There were no surprises on the morning of the 41st running of the American Birkebeiner. The outline was set in the days prior; all that remained were details.
The script for the weekend was written Thursday under lowering cloud and high humidity. Toward sundown it began to snow, heavy and wet; headlamps from cars barely opened the gloom. Those lucky enough to be in the area hunkered down; outside the wind blew, the snow fell.
There was no dawning Friday, only a gradual lightening of the gray as if layers of onion-skin thinness were peeled back until the day slowly took form. There was deep snow across the land. Claims varied; a foot; 14 inches; 16. Bottom line: A lot of snow had fallen and by all estimates if that had been the day of the race it is very unlikely that it would have gone off. There was simply too much snow.
By midday Friday a consensus was forming in the ranks and it boiled down to this: Saturday’s race would be a slow, arduous affair. New snow creates a soft, slow track. Cold snow robs glide, demands increased effort. Wind-blown snow is very slow. And cold, windy weather drains a skier’s reserves; energy is diverted from ski muscles as the body struggles to maintain warmth. Take any one of those and you’d have a slow day. Put them all together and you had no chance of a fast time. And that was what the forecast called for.
In our rooms, of the seven skiers signed up two bowed out, citing nagging injuries. Two others looked at the forecast for a cold day and decided not to start. Three of us made ready.
Gear and clothing were laid out. Extra clothing layers added. Consideration given to the biting cold we’d encounter. Of the three skiers in our group that would start one had 22 Birkies completed (plus five of the shorter race, the Korteloppet); one had finished 39 of them; I’d done 36. We’d been there before. But there is always rising anxiety on race eve; always.
Race day: 5:15 a.m. Lights come on; the blue light of iPads and smartphones glow. We check the weather; 7 below. The forecast; high in the low teens, gusty winds. We pull down e-mails and find an alert from the Birkie office: The large, circus-size tent has collapsed under snow load and wind. This is not a good omen for the tent is filled with heaters, and legions of skiers huddle there before the start, staving off the cold for as long as they are able. There is another, smaller tent but that will not be enough.
Breakfast is a nervous affair. I have a cup of granola; some coffee. A companion skier who on this day will ski the long race for the 40th time (only one skier has done more Birkies) fuels up with bacon and eggs.
We leave at 6:30 into the cold and dark. We drive 15 minutes to a temporary parking lot; take a bus to the start. The bus is warm; windows frosted; mood of skiers sober.
Pre-race is a blur. We find shelter in the smaller tent. There we make final adjustments; clothing set, hat snugged down, face-mask pulled up; race number in place. Then out into the cold.
A long line of skiers walks to the start; color and movement but little sound save for the squeak of cold snow underfoot. Clouds of breath rise in the chill. The mood is very serious; there is no back-and-forth chatter, no sound of laughter.
Warm-up clothing is shed and stuffed in large numbered bags, tossed into waiting trucks to be transported to the finish line. Then into the start area, clip into bindings, listen to the PA announcer. They play the national anthem but there is no flag; the wind is too strong to raise the flag.
We face into a stiff wind; the temperature is 4 below. It is very cold. Then the gun sounds.
I ski out fast, as fast as is reasonable for me, not to gain advantage, no, my goal is more practical than that. I know that the trail turns into the woods after several hundred yards and there we’ll be out of the wind; I ski fast to seek shelter.
I have started in the first group, not based on fast times but more mundane criteria; they seed the 35 or so skiers who have skied the most Birkies and let them start first. It is not about skiing fast that puts me there; it is about showing up, showing up now for more than 36 years. The elite skiers will start shortly.
Our group splits; skate skiers go on one trail while traditional stride skiers go another. After the split I can see two skiers on front of me; one behind. The two skiers eventually move off while the other one and I hold pace. We will do this for nearly the entire race.
I find a rhythm. If I try to go too fast I’ll never finish the race and I know that. Steady, I tell myself, steady.
The cold is manageable. We’ve all skied in the cold this season; we should know how to dress for it. I’ve added an extra base layer shirt, stuffed hand warmers in my gloves, pulled my neck gaiter up over my face.
It is clear and sunny and the sky overhead is a blue dome. The trees hold snow from the storm; the snow on the ground is sparkling white and very deep. The sun plays on the trees; shadows reach out, give form to snow drift. The trail is not very wide and winds gently into the woods; up hill and down. I can see flashes of color; skiers on the move.
It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful days I can imagine. Day after day this season I’ve skied under heavy gloom of thick cloud. Today I am in a wonderland. I look around, far too often for I should be concentrating on the trail ahead, but on this day I do not care. I am entranced by the beauty. I could not dream of a more perfect day on which to ski.
Fifteen kilometers (about nine miles) into the race fast skiers begin to pass me. They’ve started behind me by quite a few minutes and now they pass, fast and fluid and quiet. There is a steady stream of skiers, all very fit, all very fast, all passing me as if I was standing still.
I live with it. In skiing, as with much of life, you reap what you sow. I’ve not done the work and it shows.
The kilometer markers pass one by one. At 30k I feel fine and start to think I can finish the race. At 40k I’m counting down; the last few kilometers are on Lake Hayward and I tell myself, I can ski 10k and walk the lake if I have to.
My steady pace has paid off; I ski faster now. I see one skier of the first four from the start; I pass him then see one of the others. I pass him as well. Onto the lake and the wind is so stiff it nearly stands me up. Windblown snow fogs the air; skiers ahead are indistinct, blurred by blowing snow. I keep my head down, talk myself into taking each stride. Across the lake and then off, a left turn and then a right and ahead is Main Street, packed with snow for the day and I see the finish banner and I give what I have left and cross the line and finally, after more than four hours and after 54 kilometers skied I stop. I stand and take it all in.
An aid worker asks if I would like him to take off my skis for me and I say yes. He hands them to me and I walk away from the finish line, away from the crowd, away from the long and winding trail. I stop and get a small pin that marks the years I’ve finished: 37. The worker staples it to my race bib.
Sally calls to me and I walk to her. She asks how I feel and I tell her I’m OK. And I think to myself: “Thirty-seven Birkies,” and wonder where all the years have gone.
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