Skiing with Walter Rhein
Some say the 42K Pre-Birkie is harder than the actual Birkie.
You start off on Lake Hayward, and you never cross a patch of flat land again until you reach the finish line at “OO.”
A good tip for skiing the Pre-Birkie is to never assume you’ve reached the top of a hill. Most of the time what looks like the top from the bottom is only halfway.
The Pre-Birkie is a critical race for the psychology of a Birkie skier. If you’ve done the 42K, you feel confident about finishing the Birkie. The humble goal for many of us is to get in enough training so that we don’t suffer too much at the Birkie. It’s a goal I typically fail to achieve.
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017 was the 35th running of the Pre-Birkie. I’ve done it a dozen times or so, enough to learn a few tricks. As the skiers sprint off across the lake, there are a couple early bottle necks that can ruin your day. One is just after the start area where the trail narrows down from 50 meters to 10. The second is the small uphill where racers come off the lake.
I’d navigated around the inevitable crashes on the first bottleneck and came to the second with few concerns.
“It narrows down here everyone!” I shouted out. Then I let a little space develop in front of me. I hit the hill with no problems and started double poling up the other side. Cresting the hill, I knew I’d made it. I relaxed at the apex of a double pole stroke with my poles behind me.
Out of nowhere I felt a hard jerk on my right arm.
I knew what had happened instantly. Some jerk, rather than take three more strokes double poling for the courtesy of those around him, had leaped upon my pole and snapped the shaft. This was my second season on these poles, and I’d done tons of races. They were battle-tested, a good product, but any pole will break when somebody jumps on them like a moron.
I’ve always entertained fantasies about what I’d do if somebody broke my pole. It seems fair enough to demand the offending party surrender their equipment in return – perhaps be made to do so if they refuse. At the very least, an apology seems to be in order.
Casting about, I saw a guy sprinting off with the air of guilt about him. He was high-stepping so his knees almost touched his chin, which made him look like a chomping alligator hungry for carbon fiber. He zipped over and obliterated the classic tracks, stopping briefly to pour a quart of oil into the river, and punch a spectating baby in the face. Obviously, it was important for this guy to take advantage of an opportunity to move from 997th place up to 996th.
I moved over to the side of the trail and tried to ski, but with only one pole, I was like a pigeon with a broken wing.
This was about 2K into a 42K day. What was I going to do?
In hindsight, I should have gone back to my car to get one of my spare sets of poles. But that would have required me to ski an extra 4K on the day, plus take off my skis and walk to where I’d parked. Also, it occurred to me that if I went back to my car, I might just call it a day.
Calling it a day was a temptation, but that darn Birkie looms on the horizon, and opportunities for long training days are hard to find.
Nope! I had to keep skiing. I figured if it took me three or four hours to get to “OO,” I could pull out there and consider it a good day. Plus, it was warm so there was no worry of freezing. Maybe I’d be able to get a replacement pole on the course.
Once you get off the lake, the Pre-Birkie turns into, “Ready, set, go uphill!” The first rise has the memorial to Dave Landgraf off to the left. It’s a small, die-cut metal silhouette of Dave mounted on a post. That hill was Dave’s favorite spot in the Birkie, because once you got there and could see Main Street, you knew you were going to finish.
I wasn’t about to pull out of the Pre-Birkie next to Dave’s memorial!
Climbing up the hill, a couple old-timers noticed my plight. These were salt and pepper dudes with Magnum P.I. mustaches and mirrored trooper glasses, who looked like Sam Elliott. There was a surprising number of them.
“Looks like you’ve had some trouble pahd’ner; keep your chin up,” they said in a Southern drawl, without any hint of mockery.
I couldn’t let the army of Sam Elliott clones down!
Up, up, up, I climbed and found that if I leaned to the right I could pole a little bit with my right hand provided the hill was steep enough. Since basically every hill on the Birkie trail is a vertical mountain, I was poling a lot.
The non-Sam Elliott skiers ignored me. Some tried to subtly push me off the trail and dispose of the body. It’s the law of the jungle in a ski race, that was just wolf instinct kicking in.
A few K into the race, we glided down into the first aid station.
“Do you have any poles?” I asked.
“No, we gave them all away,” was the reply.
“What about those over there?” I said, noticing a set of poles leaning against a tree.
One of the aid workers started sorting through the poles. They were broken poles from other racers. One of these only looked to have about 10 cm taken off the bottom. I was tempted to grab it, but then decided I couldn’t take another racer’s pole. Discouraged, I set off again.
“Well, it’s going to be good practice for my free skate,” I thought. I was a little worried that my left arm would be disproportionately destroyed by the day’s event, but the occasional use the steep sections gave to my right allayed that concern.
“Oh, bad luck!” Somebody said. “Keep at it!”
The encouragement helped.
As I approached Mosquito Brook, I held up my pole again.
“Got a pole?”
A guy scrambled over to a shed and came up with a stack of poles. Normally, I skate on a 160. The best this guy had was about 140, but it was an improvement even though it only had a leather cord for a strap.
“Thanks!” I said, “where should I drop this off?”
“Just leave it with the Lion’s Club guys at the finish.”
“Can I get my broken pole back?” I needed my pole because it has a $50 strap on it. In hindsight, I should have pulled the strap off right then, but I had too many preoccupations to think clearly at the time.
I headed off, no more “fwaping,” but this new pole was heavy. Rather than use plastic for the basket, they seemed to have affixed a fossilized foot from a prehistoric duck. When I went to toss my pole back at the end of a stroke, it dropped like an anchor and pulled me to the right.
Still, I could ski again. I could throw down a couple V2s at the bottom of hills and glide up halfway before the monotonous waddle began. Any amputation of the monotonous waddle is welcome.
I made it to the gravel pit.
“Do you have a pole?” I asked again.
Once again a guy ran off and came back with a bundle of poles.
“I got this replacement at the last aid station and I’m hoping for an upgrade,” I said.
“Oh sure, these are all Lion’s club poles, they all go to the same place.”
Among the poles there was a nice One Way with a full wrist strap. It was about 150cm, but I didn’t even notice the difference in length as I started off.
Ahhhhh! To be able to ski with both arms! To throw your poles back and commit your full balance to the glide! The Ks finally began to click off. Not fast, but steady, and for the first time that day I thought there was a realistic chance I could finish.
As I came to “OO,” the elite athletes were already coming in to conclude their spectacular races. Good for them. Looking at my watch, I was only about a half-hour slower than I could have reasonably expected to do that day. Skiing with one pole makes you earn every hill from the base to the crest, but that’s okay. It’s all Birkie training.
At Boedeker, I ate a whole plate of bananas, then went on to the turn-around and came back in. From Boedeker to Heckler’s Hill, there’s actually about a 3K stretch where it’s almost flat.
At the finish, the Lion’s club folks were serving beer and brats. Everyone was happy, not least of all me.
“I’m here to return this pole,” I said. “They said I could pick up my discard here.”
It took about five people before I found the right person to talk to. He walked me over to his pick-up truck.
“Where did you break it?”
“On the lake.”
“Oh, bad luck! Where did you get that replacement?”
“One at Mosquito Brook, then another at Gravel Pit!”
“Whoa! We have spare poles at the start area!”
“Yeah, for future reference.”
That would have been good to know.
I found my pole in the pick-up and was happy to get it back.
“You know,” I said, “most of the poles are going to get broken on the lake. Maybe you should have the spare poles at Duffy’s field.”
“Great idea!” Then his face took on a note of worry. “Is that going to cost you a lot to replace?”
“Nope,” I said, “these are guaranteed for two years. They’ll send me a free shaft tomorrow.” Then I paused, “But if somebody calls the Lion’s club filled with remorse about the pole he broke, tell him to send me $300.”
The guy laughed, “Will do!”