10 minutes to go. I found an empty patch of snow behind the pack of other skiers and slid back and forth, trying to get in a little last-minute practice. Lucky for me, cross-country skiing classic-style was a lot like walking. The only trick was remaining upright, and on 7-foot-long skinny skis attached only to my toe, that wasn't a trivial matter. 5 minutes to go. I decided there was little point in practicing. If things went as planned, I'd be on skis for the next 3 hours, a couple more minutes of practice wouldn't make much difference. I positioned myself in the back of the pack, in the corner. I didn't want to get in anyone's way. The other skiers around me probably had the same plan. Hundreds of skiers were parked ahead, waiting. They were identified by number, "7236", "7011", "27015"... A square yellow bib on my chest read, "27048". We were the seventh wave. 1 minute to go. "Boy, I haven't skied in a year", I nervously volunteered to a woman next to me, "Luckily, my brother had these old skis...". The race hadn't even started, and silly excuses were leaking out of my mouth... just in case. "Boom!", the canon went off with a low thud. A rolling chorus of "Wooo!" sprang up from all around. The announcer, perched on a 10-foot-high platform to the side of the pack, seemed most excited of all. He waved his hand in the air and yelled into his microphone, "And there goes wave seven! Let's hear it for them!!!". Just keep walking, I told myself. The pack slowly advanced, and I pushed off. My Birkie experience had begun...
The American Birkebeiner is more than simply the largest cross-country ski race in North America. For cross-country skiers, both serious and not, race day is a culmination of the previous year's training, planning and preparation. It's the reason they spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on skis and poles and boots and suits and wax... It's the day when they test their own abilities and are measured against "all who ski". It's the day when everything comes together, a convention of all thing cross-country. For many people, the Birkebeiner is also a measure of time. Nobody skiing the birkie discusses how old they are, only how many birkie's they've raced. The American Birkebeiner itself is only 29 years old, but has roots that go back to the 13th century, back to Norway, back to the beginnings of cross-country skiing and for that matter, all skiing.
Way back in the year 1206 a couple Norwegians, from a tribe called "the Birkebeiners", smuggled an infant prince 53km through the forests of Norway. The prince eventually became king, and was reportedly a very good king. The original Birkebeiners were subsequently immortalized by the collective consciousness of Norway, by a famous painting, and by the Birkebeiner race. The traditional Birkebeiner race, run since 1932 in Norway, stays close to the original 1206 route. All participants in that race must carry a backpack weighing 5.5kg (to represent the infant king), and ski classic-style (as opposed to skate-skiing, which is a recent development). In order to achieve a higher level of authenticity, some of them wear birch-bark leggings, use antique wooden skis and a single pole (as the original Birkebeiners did). Knowing the Norwegian's love of skiing, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that an actual live baby or two has recently made the journey.
The American Birkebeiner is held in northern Wisconsin, a land of forested hills and ice-age lakes somewhat reminiscent of interior Norway. The race was first run in 1973 as a promotion for a local resort. The resort has since gone bankrupt and been sold over and over, but the race keeps growing. Today, the race starts at the resort, just outside the town of Cable, and in years with a lot of snow, finishes in the middle of downtown Hayward. The 51km course is almost never level, even the best skiers in the world describe it as "very challenging". The race typically attracts over 8000 skiers from all over the world. They range in age from 3 to 80+, and range in skill from the cross-country elite to people like me.
My whole race began with an innocent visit to my brother's house. "Hey, this is just a thought", he began, "My friend Tom is signed up to race the Birkie this weekend, but he's sick. You could take his place if you feel up to it". It seemed like a crazy idea, but most good ideas seemed crazy at first, it was just a matter of getting used to them. I didn't have the luxury of time, so I took a gamble. "Sure, why not?". Luckily for me, my brother's friend had signed up for the Kortelopet, it was only about half the length of the full Birkie. Only 23km.
Most serious cross-country skiers these days "skate ski", that is, they propel themselves much like a skater on ice - alternately pushing off with one ski and sliding on the other. It takes a good deal of practice to get the rhythm and motion down. Skate skiing is definitely a quicker and more efficient way to ski than "classic skiing", but classic skiing is a lot easier to learn. Classic skiing is more akin to walking on a newly waxed floor - walk a little, slide, walk a little more, push with the poles... Skate skis are shorter than classic skis, have sharper "edges", and require different shoes and longer poles. I'd never really tried skate-skiing much and was fairly certain that I'd just go "classic style" on race day. Of course, my brother, like any serious skier, had extra skis of both varieties.
The winter had been a lousy one for snow. At my brother's home in LaCrosse, WI, there wasn't even a trace on the ground. By some miracle though, a snowstorm had dumped on the Birkie course earlier that week. As we drove the ~150 miles north, the snow-pack got thicker. By the time we reached Hayward, the snow was about a foot deep, just enough for a decent race. Usually, the trail crosses a frozen lake just before the finish. The lake wasn't completely frozen, so the course was shortened in 2002... only 47km.
My brother's friend Tom might have been sick, but came to the Birkie anyway. His wife was competing, and the Birkie was about more than the actual race, one could get a buzz just by being around it. Tom had a cabin on a lake just outside of town. We stopped there for a few minutes to unload some baggage, then headed to Cable and the Telemark Resort, to Birkie central.
The resort was awash in cross-country ski life. Every equipment vendor had a tent set up on the snow where they let people try out the latest top-of-the-line products. People were skiing everywhere, in every direction. They were all good at it. I felt a bit overwhelmed, what had I gotten myself into? I tried out some skate-skis, but as I slipped and flailed on the snow I realized there was no way I could learn "how to skate" in a day. I was glad to be stuck with my brother's old "classic style" skis for race day.
Inside the resort, all the racers were registering. Everyone got a race-bib, a bunch of informative hand-outs & magazines, a couple stickers for their skis (to make sure you started and finished with the same skis), a electronic anklet-timer, and a big plastic bag. Near the registration area, dozens of vendors were selling everything from ski-racks to fleece hats. I got free samples of lip-gunk and clif bars. We stopped in a waxing seminar, where a former Olympian (he skied at Nagano) was waxing skis and talking about the latest advances in wax technology. He wore a gas-mask that was intended to keep the wax-fumes from clogging up his lung capacity. Back outside, a couple famous skiers were signing posters for kids and adults alike. I looked down and saw a two-barreled electric blowdrier going to work on some wet boots - yes, a boot-drier. People were everywhere, it was cross-country madness.
After we had our fill of ski-culture, it was time for some ski-food. The day before a big race, everyone needed to "carbo-load". The local restaurants, churches and social organizations were all ready to help. "Pasta feeds" were happening all around town. A "pasta feed" was basically an all-you-could-eat spaghetti dinner. We went to a church building, where hundreds of hungry skiers (and a few opportunistic little old ladies) were eating all they could. Only $5, what a deal! After dinner, I learned that in equal importance to carbo-loading was carbo-UNloading, you didn't want to have to "unload" in the middle of the race, much less carry the extra weight. My brother swore that sniffing coffee grounds helped speed-up the process.
All we had left to do was wax the skis and sleep. Everyone seemed to have their own philosophy and strategy regarding ski wax. I'd never waxed a ski, so I let the others do the work. They pulled out specialized ski-waxing irons and an array of brushes and scrapers. Tom opened a tackle-box that was filled with every kind of wax imaginable. Choosing the right wax, and applying it in the right layers was a delicate art. The snow conditions determined the correct wax, and if your wax was wrong, it could be like skiing on glue. There was some debate as to what the conditions would be like the next morning. The forecast was calling for drizzle, but possibly snow flurries. When Tom got to his wife's skis, he called her over. "Hey Mary, I picked up something for you today at the registration." He held up a thumb-sized glass vial. It was half-filled with loose flakes of a dull yellow wax - "pixie dust". Ounce for ounce, it cost more than cocaine, and promised to knock at least a few hundredths of second from anyone's time. He sprinkled the flakes on her skis and melted it with the iron. The room soon smelled like a candle factory. My skis were waxless, they had little "fish scales" molded into the bottom underneath my feet. The idea was that the fish scales dug into the snow and allowed me to push-forward with each step. I felt like I was using training-wheels, while everyone else had a 10-speed.
Early the next morning, Tom dropped the three of us off in Hayward, where we boarded a bus that took us to the start. Because of the number of skiers, it was the only practical way to get there. A steady drizzle sprinkled the windows of the bus as it rolled along. Nobody talked about the weather. With any luck, the rain would hold-off just long enough to keep the race conditions decent. As long as all the snow didn't melt by mid-afternoon, the race could at least go on.
The starting area was packed with people. Every skier seemed to have a couple family members there to send them off. Many of the them had young kids or who'd raced the day before in the junior Birkie or the 10K race. The racers started in waves, one wave every 10 minutes. The "elite" skiers went first, then waves 1-11. One's starting position was determined by one's results from previous years. All new skiers started in the last wave, and worked their way up the pack each successive year. My brother was in wave 2, I was taking Tom's place in wave 7. Tom's wife Mary was in wave 9. We waited inside the lodge until we got close to our successive start times, then headed down to the starting area.
The amount of organization necessary to keep things running smoothly was impressive. The starting line itself was a good hundred yards wide. Just before the start of the race, all our warm-up clothes and post-race street clothes went into the big plastic bags we'd been given at registration. The bags were numbered with our bib numbers and would be waiting for us at the finish. TV crews milled through the crowd, filming snippets that would run on the local evening news. About a hundred porta-potties were lined-up next to the starting area. (I wished I'd tried my brother's advice about the coffee grounds.) Nothing about the Birkie was small - even the starting gun was a howitzer.
The starting gate lifted and I was on my way. The pace of the other skiers seemed slow at first, but picked-up as the pack spread out. There were actually quite a few classic-style skiers in wave 7. They all drifted to the sides of the course, where there were groomed parallel ski-tracks. The tracks made the going easier for classic-style skiers. It was difficult to pass people though, as soon as I got out of the tracks, my skis slid to the sides and I slowed down. I wasn't really in the race to "race" though, I just wanted to finish... and hopefully make a respectable time. At least, that's what I kept telling myself. The sight of so many numbered skiers created a strong urge to race. The course gradually narrowed to 50 yards, and we hit powerline hill - the first big climb of the race. Everyone stomped up the hill herring-bone style, with their skies pointed in a "V" shape. Small groups of spectators were camped in the woods near the course. They hollered encouragements, beat drums and waved us up the hill. At 4.5km, I reached the first food station.
A couple tables were set up with big piles of bananas, fruit and power-gu. Volunteers passed-out drinks of water and power-aide to the skiers. The drinks were warm, they were less a shock to the body that way. It was cold enough outside, the last thing anybody needed was a cold drink. I wasn't tired. In fact, I felt really good. I was still worried though, I'd never skied close to 23km before in my life, and had no idea how to pace myself. I stopped for a few seconds to drink a little, but the sight of dozens of skiers passing me was too much. My instinct to race took over and I was again on my way.
After powerline hill, the course narrowed further until it was only about 15 yards wide. The trees got closer, the skiers more spread out. The race became less hectic. It started to feel like less of a race and more of a nice tour through the woods. The path took us up and down a series of smaller hills. I tried talking to a couple other competitors, but most of them could only manage an occasional "...Uh-Huh..." between gasps for air. I was just starting to feel good about my skiing when a lean man zoomed past, easily going twice the speed of anyone else on the course. His bib identified him, "10086". Wave 10? I had barely been on the course a half-hour, that guy had only been skiing for 10 minutes. I knew there were a lot of good skiers further back in the pack who were skiing their first Birkie. They didn't have a wave placement, so they were put in the last wave. I felt slow again.
At 9km, the trail passed by another volunteer station. It advertised "first aid" and "wax". Wax? I didn't understand how anyone concerned about their ski wax would consider stopping long enough to get their skis re-waxed. I didn't stop to figure it out. A minute later, a banner strung across the race course directed skiers of the Kortelopet to take a left turn.
The Korte course looped back to the starting area via a long winding trail. The Korte trail was quieter than the Birkie trail. Only about a third of the skiers were skiing the Korte, and by 9km, the field had spread-out further. I was able to focus my attention on individual skiers, and measure my pace against theirs. Other than the occasional Wave 10 and 11 skier, few people were passing anyone anymore. We'd all pretty much settled into steady paces. I reached the next food station at 9.5km.
I stopped a little longer at the 9.5km station. My goal was to finish the Korte in under 3 hours, a time I figured would be respectable. I did some quick math and figured I'd have no problem... as long as I could keep-up my pace. My groin was starting to get sore. I didn't know how it would fare for the next 14km. I ate a banana, drank some power-aide and chatted with the volunteers. After a minute or two, it was time to get moving again.
I began to notice that while I was able to occasionally catch-up to skiers in front of me (particularly the other classic-style skiers), they'd zoom ahead in the downhill bits. My fish-scales were causing quite a bit of drag under my feet. I even slid to a stop on a couple more moderate downhill grades while others drifted past effortlessly. I couldn't complain though, it was part of the equation. It just made me more determined. I was skiing mostly with other Wave 7 classic-style skiers. A few skate-skiers from waves 8 and 9 slowly drifted past.
After the next food station, at 16km, the race became almost lonely. There were times when I couldn't see anyone ahead or behind me. Where were the thousands of competitors? In front? In back? I had no way to measure how well I was doing except the time on my watch. I was still good for a time under 3 hours. The little wooden plaques marking the distance slowly passed by. 18km, 19km, 20km... While I was sliding down a hill, my left foot simply stopped in the snow and I fell over. Damn. That had to look stupid, I thought. I couple racers glided past as I picked myself up. I wanted to explain that it wasn't my fault, "It's my skis! really!", but there was no point. Nobody cared anyway.
With only a couple km to go, I figured I would actually finish. My groin hadn't gotten worse, so I decided to go "all out" for the end. The finish line came before I was ready. People lined the trail and cheered for skiers they didn't know, skiers that were far from "elite". The elite skiers didn't need cheerleaders, they knew they were good. The skiers in wave 7 were the ones that needed encouragement.
I skied under the finish banner, and was met by someone who removed my ankle-timer. Another person handed me a medal as it was my first Korte. All the skiers had a number stamped on their bib which identified how many times they'd raced. Although I was skiing in Tom's place and he'd skied many races, there was some kind of error and my bib was stamped with a "1". I took off my skis, picked up my plastic bag full of clothes and changed. I wasn't anyone special anymore, just another guy walking around the lodge. I got on a bus and headed for Hayward.
I met my brother and Tom at a bar in town. My brother had finished the Birkie before I finished the Korte. He wasn't too excited about his race though, "I just about hit a wall with 7km left to go", he said, "I had to stop and stretch out my legs". He shook his head in mild disappointment. "I didn't have the right wax", he continued, "I had to double-pole downhill" (plant both poles with each stride - usually one pole is enough, two will wear you out). The slushy conditions made the birkie more difficult on a lot of the competitors, the wetness caused more friction between the skis and snow, and greatly reduced the amount of "glide". "Next year, I'm gonna get some of that pixie dust...", he decided.
The three of us got in a car and drove to the last food station on the Birkebeiner trail. Our plan was to meet Tom's wife Mary as she came through... if she made it that far. The food station was at Mosquito Creek, 7.5km from the finish line. When we arrived, skiers from wave 6 and 7 were just coming through. Many of them were visibly exhausted, but all of them appeared to be having a good time. We helped distribute the drinks and food to the passing skiers. Every one of them stopped.
Most of the skiers welcomed the chance to break for a little while. Some of them took off their skis and sat down. One skier stopped to clip his toenails. Some were skiing their first Birkie, some their 20th. They were all very grateful for our help. We explained that we'd skied that morning and were just waiting for a friend. They seemed to like that even more. It meant more to get encouragement from other skiers. "I only skied the Korte", I humbly told them, "I don't know if I could ski the whole thing...". While we were standing there, a trio of women dressed in uncle-sam attire, toting balloons and a boom-box came walking down the trail, against the grain of the ski-traffic. "Hey, it's the bitches from 'bitch hill'", my brother explained. The women were a cheering section from the last big uphill climb of the Birkie trail. They were calling it a day, still shouting at the skiers as they headed off the course.
An hour passed by. The stream of skiers became thinner and thinner. They were from waves 9 and 10... still no sign of Mary. The skiers became more desperate looking. They were the end of the pack, the ones who were never sure if they'd actually make it. Because of that, the drama of their races were all the more intense. One of them had recently collapsed from a diabetic episode about 1km before Mosquito Creek. He really wanted to finish, but eventually decided the risk wasn't worth it. He shook his head, took off his skis and slumped his shoulders as he walked to a nearby parking lot. A group of officials decided to close-down the course. If people didn't make it to Mosquito Creek soon, they wouldn't finish before dark. We figured that Mary had gotten off the trail somewhere before Mosquito Creek. We headed back to Hayward.
We met Mary back in town, she had a nasty blister on her foot. She'd gotten to the 31.8km point, but it had become too painful to continue. The four of us headed to a restaurant for a big barbeque rib dinner. We were all too tired or sick to celebrate much, but I had a new feeling of satisfaction and possibility. I knew that someday I had to learn how to skate-ski, and go back to ski the Birkie. I'd caught a little bit of Birkie fever, and there was only one cure.
FYI: I finished the Korte in 2:36:32.5. Compared to "freestyle" (skate skiing) Korte skiers, I was #457/608. Compared to other classic-style skiers, I was #53/183. In my age group for classic-style, I was #11/27. My pace was 6:51/km. Maurizio Pozzi from Italy won the Birkie with a time of 1:57:09.2 and a pace of 2:36/km.