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Speeding up in his retirement years

John King has just finished another ski race season. He brought home some medals, too. He competes in the 65-69 age categories, or 60-70, in smaller venues.

John’s first skis came from an Army surplus store in Virginia, Minn. That was 1971. He was back from a tour of duty in Germany and was inspired by skiers in the Bavarian Alps.

“I was downhill skiing in the Alps on a winter vacation. There were snow-covered rolling hills in every direction. I wanted to put footprints in that pristine whiteness,” he said. “I saw people out there skiing,” which sparked an interest in moving from snowshoeing and downhill to cross-country skiing.

That Alpine vignette stayed with him when he returned to the United States and led him to the store in Virginia. “I found mountain troop wooden skis with cable binds,” he said of those skis that were the first in what would become a small collection of six or eight pairs. They went along when he became a bush pilot in Alaska in 1972.

John spent time climbing and ski mountaineering with good friend Jim Saterwite when he wasn’t logging hours in single and multi-engine planes with wheels, skis and floats. Over nine years, he put in 6,000 hours of bush time and gave flight lessons in his private two-seater fabric covered metal Citabria (airbatic, spelled backward).  He didn’t own a car. Skiing in deep snow with a 50-60 pound backpack was a good release from high-risk flights and daredevil landings. Breaking trail was tough. “The good part was coming back on our own trail.”

In 1981 John responded to Minnesota’s pull. “I didn’t have Alaskan blood, and I didn’t like the way they were treating the land. I wanted to build my own place.” He returned to home territory and bought 40 acres in rural Todd County. Then he went back to Alaska to pay for it.

Over the next couple of years he managed to build a house on his land and wooed and won Long Prairie midwife Ruth Wingeier. His career transitioned from bush pilot to home builder, and after an interlude in the Twin Cities during which John earned a teaching degree, the couple returned to Todd County to raise their three sons.

John helped coach the high school ski team and went to a few ski races with friend Phil Sailer in the mid-1980s. “There were little ski races all over the place then,” he said. “I loved the snow; I wanted to be out there.” He was also part of a local ski group for a couple years.

But as he got a little older he started feeling creaky. Rather than slowing down, he challenged himself. At age 57 he determined that he would do summer triathlons and take first place when he turned 60. He competed in his first swimming/biking/running race at 58 and repeated the exercise at 59, 60 and 61. He particularly enjoyed the running segment of the races. Swimming wasn’t his strong point, and biking was okay. He satisfied his personal challenge by taking first place in his age category at 60 and second place at 61.

That was summer. His love of winter, and officially retiring in 2013, opened up competitive winter opportunities. “For me, the incentive to do something well has to be framed as a competition.”

As a woods and pasture cross-country skier, John felt his personal technique wasn’t what it should be. Lacking a coach, he consulted the experts via YouTube and took those lessons with him on groomed trails at Carlos State Park and the Brainerd Arboretum as he transformed his ski skills from recreational skier to ski racer. It was hard to find anyone else with the free time and inclination to ski with him so he usually went alone. Ruth also skis, but there was a disconnect between his need to race and hers to enjoy the scenery. He also worked out on a home elliptical machine and free weights.

John participated in the 16K Lumberjack Jaunt in Brainerd on Feb. 2, 2014, and in the 65-69 age group in Bemidji’s 33rd annual Finlandia Buena Vista 25K Classical Ski Marathon on Feb. 15. He took second place in his category in both events.

“It used to be more difficult to get a medal. Now you just have to have staying power,” he said of his advancement up the age categories.

While John enjoys the competitive components of skiing, he said there are a hundred reasons to start skiing. “It’s low impact, you feel better mentally and physically, it makes winter shorter, you have more interest in the weather, you learn about the different kinds of snow, and much more.”

John currently races on competition-grade Atomic skis. “The Asnes are my favorite ‘woodies,’” he said. He finds that two kinds of wax, green for down to zero degrees and blue for warmer days approaching 20 degrees, work well for him. Waxless skis are also available for those who don’t want to be bothered with waxing. For serious skiers, specific lengths and widths of skis are important considerations, though for the casual skier, good boots, ski clips and the right clothes are equally important.

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