He shelved a possible medical career to invest six years toward making the U.S. Ski Team for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
But Marshall Greene’s cross-country skiing journey to the rim of world class competition is ending just short of his dream.
“It’s not like I have nothing to show for it,” the former Spokanite joked. “I’m 28 and I’m really fit.”
Finishing 18th in his best race at the U.S. Nationals in Anchorage earlier this month sealed his fate.
“I was hoping for top 10, and realistically I probably needed to be on the podium for a chance of making the team,” he said, analyzing points accumulated in ski races around the country and Europe. “But it’s been a great ride.”
Greene has learned to ski through pain in search of medals and prize money. Equally important, he’s seized the mental victories needed to motivate year-round training for races against dominating opponents.
The glory of qualifying for his first World Cup race, for instance, was doused when he walked into the racers’ hut to get his bib.
“Next thing I know I’m standing next to Sweden’s Thobias Fredriksson, and he has his shirt off,” Greene recalled of his first encounter with the Olympic gold medalist and his chiseled 6-foot tall, 192-pound physique.
“He was considered one of the best sprinters in the world. It was super intimidating being right next to him. These are the people I’d admired since high school.
“But out on the course before the race I ran into him again. I told myself, ‘Hey, he skis just like everyone else at this level. I took myself from being daunted to grounded on the fact that at least his warm-up pace isn’t any faster than my warm-up pace.”
Greene got the bug for competitive ski racing with the junior nordic ski team based at Mount Spokane. He returned to train there just before last weekend’s SuperTour races in the Methow Valley.
After graduating in 2000 from Lewis and Clark High School, where he ran cross country, he made the varsity nordic ski team as a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“Once I discovered that skiing was more fun and that I was never going to be gaunt enough to be competitive as a runner, the transformation to cross-country skier was complete,” he said.
“It takes 10 years of training before you can get anywhere close to peak cardio-vascular fitness to handle the increased effort needed to be the best you can possibly be,” he said.
“There’s also technique and efficiency that must be developed. It takes time,” he added, noting that he didn’t qualify for the NCAA championships until he was a senior.
“I definitely was going back and forth between ski racing or applying immediately for graduate or medical school. Ultimately, I realized that I could always come back to school but there’s only one time in your life when you can pursue ski racing at this level.”
The financial sacrifice is huge in a sport that precludes working during the long race season. Greene made ends meet with sponsorships, coaching and working part time at bicycle and nordic skiing shops around summer workout schedules.
He settled nearly six years ago in Bend, Ore., one of five places in the U.S. where top-level nordic skiers congregate for year-round training.
He is locally famous as “the PPP guy” with four consecutive individual championships in the Pole, Pedal, Paddle – a 35-mile race in May combining alpine and cross-country skiing, biking, running, kayaking and a sprint to the finish.
“It’s dominated by nordic ski racers,” Greene said. “The cyclists and runners are coming off winter, but we go strong year-round.”
Greene reached the pinnacle of his athletic journey in 2008, when he qualified for two World Cup events in Canada.
At last, he was representing his country and sharing U.S. team coaches, waxing technicians and facilities.
“Just qualifying for a World Cup was my target for that winter,” he said. “It was another step. I made it in classic and skate sprint races – a life-long goal.”
The spectacle of the world stage amplified everything from the competition to the butterflies in Greene’s stomach.
“There were a ton of people and TV cameras everywhere,” he recalled. “It’s more intense with all the spectators, first all because there actually are spectators.”
Another major difference: “They use even more-expensive waxes.
“I get cheap or free access to several brands; beyond that I’m normally on my own. Depending on the race you might need another expensive fluoro (wax) to be competitive. A hundred bucks or more can come out of your pocket real fast.
“You almost have to be a chemist, but really it’s not rocket science. It’s having the patience to ski 200 meters back and forth on 30 different types of wax to see which is better.”
Aside from hard work and living near poverty level, Greene called sponsored nordic ski racing “an awesome lifestyle.”
“About 30 to 40 of us, men and women, travel the domestic circuits and hang out together. If you need a place to stay, you call up somebody.
“When the racing is going well we can get a paid trip to Europe. It’s a healthy lifestyle. It’s nice.”
Married for a year and a half, Greene said his wife knew in advance that he had a couple of years remaining in pursuit of his dream.
“I’m away for weeks at a time and a month in Europe,” he said. “It’s pretty safe to say she’ll be glad when it’s over.”
Greene still has a chance to qualify for the World Cup races in Canmore the week before the Olympics. He’s looking at a couple of European Worldloppet marathons in March as his final hurrah.
He takes comfort in having invested so much in a sport he can enjoy well into his senior years.
“Obviously I’ve aspired to making the Olympics and being competitive internationally,” he said, “but the goal has always been to see how far and how fast I could get.”
He’s had plenty of time to philosophize during years of training days that might include two hours on roller skis followed by a two-hour run.
“In high school I always imagined that if I could ski race in college, then I’d be fast. When I was in college, I kept thinking that once I went professional, then I’d be fast.
“The goal never really seemed out of reach, but it’s always just a little further, around the next corner and up a bit on still another level.
“I have to believe that even winning an Olympic gold might leave a nordic skier thinking, ‘Well, I got the gold in the 15K skate, now I have to get one in the 30K classic.’
“I’m not sure it would ever end.”
Indeed, Greene says he’s ready for the next incremental step up a level.
“I’ve applied to four public health programs, so I’m pretty much going back to school next fall and it looks certain that I’ll be poor for at least another four years.”