While biking with my buddy Bob Graham the other day near Old Mystic I saw a tall figure with ski poles gliding up Route 27, hook a sharp left and whip onto River Road.
“That’s gotta be Todd Brown,” I said, and Bob and I pedaled harder to catch up.
I’ve known Todd for a few years, mostly as a competitive cyclist and runner, but lately he’s become obsessed by cross-country skiing, which for those of us who live in snow-starved southeastern Connecticut is like getting hooked on mountaineering and moving to Kansas or trying to race yachts in Arizona.
Sure enough, it was Todd on his roller skis, zipping along at a good clip.
“I’m out for 20 miles,” he gushed, tracing a route from his home on Groton Long Point to the hills of Stonington and back. “You should have seen me coming down Pequot Trail.”
“How the heck do you stop?” I asked. Pequot Trail drops down from Quoketog Hill in Old Mystic at a precipitously steep angle, and I couldn’t imagine trying to control velocity around a series of sharp turns.
“Speed reducers,” Todd explained, referring to brake-like pads he can adjust to press against the wheels.
His equipment consists of two rigid shafts measuring about 3 feet long, with rubber wheels mounted on either end, and a binding screwed on top that holds his cross-country ski boots. As for poles, when he’s roller skiing Todd replaces the snow basket with a metal spike that he can plant and use to push off the pavement.
Like any sport you can outfit yourself with modest starter gear for a couple hundred dollars or go high-end with carbon fiber, tungsten carbide and graphite components for about $1,000.
Like many of my friends and acquaintances, Todd embraces a too-much-is-not-enough, no-pain-no-gain philosophy when it comes to outdoor pursuits, and related a fairly aggressive training regimen for racing in elite competition.
Most recently, he competed in Wisconsin’s American Birkebeiner, a 50-kilometer (31-mile) cross-country ski race that attracts some of the world’s top competitors, finishing in a respectable 3 hours and 2 minutes, good enough for 874th place in a field of 3,742 for the main event. The Birkebeiner actually consists of several different races that combined attract nearly 10,000 skiers.
This is even more impressive considering it was his second Birkebeiner, and he only began racing two years ago.
“A friend of mine from Wisconsin got me into it,” Todd said, suggesting they both sign up for the fabled “Birkie.” When Todd complained about being unable to train in Connecticut’s unreliable snow conditions, his friend turned him on to roller skiing.
Todd finished that first race in 3:28 and hopes to get down to about 2:50 next year – which still would be about 45 minutes behind the winning times. Obviously, his goal is not to come in first place, but to have fun while staying in shape.
“It’s a great overall workout,” he said, explaining how poling works his upper body, skating works the legs and in general the sport enhances cardio fitness.
“Plus, it’s low-impact,” noting that sports such as running that involve a lot of pounding can take their toll on older athletes.
At 48, Todd said he is probably the average age for Birkie competitors, and he has no plans to slow down. In addition to working out on his roller skis about 10 hours a week, he cycles, runs and does other strength exercises, particularly when building up for a race.
Todd envisions himself as a crusader for roller skiing and has encouraged his wife and a few friends to take up the sport.
“I can envision a Mystic roller ski club,” Todd said, modeled after the bicycle team he rides with.
One downside of roller skiing is that it takes up a bit more room on the road than running or cycling, what with the skating motion and poles. Todd does most of his workouts on River Road and around Groton Long Point, where cars are accustomed to sharing the road with runners and cyclists. In addition, Route 184 is ideal because of its wide shoulders.
So if you see Todd skating along, give him a friendly wave and some space.
Better yet, snap on a pair or roller-skis and join the fun.