I can never remember how many I’ve done: Thirty-six? Thirty-seven? Something like that. Details such as these tend to blur through the years. I have to look it up: Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven times that I’ve gone to the start line of the American Birkebiener; thirty-seven times that, some hours later, I’ve crossed under the Finish Line banner.
The numbers matter or they don’t; everyone makes of it what they will. When you do something for three dozen plus years it’s not about numbers, it’s not about the count; something else is at play. Do something for two dozen or three dozen or however many years, do whatever it is for that long and there is more going on than the ledger shows.
Open the fishing season for that many years; hunt the same deer stand over those decades; get together with old friends on the same weekend every year; it’s all the same. The numbers give a framework but the event carries more weight. The measure is beyond the black and white tick sheet that shows the years, the span that starts with single digits continues to numbers higher than one would ever have thought on that first time.
The numbers don’t tell the tale. Do something that often and you don’t have to look far to find friendship and tradition and memories and through it all the inexorable march of time. I ski the Birkebeiner and it is no longer a race for me but an event.
I’ve always said that the Birkebeiner represents a great divide in the population. When you first hear about it (“OK, here’s the deal: you ski for 35 miles or so in the middle of the Wisconsin woods no matter what the weather”) people immediately divide into two camps. Some say, “That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of and anyone who does that is missing a few bricks in their chimney.” Or you say to yourself, “Dang! That really sounds like fun. I’m going to do it!”
That’s it; there is very little gray area. Great idea or folly. You either start the mental checklist on what it would take to ski the event or you write it off.
I liked it from the day I heard about it. Still do. I did the thinking part; didn’t take long. Then decided I’d do it and started to work toward that goal. And on a Saturday morning years and years ago I went to the line, nervous and anxious and wondering if I could make it to the finish. I did. And I was hooked.
I figured I’d do five of them; nice round number, enough to make the point that I was a long distance skier and that was important to me at the time. I did five and moved on, still skied a lot, still raced some, but I was done with the Birkie. I’d skied it, I’d skied it well, I took satisfaction from it. I was done with the Birkie.
Until I wasn’t. Until the week of the race the next year when, on Monday, I decided I’d ski it, entered, showed up and did it again. And never looked back.
Now it’s what I do. Do it in the same way I head to deer hunting camp every November, head to the woods every September to hunt grouse, ride bicycle every summer. All part of the fabric of what I make of my life in the same way we all have parts and parcels of our lives that we weave together, year after year. We all have our traditions. We all honor them, make time for them, accept them as part of who we are while at the same time not letting them define who we are. Skiing the Birkie is part of who I am; it is not who I am.
There was a time it was who I was and I lived the Birkie near every day of the year. I’d run and I’d ride and I’d roller ski, all summer. In fall I gave up hunting which I loved dearly, gave it up to train. When snow fell I skied. On the Saturday of the Birkie I lined up and I skied hard.
Over time it changed. Most things do. I hunt with a different attitude than I did when I was younger. I no longer run marathons or ride for long distances. I no longer ski the Birkie with a fast time as the goal. But I ski it. It is part of what I do; part of what I am; part of the warp and weave that holds things together for me. We all have these things in our lives.
I no longer have the drive it takes to ski well in the terms of time. To ski fast and to ski well takes time, an inordinate amount of time, and it takes discipline, the iron-willed focus on the goal. I don’t have that. I am no longer willing to make the sacrifices it takes. Things change.
Now I spend my autumns in the company of my dogs, grouse on our minds. The roller skis, for the most part, gather dust. I spend time at the deer camp and if it snows I do not hang up the rifle for the skis. In times past I did that, left the deer hunt gear in the corner and skied every day. When snow comes I get out when I can; I do not force the issue. Things change.
Once the holiday season is over I ski two days a week, maybe three. I find, on the good days, the comfortable rhythm of skiing and on those days I ski easy and find enjoyment. On days when the rhythm is missing I despair for its loss.
Nearly every day in the winter when I do not have to work I ski. If something comes up that keeps me off snow I think of skiing and lament my not doing it. In winter the Birkebeiner is always on my mind. In the old days, decades past now, the Birkebeiner was on my mind every day of the year. Now, only winter. Things change.
Things change and they don’t. I still fight nerves on the night before the race, tossing and turning the night away all too often. I go to the start with a vague uncertainty of what the day will bring. I never, ever, assume things will go smoothly.
This season I skied well, got the miles in, skied for distance and at times kicked it up to a higher gear and skied at a pace that now passes for fast for me. I felt good. I had fun. And I started having thoughts, that maybe this year I’d ski it faster, push it harder, see what I had left.
Then two weeks ago I came down with a cold that settled deep and stayed long and on this Saturday will go to the line not having been on skis for over 2 weeks. So it goes. Back when I skied hard and fast and defined my year by how I skied the Birkebeiner, back then it would have been a major crisis. Now, an annoyance. Things change.
Things change, yes they do. And things stay the same, sometimes at the same time as they change. The Birkebeiner for me is now a life experience, always there, always part of what I do and in that part of who I am. Not just a tally of numbers. Same as we all have something in our lives that we count on.
Now, another cold Saturday in February; a crowd at the start area; color and sound and excitement. Toe the line, look down the track; wait. Then the sound of the gun, the explosion of movement all around, the chaos of the start. And the long trail ahead, the trail that I got on 37 years back and never got off.
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