Mitch Mode’s 2013 Birkie experience
My winter season comes down to this: Pre-Birkebeiner and Post-Birkebeiner. Pretty basic. Pre-Birkie I try to ski, ski on days off, ski sometimes before work, ski as much as I can. Which, in this threadbare winter, was not very much at all. Days of no snow led, eventually, to time of little snow and, at long last, times of decent snow. But the days of decent snow were late and too few and the season that, for me, opened in optimism spiraled like a falling star to a season of frustration.
If I cannot ski often I am not happy and I did not ski a lot this winter. As with so many things you may not like the way things go but you have to deal with them. Every other skier was in the same boat.
The Birkebeiner is a race, for certain, but more: It is an event, a three-day long series of kids races and dog-pulling-skier races and sprints on Main Street of Hayward (covered in a thick layer of trucked-in snow) for the elite skiers. It is a party, it is a big business, it is a celebration and it is a reunion of the skiers. And on Saturday morning, a time to ski.
Come Saturday morning thousands gather at the start, the bands play, the flags wave, the dreary winter day comes alive to color and spark under somber gray skies. And when the start gun sounds we ski.
We ski from the Telemark Lodge over hill and dale to finish, should all go well, in downtown Hayward where crowds line the street and music fills the air and there is, as incongruous as it may be in this crowd, the sweet and smoky scent of cooking bratwurst in the air.
It is, no matter how you cut it, a long way to ski. Classic skiers go for 54 kilometers (translate that to about 33 miles); skaters for 50km (and a companion race, the Kortelopet, runs for 23km). You toe the line with a sense of apprehension; there is a long race ahead.
On last Saturday the day dawned under a hazy sky; the day before it had snowed, 4″, 5″, 6″; the jury was still out. New snow, and a fair amount at that, makes for a slow track. It was mild; the overnight forecast called for low teens but at daybreak it was 22. That can play havoc with the wax choice for skis. It adds to the tension. All this can play with a skier’s mind, can undercut their confidence as moving water undercuts sand on a riverbank and the bank, weakened, erodes.
You start nonetheless; you can do no less. You push off under the Start banner, skiers in a blur of color and energy on either side of you, skiers ahead and, should you risk a turn back, skiers behind. Your heart is pounding now, your pulse races, your body heat rises. You are underway.
You seek an even pace; that will serve you well for the miles ahead. You try to maintain a mental focus on your surroundings, the skiers near you, your pace and your technique. Mistakes made early in the race can haunt you later. Go out too fast and you can burnout later. Make a rash move and you can fall, hard, and you are compromised and shaken.
I sought the even, steady pace that I knew I needed. I did not have the long hours in training, I knew that; I don’t think anyone in this area had the hours on snow. Now, on a slow day I knew that to ski smart was, for me, the only option. I could not ski fast; I did not have the legs for that, not on this day, not in this season.
For all the festivities, for all the celebration, for all the good times of the gathering of the Nordic tribe, for all of this the Birkebeiner remains a race that shows no mercy. The 55 kilometer course that wanders like a stream through the woods, that rises and falls like a cardiac patient’s pulse, that goes on seemingly forever, that race course exposes all weaknesses of those who ski it. If you do not have the technique; if you have not done the work; if you are not prepared; if that, then you will be shown up for those lapses. You will stand as a house upon shifting sands, as a building built on a poor foundation that trembles on the wind as a leaf on a tree.
On a good day the Birkie is your best friend; inviting and convivial, offering up an entertaining and enjoyable time on snow; the miles fly by, the skis glide like clouds driven by wind and you feel as if you could ski until the end of time. On other days the Birkie turns on you like a junkyard dog; the hills rise into cloud; the miles turn over slowly as if made sluggish by cold and snow and you count the kilometer markers even as they seem to come so slowly as if time itself has slowed. But no, it is not time that has slowed; it is your legs that have failed. It is not the kilometers that have become sluggish and distant; it is your body that has done the same.
On the good days the Birkie is a joy; on the not-so-good days it is a burden to be borne. I was having a not-so-good day and I knew it and knew it early.
That’s the way it lines up some years. That’s the way the Birkie can go. You don’t have it, you know that’s the case, and you have a long way to go. On that day the miles dragged; the hills did not cease (I ask myself: Was it this hilly last year? even as I know that answer is Yes). Sound was muffled; slap of ski on snow, sound of breathing, sound, infrequently, of talk back and forth between skiers. The day was gray and heavy; at times I felt a light, damp snow on my face.
I never think of the finish until I’m well into the race. At 35km with 20 remaining, then I start to do the numbers; “20k left but 5 are on the lake so if I can do 15 I’ll be OK”. At 40K I’m starting to cramp up but I know then that I’ll be able to get in, slow and getting slower but still moving forward. At 45km a long, long uphill and I have my head down and I’m plodding, just trying to keep going, having no pretense to skiing well now; it’s survival time.
Then over a hill, long downhill, then flat fields leading to the lake. On the lake and a long line of skiers snake ahead of me. On the tree line I can see the tops of buildings; downtown Hayward. Spectators are scattered along the lake; they call out encouragement. They tell me that I’m looking good but I know it’s a lie.
The end of the lake comes ever so slowly; skiers pass me and I see them only as a blur of color and motion. Then off the lake, around a corner and Main Street lies ahead and with it sound and music and at the very end the Finish banner.
I am skiing badly now, clumsy and uncoordinated and the snow is very soft and difficult and all I want to do is move forward and not fall. I hear someone call my name; I hear calls from the crowd but my world is now a narrow tunnel of gray and nothing else exists for me save for the narrow tracks set in the snow.
Then the finish. I can stop, take off my skis, stand still and feel my world expand again, expand to see spectators and recognize a skier who passed me, an old friend and we talk as I walk to the back of the finish area where my wife waits and asks, “How did it go?” And I tell her it was very hard and very slow .
We leave the finish area; I pull on dry clothes. We find the car and she starts to drive back to motel. I realize I am very hungry and we pull into a fast food joint and I buy junk food and lean back in the seat and eat bad food and feel both very tired and very good about it all.
Mitch Mode’s Outdoor Advernture column appears every other week in the Rhinelander Star Journal.
Mode is co-owner of Mel’s Trading Post, a sporting goods store located in downtown Rhinelander since 1946.