More assuredly than snow in November, the arrival of the pre-race Birch Scroll - the official magazine of the American Birkebeiner - prompts me to dust off the Nordic Track and inventory what's in my wax box. The publication doesn't, in and of itself, get me on skis, but it does start me thinking about skiing once again.
The Birch Scroll sparks both fear and anticipation for that deep winter phenomena known as the Birkie. And the newest issue, with its testimonial from a first timer, training advice and event schedule for the February 23-25, 2012, weekend, doesn't fail to wind up this reader's heart rate.
The latest issue includes an interview with Dave Landgraf, who skied every Birkie since it started in 1973, and no doubt would have racked up many more had he not died last August after being struck by a motor vehicle while bicycling. The interview is excerpted from the new book Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein, who wrote a more personal tribute to Landgraf in the October issue of Silent Sports.
The bulk of Beyond Birkie Fever (www.rhemalda.com) is Rhein recounting his own budding love affair with the Birkie and mostly misbegotten dalliances with other Worldloppet races, not to mention Grandma's Marathon, before becoming a not-too-shabby Wave 1 Birkie skier.
Rhein, a pseudonym, clearly relates to Landgraf when he took on that first Birkie despite having nearly no experience on skis. Likewise, Rhein writes, "My adventures are always influenced by the fact that I don't like to plan in advance. I find that you can turn a totally mundane undertaking into a desperate struggle for survival simply by approaching it unprepared and overconfident. Needless to say, my philosophy has got a few holes in it."
Although Rhein took on the Birkie at a younger, more resilient age and achieved much greater success at the event than I have or ever will, I admit I've taken a similarly scattershot training approach to my five Birkies to date.
My reading about the event is also wide ranging, so it's not surprising I was drawn to the wonderfully titled mystery Double Cross Country: It's Murder at the Birkebeiner (www.northstarpress.com) by Joan Murphy Pride (with a hilariously cheesy cover, complete with victim-skier sprawled across the trail, designed by the author's son).
This whodunit includes a large number of reprehensible characters, most of which are the employees or clients of a Twin Cities advertising agency. In the author's note that closes the novel, Pride describes herself as an ad copy writer and poor skier making good on a promise to her more athletic husband and friends that she'd "get even some day by writing a murder mystery where the great skiers get killed and the beginner solves the murders."
The better skiers try to outrun their would-be murderers in Jeff Foltz' Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War (www.birkebeinerthenovel.com), a remarkably well-researched piece of historical fiction based on the pivotal 13th century event in Norway that inspired the Birkebeiner ski marathon.
Two soldier Birkebeiners - originally an epithet coined by their enemies, the Croziers, but embraced long before the rebel King Hakon Sverresson makes his last stand in Lillehammer - take flight on skis for eight days through woods, over mountains and through blizzards, to deliver to safety the infant Hakon Hakonsson, heir to the throne. The heroine is Inga, the child's mother, imagined by Foltz (as well as the reenactors who ski in costume between Cable and Hayward every year) to have made the harrowing trip, too.
The author deftly describes the harsh conditions through which Magnus, the conflicted Crozier King, as his men pursue the resourceful and equally battle-tested Birkebeiners. At the center of this tale well told is the singular and universal wish of a mother to save her child, whatever the cost.
Classic skiing the 54K Birkie takes me about five hours, not eight days. I'll try to keep that in mind so I head into the ski season feeling more fortunate than burdened by the training I must undertake.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports magazine.
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