My nerves still get to me. Three decades into it now, and you’d think I’d be used to it. In a sense I am; I know what it’s all about. I’ve been there before, near three dozen times been there. One would think after all those years there would not be much I’ve not seen. That may be true. And one might think that because of that familiarity, I’d be relaxed and casual about it all. That would be a logical and reasonable conclusion to draw. I would not argue.
But that familiarity, that knowledge, that all comes back to me now and it does not ease my mind. I’ve seen a lot, and because of that, I don’t relax. My nerves still get to me, my anxiety level rises as the late winter sun rises. I’ve seen it all, seen what can go right and seen what can go wrong, and because of that, I get nervous this week, the week that will lead, next Saturday, to the American Birkebeiner. I’ve done 34 of them, and I’ve seen a lot of what can happen, and because of that I spend fretful days and restless nights.
Not that many years ago Sally went to the race for the first time. It was, for me, the usual pre-race time, a chance to visit with old friends seen once a year, a time to review snow conditions and make plans for ski preparation, a day or two to tend to details for race day. After a day of it, she turned to me and said, without preamble, “Weather and wax; wax and weather. That’s all you guys talk about.” She did not seem impressed by this fact.
Weather and wax; wax and weather. Those two variables drive the experience of skiing the Birkebeiner. The weather first. I’ve skied it at 15 below zero (and more than once) and I’ve skied it when it was near 50 above. Dress wrong at minus 15, and you’ll risk frostbite and misery. That happened last year, happened to a lot of skiers. Fifteen below at the start, never getting a lot warmer; it was a terrible day for a lot of friends.
Too warm? Your skis sink into wet snow like it was quicksand. Or you go from a bit too cold to a tad too warm, and it throws off everything. Dress wrong, and you’re too cold or too hot, and neither is a good thing. So weather, yes there is always the weather to fret about.
Then there is the wax. Skis work, skate skis or stride skis, based on the wax applied. Some waxes determine glide, and others govern grip for those who use the traditional kick-and-glide technique. If you miss the glide, you’ll have skis that run slow. That can be an issue, but you can live with slower skis. There’s not anything you can do; you just go slower, and it can be very frustrating.
Kick wax is another story. If you miss the kick wax badly, your skis will either have no glide or no grip. Both of those are more than a frustration; both of those are a deal breaker. Either of those scenarios can leave you standing alongside the trail, watching skiers pass like a fast moving river while you lean on your poles in abject misery. You perhaps can venture a guess at how I know this.
I have, in my years of skiing the race, a long and checkered history of choosing the wrong wax. I have had skis that did not give me enough grip to climb the easiest hill. I have had skis that were painfully slow. I’ve had skis that simply did not work for me, and did not work because I and I alone had chosen the wrong wax for that day.
[A side note: I give good advice. If asked what wax I recommend, I pick a wax and am fairly conservative about it, and people use it and have great skis. Then I go with something else entirely and suffer for it.]
In a time years ago that I was skiing better than I’d ever skied, and had visions of a fast Birkie time, I waxed my skis in the pre-race darkness, tested them and pronounced them good to go. Then I chatted with a friend of mine, recently the coach of the U.S. Olympic ski team. He asked what I used; I told him. He paused, thought a bit, said, “I’m not sure that’ll last.”
I went to the start, gunned it hard and fast, and 10 kilometers into the 55 kilometer race I was standing next to the track, the wax having worn off to the point of being ineffective, trying in vain to work more wax onto the skis. It was a long, hard day, and one that brought no satisfaction.
There have been other days for me, days that have brought that same level of head-banging frustration. It is from those days, from those memories, that the anxiety of this week arises like a foul mist. There is no real comfort in memory of the times when the skis worked like a dream, with rock-solid grip and silky-smooth glide. Those memories are overshadowed by the days of unmitigated failure.
Weather and wax; wax and weather: It is for this I worry.
Last year I ever so carefully waxed my skis the night before, laboring over then with tender care and affection. The wax was as it should be: smooth and flawless, like a satin ribbon affixed to the ski base. Skis ready, I went to bed.
And I could not sleep for the worry that I’d done it wrong. I tossed and turned and thrashed without pause from lights out til the pre-dawn darkness when I got up. I dressed and went outside and tested the skis. Then I came inside, and in a rush of haste and angst, cleaned off all the wax and did it over again. The result was sloppy work that spelled “rookie skier” all over it. I took those skis to the start and skied the race on them. They worked.
I’d like to say this year will be different, but I fear the worst. I’ll work in my skis this week, carefully cleaning them and doing prep wax, ironing in layers of glide wax for best results. I’ll watch the weather like a hawk. I’ll review wax guides; I’ll consult friends. I will wax skis and test them for effectiveness. I will live for the weather and the wax. I will be obsessive to a fault.
On Saturday, in the chill of a late February dawning, I’ll test the skis one final time, make up my mind, make my choice and walk the walk to the start line. I’ll stand at the start as I’ve done so many times before (where, oh where, have the years gone.) Then they’ll signal the start, and I’ll push off and look for the easy, rhythmic kick and glide of skiing.
The wax will work well. Or not. I’ll know in the first minutes of the race. Either way, there will be over 30 miles yet to be skied.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800.