BY RICH PALZEWIC
I had never competitively skied when I signed up for my first American Birkebeiner in 1998. I was a school teacher in Rhinelander at the time and bought a pair of skis from a good teacher friend named Wayne Fish. Wayne taught me the basics and soon I was out on the trails every day working on form and fitness.
I remember when I signed up I was placed in wave 11, but I did a Badger State Games qualifying race (and bonked during that 43k race), and moved up to wave five. I did well enough that year to move up to wave three the next year.
As it turns out my last Birkie was 2002. I finished 36th of 142 in my age group and 374th overall. My time was under three hours and that would have placed me in the first wave the following year, but I soon began coaching Nordic skiing at the high school and never did the Birkie again.
While in Rhinelander, Adam Swank was a name I had heard quite often. His mother Judy was one of my assistant coaches on the team. Adam was an elite-level skier in high school and collegiately at UWGB. He continues to amaze in the present.
Swank, who has completed 19 Birkie’s, finished third in 2008 just three-tenths of a second out of second and less than 40 seconds behind that year’s winner, Ivan Babikov. In 2016 he crossed the line in 21st overall and won his age group (40-44) out of 274 skiers.
I recently had the chance to chat with Adam about his 30-plus years of skiing and how he has maintained his elite-level status despite going through medical school, becoming a doctor and having a family.
Adam’s parents, Lee and Judy Swank, were instrumental in getting him started at a young age, something he says is very important.
“So much of skiing is just getting comfortable on your skis at a young age,” said Swank, who now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, and is a family medicine doctor. “Even if you’re not competitive at a young age, being on snow gets you used to things until you get more coordinated.”
Swank was a state champ at Rhinelander during his freshman and senior years and then went on to a successful college career at UWGB under the leadership of Butch Reimer. His time is more valuable now and his life is busier, so his approach to training and life is a little bit different these days.
“To be honest, a lot of what I do for training is commuting to work by bicycle all summer,” Swank said. “That’s how I keep in shape in the summer, but it gets tough in the winter. I find some time to go out and ski under the lights. We also have a pretty good group that dedicates Wednesday nights throughout the year to doing something aerobic. It just changes with the season.
“During residency I forfeited sleep to train. In the last five years with my job I’ve cut back my hours to 40 hours a week, so no more than anyone else. My wife and I also run a coffee shop and when we got married, I inherited five children. That’s more of my time constraint now – combining exercise with both jobs and family. There isn’t a lot of time to exercise – maybe three or four hours a week – so I just have to make it count now.”
Most of us can only dream about skiing in the elite wave, but it’s become the norm for the 42-year old Swank.
“My absolute first Birkie in 1997 and then one other year I had to start from the first wave,” said Swank, who has skied every other Birkie from the elite wave. “There were a few years I had other things going on and I didn’t do the Birkie, so I missed it. When I came back to the event I hadn’t had a result in several years so I couldn’t start in the elite wave.”
We’ve all heard horror stories from the early waves of skiers trying to make it into the top 200, but Swank says that the elite wave is vastly different.
“Skiing out of the elite wave is surprisingly much less competitive than skiing in the first wave,” Swank noted. “It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, even in the first line. People understand it’s a long race and nobody wants to lose the race in the first kilometer, so they put themselves in the right position right off the bat. They pretty much know where they stand. In the first wave it does get much more congested and competitive. The attitude/environment is more competitive because people are jockeyed for that goal of reaching the elite wave.”
Swank admits that he’s losing some of that top-end fitness he used to have and expects to move down the results list as time goes on, but he’s content with the past and his life now.
“It’s not a high priority at this point because I have other things going on now,” Swank said. “A priority is to live a healthy lifestyle. You lose a little bit of that high-end fitness, but you can still maintain a high level just by living healthy.”
Swank claims his last few high Birkie finishes can be attributed to being prepared – good skis, good fitness, a little luck and getting himself into a good group where the skiers worked well together and had good camaraderie.
“I would say historically I would hope for a top 20, but this year a top 50 would be good,” he said. “That would still be a pleasing result, but there definitely is a point where you start slowing down, and I’ve surpassed that point.”
Swank also feels the Kortelopet switch to Friday will probably be a good thing. He says spreading the events out over a few days will allow parents that have kids doing the Korte on Friday be able to support them and still do the Birkie on Saturday. It will lead to less congestion on the trail, so he doesn’t see any drawback to the change. He’s also not concerned at all about having thousands of Korte skiers on the trail the day before the Birkie.
“I’m not worried about that at all,” added Swank. “The groomers at the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation do a world-class job keeping things in the best shape possible. Having the Korte the day before I don’t think will impair or impede the conditions for the following day at all.”
Despite having less time to train and knowing his best days are behind him, Swank has no plans to stop doing the race he loves.
“I’ll do it as long as I can,” he said. “Basically until they would kick me out – I don’t have any plans to stop. My finishing results may drop further and further down the page, but that’s not a concern. I just want to keep taking part in the event.”
Big changes (again) for Kortelopet
The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) announced a big change to the Kortelopet in 2017, but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. With last year’s race being cancelled, the 2018 event will be first time since its inception in 1973 that the Korte and Birkie won’t be run the same day.
The Korte was moved to Friday, Feb. 23 – the day before the Birkie – and will start at Highway OO. Unlike years past, Korte skiers will now get to experience skiing up Main Street in downtown Hayward for the finish.
The 15k Prince Haakon will also start on Friday, while the ever-popular Barnebirkie moves back to Thursday at noon.
The ABSF hopes that the change to Friday for the Korte will make the event a better experience for all and attract more skiers. It’s also possible for skiers to do the Korte Friday and the Birkie Saturday if they choose. The biggest benefit of the move will be less wave congestion for participants.
• The Birkie is North America’s largest cross-country ski race and goes from Cable to Hayward. The distances are 50k for skate and 55k for classic.
• An estimated 11,000 Birkie and Korte skiers participate in the annual races.
• The Korte is the second largest cross-country ski race in North America at 29k.
• Over 250,000 skiers have finished Birkie ski events (American Birkebeiner, Kortelopet, Prince Haakon) since the races began.
• An estimated 40,000 spectators and skiers gather in and around the Hayward area for the annual Nordic sports festivities.
• It takes 13,500 skiers, 2,000 volunteers, 25,000 to 30,000 spectators, 2 helicopters, 90 National Ski Patrol Skiers, 20 Tents (of all sizes), 2,000 oranges, 5,000 bananas, 5,000 cups of hot chocolate, 600 gallons of soup, 5,000 gallons of water, 1,500 gallons of sport drink, 98,000 cups, 42,000 cookies, 200 portable toilets, 8,000 medals, 7,000 pins, 10,000 ski stickers and 26,000 skis & poles to make the events happen!