Kate Ellis has created her own trail in cross-country skiing
Kate Ellis is an active woman with an adventurous soul. She is a masters-level world champion cross-country skier, a long-distance canoe racer and a former marathon runner who has spent recent summers on weekslong Alaska wilderness trips with her husband and friends.
At 62, her hair might be silver, but her spine is iron. She's fit, strong and likes to test her limits.
"I've gone up into the Arctic and done canoe trips where you get dropped off by a bush plane and they don't pick you up until a month later," she said. "I love doing that kind of thing."
Even as a girl in Wisconsin, Ellis loved being in motion. The problem was, there weren't many athletic opportunities for girls growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s. Though Title IX was signed into law in 1972 -- opening the door for equal female participation in school sports -- it came too late for Ellis, who graduated from high school in 1974.
"There were no women's sports," Ellis said. "And gym class, I have memories of the gym teacher making us kneel on the floor and she would measure how short our skirts were, if that gives you any idea of the athletic opportunities for someone where I grew up."
Ellis eventually took matters into her own hands. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a degree in art, she started running to stay fit. She ran road races of all distances, including six marathons. But by her late 30s, running had taken a toll on her body, and several friends told her she should try cross-country skiing.
"It was like dancing on snow," she said.
She soon entered her first race, a 58-kilometer test, at age 38.
"I thought it can't be any worse than running a marathon," she said, laughing.
She remembers a couple of things about that first race. No. 1, it was cold. No. 2, "I think I was one of the last people to finish," she said.
But she loved it. Cross-country skiing didn't beat up her feet, knees and joints, she could catch her breath going downhill and she was surrounded by beauty.
"It's like you get rejuvenated," she said. "You go out, you're outside, it's a way to refuel.
"Being in the snow and the trees and the sun and even the wind. Just being out there is really invigorating."
Some 24 years later, much of Ellis' life is centered around Nordic skiing. A former art director for an advertising agency, she left that business when art development moved toward digital. "I didn't want to be a computer jockey," she said.
She didn't know what was next but volunteered to help coach skiing one year when she and her husband and two kids were living in Germany. That led to coaching a high school team in Minneapolis for eight years -- she and her husband live in Roseville, Minnesota, outside of St. Paul -- and coaching summer programs for juniors and then adults.
"It just happened very organically," Ellis explained. "It wasn't something that I said, 'Gee, I'm going to quit advertising and start coaching. It just evolved."
These days, she trains about 12 hours per week and coaches about 12 hours a week. Giving back to the sport through coaching -- especially working with girls and young women -- gives her almost as much pleasure as gliding over a trail.
"It's hugely rewarding," she said. "It's so exciting to see a young girl falling in love -- and even older women -- with something, and they go, you know, 'This is great. I want to do this.'"
Ellis won the first of her three age-group world championships in 2008 at the Masters World Cup in McCall, Idaho. She recalls feeling a bit out of place at the starting line, surrounded by a group that included past Olympians and national champions.
"I'm thinking I'm just going to go out there and do the best I can and hopefully have a good race and ski tactically well," she said. "That's really all you can do."
When she won that 15K classic race, she said it was a "wow" moment.
"Nobody knew who the heck I was," she said. "It was kind of fun being this unknown person, and for me, it was unknown how I could do against them."
It came down to a two-woman contest, with Ellis versus former Russian national champion Raufa Zagidullina. Ellis won by 19.6 seconds in 49:53.3.
Cross-country races are categorized as either classic (skis essentially slide straight ahead) or freestyle/skate (skiers push off to the side to get more traction). In Ellis' 15K classic victory, she went to her strong point to pull away, double-poling -- that is, using her upper-body strength to push herself along -- with her skis gliding straight through tracks in the snow.
"I was able to double-pole her, and that was pretty cool," Ellis said of Zagidullina.
To Ellis' friend and fellow cross-country skier Kim Rudd, Ellis' strength is one of the factors that makes her a winning skier.
"She can out-double-pole a lot of men," said Rudd, who coaches with Ellis out of the Loppet Nordic Racing club in the Twin Cities area and also races canoes against her. "A lot of it comes from your core too, and technique wise, it's a lot of core and upper body. And she can paddle like no one else."
However, Rudd said, Ellis' mental strength might be even a bigger factor.
"She's worked on her technique for 30 years, and she does tons of strength training in the offseason," Rudd said. "She's a smart athlete, where she's constantly working on technique, endurance and strength. And she has drive. There are some skaters who have good technique, but they don't have that drive or passion, and she definitely has that."
Ellis laughed and said she has been told she is a pretty intense person.
"I am pretty driven," she admitted. "I really want to learn, and I want to keep learning and I want to keep pushing myself as long as I can."
This year in Minneapolis, Ellis won two more golds in her age group, in the 10K skate and as part of the U.S. 4x5K relay team, while also winning silver in the 15K and 30K classic races.
Aside from her Masters World Cup successes, Ellis is a two-time winner in her group of the 42K Classic at the Vasaloppet in Mora, Sweden, the world's oldest cross-country race and twice has won the 42K title at the Seeley Hills Classic on the American Birkebeiner Trail in Wisconsin.
She didn't like racing much when she first started. She preferred training, but she forced herself to change her approach and flush away any negative thoughts or doubts.
"I just thought, 'You know, if you're going to do this, you're going to love it,'" Ellis said. "You've got to think, 'I don't want to be anywhere else, doing anything else than this, so change your attitude.' ... Instead of letting any negative stuff come into it, go like, 'Nope, I want to be here. This is what I want to do.' "
She sees skiers in their 70s and 80s and wants to follow their trails.
"I have told my friends -- I don't know if it's morbid or not -- someday, I want to be skiing the American Birkebeiner, or another big race, and if I keel over and die right there, that would be a good way to go," she said. "People would go by and say, 'You know, in her day, she was pretty darn fast.'
"That would be a good way to go. ... But not anytime soon, though, thank you."