||This is the story of my first Birkie as I remember it. My memory may be a little faulty so all who have participated in this story will have to grant some leeway. Click on the links below to go directly to a part of the story or scroll down and start at the beginning.
Like many of the physical challenges in my life, things seem better in retrospect. The farther back in time the better they were. This is called retrospective falsification The Birkie is no exception. One thing is definite: it was such a good time I haven't missed completing a Birkie since then and they have all been fun--yeah right! Just check the photos to see what I mean.
Left: At the Finish Line after my 13th Birkie looking fresh and ready for another 50 K. Scroll to the bottom to see the finish line in 1979.
Part One: Preparation and Training
Part Two: Arrival at Telemark and the Start of the Big Race
Part Three: The Next Five Kilometers
Part Four: On to Hayward
1979 Finishline Photo!
Part One: Preparation and Training
Deciding to do the Birkie is a concept lost in time. Somehow the idea formed. Perhaps it was the publicity the race got in Nordic World magazine. I'm not really sure. I generally blame it on my good friend Bill Blunk. We skied a lot together and it couldn't have been my idea. I'd never do anything so wild and crazy as to try to ski 55 kilometers all at one time with a couple thousand other skiers! No way!
Somehow we made the decision. That was in the fall of 1978. During what skiers in the Chicago area called the "ice ages" because of several consecutive cold and snowy winters. OK, we're going to ski 55 kilometers all at once so we started preparing and training.
Preparation meant finding a place to stay and making sure we had good equipment.
Lodging turned out to be fairly easy. A good friend of Bill had a cabin near Barnes, just northwest of Cable. It was a nice place with a two seater outhouse and a wood burning coal stove for heat. The only running water was when someone fell down the steep and icy driveway while carrying a 5 gallon water jug. You just hoped the water didn't run over you.
Our equipment was already in tip top shape. Except for my poles. I had 220 cm Bla-Skias skis. Blue painted laminated wooden beauties with hickory soles and lignostone edges. I had the best boots, nice leather Alfa boots with a fleece lining. In those days fleece was something you got off of a sheep and not made from old plastic milk jugs. I had top notch Rottefella 75mm rat trap bindings. I checked the screws and none were loose. Like I said all I needed were new poles. So I went to the Paddle and Pack Shack and bought some brand new bamboo poles. They didn't have the 145 cm poles like I had before. The new ones were 150 cm--see, I was already ahead of my time--with nifty leather handles, leather straps and bright orange round baskets. I was ready.
Training was another matter. Neither of us considered ourselves "racers" so we didn't worry too much about skiing fast. Our training goal was to be able cover 55 kilometers in one day and finish before someone had to send the rescue crew out to find us. Secondarily we read that there were cutoff times in the Birkie. The race would start around 9 AM and we had to be half-way by 1:30 and past 45 kilometers by 4:45. So those times became our training benchmarks.
It was a pretty good winter. Bill and I got in plenty of skiing in the Cook County Illinois forest preserves and in the Kettle Moraine area of southern Wisconsin. As February began we only had one problem. We had not been able to ski 55 kilometers in one day.
One particularly nice "blue extra" day we arrived at the John Muir and Nordic trail heads at about 9 AM. This was a well marked and groomed trail system with numerous one-way trails. The snow was great and the trails were freshly groomed. We waxed our skis and started out. I think we made three laps of the 9 kilometer trail. It was after noon so we stopped for a quick lunch. Then hit the trails again. We skied and skied and skied. As the sun was setting behind the oak trees we returned to the trail head pooped and added up our Ks. 46! Not quite good enough. We began to worry.
We tried again the next weekend. Same result. The worries got bigger. There was one more weekend before the Birkie.
We tried again. This time we figures we made 48 Ks but again it took all the daylight that was available. Doubt really set in. We'd never make the 55 kilometers of the Birkie.
We were determined and continued with our plans to drive to Hayward on the following Friday.
Our trip to Hayward, actually Barnes, Wisconsin, began in the wee morning hours of the day before the race. It would be 8-9 hours on the road. I slept the first hour but the nagging feeling of not being able to ski 55 kilometers all at once kept me awake for the rest of the trip. I also had cold feet. Not the kind that makes one want to not do something but the kind that freeze.
In addition to Bill and I, who would ski the race, there were two others on our team. Phil owned the cabin and knew all the hot spots around Barnes. Dean drove the van.
The van supposedly had a heater for the back where I was sitting. Try as I could I could not convince Dean that there was not enough heat coming out of the vent. My feet were freezing. "Turn up the heat!" I kept yelling. Dean would reply that the heat is on. My feet never warmed up. A week or two later Dean discovered that there is a flap that closes the vent in the back and that it was never opened. Try as he might, no heat ever came to the back of the van.
We stopped for breakfast somewhere and eventually reached Phil's Cabin. There was about 3 feet of snow on the ground and the closest we could get to the cabin was about 100 yards away on the top of the hill. The driveway leading down to the cabin was full of snow.
Phil jumped out of the car, grabbed two suitcases and flopped into the snow thinking he'd just walk down to the cabin. Ha! We had to shovel our way down first, then carry all the stuff we brought. That left us with just enough energy to eat lunch and head for Telemark to pick up our race bibs.
Driving the long road leading to the lodge Bill and I noticed this big hill with skiers flying down it. We soon realized that the race course would start next to the road and then climb that hill! "Man I've never gone up a hill like that!" I exclaimed. We both wondered how we were going to do it.
After checking out the scene at Telemark, getting our race packets and loading up on every freebee we could find we returned to the cabin to prepare our skis. The Swix guy said to use a binder or klister on the base of our skis then put the grip wax on top of that. The first problem was: binder or klister?
We had a long discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of each. Neither of us had used binder before so after agonizing over the choice for 2 hours we decided to put on klister. We had burned in fresh pine tar on our skis bases so we heated them and wiped the pine tar clean. We had used klister before but neither of us knew the best way to put it on. Like many new to that gooey stuff we put it on too thick. It looked right to us so we left the skis outside to cool and hit the sack.
Race morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast at the Coffee Cup in downtown Barnes. Then it was off for the start.
About 30 minutes before the start we began applying our grip wax. The wax was hard to put on in the cold. As soon as I began to cork it in the wax would come off with a big flake of klister attached. Oh man, what to do know? Using a torch let us clean all the thick gunk off the skis. We put a thin layer of binder on the base, covered that with grip wax and had about 5 minutes to spare. So much for the big discussion of the night before.
The porta-potties looked inviting so I told Bill to wait for me while I took nature's break. We planned to ski the race together but as I came out Bill was no where to be seen.
The big cannon roared and the race began with me still buttoning up my knickers. I looked up at the mass of skiers taking off and there was Bill, right in front of the pack.
I threw my skis over the fence and climbed after them. I was able to see Bill already heading up the big hill.
The course looked more open on the right so I headed up that way. It was easy going at first but soon I began to have problems. The right side of the hill led to a very steep pitch at the top that looked more like a wall than a hill. A few others were trying to get up the wall part but most of the masses were smarter and had gone toward easier slopes further left. It was too crowded to try to go there so I began side stepping up the wall.
It took forever. Just as I began to see over the top of the wall I noticed Bill off to my left. He was gaining speed quickly and I lost sight of him again.
Then I was on top. Wow! Several thousand skiers were all going down the biggest hill I had ever seen in my life. I saw one skier fall. That turned into a chain reaction of mangled bodies, skis and poles. Gravity began to have its way with me and I started down. . .
Part Three: The Next Five Kilometers
I looked ahead to find a route down the hill with the fewest skiers. I began to snowplow as hard as I could in order to maintain some control over my speed. It wasn't working I was gaining speed fast.
My memories of the next few minutes are only vignettes - everything was happening fast.
I saw some skiers doing graceful parallel turns in front of me. Since they were controlling their speed and I was not I shot past these folks quickly.
Another skier fell just to left and in front of me. I lifted my left foot slightly and ran over him. I didn't fall and hardly noticed the bump. I kept going - I had no choice.
Another skier fell on my right. In an instant several more bodies piled on flailing arms, legs skis and poles. I missed that one.
I was about three fourths of the way down now and beginning to think I'd make it to the bottom. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a skier. He was far off but was angling across the hill coming my way. He never changed direction. He just kept coming right for me. I tried to snowplow hard so he'd pass in front of me. It looked good but just when he was going to pass in front of me he lost it. I remember the thud as our bodies came together. And the sound of clashing skis and poles. I remember the expletives. As I went down I thought of only one more thing--the hundreds of skiers coming down the hill behind me.
I just had to get up and right now! We were all tangled together but I ripped by pole and ski from under him and took off again hoping he was all right. Another skier flashed by. The fallen skier got up and began skiing again. It seemed neither of us were hurt.
The hill continued and I picked up momentum quickly. I was approaching the bottom. The trail narrowed quickly to only 3 or four tracks wide. Several thousand skiers were funneling into this bottleneck. They were hardly moving and I was approaching at light speed.
I hit the brakes but still managed to ski into the person in front of me. My skis were on either side of his and I gave him a bear hug from behind to try to keep us both from going down. It worked! Then I felt a thud and someone from behind did the same to me. Thud, thud, thud, bodies kept coming and there was a lot of hugging going on.
Finally everyone got slowed down. I saw Bill waiting for me over on the right so I squeezed over to that side of the trail. We continued on together. The trail was packed and the best we could do was walk along. Until we got to a downhill where we repeated the thud and hug at the bottom. Man was it crowded. I wondered how long this would last.
Just then I heard a cannon sound. This was the start of the Korteloppet. Back then the Birkie skiers got a head start and the Korteloppet skiers came later.
It seemed like an instant later the leaders of the Korteloppet came charging through the struggling ranks of Birkie skiers. Another melee ensued as fast racers tried to pass the slower tourers. More expletives were shouted up and down the trail.
I looked at my watch. We had to make the first cut-off at Highway 00 by 1 PM. Bill and I still had 20 kilometers to go. I didn't think we'd make it.
Part Four: On to Hayward
Bill Blunk (1902) and Ralph Thornton (2351) at the Birkie Finish in Historyland, 1979.
Eventually the wave of fast Korteloppet skiers passed by and the slower ones blended in. In another 5 kilometers or so the bottleneck thinned as well. Bill and I started to ski in our normal race pace. This pace, of course, never let us ski 50 kilometers in a day but at least we were skiing.
Faster skiers left us behind as we did skiers slower than us. Soon the Birkie took on a party atmosphere with skiers in packs all having a great time.
In a few hours and we reached Highway 00. Bill and I beat the first cutoff by about 2 hours. The Korteloppet skiers finished their race. The trail narrowed to 2 tracks wide and looked a lot like those we skied near Eagle River, except that there were more skiers, we were all going the same direction and the hills were much bigger.
We skied and skied and skied. The hills kept coming and we kept skiing up and over them. A few more hours went by and the trail crossed a paved road (Hwy. 77) and began a long climb. At the top of the hill we skied along a barbed wire fence, made a 90 degree right turn got our first look at Lake Hayward. Whoopeeee!!!!
It was a long way down but neither of us fell and soon we were out on the flat ice of the lake. The last cutoff spot was now behind us. There was no doubt we'd finish this thing. Skiers formed a long line curving to the right on the lake. In order to get those 55 kilometers in the trail made a big bend to the right hand shore then doubled back to the left. There were trees up ahead and beyond that the finish line. Cheering masses lined the course - at least that was what it seemed like. A big banner was over head. It was the finish. I was done.
I remember only two things after that. First someone put a ribbon around my neck. From that ribbon dangled the biggest medal I have ever seen. This was the first Birkie reward.
The second reward for finishing the Birkie was a traditional cup of blueberry soup. I skied over to the table but there was no soup left. My heart sank. I took off my skis and began walking to the changing area to put on dry clothes.
Just then I spotted a race official. In his hand was a cup of blueberry soup. I pleaded my case took a big slug from his cup. I could feel the warmth of the soup but there was something else. That cup was not just blueberry soup. It was half and half. Half soup, half cognac. Whew! No wonder that was my last memory of my first Birkie.