may have been a hindrance, but it also was a badge of the freedom of descending the pillowy slopes of Alyeska all day.

I hadn't felt this good in a while.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.



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