Whalen skis in the dark woods of Dewey

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Open eyes, open ears: Guilderland native Christopher Whalen listens to family and friends after his 2.5K cross-country ski race at Dewey Mountain during the Empire State Winter Games last Friday. The event was held at night, with light bulbs strung up throughout the course, and Whalen won a Bronze medal with a time of 9:08.

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Skating across the snow at night is Christopher Whalen, who competed in three cross-country races last weekend for the Empire State Games. Whalen, 21, of Guilderland, won a Bronze medal in both the 2.5K on Friday evening and the 7.5K on Sunday, but could not finish Saturday’s 20K race.

SARANAC LAKE — Christopher Whalen turned 21 last Saturday. What did he get for a gift?

A weekend full of cross-country skiing at the Empire State Winter Games.

Whalen, of Altamont, made his fourth appearance at the Games, but on Friday night he was faced with a new challenge: racing in the dark. The 2.5K course at Dewey Mountain was dim at best, with the periodic light bulb hanging from a wire.

It was a chilly night, as cheers and cowbells echoed through the snow-covered trees. Nordic skiers skated through the woods, huffing and puffing all the way.

Whalen won a Bronze medal with a time of 9:08 despite hitting what he called a “powder hole” during the race, which caused the tails of he skis to cross. A snowstorm had rolled through a few days earlier, but the course was groomed.

“It wasn’t horrible, but I took a seat,” said Whalen after the race. “I lost enough time; two guys passed me. Other than that, I felt great.”

Whalen said it was frustrating to go down, but nowhere near as maddening as that time when a spectator cut him off in the middle of a race. However, he’s never been cut off by another skier because cross-country is one of the most friendly sports, he says.

“It wasn’t stupid or anything,” Whalen said last Friday. “This is not the Olympics.”

With stretches of darkness on the course, visibility was the greatest obstacle.

“You can see the ground, but nothing about it,” said Whalen. “You can’t tell the depth of the snow, it’s colder, but it’s all relative. It’s a vision thing.”

The temperature was around 10 degrees, but Whalen had only a few layers on. Since cross-country skiing works the entire body, athletes can get pretty warm.

“I really love the workout, all of us do,” Whalen said. “You feel great when you’re done, and you feel accomplished.”

Whalen has been competing in Nordic since his sophomore year at Guilderland High School, making the state team for the Dutch as a senior. Recently, he’s been studying naval architecture at the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx, so he doesn’t ski as much, but he’ll still find time to log 70 kilometers in a day when he’s home from school.

“You can look back on that,” Whalen said. “I’m competitive, but I’m not crazy. If a race doesn’t go well, then it doesn’t go well. Sometimes, I pride myself on not being too competitive.”

Some Olympic Nordic skiers train at Dewey Mountain, which is two miles from downtown Saranac Lake. Whalen will be paying attention to what Kikkan Randall does at Sochi, as well as his 19-year-old friend from New Hampshire, who is competing in biathlon.

“You learn from watching the good guys,” said Whalen. “You pick up the real background from them because they’re really great.”

Whalen won another Bronze medal in the 7.5K on Sunday with a time of 29:45, but did not finish Saturday’s 20K because it was too much for his muscles, he said.

Society says that your 21st birthday is one to really celebrate, but Whalen just wanted to ski.

“I’m not amazing, but I like being in shape,” Whalen said. “It can get really competitive out here.”