"Five, four, three, two, one ... go!" The countdown came as inevitably as my suddenly knocking knees. Adjusting my bib -- No. 28 -- and positioning my ski poles past the boot-high, fiberglass electronic wand, I pushed off into the void.

My last rueful thought: Pride goeth before a fall. Not too literally, I prayed.

At age 61, never having raced competitively before, I faced two downhill ski runs -- the speed of which were allegedly controlled by judiciously placed slalom poles. At the first gate, two substantial-looking green flags billowed threateningly in the breeze. Somehow I got past that pair -- only to be confronted with blue flags at a slightly different angle, then green again, then blue. I was going much too fast!

Six flags later I hit a road -- contoured and pillowed by several feet of snow, to be sure, but a major obstacle to my by then weakening resolve. Briefly airborne, I knew I had lost time. To my left, tall stands of Colorado spruce flashed by. To my right, a chairlift filled to capacity with weekend skiers paralleled the course. A captive audience, they were undoubtedly watching my inept display, waiting for a fall.

A final, breathless schuss through the finish line, and it was over. Almost immediately, a disembodied voice from inside a little wooden hut intoned, "Your time was 31.61, 2.3 seconds off a gold medal. You have a silver. Congratulations!" Simultaneously, "31.6" was displayed in electronic numbers on a scoreboard at the edge of the nearby woods.

I was exhilarated, yet unexpectedly disappointed. So near and yet so far. Why not a gold?

I had just completed my first amateur National Standard Race (NASTAR) course at Aspen Highlands, one of four ski areas in Aspen, Colo., that boast NASTAR courses. Last year almost 250,000 men, women and children from age 3 to 70-plus tested their skiing ability and guts on NASTAR courses at 180 ski areas across the country.

NASTAR works like this:

Early in the season, selected national ski team members race against each other for NASTAR and their time is recorded. Last year these "national pacesetters" were U.S. team members Bob Ormsby and Diann Roffe, who will be defending their pacesetters titles next Thursday against their teammates. Whoever wins the ski team races will become the national pacesetters for the 1990-91 ski season.

Gathered to run the same course will be six other top skiers from different regions of the country who will compare their time with that of the team members. Based on their performance, they will return home with a handicap, which is challenged by yet another tier of pacesetters from individual ski areas.

Each day that a NASTAR racecourse is open to the public -- seven days a week at Highlands -- a local pacesetter skis the course first. Everyone skiing the course later that day compares his or her time against his, and, by extension, against a nationally ranked skier.

By a formula that NASTAR officials say is breathtakingly simple but which I find wholly obscure, progressive handicaps have been established for age groups, decade by decade. These are cross-referenced with actual times on course. Thus, by a mathematical formula that is beyond me, every time a skier races, he or she comes within a percentage of the national pacesetter's time. This determines whether or not the skier wins nothing, or a bronze, silver or gold medal.

While many children become addicted to NASTAR at an early age, the vast majority of NASTAR racers are in their thirties and forties, and often compete under the auspices of their ski clubs. Participation drops off sharply with age: In the 60 to 69 and 70-plus handicap categories, only 4,250 men and women throughout the country took part last year. But that is not to say this group is not gung-ho. Of these, 500 were women 60 to 69 and 250 were women 70 or older. About 25 percent achieved gold medals, a figure immediately encouraging to this amateur and aging skier. Three men over 70 won golds at Highlands the week I was there.

Locals claim Highlands as their own, largely because of its friendly fee structures, casual low-key atmosphere (there are few day-glo outfits on this mountain) and challenging runs. Less well-known to out-of-towners than its nearby neighbors Aspen (a k a Ajax), Snowmass and Buttermilk, Highlands boasts 3,800 feet of vertical drop, and daring trails with names like Moment of Truth, the Wall and Steeplechase. It also has more than 40 beginner and intermediate trails, and some of the most breathtaking views of the Maroon Bells and other mountain ranges from its topmost Olympic chairlift, 11,800 feet high.

And it has a user-friendly NASTAR course that stacks up against the best in the country.

With my husband and our friend, Hank, I had chosen to spend my sixty-first birthday at Highlands. We had passed most of the morning playing the mountain "like a violin," as one of our ski pals used to say -- up one chairlift, down Pyramid trail to another chair, up and down Hayden and through the trees to I-70, down something nameless to a little used cross-country track called T-Lazy-7, to Golden Horn, a wide open, empty slope, and back up its Poma lift. Then it was down to Midway and up the double-chair.

Riding this lift, we passed the NASTAR course off to our right and watched some hotshot children fly through the gates with ease. Among them was a helmeted, 3 1/2-year-old local named Jeremie Scott who runs the race every day he can, his mother snowplowing down behind him. (Either Jeremie will burn out at 4 1/2 or he will be a big ticket item in years to come.)

"If he can do it, I can," I said to my companions.

Now, I am not normally a competitive person. In more than 50 years of cross-country and downhill skiing, I had never raced seriously. Who did I think was, at my age, to challenge Diann Roffe? Or, for that matter, Bob Ormsby?

Then I figured out that NASTAR handicaps favor people in the bottom of each age decade, if only because one tends to be in better shape at, say, 30 than at 39, or at 60 than at 69. At 61, I figured I had a better chance of getting a gold medal this year than at any time in the next nine.

So I took my second run that sunny day at Highlands -- and failed again to get a gold. By a mere .6 second, to be sure -- but in a sport that measures achievement in hundredths of seconds, .6 was quite a gap to conquer. I trailed home that day despondent.

The next day I ran into Andy Hansen, a New Englander who heads the racing program at Highlands. Andy encouraged me to try again, and bolstered my resolve by telling me that the Highlands ski school encourages NASTAR for nearly all its children's classes and intermediate adult groups -- skiers capable of minimal wide-track parallel turns.

"NASTAR used to attract just the experts," he said. "Now it's meant to be fun for everyone." Uh huh, I thought, not entirely convinced.

Andy suggested I take some non-qualifying "fun runs" on the course (at $1 each) for practice -- or, better yet, join one of the daily two-hour racing clinics. Typically, I did neither. Instead, I rode the lift alongside the course several times, watching others' techniques. Then I hung around the starting gate listening to instructors give tips to their students (mostly kids), and watching how some really good skiers handled the gates.

I noticed how they set their ski poles way out beyond the starting wand; how they hyperventilated ahead of time, to move oxygen into muscles and make breathing on the course less labored; how they kick-pushed out of the starting gate so that their shins touched the wand a good half-second after their upper body was moving downhill; and above all, how they made their turns: tight shouldering of each flag and an immediate shift of parallel skis straight into the fall-line in preparation for the next gate far below.

I learned that if you wait to turn through the flags when you are beside them, you are already too late, and may, in fact, miss a gate altogether, to slide ignominiously sideways into protective barriers.

Anticipation was clearly the name of the game.

I studied how they dealt with my nemesis, the gentle, sloping road that crossed the course. Somehow the good skiers usually cleared it just barely airborne, but in a crouch, reducing aerodynamic drag.

Finally, I discovered I would have to begin my schuss across the finish line much higher on the course than before. I went home to wax my skis, and to lay out my goggles and the most lightweight, stretchy, fitted outfit in my wardrobe.

On the last day of our vacation I returned for a final try. As I waited in line at the top of the racecourse (Bib No. 43 -- this time I jammed it casually into my pocket), I breathed deeply and pretended all those spectators were not riding by on that chairlift just a few yards away, ready to laugh at my no-doubt ludicrous performance. My husband and Hank, the most terrifying of critics, positioned themselves halfway down the course. Could I face them if I failed again?

The countdown came, and I was off. No more time to worry about appearances, success or failure. Just me and the snow and the swish of fast-running skis.

This time gravity and I seemed wedded well. I held my line straight down between the flags, and gathered speed such as I had seldom known, the rising wind pressing my goggles cold and hard against my cheek. Silently I shouted staccato commands in my head: "Turn!" "Turn!" "Go!" "Go!"

The finish came up fast, and I skidded into a 180-degree stop, spraying snow glinting powdery in the slanting light.

A moment's wait, and then the voice: "Your time is 28.02. You have a gold. Congratulations!"

There is no let-down after such an unexpected triumph, just a vague wondering. As the 1990-91 ski season rolls around, what racing challenges are out there for the likes of me? Well, there are always those 179 other NASTAR courses I could try. And there are the finals -- Lite NASTAR, scheduled for Dec. 12-16 this year, where gold medalists who have qualified at least three times during the season can meet the ultimate challenge -- direct competition in their own age group.

For now I think I'll rest on my laurels.

At least until December.

Janet Bohlen is a Washington writer currently working on a book about wildlife biologists. @ART: ph,,nastar

+ @STORY TYPE:fe

+ @NAME:

+ @ORGANIZATION:national standard race + @BIO:

+ @ENHANCEMENT:

+ @SUBJECT:qrbd rgd rnf

+ @EDITION:f + @SECTION:u + @PAGE:e05 + @COLUMN NAME:

+ @SERIES NAME:

+ @SERIES NUMBER:

+ @HEADLINE:

+ @BYLINE:

+ @CREDIT:

+ @DATELINE:

+ WAYS & MEANS

NASTAR programs can be found at 180 ski areas throughout the United States. Local ski areas with NASTAR programs include: VIRGINIA: Bryce Resort, Basye, 703-856-2121; Massanutten Resort, Harrisonburg, 703-289-9441; The Homestead, Hot Springs, 703-839-7721. PENNSYLVANIA: Blue Knob Recreation Inc., Claysburg, 814-239-5111; Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Champion, 814-352-7777; Ski Liberty, Carroll Valley, 717-642-8282; Ski Roundtop, Lewisberry, 717-432-9631; Shawnee Mountain Ski Area, Shawnee-on- Delaware, 717-421-7231; Ski Denton, Coudersport, 814-435-2115. WEST VIRGINIA: Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Snowshoe, 304-572-1000; Silver Creek Ski Resort, Slatyfork, 304-572-4000; Winter Place, Flat Top, 304-787-3221. INFORMATION: For more information about the NASTAR program, contact NASTAR, 402D Pacific Ave., Aspen, Colo. 81611, 303-925-7864.

Information about Aspen Highlands and its trails, ski school, racing clinics and special events is available from Aspen Highlands, P.O. Box T, Aspen, Colo. 81612, 303-925-5300.