Outdoor Adventure: Life is like a long, winding ski trail
By Mitch Mode, special to the Star Journal
An old photo; colors washed with aging. Tucked away on a shelf, dusty, the masking tape that once held it to a mat now brittle and pocked. A small image, 5-by-7; vertical alignment.
It is a photo of me near the end of the 1980 American Birkebeiner. I had skied out of the woods onto Lake Hayward, took the left turn toward the finish line at Historyland, a tourist attraction on the shores of the lake. In the photo the sky is sullen gray, devoid of contrast and mercy. Late in the race it had started to rain, a light drizzle that froze to my face and beard and racing suit.
In the photo my eyebrows and beard are white with freeze; the front of my suit and the numbered bib sheathed with a thin skim of ice. The bib has red numbers: 1866. I look unhappy.
The photo was taken by a photo studio that offered for sale photos of skiers in the event. That’s been the case for years. Participants receive a solicitation after the race, an offer to buy a photo of them in action.
I bought the photo that year. It is the only time I ever have. I bought it because that race, 1980, was going to be my last one. I had skied the Birkebeiner first in 1977 and was captivated. It enthralled me as not many things in life have. I was a convert. I was a pilgrim that had found the promised land on the long trail from Telemark Lodge to Hayward. I was a true believer, born anew, anointed in the blueberry soup served at the aid stations.
Training year round for the Birkie, I skied hard and fast for the next years, gave it all I had. And in late 1980 I was done. I was done with the hard training, done with the racing circuit, done with the Birkebeiner. My fourth, February 1980, would be my last.
To commemorate those four races, I bought the photo to put on the shelf along with the race bib, to remind me of the times when I did the Birkie. It would hold a place of honor, a token of the years when I skied the long race. In 1980 I was done with the Birkebeiner. And I had a photo to prove it.
I walked away from the race and I did not regret it. In the following fall and early winter of 1981 my mother was dying of cancer and I was able to be with her, not off racing some foolish races that no longer held importance. I did not regret it then; do not regret it now.
I have no memory of why, at some point in 1981, I entered the Birkie one more time. And in 1982 and ’83, ’84 and ’85, and on until it no longer became a decision; it was simply what I did. I was a Birkie skier. Period. Funny how life turns.
That thought occurred to me last week; thought of the first time doing it, the overpowering uncertainty of not knowing what to expect, not knowing if you can ski that far. Standing at the start, gut tight with anxiety. Then the gun sounds and you push off into that void as a swimmer wades out as far as they can and then pushes off over deep, dark water and begins the stroke. Now, years later, full circle, not knowing what to expect.
I start in the first wave of skiers based not on excellence but on longevity, part of a group with the longest tenure in the race. In warm up my skis were fast and smooth. One kilometer into it, a different story; slow and sluggish.
I skied alone for the first miles. One skier in our group sprinted out fast and was soon gone. Others trailed me. I was solo over the rolling terrain on a very nice day to ski. But my legs felt dead and my mind wandered and I struggled to maintain pace. It was not a catastrophic collapse but rather an accumulation of small things that added up. It was, simply, not a good day for me.
We have those days when nothing quite lines up, when what is normal and usually effortless becomes burdensome. We have those days at work and at leisure and if there is a way to avoid them I have not discovered it. So I skied on; there was no choice.
One can always drop out. The thought crossed my mind. But no, it was only a bad day and in bad days one can sometimes test oneself in ways good days cannot and can at least find some measure of satisfaction in simply continuing. So I skied, slowly, steadily and joylessly.
At the halfway point crowds were loud and enthusiastic, lining the trail. I recognized volunteers handing out drink and food and I stopped and visited. Then skied on, on to the still-long track ahead. I knew what was to come; three hard climbs late in the race when legs are weak. I skied them. Then onto Lake Hayward, past the place where in 1980 the photo was taken, across the lake, left turn, then up and over a bridge that leads to Main Street.
At the top of the bridge I paused for an instant, took it all in; the snow covered street, the crowds, the colors, the sounds of cheering. Then pushed off and skied the final few hundred yards to the finish.
My race bib is tagged with the number of races I’ve completed – 45. At home I hung it on my stack of race bibs, sorted through them and found the bib No. 1866, from 1980, the year I was done with it. Next to it, the old photo.
Thought to myself how plans sometimes unravel and life turns in ways unexpected, rising and falling, winding through the years as a long ski trail in winter.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.