|Mari (R) and Sonja (L)|
I’m writing from a curve in the Yellow River, near Spooner, Wisconsin. The local radio station is playing “Birkie Fever.” For two days, WOJB on the Ojibwe reservation broadcasts skiing news about the American Birkebeiner ski marathon, 50+ kilometres (30 miles) from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin.
Which, this year, I signed up to do. A friend from the Yale club ski team was doing the race with all her Minnesota cousins, and since I’m living in Boston now and back in ski territory, I jumped in. I psyched myself out enough about it to make myself train (after spending four years abroad and off skis). I’d never done a marathon or truly long-distance race, and hearing about the course – the years it was below zero and people almost got frostbite, the named hills (“Hatchery Hill”, “Holy Hill”, “Bitch Hill”)- gave me a worry to chew over in a very surmountable way. Getting in shape for a race is an immediate task and a telos. A flexible work schedule and a newly-acquired energetic dog were contributing factors.
In the end, the race (held last Saturday) wasn’t that bad. Actually, it was great. I like a point-to-point race. I’m used to skiing 1 k loops on the local golf course/ski track, where the manmade snow comes from Charles River water and is often an off-shade of brown—hopefully from leaf tannins, possibly from goose shit or storm runoff. Though I say that with all love and gratitude to the ski track, which makes ski training near Boston possible. I used to race there in high school. Doing those laps is kind of a Zen thing. When we were assigned to memorize something for English class (e.g. the Canterbury Tales prologue), I’d read a line, ski a lap, read a line, so the verses got well tamped-down in my memory. Training this year, we’d do 20 of those 1 k laps in a go.
But anyway, point-to-point skiing is better (from Cable to Canterbury they wend?). It feels like traveling. And for all that talk about the hills on the course, Wisconsin is really pretty flat! Instead of the pain/panic that comes with a sprint race (or a running race, for me), the Birkie was steadier. Skiing with your head in the race is great. It felt fine, just the adrenaline of the start, edging around people to get some open space and skating the corners, easing up the hills with quick feet, rolling on across the second half of the race and the frozen lake at the end, up a bridge and on to the town’s main street finish line. 10,000+ skiers do it (and the accompanying half-marathon) each year.
My hosts, in their sixties, had done 30+ Birkies. It’s “the measuring stick you check yourself against every year – can I do this? Yes, I can still do this,” one of them told me. And a race like that requires zooming out and thinking of yourself more separately from your body - shift gears, accelerate, now, go. And in the process, it feels good. Maybe because of the endorphins, or the caffeinated energy gel (“gu” – I’m still not convinced it’s food, rather than icky klister in a packet – but I ate probably five of them during the race, and felt like I was soaring. Anyone who knows how I react to coffee can guess…!). The corn snow was a little icy and pretty fast. Coming up to the 20k-to-go mark, I was surprised not to be tired. Instead of trying not to go out too fast, I switched to trying to ski faster. What did you drive up to Mont Ste Anne for if not this? What did you ski up Tripoli Rd a bunch of times for if not this? Go. 10k out it started to rain lightly. The last 4k over the slushy frozen lake were a slog, my previously lightning-fast, well-waxed (rilling was key) skis slowed down, and it felt like there was a cup of water in each boot. It was a slog for everybody, though. “You kids!!” an older guy complained, when another gal and I passed him on an uphill. And at the finish line, I felt fine – like I could keep going and do it again. Only when I was pulling off my wet gear in the changing room did I notice my legs shaking, from cold or tiredness I’m not sure. After that there was hot chicken soup. My friend's cousins fell asleep with their heads on the soup table. Lots of nice Midwesterners said nice things to me, since I was wearing the medal they give to first-time Birkie skiers at the finish.
The medal has two big, bearded men carved on it, wearing skis and carrying a baby. That’s part of the (wacky?) lore of the event. The Birkie is named after the Norwegian Birkebeiner race, itself commemorating the 1206 AD exodus of the baby Prince Haakon in the arms of two skiing Birch-leggers (Birkebeiners) and mom Inga, party to a Norwegian royal succession crisis and civil war. You can wiki it and admire their outfits. In the current Norwegian Birkebeiner race, competitors wear an 8-pound weight to represent the baby.
Every year two “warriors” dress up in period costume and ski the American race. A few years ago, two of my hosts, brothers, were the ones to dress up and do the whole race on wooden skis. Every year, spectators line the track. This year a woman played Edelweiss on an accordion to urge us up the last hill. One hill had drummers. Another had volunteers offering jagerbombs, with 10k to go (no thanks). At one corner, “Bobblehead Hill”, a crowd gathered to cheer any wipeouts. I skied by two guys in lion costumes and two guys in penguin costumes skied ahead of me.
All of this kind of confirms my suspicion that people in the Midwest need more to do. (Sorry, but it’s true?). Still, better than the snowmobile-skipping contest that’s the other popular event in town – gunning a snowmobile from ice on one side of a river over open water to the ice on the other side, skipping it like a stone. You win if you don’t sink.
I was lucky to be hosted by friends of the family, in a cabin that doubled as an onsen (bath house). There was a sauna, hot tub, and Japanese style teahouse with a view of the bend in the Yellow River. The other half of the cabin had copies of Wisconsin trout-fishing regulations, (what turned out to be delicious) venison and sunfish in the freezer, and fishing lures decorating the walls. Attire of choice was either ski spandex or yukata.
The best raceday advice my hosts (and my fmr CSU coaches!) gave me (comments below aimed at regular folks, and not the elite wave):
- If you're a newbie starting in Wave 9, like me, get to the start early and run from pen to pen, skis in hand. Skis only go on at the last pen before the start. Self-seeded w/in waves.
- If you're in Wave 9, you can't really go out too fast, because there will be lines of people herringboning the hills. Use that time to rest up and then pass them on the downhill. Don't be too polite about waiting though - go around the line and on if you can! (Masshole Boston driver heritage showing here, probs).
- Head up before the hills (up or down) - pick a line based on who's moving faster in front of you
- Draft a big guy while you go over the 4k lake at the end - wind is always in your face
- Classic always goes left when the trail splits, skate right. Don't mix that up!
- Eat at every aid station: gu first, water second so you don't glue your mouth shut.
- No need to carry your own water/food (unless you need something special): there are aid stations every 5k or so
- Bring dry clothes from head to toe for the pickup bag; it was warm this year, but in frigid years carry extra gloves or at least put on a toasty pair right before the race starts
Now that the race is done, what do I do with myself? If you’re training, the point of the run is that it builds to that overdistance run, and the point of that run is that it builds to the race. But it's also a joy- the right kind of motion feels right – stretching up to a clean double-pole, leaning into hills. And it was a hell of a lot of fun.