It's impossible to express what a tremendous loss the cross-country ski community experienced with the passing of Birkie founder David Landgraf. Even now as I write, a week after I first got the news that Landgraf was cycling when he was struck by a motor vehicle from behind on August 5 and died from his injuries a few days later, I find it hard to believe he is gone.
In moments of tragedy like this, the only hope of solace you have is to reflect upon your friends and the good times you spent together. The amazing thing is that these reflections can sometimes put things in context and help you understand and celebrate the lives of those you've lost. For that reason, I look forward to a ski season spent sharing stories of David Landgraf, and I'd like to start it off with this one.
For me, the most amazing thing about Landgraf wasn't his tremendous talent as an athlete, but his amazing humility. There are thousands of Birkie skiers, but there are only a handful that spend the winter ski season traveling around to all the small, local, fund-raising ski events throughout the Midwest. Landgraf was definitely foremost among this group.
Despite the fact that 62-year-old Landgraf had skied in places like Fallun, Sweden, for the world master's championships, and had participated in the elite wave of every single American Birkebeiner, he would never hesitate to do a $15 or $20 event as long as it was within easy driving distance of his home in Bloomer, Wisconsin.
Landgraf was a true ambassador of the local community of cross-country skiers.
Those of us who have skied the Birkie inherently know there is something special about this sport. Cross-country skiing gets into your blood, defines your life and pretty much opens a gateway to the whole world. It's a beautiful thing, and although the Birkie is the crown jewel, the true wealth of the skiing world comes from all the trails that are lovingly tended and groomed throughout our region. These trails represent a huge amount of work, and Landgraf was always appreciative of the local people who maintain this trail system. If he could help them raise some funds by participating in a race, he was more than happy to do so.
The particular trail that Landgraf always personally championed was Hickory Ridge just outside of Bloomer. If you've never skied there, you're in for a treat. It's a challenging trail. After all, it was a good enough training ground to keep Landgraf among the best in the world for all these years.
Inaugural Landgraf Loppet
Last year, Landgraf called me up for an impromptu race to generate some cash for trail maintenance. I say "impromptu" because he only advised me of it about a week before it was to happen.
"The race is on," he said on the phone, "Fifteen K for 15 bucks. Tell your club."
"Do you have a name for this race?" I asked.
"Then I'm calling it the Landgraf Loppet," I said with a laugh.
He didn't object, so I sent out the information to my contact list and started watching the forecast in hopes that it wouldn't be too bitterly cold on race day.
It's always tough to organize a new event, and the limited lead-up time wasn't working in our favor. But I knew throwing Landgraf's name around was sure to get us some skiers. I made sure to emphasize that the race was going to be a fun, casual, fund raiser, and this was underscored by the fact that it was a bring-your-own-bib race.
"You can bring a Birkie bib or a piece of cardboard with a number on it," Landgraf said. "Just bring something."
Landgraf, of course, would end up skiing the race in one of his awesome Birkie Founder bibs. Founder bibs are bright red and they stand unique among all the thousands of other Birkie bibs, both for their vibrancy and scarcity. Those things are so beautiful it really is a shame they're only used for one race. I ended up suggesting to Landgraf that in subsequent years, the first 38 people to register for the Landgraf Loppet should be issued one of Landgraf's Birkie Founder bibs for the day. I think it would be quite an honor to do a ski race while wearing one of those bibs, and it would certainly be a draw for participants.
The day of the Landgraf Loppet ended up being one of those sub-zero deep freeze days that we have to deal with in this neck of the woods from time to time. However, despite the weather and the limited notice, we still managed a pretty solid group of skiers.
Landgraf's daughter, Emalea, was there cheerfully writing down the random numbers that people had brought. We were surprised when a fellow arrived dressed as a Norwegian Birchlegger, complete with wooden skies. The skier turned out to be one of three costumed Birkebeiners selected by the Birkie organization's to ski the big race that year, and he had decided the Landgraf Loppet was a perfect way to try out the antique equipment he'd been issued.
We headed on down to the start area that had been prepared on a small lake. Landgraf graciously thanked everyone for coming out, and reiterated that all the proceeds were going to trail maintenance. Then the race started, and Landgraf was off like a shot, dancing up the hills of his own personal playground.
Hickory Ridge is the kind of trail that beats you up pretty good. That, along with the cold, meant I was pretty ready to be done when I finally slid across the finish line. Such temperatures doesn't seem to bother a guy like Landgraf, though. By the time I had finished, he was long since done, and I found him standing by the fire, eating some donuts that he had bought for the participants.
The sight of the donuts made me laugh. "You just spent all your profits on donuts," I jibed. Landgraf just smiled as if to say it was simply impossible to have a ski race without donuts.
"Did you win?" I asked.
At this, Landgraf shrugged. "Aw, Tom Krenz let me win," he said.
That simple word choice has resonated with me for a long time. Landgraf could have just as easily said, "Yes." It would have been a simple statement of fact. But Landgraf had things in perspective, and it was clear he felt it was more important to convey his respect for Krenz than some idle boast about who had emerged victorious.
Sportsmanship was more important to him than crossing the line first. The value of the race was to have done a good, solid workout. You learn a lot about someone by skiing with them. Sometimes you learn more in 40 minutes of skiing than you'd ever gain from 10 years of more general interaction.
I remember having a similar experience with Krenz at the Great Bear Chase up in Calumet, Michigan, one year. Normally I wouldn't be skiing anywhere near Krenz, but on that occasion his skis were garbage and I was kind of sick so we decided to just ski casually. At the finish line, I made a gesture for Krenz to cross first, but he ushered me onward, provoking laughter from a race official.
"After you! No, after you!" the race official said with a chuckle.
I would have stopped and insisted that Krenz cross before me, but I was too tired to snowplow so I just let my momentum take me in.
It's odd how situations can arise in sports where it feels more important to show respect to your competitor than it is to beat them. But those are the kinds of moments you live for as a sportsman. It's not about winning or losing. It's about knowing your competitors and coming to a true sense of their worth.
Landgraf's legacy is that of sincere respect for the sport, respect for the race and respect for his competitors. He knew that he wasn't going to add to his legend by claiming victory in some fun, casual, fund raiser. Yet, as I watched him finish his donut and head out for a cool-down ski, I couldn't help but realize that he had somehow managed to do exactly that.
The man was eternally elite, and, remarkably, more so off his skis than on them.
Walter Rhein is the author of Beyond Birkie Fever, a Birkie memoir which includes an interview with David Landgraf about his first Birkie. Rhein also writes occasionally for CyclovaXC.com.