Gene Kay has been hooked on skiing since he was 6, when a neighborhood mom taught him how to glide down a hill near his home in upstate New York. He and his wife bought their home in Plymouth in part to be close to prime cross-country ski trails. In the winter, he coaches skiing at Theodore Wirth Park and tallies several races and a few ski marathons. (He's closing in on his goal of 100.) Every spring when the snow melts, he heads to Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain to coach kids on roller skis.
A TRUE BLESSING "My three brothers and I would be at the ski area all weekend. We'd have to go to church first thing Sunday morning, but the priest let us wear our ski boots and gear."
ALPINE TO NORDIC "When I was 18, I had a back injury. I was flunking out of school. I went to Los Angeles, hated it, and hitch-hiked to Montana, where I got a job with the Forest Service marking ski trails in the back country. I started to love the freedom of cross country ... and it didn't hurt my back."
SPORT AND STUDY "In the Forest Service, we were living on campus at the University of Montana. I was interested in health and fitness, and I found a mentor there whom I studied with and skied with. We would read articles on biomechanics and go ski and study our tracks."
FINDING INSPIRATION "At age 19 or 20, I did a cross-country ski race. I still remember that a lot of people beat me who were 30 or 40, and I thought, 'How did they do that?' I've always been inspired by older skiers. I'm 52 now, and I still see 70-year-olds beating me in canoe races."
BIRKEBEINER BOOST "I sign up for the Birkie every year; it keeps me going and on track. I like to see how well I can do, but really, I do it to keep me healthy and young and going. I have a philosophy of health and fitness: At a minimum, do it for health. It's better if you do it for fitness (a healthy back, to be able to garden). The highest level is performance. I enjoy the performance, but it's not a requirement."
SNOW VS. SIDEWALKS "Roller-skiing is pretty dangerous. You need to be on a smooth trail. I do a lot of coaching and teaching, and the first thing we learn is how to stop and how to fall safely. You need to watch for debris and sticks.
"Last summer, my wife fell and broke her shoulder, and a friend in college was killed when he fell and got hit by a car. Here, we're pretty safe with all our bike trails, but most roller skis don't have brakes. Or if they do, skiers take them off. It's like how bike racers never used to wear helmets, and now they do. I don't ski with anyone who doesn't wear a helmet.
"It's not a beginners' sport. It's mainly a ski training tool, an alternative to running. I prefer snow skiing: It's faster, there's more freedom to move and use varied techniques, and it's way safer if you fall. But I like roller-skiing because it is low-impact (unless you fall), it is whole body and gets lots of muscles engaged, and it's fun!
"If you can ski properly on roller skis, it can really carry over to snow skiing. You can also use it for specific conditioning, so if you don't want to roller ski a lot, you can maybe do it just for your upper body or for aerobic power or just for technique. You don't need to do it for long-distance."
OTHER OUTLETS "I also run and bike and canoe, but over the years I've done too much running and biking and I get knee and leg pain. I try not to run more than twice a week, and I like to run on trails after it rains, so it's softer. This time of year, I do long, easy stuff: running, biking, canoeing and roller-skiing. Then I do strength: body-weight stuff, like pull-ups, sit-ups, dips, push-ups. In the fall, I do up to 10 to 15 hours of training a week; in the spring, it's as low as 4 to 5 hours."
FULL CIRCLE "I feel so much better when I ski and run. It keeps me sane, and it's so important for my mental and physical well-being. Now I have kids who ski, and my 18-year-old daughter was only 19 minutes behind me in the pre-Birkie this year."