Thirty-nine finish lines crossed, but in awe of one man’s first
By Mitch Mode
I woke at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the Birkebeiner sweat-damp with anxiety and a mind revving up to red zone. I was hating the thought of the race, questioning everything that I knew, ripped with self-doubt. I lay in bed, cable-wound tight. I could not fall back to sleep.
The prior day had not gone well. I tested two pairs of skis. One was a backup; the other my first choice. It was warm and humid and rain was forecast. Those conditions make for very difficult choices for grip wax, the key to making a ski work. There was tension in the air.
I unloaded skis, found poles. The first problem: I had two right gloves. I looked dumbly at them then jammed one on my left hand and clipped into the skis. I headed out on the trail, nice and easy. This was not about being fast, this was about testing the skis for grip and glide, the cornerstone upon which all cross country skiing is built.
The first pair, the backup, was worthless; no grip at all. I skied back, put on the favorite pair, headed out. Better, but barely so and not adequate to ski the 56km the next day. I stood there and felt a cloud of doom settle. It was less than 24 hours til the start. I had no idea what to do.
I spent the afternoon fretting, watching rain fall. Darkness came early. Toward evening I took the backup pair of skis and applied klister, a thick, gooey wax that works well in wet snow. I had no idea if it would work.
I slept poorly, my mind racing over possibilities of wax that might work or not work and knowing that to miss the wax badly means trying to cover the 30 plus miles on skis that would not do what a ski needs to do.
At two-thirty I was wide awake and full of dread and not at all looking forward to the morning.
It was a warm morning. The snow was damp. I ate a handful of food, drank a cup of coffee, paced the room, worried.
We loaded the car, the klister-waxed skis laid gently in the back. And then, as I put my hand on the hatch to close it, I paused. On a whim, I went back in a got the second pair of skis, the rejects from the day before.
I tested both skis and they both ran well. I talked to other skiers, compared our results. I stood there in the hoopla of pre-race buildup and considered things. Then I chose the pair of skis that had not worked well the day before, the ones that I was going to leave back at the motel.
The gun sounded.
They worked, those skis, they worked very well. They gave me grip; they ran smooth and fast on the glide; they were a perfect choice.
It is a difficult course, long and hilly with a series of energy-draining climbs that wear one down. It is easy to get discouraged on that trail, easy to feel sorry for oneself as the muscles ache and fatigue builds.
Ten or twelve kilometers into the race I glanced back; two skiers coming up on me, steady. I put my head down and skied on. I heard the skiers and out of the corner of my eye saw them approach. They drew near, then even to me. I looked over and then looked down; I had to. The lead skier was sitting on a small seat that was fastened on an aluminum frame to his skis. His head was about my waist level.
He was a double below the knee amputee.
He was there for a few moments, skiing with me, using only his arms and poles. Then he moved away from me. Up one of the toughest hills on the course.
Your mind takes a lot of turns in a distance race. You have hours on the race course. Your mind can wander; go places far away. Your mind can focus tight as a laser; little changes in the snow look large, your pulse raises and lowers and your mind follows it. Your attention is tight; then relaxes. It is a mental game, a distance event.
But when you are skiing the Birkeiner and you are passed by a man with no legs who powers away from you as if you are standing still; if that happens your mind has something new to consider.
I wondered where he came from, wondered of his story. I was stunned by his sheer guts to attempt to do the entire race.
I watched him for a while, watched him pull away from me and eventually I lost sight of him.
I skied the race that day under heavy sky and with a dash of drizzle in the air. I skied steady and, for me, I skied well. But I wondered about the skier who did it using only his poles.
The finish of any long event is welcome. I finished, stood for a while, visited old friends. Then I walked down a side street away from the race. Another one done.
On the sidewalk I saw the skis and the framework and the small seat; the rig of the skier who’d passed me. He was standing on his artificial legs, carbon and metal. I talked to him for a moment, told him I was in awe of him, told him I admired his courage. I had no words, really, to express what I felt.
Later I read about him, a Navy SEAL who lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2009. Started to ski and started to race and did the Birkie this year, first time. Fifty-six kilometers using his arms only. Thought to myself; he did more in his one race than I’ve done in my thirty-nine races.
I was very tired that night. I slept well; I slept peacefully. And my last waking thought was of the man who raced it, arms only, with more courage and guts than I could imagine.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s trading Post downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.