The day of the big race, my 31st American Birkiebeiner, finally arrived. The radio announcer said it was 17 degrees at Telemark but that was in error. As the sun came up our thermometer read around -10F. Pretty darn cold!
Skiers began to arrive. The line seemed endless as they kept coming into the start area. They kept coming and coming. In fact, since there were several waves starting after mine, I never saw the end of the line of skiers. 8,000 skiers were expected on the start line!
Everyone seemed to have something to do. Wax skis, warm up, put the clothes bag in the proper truck, the list was endless.
The line at the porta-potties was huge and some folks found other solutions to that last minute problem.
The pace began to pick up and the start area was getting real crowded. After I accomplished all my last minute objectives I headed to the start line to watch the elite waves take off.
These guys really moved out in a hurry. They were all at the finish line over 30 miles down the trail in less than 2 1/2 hours. Pretty incredible. Every five minutes another group of skiers started on the course. They alternated between classic and freestyle skiers.
Left to right are myself, Kyle Bantz and Steve Bantz.
Before long the time approached for Steve and I to begin our journey. We posed with Kyle for a photo. Then we all prepared to ski..
The announcer counted down the time and freestyle Wave 5 was on course. We were required to double pole the first 100 yards. There was pretty much nothing else to do in that crowd anyway. My skis were fast and I kept double poling along as the crowd thinned out on the trail. Steve and I started in the same wave and we skied near each other for almost 10 km.
20 minutes later Kyle began her ski. She was skiing the 26 km Korteloppet race and would be done long before I reached the 3/4 mark of the Birkie trail.
My goal in the Birkie is to ski well and have fun. I pretty much accomplished this. The course is flat for a few kilometers then begins a long series of climbs punctuated by screaming fast downhills. Before long I had passed the end of the power lines and the first feed station.
From here on the trail winds through forests all the way to Lake Hayward. There are lots of hills though. I tried to be patient on these so I wouldn't give up all my energy too early in the day.
Going up one small hill another skier tried to pass me on the right. I was near the left side of the trail so couldn't give her any more room. She skied over the tip of my ski just when I was beginning to lift it for my next skate. My ski stuck to the snow under hers and I did a nifty little spin-a-round and fell.
"Are you Okay?" she asked. "I will be as soon as I get up," I replied and before long we were both off and skiing again.
Skiing down the hill into the Mosquito Brook feed station.
The feed stations clicked by. So did the big hills. Some I remember, some I don't. There is one long climb on the Fire Tower Hill which is the highest point on the trail. Another long climb leads to Hwy. OO near the halfway point of the race. There are other steep climbs between these points as well as some wild downhills.
Many skiers snowplow down the hills. This technique pushes the snow into berms with ice chutes in between. You ski down the chute and push against the berms, hopefully making it around all the tight corners.
Some hills are lined with spectators. They cheer and yell when a skier goes down. You can hear that noise for some distance through the woods. Just thinking of that sound brings back memories of the ice chutes. I got through all of them without falling but there was one close call.
At a downhill known as "snowmobilers corner" the trail makes a steep little drop followed by a hard right turn and a much larger downhill. It's a place made for spectacular crashes and is usually lined with crowds cheering and yelling.
I had been skiing for some time with a gal and we were pacing each other nicely. She was in front of me when we entered the first part of snowmobilers corner. She took the right chute and I followed in the next one to her left. We picked up speed and began to enter the corner. "Oh crap," I thought as I noticed that the two chutes merged right at the turn. Then the gal went down. I moved to my right as close to the edge of the trail as I dared and began to pass her. Just then a huge hole in the snow opened up on the edge of the trail. My left ski missed the hole while I lifted my right ski over it. Wow! That was close.
The gal got up quickly and caught me at the bottom of the hill. I asked her if she was all right. She replied it was an easy fall. We skied on. I continued to see her near me until sometime late in the race.
After Hwy OO the trail flattens out some and the skiing gets easier. This is my favorite part of the Birkie trail. The rolling hills go by fast. Skiing fast down the hills carries you up much of the next hill making for some fun, fast skiing. Nevertheless I was getting tired and the day was getting warmer.
I much appreciated the feed stations along the course. As I skied down the hill toward the Mosquito Brook Feed at the 38 km mark of the race, I spotted Kathy and Tara cheering me on. They provided great words of encouragement as I tried to inhale some Cliff Shot Blocks and swallow several cups of an energy drink.
After the Mosquito Brook feed the trail begins an excruciating climb to a high plateau. It seemed like I'd never make it to the top but the hill was soon behind. A few more twists and turns brought me to Bi**t**ch Hill. This is one tough climb but I was prepared for it. I had eased my pace after the Mosquito Brook climb so that my breathing was easy. Before long I was nearing 2/3rds of the way up the big monster.
I saw what looked like a priest with a megaphone on my left. He was absolving us of our sins, especially the sin of cursing the hill. At the top a nun provided encouragement and gave me a pin commemorating my climb.
"Did this really happen?" I thought later. Nope, it couldn't have. But when I got to the finish line and looked in my pocket I found the pin.
After that hill there comes a nice long downhill run. A few more ups and downs brought me to the last feed station and the crossing of Hwy. 77. There was only one more big, big hill in my way. I again took it easy and made the top just fine.
Coming around a corner the Hayward water tower came into view but well off in the distance. Some fast screaming downhills lead to Lake Hayward and the long flat slog across the lake.
The warm sun and thousands of skiers were causing the snow to be packed hard and skating was a challenge. I alternated double poling in the tracks with searches in the snow for easy spots in which to skate.
Less than 1 kilometer from the finish the trail leaves the lake and goes between the bank and a large grocery store. A hard right turn brought me to Main Street.
Main Street just behind the finish line.
What a sight! The street was packed with spectators all cheering on the skiers. It was easy to pick up the pace and skate to the finish line.
My ski was over but the memories of another great day, my 31st consecutive Birkie, would last a long time. Steve had finished some time before me and was there to greet me. Juliane snapped a few pics as I was given my pin for finishing.
We walked to our car where I drank some recovery drink and changed into dry warm clothes. After a brief rest we headed over to Anglers.
Anglers is a bar and restaurant on Main Street in Hayward. On Birkie day they cook brats and serve beer on the patio between the restaurant and the street. Hundreds of people were there. We pushed our way in, met friends, talked about our race and downed a couple of cold beers while enjoying a brat smothered in sauerkraut.
In a quiet moment while heading back to the car it hit me that the race was over for another year. Of course there were still many skiers still on the course but I was done. I have to wait 365 more days before I can start my 32nd Birkie.