We stood at the bus pickup under a sky lowered by cloud. It was snowing and dawn was near, but on this morning it would not make a difference. The clouds were heavy and gray and the sun rose unseen. We were in the parking lot of a tavern n waiting for a bus that would take us to the start line of the American Birkebeiner.
Over 7,000 others were doing the same and so an inordinate number of buses, commandeered from every school system in the region, served on race day as a mass transit system to ferry skiers from outlying parking areas to the start.
That was the plan. So we stood. A single yellow school bus pulled away as we drove up. We waited, shuffling in place from foot to foot, like penguins on ice. We were dressed to ski, not to stand. With chilled fingers, I dug into my gear bag and pulled out a pair of heavy leather choppers to slide over my gloves.
Cars pulled up, came to a stop and skiers emerged to look for a place to stand and wait with the rest of us. Someone said, “Line starts there” and pointed behind himself. We wait ten minutes, and another ten minutes more.
A man directing traffic was not having a very good day. We heard him on his cell phone say, “I need more buses! I don’t care, I need buses!”
So we stood, our frosty breath rising toward a sullen sky. The chill deepened, the line grew and still more buses did not come. Anxiety increases and the muffled profanity snapped in the air.
Another half an hour passed. My start time was less than thirty minutes out. I looked to the man standing next to me. “I think we’re doomed,” I said. He offered his unprintable opinion of the situation.
Then someone shouted, “Bus!” We looked down the road to see a bus with its turn signal on before pulling into the parking lot. As soon as the door open, we pushed our way in. The bus filled quickly then lurched out of the lot.
“Thirty-seven years of doing this and this’ll be the first time I miss my start,” I told the guy sitting next to me. The bus drives on, warm inside. It felt good to sit again.
When the bus stopped, I hit the ground at a run, dodging other skiers carrying their bulky gear, just hoping I wouldn’t slip and fall. I heard the singing of the national anthem. I heard the voice of the PA announcer, an old friend who, giving his final thoughts and pep talk before the start.
I tossed my gear bag into a truck to be hauled to the finish line. Then I ran hard to the start area, stopping at the fence to ask, “Where do I go to get in?” They pointed and I ran some more. In the start area, I tossed my skis to the snow, clipped into the bindings and ran the pole straps over my gloved hands. I took a long drink from a bottle of water just before hearing my old friend start the countdown: “Ten seconds, nine, eight ….”
I tossed the bottle aside, looked ahead at the track and held still. Then the gun sounded and, against all odds, I was on time and on my way.
Once the race started, things got easier. That’s been my experience. Get your skis taken care of the night before, eat some good food, try for some decent sleep, but don’t oversleep. Get through the traffic and the frantic time that leads to the gun. Do all that, then it’s easy. All that’s left to do is ski.
I’ve maintained for years that if you can ski around the block, you can probably ski the Birkebeiner. Probably. You need to invest some time into training though, for there is a simple truth about skiing long distances and that truth is this: You reap what you sow. If you do not put in the time in training, you will not do well. If you do not log some long miles in January and February, you will have a long day come Birkie Saturday.
Here is another truth about skiing long races: It’s all about pacing yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re fit and fast or old and slow. Go out too hard, ski too fast, push yourself too much, too early and you’ll eventually run out of gas, hit the wall hard and stand alongside the track leaning on your ski poles, watching legions of skiers pass you.
I’d been off skis for more than two weeks fighting a cold, and I didn’t know if I would have the legs and the lungs to make it that day. I really did not know. So I fell in behind two other skiers who were just a touch slower than I was and I stayed behind them for nearly half the race. I thought to myself, “I ski faster on a slow day in training.” But I held back.
It was a good day to ski. New snow, temperatures in the teens. The skis worked well and the classic tracks were good.
I passed the halfway point and reached the 30K marker. Just 25K to go. I felt good. I felt steady. It felt safe to pick up my pace. I did not ski fast but I skied faster. I left the two skiers who I’d followed and never saw them again.
It is not an easy course, the Birkebiener. It has long uphills that sap your strength and fast downhill that test your skills. And the length, over 30 miles, is unforgiving.
As the race went on, I passed some skiers and other skiers passed me. I have long since quit racing others. My goal is simply to do the best I can. The race is never behind or ahead of me. The race is always within.
There are several miles across a lake that leads to Main Street in Hayward and I skied steady if unspectacularly for the length of it. It was breezy and chilly. Then off the lake and ahead was the snow-covered street. I kicked with what I had left when I saw the finish line banner, crossed it and heard my old friend on the PA call out my name. I turned, wondering where he was, then saw him across the street in the heated booth and caught his eye and waved. He waved back. I turned and Sally, my wife, was there.
She said I looked pale and asked if I was O.K. I told her I was fine even though I wasn’t sure. Then we walked to retrieve my gear bag, from which I pulled out a down coat and a dry hat and the big leather choppers. I was done. I was tired and achy and hungry, but I was done with the race.
We ate a big dinner that night, four of us, and killed a few bottles of wine. We told stories of races gone by and racer friends now passed. We went to bed early and slept like the dead.
The next morning it was 20 below zero. Sally made coffee – hot and black with a dollop of real butter. Someone said, “I’m really, really glad we don’t have to ski today.” Nobody disagreed.
Mitch Mode is a long-time contributor to Silent Sports. A version of this piece originally appeared in The Star Journal, his hometown weekly newspaper in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.