CROSS COUNTRY SKIING
Steve Biggs would recognize Gary Engstrom anywhere. The reverse was not true until recently.
They originally met last March at The Great Bear Chase, one of my favorite Nordic races. What’s not to like? It’s run on the beautiful Swedetown Trails in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, so even in the second week of March the course usually still has feet, not inches of snow.
The race is scheduled two weeks after the Birkie on a course featuring much less climbing than the Birkie, so it’s a great way to end the season and feel fast! With just over 700 participants in seven races, the Bear Chase has the intimacy of a local race even though it attracts skiers from all over the Great Lakes region.
Pasties are a huge draw
The biggest draw, though, could be the pasties. The national dish of Cornwall, this meal-in-a-pastry was brought to the UP in the 1800’s by Cornish miners. After the races, Bear Chase competitors and volunteers get to feast on the best pasties you’ve ever tasted. There’s also soup, salad and cookies, but with 46k behind me and 4k to go, it’s the pasties that keep me motivated.
For several years I’ve been trying to get my lifetime friend Steve Biggs to join me for the race. We grew up in St. Louis, went to junior high, high school and college together and ended up living on opposite ends of Lake Michigan – he in Petoskey, I in Milwaukee.
Despite my badgering, Steve always had some family or business responsibility to keep him from the Bear Chase – until last year, that is, when he signed up for the 25k half marathon.
It was a real treat to have him at the finish line when I completed my 50k race, which equaled two laps of the course. I asked him how his race went.
Steve responded, “Really well, until an incident. I’ll tell you later.”
Normally I’d pursue “incident,” but I had just raced a marathon, and my mind was dominated by my body screaming for two pleasures: getting into dry, warm clothes, and consuming pasties, so we headed to the Calumet High School that provided both.
We stood in the pasty line as winners in the 10k age categories were being introduced. Then the MC interrupted the awards to explain that there had been a heart attack on the race course. The victim had been saved by fellow skiers, then airlifted to a Marquette hospital where he was doing fine.
The crowd roared when he said the victim would be skiing again soon. He explained that the guy’s friend from Ironwood, standing right next to him, wanted to meet the two skiers who had stopped their races to give the guy CPR, saving his life.
I like a feel-good story as much as the next guy, but I was only five people away from the pasty table, so I focused my attention to the objects of my desire. Pointing to the pasties, I turned to Steve saying, “Don’t they look great?” I discovered not only was he no longer behind me, but he was talking to the MC and the heart attack victim’s friend. I thought, “So that’s what the ‘incident’ must have been!”
I grabbed an extra pasty for him, loaded up on salad and cookies, and headed for a seat. When Biggs finally joined me, he was so emotional from the experience that he could only get out a sentence at a time before having to compose himself.
First Responders’ Quick Action
He had been skiing with a fellow 70-year-old, even occasionally chatting, when just two kilometers from the finish line, the guy suddenly went down. There was no ice, turn or obstacle on the trail. Steve called over his shoulder, “You OK?” There was no answer. Biggs stopped, skied back and stood over the guy he would later learn was Gary Engstrom and shouted again, “You OK?” As Biggs explained later, “He was on his back, his eyes were wide open, but they didn’t blink or move – just stared straight up.”
Biggs dropped to his knees, checked for a pulse, but found none. Then Bruce Heltunen skied up and took over. Heltunen had been certified as a first responder in a previous job, so he and Biggs began alternately pounding Engstrom’s chest with CPR compressions. While one would yell encouragement to Engstrom, the other would shout to skiers who slowed or stopped, “Anybody got a phone? Call 911!”
Eventually, race officials received word of an apparent heart attack from someone calling 911 as well as from racers crossing the finish line, so they sprang into action and sent one of their two rescue snowmobiles to the location.
Just a minute before the snowmobile arrived, Dr. Bill Short had a déjà vu moment. Two years prior he had been the first responder when another guy had a heart attack in almost the same spot on the trail. Short’s CPR had saved that guy. This time, Short, also racing the 25k, dropped down, took Engstrom’s pulse, and instructed Biggs and Heltunen to keep going.
AED Made All the Difference
The Bear Chase’s EMT-staffed rescue sleds now carry Automatic External Defibrillators (AED), and as soon as they tore Engstrom’s shirt away and gave him a jolt, he had a pulse. They loaded him on the sled – Short joining the EMTs – and sped to the finish line. An ambulance rushed Engstrom to the Keweenaw Memorial Hospital and eventually he was air-lifted to a Marquette hospital.
Short, who is a family doctor in Marquette said, “Having that AED on the course made all the difference, so the Bear Chase organizers deserve a lot of credit for being prepared.”
They also deserve credit for taking care of the life-savers. The rescue crew gave Short a ride back to his skis and poles so he could finish the race. The following Wednesday, they called Biggs to tell him they would send him an age-group first place trophy since it was clear that he would have won the group if he hadn’t stopped. They also gave both Heltunen and Biggs free entry for 2018.
Engstrom, of course, is the real winner. This is a guy who has completed 202 running marathons as well as triathlons and ski races, so he wasn’t exactly expecting heart problems. He now remembers the EMT’s asking him questions, “after they zapped me back to life.”
He enjoys the re-telling: “Since I was dead for 10 minutes, they wanted to know how my brain was doing, but they asked me an easy one – my wife’s name!”
Reunion at ABR
In December Biggs and I met at ABR in Ironwood for some skiing and to check out the new microbrewery. I arranged for Ironwood-resident Engstrom to surprise Biggs at the ABR Chalet after our first ski. Bringing Engstrom over to where Biggs was standing with several other skiers, I had to point out which one was his first responder.
“Oh, that was totally awesome,” Engstrom says of that second meeting. “I got goose-bumps knowing he was the guy. I’m here because of him and the others. We were joking around pretty quickly, just like I already knew him.”
Biggs loved the reunion also, but he had better recall, naturally.
“I didn’t need to be told who was standing in front of me,” Biggs explained, “I knew those eyes. When I was pounding his chest, I locked on his eyes and shouted encouragement. The big difference was this time, his eyes sized me up and down, sparkled and laughed.”
The banter took off. “How you doing now?” asked Biggs.
“Well, the four ribs you busted have finally healed,” Engstrom jousted.
Someone suggested Biggs and the other rescuers should buy Engstrom some beers for the damage they did to his ribs, but Engstrom was having none of that.
“No, those guys saved my life,” said Engstrom. “That’s payment enough for some ribs!”
Engstrom, Biggs and Heltunen all plan to race the Great Bear Chase half marathon again this March. Short can’t because of a planned holiday with his wife. Engstrom then has his eyes set on the 50th anniversary Paavo Nurmi Marathon this summer.
Asked if that’s wise given his heart attack a year ago, Engstrom responds rhetorically, “Why not? I’ve already done 26 of them.”
BEAR CHASE RACES
10 K Classic 10 K Skate
25 K Classic 25 K Skate
50 K Classic 50 K Skate
50 K Skiathlon