I felt like a jerk. The Birchlegger – a title earned by a skier of at least 20 Birkebeiners – had been in front of me for several kilometers. He pulled off to the side of the classic track and motioned for me to pass.
“You lead for a while and maybe you’ll stop stepping on my skis,” he said.
My face must have turned the color of the Norwegian flag in embarrassment. This grizzled veteran had been setting a comfortable pace and I had settled in behind him. I thought that I had been careful to give him enough room and didn’t recall stepping on his skis. If we were road bikers, I could have been accused of being a wheel sucker.
As shame washed over me, I was transported back 50 years to my childhood. I was raised better than that. My folks reared their six kids to be courteous and polite; maybe a bit too polite. A brother-in-law once observed that my parents raised not six kids, but six doormats.
Those shared gene-pool behavioral traits survive the decades. We never return bad Christmas presents (“Thanks for the Reindeer sweater, Mary! Where did you find the David Cassidy Greatest Hits album, Jon?”) and we never return a defective product to the store we purchased it from. It’s our fault we choose the lemon, so we just suck it up and make lemonade. And we never ever send our food back to the restaurant kitchen. Tough meat strengthens your jaw and burns extra calories, after all.
I have to admit my rudeness on the trail bothered me for a good chunk of the rest of the race. Well, at least it got my mind off the sub-zero windchill during that extra cold Birkie.
In general, cross-country skiers are thought of as friendly and civil. But whenever you have 10,000 people turn out for a competitive event like the Birkie, there will always be a few issues.
A lot of it is petty when you come to think of it. There’s always some sniping between striders and skaters after the two courses converge. Classic skiers get annoyed when the skaters wipe out the inside classic track. It almost seems like roadies versus mountain bikers at times. We are citizens of the same nation but different tribes.
Speaking of tribes, sibling rivalries sometimes require mediation on the course. Three years ago I myself was a victim of my brother Michael’s tailgating. We’d skied the Birkie for 10 years, but rarely skied together. Michael, the hare of the two of us, gets out of the gate faster than Mark, the tortoise, and usually holds on for an intra-family victory. This victory is then followed by 364 days of trash talking.
The 2010 race was a different story as I unexpectedly found myself in front of Michael cresting the last hill before Lake Hayward. I’m usually faster on the flats than Michael and was looking forward to some redemption at the finish line. I felt like Moses about to enter the Promised Land. A couple more pole plants and the last hill would be conquered.
But then, like a dog on a leash, I was suddenly pulled onto my back. In hot pursuit, Michael had been carrying more speed up the hill and could not stop before stepping onto my planted pole. His horse-collar tackle created a tangled 300-pound mass of Ollinger brothers sliding back down the hill.
As we dusted ourselves off, I noticed that my left ski pole was now considerably shorter. All I had left was the handle as the pole had been snapped off. I was faced with skiing across the lake with one pole. Michael yelled, “My bad” and tossed me one of his poles and said he would make due for the last couple of kilometers. As it turned out, my pole had been pulled out of the handle cleanly and Michael was able to reinsert it. But in the time it took him to do that, I was able to get away and make it to the finish line first.
Michael’s initially magnanimous gesture later proved to be a point of contention. My victory was now in dispute and would be marked with an asterisk. Michael came to the conclusion that the best defense is a good offense. He claimed it was not a horse-collar tackle and that I was guilty of flopping. Who was right and who was wrong? Michael suggested that the Birkie needs referees to arbitrate and enforce proper trail etiquette.
Send in the refs
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell likes to bring the hammer down. Maybe we could use his clout to restore some civility to the Birkie. Given that the Super Bowl is on February 1 this year, three weeks before the Birkie, the NFL refs will be available. Why not have them work the Super Bowl of cross-country skiing? Officials could patrol key points along the course to whistle infractions and throw the flag on penalties for bad behavior on the trail.
Would NFL ref Ed Hochuli be man enough to wear show off his guns in below zero windchills?
More importantly, what should be the penalty for breaking the rules? One suggestion might be to have the offending skier stand off to the side of the trail for a prescribed time as a penalty, let’s say a minute. This may sound simple, but would take the refs out of the action too long and let other scofflaws get away with flaunting the law. Another approach might be to mete out major and minor infractions. A minor infraction is a two-inch application of kick wax into the glide zone by the referee. For a major infraction: klister.
The international complexion of Birkie competitors may render simple English explanations of the infractions inadequate. This is where the NFL zebras are in their element. They already have the recognized sign language down.
Below is a proposed list of infractions, the signals, and the penalties.
Delay of game: We all have to adjust our equipment from time to time or a particular hill climb requires stopping to catch one’s breath. But dude, don’t stop dead in the tracks to do it. Step to the side and let others through. This is a minor infraction warranting two inches of kick wax on the glide zone.
Pass interference: Pass interference can take several forms. Cross-country skiing is a great social sport and it’s pleasant to ski side by side with your buddy and talk. But blocking both tracks while you coffee clutch is just plain clueless. It’s like one slow semi trailer trying to pass another on the highway.
Another form of pass interference is skiing with your poles too wide and far away from your body. This is also a minor infraction and deserves two inches of kick wax on the glide zone.
Offside/encroachment: The creation of the Classic Birkie Trail has removed some of the tension between the skaters and the striders, but the two techniques still have to share the course for the last 27K. Eventually the inside classic track takes a beating from skaters pushing off into the classic track or jumping in and out on the downhills. Striders feel that skaters already have three fourths of the trail already.
If you want to ski in the classic track, go ahead, but here’s two inches of kick wax applied to your ski tips and tails.
Neutral zone infraction: This is the rule I violated last year. I was following a bit too closely to the skier in front of me. I did not make contact, but I was certainly tailgating. This is a minor infraction that merits two inches of kick wax to glide zone. I promise I won’t do it again.
Illegal shift: Is an infraction by classic skiers who suddenly move from one track to another without bothering to see if someone is closing in fast from the other lane. Please hold your line and check that blind spot before you change lanes.
Illegal shift is subject to a two-inch swipe of kick wax to the tip and tail of your skis.
False start: In any competition there will always be someone trying to game the system. In 2014, Birkie management changed start time measurement from a trip wire buried several hundred yards from the start gate to the starting time of your assigned wave. It seems that some skiers were trying to get an advantage or maybe some extra sleep by leaving with a later wave or lounging in front of the trip wire and waiting for the traffic to clear.
Referees finding skiers not in their correct wave will be flagged for false start. The penalty for false start is two inches of kick wax.
Personal foul/horse collar tackle/spearing: Now we’re talking about a major infraction, and that means you, Michael. The horse collar tackle was described earlier. If you are going to fall, fine. But don’t take out everyone else. Spearing is nailing a fellow skier with your ski pole. Cross-country skiing is not a blood sport. Bring on the klister. The sticky stuff will be a lingering reminder as to how badly you’ve behaved.
Illegal use of hands: This one happened to Michael last year at a food stop. One of the food station volunteers was about to hand him a cup of energy drink when an interloper reached in front of him and grabbed it. Wait your turn. I’m sure your mother raised you better than that.
This major infraction merits some klister action on your glide zone. No soup for you!
Tripping: This infraction, also known as clipping, is triggered by using your ski to trip another skier. This is the ugly big brother penalty to encroachment and demands a bigger penalty. Bring on the klister.
And finally the signal that we all want to see from the zebras in Hayward.
Mark Ollinger, aka “The Flopper,” is CFO for a tension fabric graphics company. He lives in Barrington, Illinois. When his mother heard about his rude behavior on the Birkie Trail, she washed out his mouth with Blue Extra and he was sent to his room with no dessert.