Outdoor Adventures: 2015 Birkebeiner
We stood at the bus pickup under a sky lowered by cloud. It was snowing and dawn was near but on this morning it will not make a difference; clouds are heavy and gray and the sun would rise unseen. We are in the parking lot of a tavern. We are waiting for a bus that will take us to the start line of the American Birkebeiner.
Over 7000 others have a similar idea and so an elaborate system of buses, commandeered from every school system in the region serve on race day as a one-day mass transit system to ferry skiers from outlying parking areas to the start.
That is the plan. For now, we stand. There was a single yellow school bus that pulled away as we drove up. Since then, nothing.
We shuffle, foot to foot, like penguins on ice. We are dressed to ski, not to stand. Fingers chill. I dig into my gear bag and pull out a pair of heavy leather choppers and slide them on over my gloves.
Cars pull up, come to a stop; skiers emerge and look for a place to stand. Someone says, “Line starts there”, points behind where he stands, edginess in his voice. We wait ten minutes; ten more; longer.
There is a man trying to direct traffic at the bus drop-off. He is not having a very good day. We hear him on his cell phone; “I need more buses!” He listens. “I don’t care, I need buses!”
So we stand in the chill of the February morning; frosty breath rises toward sullen sky. The chill deepens; the bus does not come; the line grows. Someone says, “There’s three busses full here”. All standing.
Anxiety grows; muffled sounds of profanity snap in the air.
Half an hour has passed. My start time is less than thirty minutes out. I look to the man standing next to me. “I think we’re doomed”. He offers up his opinion of the situation; it is not printable.
We wait longer and then someone shouts, “Bus!” and we look down the road and see the bus with its turn signal on and it pulls in the parking lot and the door opens and we push in. The bus fills quickly then lurches out of the lot.
I tell the guy sitting next to me, ‘Thirty-seven years of doing this and this’ll be the first time I miss my start’. The bus drives on. It is warm inside. It feels good to sit again.
I hit the ground at a run when the bus stops, dodging skiers who trudge to the start area, skis over shoulders, warm-ups adding bulk to those who have none, ducking and dodging and hoping that I won’t slip on the ice. I hear the sound of the national anthem. I hear the voice of the PA announcer, an old friend who I met 35 years ago and never see but his voice is the same. He is giving the final thoughts before the start.
I toss my gear bag to a truck; they’ll haul it to the finish line. Then I run hard to the start area, stop at the fence, ask, “Where do I go to get in?” They point; I run some more. Then into the start area, toss skis to the snow; clip in the bindings, run pole straps over gloves. I take a long drink from a bottle of water. I hear my old friend start the countdown; “Ten seconds, nine, eight…”
I toss the bottle to the side, look ahead at the track; hold. Then the gun sounds and against all odds I’m off and on time.
Once the race starts things get easier. I’ve known that for years. Get your skis taken care of the night before, eat some good food, try for some decent sleep, don’t oversleep. Get through the traffic and get through the frantic time that leads to the gun; do all that, line up, wait for the gun; then it’s easy.
Then it’s easy; all you need to do is to ski. I’ve maintained for years that if you can ski around the block you can probably ski the Birkebeiner. Probably. You need to invest some time to train though for there is a simple truth about skiing long distances and that truth is this: You reap what you sow. If you do not put in the time in training you will not do well. If you do not log some long miles in January and February, do that on your days off and when you can, if you do not do that you will have a long day of it come Birkie Saturday.
Here is another truth about skiing the long races: It’s all about pacing yourself. Doesn’t matter if you’re fit and fast or old and slow. Go out too hard, ski too fast, push yourself too much too early and you’ll eventually run out of gas, hit the wall hard and stand alongside the track leaning on your ski poles, watching the legions of skiers pass you.
I’d been off skis over 2 weeks fighting a cold and did not know if I would have the legs and the lungs to make it that day. I really did not know. So I fell in behind two other skiers who were just a touch slower than I was and I stayed behind them for nearly half the race. I thought to myself, I ski faster on a slow day in training. But I held back.
It was a good day to ski. New snow, temperatures in the teens. The skis worked well; the track was good. I skied along very patiently behind the two skiers who’d started the same time as I had.
I passed the halfway point. I passed the 30km marker; 25 to go. I felt good; I felt steady. I felt safe enough and I picked up my pace. I did not ski fast but I skied faster. I left the two skiers who I’d followed and never saw them again.
It is not an easy course, the Birkebiener. It has long uphills that sap your strength; fast downhill that challenge your skills. And the length, over 30 miles, is unforgiving.
The miles passed. I passed some skiers; others passed me. I have long since quit racing others, my goal is a simple one: Do the best that I can. The race is never behind me, never ahead, always within.
There are several miles across a lake that leads to Main Street in Hayward and I skied steady, unspectacularly for the length of it all. It was breezy and chilly. Then off the lake and ahead was the snow covered street. I kicked with what I had left when I saw the finish banner, crossed it and heard my old friend on the PA call out my name and I turned, wondering where he was, then saw him across the street in the heated booth and caught his eye and waved. He waved back and then I turned and Sally was there.
She said I looked pale and was I OK and I said I was fine even though I wasn’t sure. Then we walked to where the gear bags were and I pulled on a down coat and a dry hat and the big leather choppers. I was done. I was tired and achy and hungry. But I was done with the race.
We ate a big dinner that night, four of us. Killed a few bottles of wine. Told stories of races gone and racer friends now passed. Went to bed early. Slept like the dead.
The next morning it was twenty below zero. Sally made coffee, hot and black and with a dollop of real butter melting in it. Someone said, “I’m really, really glad we don’t have to ski today.” And nobody disagreed.