Much as I treasure the time I spend running, roller-skiing, and cycling as an opportunity to get off by myself and think, life would probably seem a good deal duller without that peculiar assortment of misfits I call my training buddies. In college one could always rely on the Team for fellowship. In fact, so cemented did we become through the shared intensities of training and racing, through trivia contests during interminable trips in freezing vans, that for some years after we had all graduated the Mt. Washington Road Race and the Littleton Ten-Miler served as informal team reunions.
The responsibilities of adulthood, however, gradually took their toll. Babies , jobs at banks and jewelry shops, and long-distance moves have all but dispersed the fellowship. I returned last year to the race up Mt. Washington only to find that, like the ancient mariner, I alone of all that goodly company remained. Even Estle, who held out longest and worked as a night watchman while he tried to make the US National Cross-Country Ski Team, has left New England for a coaching job in Alaska.
During his years as a night watchman/Olympic hopeful, Estle's shack at Middlebury, Vt., became something of a mecca for itinerant and impoverished cross-country ski racers. Out of college but not good enough to make the national team, they reminded me of the roninm of ancient Japan - scruffy samurai wandering about in search of a warlord who would hire them.
There in Estle's ''tubing lounge,'' sprawled around a TV whose images served mainly as grist for wisecracks, I got to know Estle's cronies. Typical of these was the fellow from Alaska who, each summer, scraped together enough money doing construction work to follow the race circuit during the winter, even though it meant spending most nights curled in the back seat of his ''Subaru Hilton.''
Almost more than my infrequent conversations with Estle, it was the stacks of wax-smudged skis and poles leaning against his walls, the clipboards full of dogeared race results, the piles of old magazines, and the maps of Vermont and Quebec covering an entire kitchen wall that gave me the flavor of a sub-world. On its mythic fringes were places like White Horse, Lahti, and Holmenkollen, places where hollow-cheeked champions in shimmering, skin-tight racing suits fought their epic battles amid subarctic forests.
It was Estle who, after running the Littleton race one last time, introduced me to Brant, a garrulous Canadian with a walrus mustache. Big Brant, as I later dubbed him, has gone on to become one of the mainstays of my surrogate team. To finance his cross-country racing he works as a loan officer for a bank near where I live. Thanks to our many training runs and ski trips, I now know by heart the ins and outs of Brant's brush with greatness when he skied as an alternate with the 1976 Canadian Olympic Ski Team: how one month he trained 120 hours, what it felt like to be passed in a race by the great Harald Groningen, and how after completing the European tour he felt burned out on the sport for over a year.
The conversation on our forays doesn't always run to skiing, however. Brant has highly articulate views - unless we happen to be running up a hill - on the need for enlightened self-interest in foreign policy, the prospects for future government bail-outs of ailing industries, and the reasons the Dallas Cowboys are the greatest team in football. The latter subject invariably triggers a mock interview in which Brant pretends I was once a tight end for the Cowboys. ''Is it true you have the greatest hands in football and took up running to improve your speed?'' ''What's it like knocking heads with 'Too-Tall Jones'?'' And so on.
Like me, Brant accepts the notion that skiing will from now on be a secondary , though crucial, facet of existence. We race, not because we hope someday to be great or even better, but because without the world of racing some magic would have slipped from our lives.
My other training buddy, Vince, is only just now beginning to realize his potential. Perhaps the most physically fit individual I know, he recently tried his hand (and legs) at the triathlon - a race that combines swimming, cycling, and running - and promptly won two rather prestigious ones.
Aside from still being single and in his mid-20s, Vince has going for him the fact that he has so far succeeded in ducking anything that might compromise his dedication to training, which generally amounts to four or five hours a day. Of course, this level of involvement has its price. Although he throws around words like ''ontogeny'' and ''oxymoron'' with the assurance of a Bill Buckley and used to tutor in math and physics, Vince has three times cycled, skied, and run himself right out of college. Now after six years, it looks like a diploma is at last in sight.
In the meantime, Vince, who at one time collected food stamps, has discovered a market for the cross-country skiing and cycling nylon racing suits he sews in his basement. Any day now I expect to hear some loud complaints about how the current level of taxation cramps the small entrepreneur.
The link connecting me with Brant and Vince is like the fellowship of compatriots forced to live outside the frontiers of their native land. Each workout together is a celebration of the citizenship we share in a realm of striving and joy we first discovered in the land just beyond the northern horizon.