By Mitch Mode
“What’s it been, about thirty-five years?”
Thirty-five years? Could it have been that long. We did the numbers: yes it could have been.
Last time was what? The race in Bemidji? The long one? Fifty kilometers, over 30 miles on Saturday; rest up; 50 kilometers back on Sunday. 100km total. Cross country skiing in the long marathon way back then.
He was from the east coast; I was midwest. We’d raced against each other all winter in small towns on narrow trails, long races and short. We’d bust our tails in every race, hell bent to beat each other, he and a dozen others. We race full bore, finish cold and tired then go out together for dinner and beers and try to find the cheapest motel. We hoped the cars would start on the next cold morning.
Bemidji. Cold that morning and we started off across the long lake into a wind. We lined out, fast skiers first but we were all pretty close then, early in the race. It was cold, near zero and we were totally exposed on the lake. I can’t remember how long it took to cross the lake but it was miserable.
Then into the woods and the long line of skiers began to break up and separate and each of us in our own private race. Thirty miles or so later we hit the finish line of the first day. I was in second place overall. Some guy fresh over from Norway was in first.
Next day I can’t even remember how we started, if it was in a group or individually based on the time for the previous day. I just know I skied well, never saw the guy in first but skied well, held on to second place. Skied well for ten miles and then twenty and on.
I skied well until I didn’t.
Fifteen kilometers from the end, less than ten miles to go and I hit the wall and I hit it hard. I stood off the side of the trail. I had nothing left. I stood there and watched the skiers pass me, singly, in small groups, my friend for the east coast amongst them.
Eventually I skied on but I was walking dead. I grabbed a candy bar from a spectator and I got enough of a bump in energy to make it to the lake. In the distance, way off, I could see the town and the finish. It took forever to get there.
There were spectators on the lake and some would yell out, “Looking good” and when they did I’d yell back, told them I looked like heck and I knew it and don’t humor me. I think I finished 15th or 20th or something. A long way from second; an eternity from first.
That was the last time I saw the guy who, a week ago, stopped by to visit and said, “What’s it been, thirty-five years? The race in Bemidji?” And I thought, yes, the race in Bemidji when I hit the wall so hard it hurt. The race where another friend came to the lake and was stumbling on skis so bad that some old lady pulled him off the race course and to her house and put him in a bathtub full of hot water so he did not go deeper in to hypothermia.
Thirty-five years and he ended up in Alaska and I ended up where I started. Back then we lived to ski. Now we love to ski.
There’s a difference.
They usually get snow in mid to late October and if the snowplows don’t clean off the road in front of his house he can ski from his front door to the trails a quarter mile away. Skis five or six times a week. He has friends who try to talk him into taking winter vacations; says he likes to ski too much to miss winter. I tell him of my sister who spent winters in Florida and got peeved because I never visited her; I like to ski too much to head for the beach, same as him.
We visited some then he left for the Twin Cities and a flight home. I went back to work and waited for a day off so I could ski. And I thought how sometimes things change so much and sometimes not at all and he and I, thirty-five years apart, could still sit down and talk of skiing and how much we both love it.
Sometimes you wonder where it comes from, the love of an activity, of a sport, of a place. I thought back to a day when I was a kid, 10, maybe 12 years old, skiing downhill with my mom. Mom and I skied at an old downhill place, Squirrel Hill which later became Minocqua Winter Park and devoted to cross country skiing only.
Back then it was a downhill area and it had a rope tow and my mom told me to let the rope run between my mitts and the friction of moving rope over leather mitts would warm my hands. We’d take a couple runs and I’d want to quit and she’d say, “Let’s try one more.” I’d let the rope heat my hands; one more run.
It was twenty below zero that day.
You deal with it.
I was a kid then and years later at Bemidji I was a lot older. I learned to love to ski when I was a kid; lived to ski when I was older; love to ski to this day.
I thought of that all this week after I visited with my old friend and after the hard cold weather moved in last weekend. Thought of how we, all of us, sometimes go a long way to get back to where we were all along. Thought of how heat can forge metal but cold can forge your soul and bring warmth for years.
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