Running with Walter Rhein
Whether it’s running, cycling, or cross-country skiing, for me, the American Birkebeiner trail has become saturated with memories. The trees, the hills, the turns, all conspire to bring back feelings from times spent training with friends and family. At last year’s Birkie, I thought I saw David Landgraf and even drew in a breath to say hello before I realized it couldn’t be him. It’s gratifying and spiritually soothing to experience a potent flashback to a time when you could still enjoy the company of those who have journeyed on. Creating these memories is part of the reason I encourage everyone I meet to train for and compete in the Birkie.
The ambiance of supercharged nostalgia, combined with the excitement of a race, creates an atmosphere where it’s easy to make new friends.
Last year, the Birkie Trail Run & Trek launched a 100K race which brought an extra degree of joy to the event. There’s something magical about the time when “the race is in play,” and an ultra extends the clock considerably. The ultra also brings a different class of spectator. I’ve always thought people subject themselves to enough punishment in a marathon, but witnessing an athlete run 60 or 100 miles compels you to provide extra encouragement.
As my local friends and I pulled in to Birkie Ridge to set up camp for the 2015 Birkie trail marathon, we immediately began conversing with a group that had come out from Colorado. The week before they had been at the Run Rabbit Run 50- and 100-miler at Steamboat Springs. That race is among the most difficult 100-mile runs in existence, requiring athletes to climb a total of over 20,000 feet. The group from Colorado contained the fifth-place finisher, Marco Sturm, and a pair of newlyweds who were still on an emotional high from spectating the finish.
Marco turned out to be quite the interesting character. At 38 years old, he looked to be about 19 and had come over from Germany to do several events. He quickly fell in love with Wisconsin, which he called the American version of Bavaria. Despite being an elite athlete, his sponsorship situation was hodgepodge. He had some support from TomTom for his GPS watch, and Skechers for shoes, but nothing financial, and admitted having to go into bank debt to arrange transportation and foreign country health insurance expenses.
“How long does it take you to run 100 miles?” I asked, fascinated by the achievement.
“Well,” Marco replied a bit sheepishly, “the course was actually 107 miles and I got lost and did an extra 6 so it was about 113. Getting lost dropped me from third to fifth and cost me three thousand dollars. Finish time was around 21 hours.”
He mentioned the wrong turn several times throughout the evening, still in the process of accepting the mistake.
Marco was signed up for the Birkie trail marathon rather than the ultra, and was unsure how his legs would hold up so soon after a 100-miler. He was happy to be running on Wisconsin grass rather than Colorado rocks.
“This terrain could be quite good for recovery runs,” Marco said, “but I’m not here to recover, I’m here to run like an animal for 26 miles, fast and hard and all out!”
After a nice evening around a fire, we retired to our tents and campers. You’re allowed to camp up at Birkie Ridge for a few dollars and it’s an experience I highly recommend just to extend the race camaraderie as much as possible.
The ultra runners set off in the darkness of early morning, and I watched them go, not quite able to imagine what experience awaited them. A few hours later, the marathoners were awake and assembling for the start. It felt a little strange to be a marathon participant, yet not be in the “long” race of the day.
Autumn comes early in Birkie country and often the trees have already started to change even though this is a late September or early October race. As always, I took my CamelBak and walked as much as ran, simply enjoying the day and the company of my friends. The existence of the ultra ensured racers would still be arriving long after I did. At the end, Marco was delighted and told me about his race. His English was very good, but sometimes you had to focus to understand him completely. His enthusiasm, however, always came through loud and clear.
“It started out too fast for me,” he said. “For the first kilometers, I struggled to keep in touch with the leader. Soon he was out of sight. I managed to build a gap on third place. For about two-thirds of the race I tried to catch up to the leader before somebody told me that I was the leader! Wow! I wish I would have learned that earlier! I could have enjoyed the wonderful forest and trails quite a bit more. For the last few kilometers, I relaxed a little bit, but, of course, kept on pushing. I twisted my ankle at one point, but I was lucky and didn’t get injured, just a bit of pain, but that’s part of the game in trail running. I got a high five at the finish line, it was definitely worth the travel to come! I crossed the finish line and won my first race in the U.S.!”
Over a few pitchers of beer at the Sawmill Saloon, there was no more talk about the wrong turn at Steamboat Springs. Instead, the moon got howled at, and there was the fun of teaching a foreigner how the locals prefer to curse. Marco summed up the evening well, “We had the type of conversation that’s usually only shared by very old friends.”
After celebrating at the Sawmill, there was time to return to Birkie Ridge to watch the ultra runners begin trickling in. They arrived in the darkness just as they had set off, and you could see their headlamps bouncing towards the finish, accompanied by well-deserved cheers and applause. This is a different kind of all-night party. It’s awesome to be in the presence of individuals who have accomplished something special.
In the morning, Marco admitted that he needed a ride to the airport, and we were able to find somebody to accommodate him. This was the kind of event that keeps you blissfully off the internet, and when you do finally go online again you find there are five new Facebook friend requests awaiting you.
I messaged Marco to ask him more about his experience. This is what he wrote: “I must confess I was having a rough time in Germany before I came to the US. I had lost my job, my mother was seriously sick, and I’ve been injured so everything was down. But the U.S. is the country where the impossible is possible, and my life turned back onto the winning course. Wisconsin-the Birkie-the new people I can call friends, all played a part of the story. The Birkie trail marathon is something unique with a very special character. It is absolutely awesome, perfectly organized, great atmosphere, wonderful course. I’d like to see more people recognize what a great event it is.”
Marco went on to say with regret that he won’t be able to return for the 2016 race, but he hopes to come again in 2017. Still, I expect the 2016 event – to be held Oct. 1 – will be a similar venue for making friends, individual challenge and cheering on athletes pushing themselves to the limit. These are the types of memories and experiences that, as Marco said, put you on the winning course. It’s nice to have a place to go which is supercharged with such positive energy.
About the Author: Walter Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” and “Reckless Traveler.” Register for the Birkie Trail Run and Trek at Birkie.com.