BY MIKE IVEY
If things had gone according to plan, I’d be lining up Saturday to ski my 30th American Birkebeiner, resplendent in a “Gold Bib.”
Race officials years ago hit on the idea of using different color bibs to signify how many races a skier has completed. At 20 Birkie’s you get a purple bib, at 30 you get a gold one and at 40 you get a red bib – along with the opportunity to start ahead of the entire field as part of the “Spirit of 35” wave that includes the last remaining race founder, Ernie St. Germain.
Of course, giving skiers a chance to earn something to honor longevity is a marketing stroke of genius that keeps athletes of all shapes, sizes and speeds coming back year after year. They’ve even got a special wave and bibs for the 200 skiers over age 70 who can still tackle the Birkebeiner.
But with last year’s Birkie falling victim to the weather – only the second full cancellation in the 44-year history of North America’s largest XC ski race – I’ll have to wait until 2019 to ski in gold. That’s assuming I can finish the 50-kilometer skate style event on less training than in years past.
And it’s all systems go for a full series of events starting Thursday in Hayward, according to Birkebeiner spokeswoman Nancy Knutson. That’s a relief from last year when race officials were on pins and needles until finally having to call things on Friday.
“We’re even supposed to get more snow this week,” says Knutson.
So far, I’ve managed to get through 28 consecutive Birkie’s without fail – which is testament to good luck, recovery from a bout of heart arrhythmia and an understanding wife who doesn’t balk when I mark the date on the calendar other than asking, “You’re not doing that thing again are you?”
But for southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois skiers it’s been a challenging year to get in much “snow time’ without driving north a couple of hours. There was actually so little snow south of Wausau that groomers here in the Madison area didn’t even bother to pull the out the equipment until February.
Then we only enjoyed only one week of decent “local” skiing before temperatures soared back into the 40s. As I write this column, I’m looking out the window at melting snow banks and a light drizzle.
What is saving cross-skiing diehards today is the growth of man-made snow loops. They’ve been skiing on artificial snow at Lapham Peak west of Milwaukee and half-dozen venues in Minnesota for over a decade.
Even Birkie officials have acknowledged the realities of a warming planet and are investing in a snowmaking system to avoid any future cancellations. The Mora Vasaloppet in central Minnesota has taken similar steps.
But making snow for cross-country skiing at a public venue was a long time coming to Madison, which is somewhat hard to understand considering it’s a fitness-minded city of 250,000 with a fairly large ski community.
In fact, aside from the Twin Cities, the Madison area provides the largest number of participants for the various Birkie events. Over 2,000 local skiers and their families make the trek north each year to the Cable-Hayward area the last weekend in February.
The good news is that the Nordic ski community in Madison really came together this to winter to create a fun and challenging 1.5 kilometer man-made loop at Elver Park on the city’s southwest side.
A lot of the credit goes to Yuriy Gusev, the tireless ski advocate and director of Central Cross Country (CXC) who had the vision and drive to make it happen. Thanks to some new equipment, private donations and countless volunteer hours from the Madison Nordic Ski Club, the man-made trail at Elver allowed for lessons and racing through a snowless December and January.
So if I manage to put up a decent time at the 2018 Birkie – I’m somehow back in Wave One at age 60 due to the new qualifying times – I can credit those repeated early season trips up the gut buster climb at Elver.
But after some three decades of challenging myself on the hills of northern Wisconsin I’ve learned this much: if you’re sweating at the Birkie you’re going too hard to enjoy it.
(Mike Ivey is a Madison-based freelance writer)
Bruce Adelsman/Skinnyski.com photo