Hastings junior Clayton Johnson steadied himself on his cross-country skis. A champion athlete in peak physical condition, Johnson got set for his first full training session of the season.
He crouched into his stance, took two strides — and fell flat on his face.
About that champion athlete part: That’s in track and field — the 300-meter hurdles — not Nordic skiing. The day of his face plant in late November was his first practice as a member of the Hastings Nordic team, and his first time on skis.
“I spent that whole first day just trying to keep my balance,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I was falling everywhere.”
That’s one thing Johnson is not used to — struggling.
As a sophomore, Johnson emerged from a stacked field to capture the Class 2A 300-meter hurdle crown on a rainy day at the Hamline University track. Then he spent his summer competing in regional and national track and field competitions. He finished second in his 15-16 age group in the 400-meter hurdles at the national AAU Junior Olympic Games at Drake University.
Track is his passion, the hurdles his specialty. Skiing?
Well, he’s getting there.
Johnson joined the Nordic team as a way to keep his cardio and legs strong during the winter. It builds more endurance and has fewer injury risks than basketball, his former winter sport, he said.
“You can go out on snow and do two, three hours of cardio work without any of the pounding you get running,” Hastings Nordic coach John Dewall said. “You just can’t get that type of workout from the other sports with such little impact on your body.”
It’s why Dewall has seen a number of top athletes in endurance-based sports opt for a winter on the cross-country ski trails, rather than in an ice rink or a gym. Senior cross-country runner Bobby Verchota joined the team this year. Zack Benning, Johnson’s track teammate who graduated last spring, picked up the sport as a senior to train for his track events — the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
“I saw that Zack was able to get stronger and stay in shape without any impact on his legs or anything,” Johnson said. “And it just seemed like a good option.”
Johnson joined a solid program, led by a slew of steady skiers such as Will Caturia on the boys’ side and sisters Rachel and Hannah Peterson for the girls. Dewall thinks both teams could surprise many and make runs at their respective state meets in February at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.
As for Johnson’s skiing, it’s improved immensely since that first day, Dewall said.
“He went from never having skied to motoring around at 15 to 20 kilometers per hour,” the coach said. “He’s putting in two-hour workouts, and with how quickly he’s progressing, who knows where he’ll be by the end of the year. The great thing is, he’s picking up a lifelong sport and is setting himself up for a great track season.”
Johnson’s simply happy to be falling less.
“It’s a lot better,” he said with another laugh. “Still have to think about balance, but I’m getting it.”