The Birkebeiner that wasn’t
A valiant fight by the race came up short this year
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
In the old days there were Friday Night Fights. Grainy TV and two boxers in the ring; a square of canvas reality bound by rope as if the intent was to confine within the boundaries the energy and mayhem of those inside. Two boxers; a fixed arena; slugging it out.
At times one fighter would be hopelessly overmatched, struggling against all odds, against all hope, against what seemed the cruelty of the world beyond the ring.
You’d always root for him. We love to pull for the underdog, for the certain-to-be-loser, hoping against hope that in the waning minutes of the final round, down but not quite out, against the ropes and seemingly without hope, the underdog would reach back and unload the haymaker of the right hand and connect hard and in the end raise his hands in triumph. Against all odds.
It rarely happened. What are the odds? What odds that the overmatched pugilist, pummeled time and time again, would rise up in victory? Slim and none. That was the chance: Slim and none. Not unlike a team in the Super Bowl being down a couple dozen points at halftime and coming back to win. Really, what are the odds?
That was the story last week at the American Birkebeiner. A week of thawing weather hit like the heavy-handed punches of a boxer and put the race on the ropes. A day of 60 degrees; a hard shot to the body. Another 60 degree day; a right hook to the jaw. A warm day, again; a body blow like a boxer taking a hard hit, staggering back on his heels. The Birkie took on a personality, an organic being not just an event. You felt bad for it in the way you would for a person.
The weather pummeled the Birkie. Temperatures above average and not by a little. Early week and a breaking news report; the lake over which the last kilometers of the race ran, Lake Hayward, was opening up near town. The race director, via Facebook video, summed it up: “We can get you on the lake; we can’t get you off.”
Wham! A hard shot to the head of the Birkie. Now the race would not finish downtown in Hayward, that glorious three-block stretch of Main Street, covered with trucked-in snow and lined with throngs of cheering spectators. That would not happen. The race would be shortened.
The skiers watched it unfold. Watched the weather come in big and dark like an overweight puncher, seemingly all fat and flab but no, with a mean streak cut into its soul with a jagged knife and the ability to hit hard. The race stood like the patsy and took another blow.
The big haymaker came on Monday night when hard rains moved in, near an inch and a half. The rain beat and battered what remained of the race course, that hard-packed ribbon of compacted snow that ran from Cable to Hayward and on race day would be the center of the ski world for many. The rains hit it and hit it hard and left the race backed into the corner, beaten and bloodied and stumbling.
After the rains came they announced the race would, at best, go halfway, from Cable to Co. Hwy. OO, known in Birkie parlance as “Double Oh.” The Birkie was on the ropes and barely hanging on.
The rain on frozen ground left pools of water in low areas. The race crew brought portable generators and sump pumps to remove the water. The sound of generators and pumps filled the late February air in the middle of the winter woods; the heartbeat of the race on life support.
There is always hope. It springs, so we are told, eternal. There is hope when Rocky is beaten to a near pulp; there is hope when your team is down 25 in the Super Bowl; there is hope when Aaron Rodgers throws a Hail Mary that rises into the stratosphere before rainbowing down toward terra firma. Always hope.
The hope last week was the snowstorm forecast for Friday.
Five inches, maybe eight. Did someone hear a foot? Yes, a foot of snow coming in on Friday! They’d pack that snow down and Saturday morning run a race, a race shorter than planned but a race nonetheless. The snow would fall hard and pile up and the Birkie would swing hard, connect and raise arms in triumph.
Against all odds.
The snow was the hope and the salvation. That big storm was the Hail Mary come to Birkie-land, the Rocky Balboa comeback over Apollo Creed, the beaten and downtrodden rising up in triumph. The snow, the big snow, oh yes, that would make all things right and the largest race on the continent would rise up in all its power and glory and majesty.
On Friday it would snow; on Saturday we would ski. It was destiny. It would be the Miracle Birkie.
It didn’t happen. Not even close. The big storm was a narrow band of heavy snow but it moved south, shifted just a few degrees off target. The storm, on the weather map, was the shape of a dagger, long and thin and pointed. It missed the Birkie trail and in so doing cut out the heart of the big race.
Thirty miles away they got snow. Thirty miles; the distance, give or take, of the full length Birkebeiner, Cable to Hayward, start to finish.
On Friday morning skiers in town for the race pressed faces to windows and looked out at gray, funereal skies and snow flurries. The forecast had changed; less than an inch was due.
On this day there would be no comeback; on this morning there would be no glory; on this day, only heartache and disappointment and loss.
Eleven o’clock Friday morning and the announcement came: The race was cancelled. There would be no miracle comeback this time around.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.