“Maybe it was that in 40 years I’d seen skiers come and go, friends who skied with me, friends that I may see once a year or once every five years, always at the Birkie.”
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
The tracks at the American Birkebeiner had been set overnight and in the chill of early morning were pure and well-formed. It was cold, below zero and clear. The sun was low; shadows reached from woodlands across the snow of the unsullied race course. The tracks lined out straight and crisp and well defined, as were dreams of the skiers waiting. Everything was set; all stood still: the tracks and the snow and the skiers, their frosty breath rising to meet the sun.
Then the gun sounded and the first wave of skiers was off in a blur of movement and barely controlled chaos of sound and color.
I was in the first group, not by measure of past excellence but as a tribute to the group of skiers with the most Birkies completed, 40 or so skiers who have finished in the vicinity of 40 Birkies. We are given an all-red bib to commemorate the 35 skiers who, years ago, had skied the first American Birkebeiner.
The faster skiers lined up in groups behind us. They would go off in 10 minutes.
I skied out with the red-bibbed group, found a good track and started the long trek that, if all went well, would end on the snow-covered main street in Hayward, 55 kilometers away.
There were two skiers ahead of me. I let them go. It was early. There were miles to go. It would be a long day.
It was a beautiful day to ski. Fresh snow under a clear sky and rising sun. No wind. No sound save for the clap of ski to snow and the sound of my breathing. I skied on, looking for a rhythm: not too fast, not too slow.
I did not have it. I could not find it, the steady, efficient tempo of the distance skier. My mind wandered, my thoughts were scattered, my technique sloppy and undisciplined. To ski distance is a mental exercise as much as physical. On this day, on this 40th time on the Birkebeiner trail, I simply did not have it.
In an ultimate irony in a race that has 7,000 entrants, I was alone on the trail. I dawdled on my skis, stopped on the top of small hills for no other reason than to look at the landscape. Race mind? Race focus? Neither were there.
A skier passed me. I forced myself from my odd reverie and upped my tempo and skied behind him. I stayed there for more than 10 kilometers, letting him mark the pace. I did not have to think; I just let him lead.
The faster skiers came up on us, a group of seven, a few singles, then more and more, a steady stream, all very fit and fast. I watched them with a mix of detachment and awe. They were very good.
The clear, pure tracks wore down and became choppy and uneven as so often do the dreams and the goals and the best laid plans of skiers who come to the start line of the American Birkebeiner. By mid-race, the tracks on the uphills were soft and uneven and more difficult to ski in.
I kept tempo with the skier ahead of me as the kilometers ticked down. I skied at his pace. I did not focus. I just skied.
It was an odd place for me to be, that state of detachment from the race. It had been that way all week. Maybe it was the thought of doing it for 40 years. Four decades of toeing the line in the largest race in North America, a race of significant importance in my life. Maybe that was it, the enormity of considering that 40 years had passed and the weight of that all came down.
Maybe it was that in 40 years I’d seen skiers come and go, friends who skied with me, friends that I may see once a year or once every five years, always at the Birkie. Friends that have passed now or have slowed to a stop, burdened by infirmities of age and the inevitable breakdown of a body. Friends who I do not see now.
Or perhaps it was the knowledge that this day, the 24th of February, was the date my mother died. I skied the Birkie every year with thoughts of her in my mind. But this year, 40 years into it, on the anniversary of her death, maybe that pushed the race focus from my mind to consideration of things more important than a mere ski outing, for in the grand scheme of life a ski race is of marginal import.
At 29 kilometers to go, I passed the skier who I’d paced off. I was better focused now, better into the moments of racing. I never skied fast that day, but the kilometers passed. There were hills; it is not an easy course. But the time and the miles passed.
I skied onto the lake, less than 3 kilometers to go. The trail across the lake was marked by skiers, a steady ribbon of color and movement. Then off the lake, around a corner and onto a bridge that rose up into the February sky and spanned the roadway.
I skied up the bridge and for a moment I could see the street ahead, covered with snow, lined with spectators. I paused for a brief instant and took it all in: the bridge and the street ahead, the cheering crowd, the blue sky overhead.
There were tracks, clear and well defined and at the end of them, the finish. I leaned on the poles and pushed off, down the back side of the bridge and into the tracks and the tracks led to the finish line. The tracks were clear and seemed to glow as if from within and in that, they were as the dreams of the skiers.
I finished the race, my 40th, and stood still just past the finish line. I felt as if a weight had lifted.
PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED BY SALLY MODE
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.