Life happens, as they say. A few days before the 2011 American Birkebeiner ski race my lodging fell through. My life was already unusually chaotic at the time, so I wasn't sure I had the energy to work out the last minute logistics.
I wanted to do the race, but not at any cost. Sleeping on a high school gymnasium floor in a sleeping bag surrounded by strangers wasn't going to cut it. I needed some divine intervention to find a place to stay.
I reached out to several long-time friends who I knew were staying at cabins with other friends or family. Not surprisingly, all were full. I had one last chance at a cabin owned by the parents of my friend Greg Egbert.
As it happened, there was room for me. Not only that, my friend Tom Kunau would be racing and staying there, too, and he offered me a ride. Relief, excitement and deep gratitude welled up inside me.
Tom and I left St. Paul, Minnesota, Friday morning with our skis waxed and bags packed for a cold race. The forecast for Saturday morning included temperatures in the single digits. The car was comfortable and warm. We chatted and listened to Mumford & Sons and The Decemberists on the scenic three-hour drive to Hayward.
We arrived in the small, proud and energized town of Hayward, Wisconsin, around midday and picked up our race packets. We perused the vendors at the expo and made a couple purchases. Tom bought a thermal base layer and I picked up a ski waxing brush. Greg's parents, Gary and Jean, warmly welcomed us at the cabin. Jean made us all a tasty dinner, complete with ample quantities of pre-race carbohydrates.
We all went to bed fairly early that night and I took some time to reflect. I laid out my intentions for the race. I wanted to ski to the best of my ability. And to do this, I vowed to be present to every moment of the race.
Late to leave
Sleep came and the morning of the race quickly arrived. It was cold. Below zero cold. We planned to leave at 7 a.m. so we would have adequate time for Greg to drop Tom and me off at the bus pick-up. As it happened, I was not on time so we didn't leave until 7:20.
We hit the traffic back-up at a greater distance from the bus pick-up location than Greg and Tom had encountered the previous year. A tense silence set in among us, broken only by the uneasy acknowledgement we would be cutting it close.
I knew there was nothing I could do to change the situation, but I could at least apologize for making us late. Fortunately, we were able to get on the last bus to the starting line at Telemark Lodge.
Once there, we navigated our way through the throngs of people coming and going on their pre-race missions. Tom was assigned to a different starting wave than me, so we wished each other good luck and parted ways.
In the warmth of the lodge, I pinned energy gels to the waist belt of my water carrier. I partially tore open the gel tabs to make them easier to eat while skiing. I soon forgot I had done this, so when I bent over, one gel exploded and I had no choice but to scoop up and eat the goop and pin on a replacement. It's always good to have spares.
The same few people at the lodge alerted me multiple times that I had dropped something - first a pole, a hat, then a gaiter. We joked that it took a community to get me to the start line. I did make it, though.
Wave 6 start
Because I had not skied the Birkie in many years, I was placed in a later wave. Wave 6, to be exact. I had been skiing well that season and had notched some strong finishes in a few longer races earlier that month. For these reasons, I was not shy about lining up directly on the starting line for my wave and not 10 or more rows back.
I felt excited and anxious - common emotions before the start of any race. I remembered my intention to be present and aware. I chatted briefly and enthusiastically with the man next to me. It was his first Birkie but like me, he had done well at other recent ski races. We smiled and wished each other a good race.
Finally, the count down for our wave start began. Ten seconds. Then five, four, three, two, one! The string of flags in front of us lifted and away we went, double poling in the tracks towards the true starting line where the chip we each wore around an ankle registered our respective starting times.
I went out pretty hard. Skiing amidst so many people and encountering significant climbs and descents early on demanded my attention to avoid crossing poles or skis, wiping out or missing opportunities to improve my position within the pack. Attentiveness came easily at this point in the race.
I kept tabs on my body, noticing how my legs and lungs felt and trying to keep my form relaxed. I also kept tabs on my mind. If I noticed the start of a story about how I was feeling, such as "oh, my legs are already tired and the race has only just begun," I quickly let go of it. I stayed with my body and tried to only use my mind for strategic purposes. For example, "There is an opening, I have the energy, go now!"
Even with this high level of concentration, I made mistakes. The conditions were cold and fast with properly waxed skis like mine. I am confident on descents, but encountered an icy patch on a tight turn midway down a hill about 10K into the race. My ski slipped out from under me and I sprawled head first into a snowbank.
A quick recovery
Unhurt, I quickly got up. Back on my way, a spectator yelled "You dropped your water bottle" to which I replied, "It's okay, I don't need it." I did make a mental note to take more liquid at the aid stations from there on.
I was a little shaken after the fall, both physically and mentally. What had the fall cost me in the race? I could not know and speculating about it would not help. I brought my attention instead back to my body. I felt a little off. Just not at ease with my form and less assertive in my mind. After a short time, my body settled down and with that my ambition to push myself again returned. Game on.
I was almost totally unaware of time. There was only the skiing. And I seemed to be either climbing or descending. This is, of course, the nature of the glacier-scoured land in northwest Wisconsin.
I came to the crossing of Highway OO - "double oh" for short - which is close to the halfway point of the race. In truth, more than 60 percent of the climbing is behind you at that point complete. Here was where I planned to meet Greg for a pit stop of a gel and some energy drink. His mom was there waiting for me, too.
The gel was a little hard and I needed Greg's mom to open my drink bottle for me. I was too far into race mode to bother with talking. I communicated by simply grunting and nodding. Apparently, seeing me in this state of being was new and a little surprising to both Greg and Jean. He later told me I left her concerned whether I would be able to finish. Unaware of this, I fueled up and continued on my way.
Curiously, as I weaved through Waves 5 then 4 then 3, I never seemed to be far from the man I met on the starting line. When he was in front of me, I was motivated to keep up, and when right behind me he was a familiar comfort. This sort of organic camaraderie that often happens during endurance events kept was a source of inspiration.
Fuel nearly fumbled
The climbs and descents continued. I started noticing fluttery aches in my thigh muscles, early warning signs of leg cramps. I tore off one of my nearly frozen energy gels and spent the next kilometer or two trying to consume it. Breathing hard with the gel between my teeth, it took all my concentration not to choke, trip or lose too much time. The effort was worth it, and soon I felt greater ease as the carbohydrate fuel reached my hungry leg muscles.
At roughly the 46K mark, the race course leaves the hills behind and gradually descends to Lake Hayward. On this day, the monotony of that 2K across the lake was meditative and kept calling me back to the snow beneath my skis.
I continued to weave through the pack whenever the narrower trail conditions allowed me to pass. Closer to town now, more spectators appeared. I was surrounded by Wave 2 and 3 skiers and the occasional cheer "Way to go Wave 6!" encouraged me.
As the end of the lake approached, I became aware of just how close the finish line was - only a few blocks off the lake and into downtown Hayward. Finally, more than 30 miles from the start, I skied past hundreds of cheering people lining Main Street. I finished as strong as my body would allow and just behind my comrade from the starting line.
It was over. I was happy. In fact, I had been happy the whole way. Not happy in the fun-and-pleasant sort of way, but in a deep and joyful-in-the-moment way.
I was not quite sure what to do with myself now that I was done, received my finishing pin and had my timing chip removed from my ankle. And then I saw my dear friend, Susie Newman, who had also just finished. These grueling mental and physical experiences always leave me more open, and my heart swelled at the sight of her. I hugged her. We held each other for a short while. I wept.
The reality of the single-digit temperature soon required us to take action. I went in search of my gear bag that had been transported to the finish area by the race organizers. One of the 2,000 gracious volunteers at the race saw my bib number and hustled to fetch my bag for me. While waiting for it to arrive, I saw Greg. He and his parents had cheered me in and congratulated me on my race.
Tom arrived shortly there after, and we made our way to the food tent. Chicken noodle soup and the company of friends never felt so good.
The three of us walked several blocks to Greg's car and started the drive back to the cabin. We all agreed on a slight detour to the Sawmill Saloon in Seeley, about midway between the start and finish of the race. The bar and grill was packed with a lively and eclectic mix of cross-country skiers, spectators, volunteers and snowmobilers.
Greg, Tom and I enjoyed, but could not quite finish, a pitcher of beer. We even chuckled about the tension of the morning drive to the bus pick-up. Tom and I split a bratwurst and toasted the completion of an epic race.
Greg's parents welcomed us back to the cabin with smiles and a delicious meal. I greatly appreciated their warm hospitality and stellar race support throughout the weekend. I could not have asked for more.
As Tom and I drove back home Sunday morning, I felt satisfied and happy. I felt alive.
Tracy Sides lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and owns Soul Revolution, a company that promotes mindfulness, sustainable living and healthy communities through public events, workshops and inspiring apparel.