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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

A philosophical approach to line and tactics

By Bob Harwood

[Author’s note: With age and ability comes freedom. This lecture discusses the freedom to explore your individuality and bring that into your racing to improve your times. Younger racers may not understand this concept. Similarly, those less skilled may not be ready for the advanced tactics described here.]

In the August 1915 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Robert Frost published one of his most famous and debated works. For our study, I’ve included it below:

    1 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    2 And sorry I could not travel both
    3 And be one traveler, long I stood
    4 And looked down one as far as I could
    5 To where it bent in the undergrowth;
    6 Then took the other, as just as fair,
    7 And having perhaps the better claim,
    8 Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    9 Though as for that the passing there
    10 Had worn them really about the same,
    11 And both that morning equally lay
    12 In leaves no step had trodden black.
    13 Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    14 Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    15 I doubted if I should ever come back.
    16 I shall be telling this with a sigh
    17 Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    18 Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
    19 I took the one less traveled by,
    20 And that has made all the difference.

    Robert Frost

I’m sure many of you have read the poem above at some point in your schooling. What does it mean? Even if you think you know, re-read the poem and think a bit. (If you didn’t re-read it, go back and do it. It will make the rest of this lecture more meaningful.)

What does the poem mean? Most of you will say something like, “It means you need to find your own path in life.” Or, “Don’t be a follower; be a leader.” Or, “Don’t follow the pack.” Most of us were taught that when we studied the poem. My teacher would emphasize the last three lines, reading them as if they were extremely profound. I have to agree that those three lines are profound.

But, what if I said that your teacher was all wet? What if I said that the poem didn’t mean that at all? Think I’m nuts? Let’s take a closer look at Frost’s work.

On line 6, Frost states that both paths are “just as fair”. On line 10 he notes that passers by had worn each path “really about the same”. Hmmm… that would mean that each path is traveled equally. Equal paths, equal wear implies equal traffic. So, no matter which path was taken it could hardly be considered less traveled.

So what did Frost mean by the poem? He hints on lines 16 and 17: “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence:” So, after a long time the narrator will attribute his success to being different, even though he knows that he took an arbitrary, equally traveled path. As final evidence, here is an excerpt from Thompson along with quotes from Frost himself:

    The inspiration for it (The Road Not Taken) came from Frost’s amusement over a familiar mannerism of his closest friend in England, Edward Thomas. While living in Gloucestershire in 1914, Frost frequently took long walks with Thomas through the countryside. Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a "better" direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets. Disciplined by the austere biblical notion that a man, having put his hand to the plow, should not look back, Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid. […] not very long after his return to America […] he sent a manuscript copy of the poem to Thomas, without comment, and yet with the expectation that his friend would notice how the poem pivots ironically on the un-Frostian phase, "I shall be telling this with a sign". As it turned out Frost’s expectations were disappointed. Thomas missed the gentle jest because the irony had been handled too slyly, too subtly.

    On another occasion, after another public reading of "The Road Not Taken", he gave more pointed warnings: "You have to be careful of that one; it’s a trick poem – very tricky". Never did he admit that he carried himself and his ironies too subtly in that poem, but the circumstances are worth remembering here as an illustration that Frost repeatedly liked to "carry himself" dramatically, in a poem or letter, by assuming a posture not his own, simply for purposes of mockery – some times gentle and at other times malicious.

    Selected Letters of Robert Frost, ed. Lawrance Thompson (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1964) p. xiv.

What great irony it is that those who state the poem is discussing a moral truth about being an individual are following the pack by repeating a widely held, erroneous interpretation! If you are one of those people, don’t feel bad. I was too until I read a newspaper column.

Ok, follower: follow me on to why this has anything to do with ski racing.

Course Tactics

The term tactics refers to the sequence of actions you use to navigate a race course with a particular strategy. For example, “ski a high line” is a strategy. That strategy implies that you are able to stay well above each gate in the turning phase. The tactics to accomplish this strategy are starting your turn early and above each gate and completing the turn right after passing the gate. This is not the only possible strategy.

Understanding Right and Wrong

In the early phases of your training, coaches typically give all racers one strategy: ski a high line. This is because the vast majority of young racers starts the first turn too low and late and gets lower and later with each gate they pass.

But, now it’s time for life to get more complicated. Now, it’s time to know the truth. And, with apologies to Mr. Nicholson, you can handle the truth. Here is a well kept racing secret revealed: there is no one right line through a course.

“No!”, you gasp. “I’ve learned to turn high and early. That is what all my coaches and instructors have told me!” My reply is that if you will not consider any alternatives then you are following, just like you did with your interpretation of the poem. Someone told you a hard and fast rule, and you clung to the idea. And, why not? The coach or instructor was authoritative and knowledgeable, just like the teacher that taught you about that poem. Now it is time to think for you.

I’m not saying that any line is good. Understand that there are wrong lines. Bordering the area of possible good lines is the Bad Lands. It is possible to be too high, just as it is possible to be too low. Many people have been too low and had to blow out of a course or skid to a stop to make a gate or perform some other wild gyration. Fewer have experienced the “too high” line. It rarely leads to an exciting crash. But, it does lead to the bottom page of results, just as too low a line does.

So, if you agree that there are multiple good lines, you’re probably asking yourself, “now what?” You need to discover which line works for you and then develop tactics around that line.

Searching For the “Correct” Line

Bode Miller has been often criticized for his technique and tactics. Some have called them ugly. Some have called them wrong. But, what Bode has taught us is that the old myth of one right line, the high line, is simply not true. For Bode, a relatively lower, straighter line is the right one. For Bode.

There is a reason for this. Bode has learned that if he rocks his weight back a bit at the apex of his turn, he can ski a lower, tighter turn and still carve. Bode is able to bend the tail of the ski with more arc to carve a small radius turn with a high degree of confidence. Sorry, make that some degree of confidence; his technique does have some inherent risk. Bode also has an amazing ability to shift his weight forward at the end of a turn so he can initiate the next turn smoothly and not get caught on the back of his skis at the start of the next turn.

The end result: Bode’s balance and skills let him ski a lower, straighter line with less chance of DNF-ing than a more traditional skier would have using the same approach. And, because Bode has an unusual talent in that area, Bode’s skiing technique and tactics is not one I typically recommend. You need to find your own line.

Understanding your skills is key to finding a good line. If you are just learning, then turning high and early is probably best. It takes you a while to set up a turn. It’s best to start early since starting late leads to disaster.

If you are an intermediate racer, then you might think about adjusting your line to a wee bit lower, straighter track. For NASTAR racers, I’d say start adjusting when you have broken into the GOLD territory. USSA racers can have a discussion with their coach to find the right time to explore.

If you are an advanced racer (e.g., close to NASTAR platinum), then you’ve probably made the adjustments. But, in case you haven’t, you might want to consider taking a straighter, lower line and see if it works for you.

You can imagine the three different lines in the diagram below. The green dot is the high line – the one traditionally espoused by junior racing coaches. The yellow dot is a slightly lower line, which we’ll call the “mid-line”. The red dot is the lowest safe line, which we’ll call a “direct line.”

With a high line, the turn starts well above the gate. The apex of the turn – the point where you are farthest to the outside of the course – also occurs above the gate. With a mid line, the turn starts above the gate and the apex occurs approximately at the gate or just above it by a foot or two. With a direct line, the turn starts above the gate, but the apex occurs below the gate by up to a few feet.

(Much more than that and you are probably just plain late.)

Following a high line, your turn is big and round. As your track gets lower, you must make a progressively sharper turn at the gate. Thus, a lower line demands a higher degree of skill because it is harder to get your hip lower to the snow and still carve cleanly. However, the direct line covers less distance. All things being equal, the racer with the shortest line will have the quickest time.

Picking a line requires you to balance to carve cleanly with the shortest distance between the gates. Pick too low a line, and you either have to skid to a stop to make the gate, or worse, you’ll exceed your ability and crash. Pick too high a line, and you’ll be taking the scenic route through the course. Your times will reflect your meandering.

The best way to find out which line is right for you is to try all three in a NASTAR course. Here’s where NASTAR venues can help. I’d be a wonderful addition to NASTAR if venues would put dye drops of green, yellow, and red in between each gate to signify the high, mid, and direct lines. Then, each NASTAR racer could pick a line and ski such that the dye passed between their skis as they made their way through the course.

If you are lacking dye in your course, then you can use the worn track as a rough guideline. Of course, this assumes that the boundaries of the track are in the right place. But, assuming it is, you would try the three lines shown below. I’ve also labeled some areas to avoid; these are the Bad Lands. Try each of the lines and compare your times or NASTAR handicaps. Do each one a few times and average out the results to see which line is right for you.

The course and terrain also dictate your line to some degree. Generally, a flatter course favors a lower line. Also, if there is less horizontal offset, which is the distance across the slope between gates as you look down the course, then a straighter line is usually faster. Conversely, a steeper course or a course with more horizontal offset favors a higher line.

Conclusion

Racing well is really about understanding how you match to the course. As you become a more confident racer, you can start to bring those things that make you unique into your racing to improve your performance. Through experimentation, you can understand how terrain, course set, and your own skills and abilities combine to determine the right line.

This is a great lesson, for the same factors apply to our lives. The challenges before us, our environment, and our skills and abilities all play a role in determining the right path in life for each of us. And, just as there is no one right line, there is no one right path through life. (Although there are certainly wrong ones that lead to disaster which we all must avoid.) Finding the path that’s right for you is the key to a fast time and a happy future.