The 31st (2004) edition of the Birkebeiner was my 27th, including one cancellation and one postponement, and my 29th trip to the Hayward-Cable Area. I was going to write about this edition of the Birkie but the one impression that I left with this weekend in February was a huge collection of memories. Next year I will be 58 and it will be the 29th year that I have made the trek to the Birkie, half of my life. Why? That one is pretty easy.
My First Birkie
The Birkie is a classic. The immensity of it is overwhelming. In 1977, I skied in the first White Pine Stampede, on wooden skis and three pin bindings, in knickers with 100 other starters and barely survived howling winds and low temperatures. I then skied in the North American Vasa and noticed that those on skinny racing skis were going much faster. I had three weeks. I went down to the Skampt Shop in Grand Rapids and ordered a pair of Fischer skis with Bergans binding. I already had the shoes and ski poles, just the right brands to give me everything that Bill Koch had used to win his silver medal in Innsbruck the year before. I bought a plane ticket to Minneapolis and rented a car. When I checked in at the airport in Grand Rapids, the feeling overwhelmed me, I was an athlete flying to a race. It felt good.
My time that year was about 6:15, including a 30 minute rest stop at Mosquito Brook Hatchery, chomping oranges and cookies and drinking something that tasted terrible. I couldn’t have been happier, skiing in to the Hayward Bowl, and getting my third marathon medal of the season. The mass confusion of sidestepping up the downhill area at Telemark, skiing down the backside at breakneck speeds, around piles of people and into the woods – 3000 people, one mass start, onto a two-track. It took about 10K before the downhills weren’t walking traffic jams. Aid stations were well staffed, ski tracks hard packed and numerous, a registration where the staffers were as glad to be there as the racers were to race, a race within a race – the 25% Club, and a race that actually kept track of the numbers of races a skier had finished. A race that made you really feel wanted. That was my first Birkie and I remember flying home I figured that I could get in 40 by the time I was 70.
Join USSA, Get 2nd Wave Start
I left with the desire to train and do better the next year. In 1978, I joined the US Ski Association because the membership card got me a 2nd wave start. The next years were giddy; I dropped 40 pounds and one hour each year. 1980 was perhaps my best race at 3:12 for a real 55K Classic race, 125th overall out of 3000 skiers. Still Jennifer Caldwell, one of the best females on the US Ski Team, had fallen and broken her wrist during the race and still beat me by about 10 minutes. Marty Hall was only a few minutes ahead and best of all he asked me what wax I had used. "Binder with three layers of Extra Blue with a last minute three layers of Purple over that," I said. "Shouldn’t work," he said, but I never had to rewax.
I got to meet John Caldwell, Jennifer’s Dad, at a US Ski Association meeting in Colorado Springs much later. He was a 1952 Olympian, coach of the Putney skiers that ruled the Ski Team team for many years. We sat at the same table for the auction and he put up some of his maple syrup. Everyone agreed there was none better. John and the maple syrup.
Sometime during those three years I remember seeing Ivanka Baic skiing with the NMU Ski Team in the Korteloppet. She was quite the skier in her college days. I remember Egge, a seventy something, former 1920’s Norwegian Olympic Medal winner with a face so wrinkled it looked cavernous beating me one year by over an hour. The same race featured a contingent of Norwegians who decided to jump the gun, leaving 9 minutes early. The starters just fired the cannon and those left in the parking lot raced from cars with running engines to the start. I remember seeing an exhausted skier on the back page of Newsweek being carried between to helpers at the finish line. His name was Sten Fjeldheim - ask him about it sometime, it’ll bring a smile to his face.
Wet, Wet, Wet...
If you do enough marathons at sometime you are going to hit the wall. 1981 was my year but it was much more than that. Scott Salik and I decided to do the Dannon Series the week before the Birkie. It began in Minocqua, Wisconsin with two wet races in the upper thirties. There we were skiing with new Ski Team members Duncan McLean, Sten Fjeldheim, and Tony Hartmann otherwise known as the Central Dogs. The US Ski Team was also traveling with the Dannon Series. I was a long way behind, but being on the same track I got to watch them ski past. On Tuesday it was night race at Telemark on the downhill area. Temperatures were in the 50’s and there were rivers running through the course. We lined up with Bill Koch, Sven Ake-Lundback and Jean Paul Pierrat. I got to ski with all of them on the 8-lap race. I got to be passed by them all several times. I got to ski through knee high rivulets running off the downhill slopes. I got to know klister intimately. Then along came a drenching rain on Thursday night and the race was cancelled. Except, that is, those who wanted to stay and ski the 50K Bikinibeiner in 60F weather on the Telemark downhill slopes. We left on Friday somewhat dismayed. But on Sunday, 12 inches of wet slop fell that froze and the Birkie was back on in two weeks.
Next Time, Rewax
Rob Cool and I drove back for the second time. This was to be my year. 3:12 in 1980 and I should crack into the top 100 in 1981. Conditions were hard, tracks fast. For some reason they decided to film the race from a helicopter. The propwash was devastating at the top of the first hill on the powerline. Glad to get out of that. I was skiing ahead of all the women, having just dropped Muriel Gilman. At 12K my wax started to slip a bit. No, don’t rewax, that will cost you 5-10 minutes. Mistake number one. Somewhere between 35 and 40 K Muriel passed me and after Mosquito Brook my coordination started to go. By Duffy’s field my mind was still sound, I knew what to do, but my body wouldn’t work right. Several people passed me eating snow by the side of trial. I crawled into the Hayward log rolling arena, got my pin, ate and drank something, and then lay down on the porch in the sun and went to sleep for about an hour. It took me about 3 years to be able to push that hard again. Your first bonk is a killer. Tim Caldwell won that year and Mark Ernst was third.
In the 2004 Birkie, I drove up to the starting line and who parks next to me but George Hovland, one of those 1952 Olympic team members from Duluth. Well into his 70’s he still skis fast. Two stories come to mind when I see George every year. First, I’m standing at the urinal in Telemark Lodge well before I met him and he’s talking the guy next to him, “Yeah, I missed the first Birkie otherwise I would have skied them all. I was in court divorcing my first wife.” The reason I remember that so well is just after that two guys were commenting on the great looking chick skiing in the flowered tights. My wife, Carole, was the only one out there in flowered tights that year.
Later, after I had known George better, I was skiing along about 15 k’s into the race heading south to Hayward. I kept hearing this running argument behind me. “You’ve got a lot of nerve.” “Take the track then dammit.” George and a younger skier were locked in one of those epic battles. One was faster on the downhills and one was stronger on the uphills. Just couldn’t get away from each other. Finally they passed and George yelled, “You’re really something skiing on a 60 year olds skis.” Finally the younger skier stepped to the side, did a bow and offered the trail to the nasty old man. I never saw them again that race, but I did see George with his new wife and at the banquet. I stopped at the table related the story, much to everyone’s amusement and asked his wife if he used that lame excuse very often. All the time she said. He asked me if I offered to help, “Hell no,” I said, I wanted no part of that battle, I had my own going on.
I have skied faster than one of the better Michigan skiers, Chris Weingartz, at times. He was always better than me, usually quite a bit better, but about every now and then I would pass him late in the race. I ask him what was wrong. And he would say “Nothing, just touring.” It’s been a running joke ever since. Go out too fast and tour in. But that is Chris, he enjoys skiing if he is running with fast guys or taking his time. There are no bad Birkies, just some are faster than others.
I’ve had the pleasure to ski with Bill and Nancy Bauer for the last several years. Bill and I and Carole, my wife, were Junior Olympic coaches in Lake Placid one year when Bill’s sons, John and Bruce, were hot Central Division Juniors. I’m sure you all know John Bauer, Olympian and US Ski Teamer. Bill and I exchange e-mails occasionally but mostly we just enjoy skiing with each for an unspecified distance each year somewhere on the Birkie trail. I know his tribulations and he knows mine. In 2004, I heard all about John’s new daughter for pretty close to 10K. A prouder grandfather there never was.
Somehow you always want to peak for your milestone Birkies. My tenth one was 1986. Primed and ready to go, skating had been around for about two years. It started with marathon skating on the World Loppet Series. Hardly anyone does this anymore, but you keep on ski in the track and push off with the opposite ski while you double-pole. Few of us had the confidence that we could do it for 55K, so we would just waxed the outside of the ski in the wax pocket, leaving the inside bare. That way you could push off on an unwaxed ski and use the grip wax if you needed to climb hills. Many of us had made the commitment to skate the whole Birkie in 1986 and didn’t even bring extra wax. We got to the start and it was cold, very cold, and blowing and it started to snow. It snowed eight inches during the race and most everyone was dead long before the finish line. I was even hallucinating toward the end about that Bratwurst skiing up over the hills ahead of me. I got me one of those wily Wisconsin wieners at Telemark Lodge and came back to life.
1996 was my 20th, I got wear a purple bib and join the Birchleggings Club. I’ve known John Kotar, since his skiing days in the Keweenaw. He was a legend to us Lower Peninsula guys. Steve Smigiel was always trying to learn his secrets and John wasn’t very willing to share. John has skied all of the Birkies and is a Founder. As of the end of this Birkie he is one of only three skiers that have skied all of the Birkies. Anyway, we had finished a race at Maasto Hiihto in Hancock, and were skiing a warmdown. We stopped for a breather and Steve asks John about the hills. John had beaten us again. John says, “You know I used push so hard on the uphills that I would see black spots at the top, I just can’t do that any more.” Instant psyche job. We started calling him “Kotar the Barbarian” after that. Sometimes I catch John in his red Founder’s bib at the Birkie and sometimes I don’t, but it is always fun to call out his name either during or after the race.
It's Not Just One Race
John organized the Birchleggings Club and is still it’s leader. That is another thing about the Birkie, there are many races within the race. You can go for overall placing, age group placing, now freestyle or classic placing. Can you ski within 25% of the average time of the top five skiers in your age group and get a 25% Club pin? The first year you get a medal, numbered in order of finish. The next years you get a pin numbered by number of Birkies finished. At ten years you get a plaque and your name in the Birch scroll. And due to John efforts, at 20 you get to wear a purple bib and become a member of the Birchleggings Club. John had said the honor is great, but he wished the other skiers would quit congratulating him and just let him ski the Birkie. It is true, my first year I was the 72nd skier to get into the Club so it was still a novelty. I talked more on the trail that year than any other.
John Burton is a Birchleggings member, another 1952 Olympian from Minneapolis and a friend I never would have met had it not been for the Birkie. The consummate gentleman, he has since stopped skiing the Birkie, but I have met he and his wife all over the United States at ski races. Two of the nicest people I have ever met.
Bitch Hill is a phenomenon. One year a group of ladies decided to dress up in costumes, place signs on one of the steepest hills on the course and proceed to use motivational techniques on the Birkebeiners that would only be worthy of Valkyries – That’s Viking for bitch. The first time I saw them I was taken aback, but then I needed bitching at. Other the years they have become a highlight of every skiers race. And, they have gotten more encouraging. Then one year they weren’t there anymore. After the race everyone was asking, “Where have all the bitches gone, long time passing!” The next year they were back. The bitches had skied the Korteloppet the previous year just to understand us better. Maybe that is why they calmed down a bit. Nevertheless, a kiss from a bitch on a snot streaked cheek can make any Birkie memorable.
I'm On ESPN!
1991 was another hard year, cold and slow snow, and most people were whipped at the finish at Telemark Lodge. ESPN was there that year. At the finish someone stuck a microphone in my face and asked me why I did the Birkie. This race is fantastic, I said, It’s electric here. Give’em a line and the media will use it. I made ESPN that year and the Birkie video. That’s my 15 seconds of fame, I guess.
Ed Harjala is another amazing athlete from the Keweenaw that I have known for sometime. In his eighties now he still skis the Birkie. I used to start out well ahead of him and never see him. But then he retired from the Post Office and started to really train. Then it was a matter of time as to when he would pass me. If it was a good race, he caught me in the last 10 km; a bad one, he caught me by 35k; a great race, I never saw him. We usually see each other in the starting gate and wish each other luck, or more often ask what are you doing back here, as we get older.
There you have it don’t you? We start out going for the racing, but once hooked, it is the people from all over the country that meet once a year at the Birkie. Birkie friends. It’s comfortable, you stay one, two or three days. Catch up on the years, ski the Birkie, see how everyone did on the way home and start training for next year. You don’t see them long even to get tired of them so you are still eager to see them again. Not like fish or relatives, after three days they start to smell. Of course, lutefisk smells but that is fish isn’t it? Chris Beaudoin, wrote what I consider the Birkie song. I know there are several recorded and sold but his “Birkebeiner Blues” captures it best. “You only live for 2-4 hours on a Saturday morning at the end of February in Wisconsin. Then it is the Birkie Blues until next year.” Of course there is a lot more to his song. There’s a lot more to the Birkie, but those stories are for next time. I haven’t even touched on the GRNST skiers…YET.