When most people hear the word ''training,'' they're apt to envision some episode from the movies: Rocky sprinting up the steps of city hall to the strains of ''Getting Stronger,'' the kid in Breaking Away slipstreaming a truck while the driver clocks him on the speedometer. To me, though, the essence of training is a long and not especially intense run in the woods, a one-and-a-half to two-hour ramble that preferably includes a high point with a prospect of the surrounding countryside. Wherever I've lived or spent any period of time, I've had the good fortune to find such a place, although it sometimes takes several years to sniff out all the local trails and link them up.
Until the network is in place, however, I don't really feel I've established residency in that area. Since my current hunting ground is about a half-hour round trip drive from my house, I have to content myself with going there only on weekend mornings, before the day's errands or preparations for church get under way.
I park my car alongside a fenced-in paddock where I sometimes see a foal standing by its mother. So often is the newly risen sun gleaming on the pasture and on and through the leaves that it's difficult to remember my point of embarkation in any other light. After some perfunctory stretching and a glance at my watch (I'm rarely as early as I'd hoped), I'm off. The gravel and dirt path - almost at this point a road - soon leaves the farm area and dips into the still dimly lit woods. After a few hundred yards I veer right up a gullied-out bridle path, and my legs find the workout has begun.
Five minutes away is the top of the first hill and, on all but the haziest days, a view of the Boston skyline. Between this hill and the ridge on the other side of the valley, however, there are no houses, no signs of man's presence. Maybe car exhaust makes trees bloom early, but for some reason spring comes late in this enchanted haven, and in the fall the oaks are still red when the trees in town are bare.
The great virtue of this trek is the number of uphills it takes in - fourteen , to be exact. For good cross-country ski training, uphills are a must, or the far longer inclines up north where all the races are held come as a decidedly unwelcome surprise. Furthermore, uphills greatly enhance what I call the ''virtue quotient'' of any workout, and on one uphill point, virtue is very tangibly rewarded. On the summit is a firetower - with its breezy refuge from the deerflies and an unobstructed view that on good days just barely stretches to the southernmost peaks of New Hampshire.
From there it's back past the marsh and the overgrown quarry where twice I saw a fox, back up another hill whose steepness always reminds me of Mt. Washington, along an exposed ridge where you can smell the ground heating up in the sun, back alongside the millpond of a ruined gristmill, and back finally to the gate and my car. I'm muddy, caked with dried sweat, and pleasantly exhausted , but ahead of me is the endurance ordeal they never show in the sports movies - the trip to the dump, the lawn mowing, the grocery shopping, and the hundred-and-one Saturday errands whose completion I find more arduous than any marathon. At the same time, I like to think that without these periodic renewals of the green man within me, Homo domesticus would in the long run find the going much tougher.