Name: Dan LaBlanc, Jefferson, Wis.
Event: Birkie Freestyle, 4:18
First Birkie? No
Best Birkie? Yes
It may have taken 31 years and 21 Birkies, but I think I’ve finally figured this thing out. I did 20 consecutive Birkies years ago, but then decided to take a break and see what happened. That first ski season without the Birkie looming over my head was wonderful! I’d feared that the tail was wagging the dog, as they say, and that I mostly skied out of fear of the Birkie. It turns out that it is actually the other way around, I love XC skiing and I didn’t need the Birkie to get me on the snow. For the next ten years I skied as much as possible every year, found a new passion for teaching, but I never stressed about mileage. Most years I put on as many or more miles than previous Birkie years, but all were logged joyfully. I never felt like I had to ski, I just wanted to ski! Every year as the race neared I felt bad for my friends that marched off obligatory laps with long faces in those weeks before the race. Had they lost the joy of skiing?
This being the 40th Birkie, I decided I wanted to get in on all things Birkie again. Given my hiatus I was placed in the 9th Wave which I really didn’t mind, but many friends expressed sympathy and reminded me that I’d be on a very damaged track and surrounded by rookies. My email confirmation informed me that I moved up to Wave 7, which didn’t much matter except that it would be nice to get to Anglers a little sooner for a brat and beer. I was actually looking forward to the experience of skiing with a bunch of folks that were early in their Birkie careers and bursting with Birkie excitement. And, who knows, Wave 7 might just be the proper spot for me!
My wife and I came up early Thursday to get in on some of the Main Street excitement, ski a little, and generally wallow in the joy of being with thousands of other skiers. XC immersion! Friday in Hayward I couldn’t stop smiling! Lots of friends and familiar faces, warm temperatures, and a gorgeous snowfall made for a great “Welcome Back” reception. What a blessing to be a XC skier! The Barkie Birkie (skijor race) was our favorite event of the weekend and I encourage everyone to catch it if you can. Later we skied at Mosquito Brook Road. in ungroomed, boot-deep powder, and it was heavenly. My daughters were able to get off work so they came up to join in and reminisce about Birkies past when they and my son came up as kids to do the Barnebirkie . My Birkie experience was already more than I could have imagined and I still had the Main Event on Saturday!
In the Wave 7 staging pens on Saturday I met some nice guys that had done a few Birkies and were understandably nervous. One guy noticed that I seemed rather calm given the task at hand and the slow conditions we likely were facing. Heck, I was just stoked to be going skiing on one of the best trails in the world. He asked for advice from this 20 year vet and all I could offer was to ski happy, think about why you want to finish this thing because there might a time when you want to quit, and don’t stop skiing until you get to Hayward. Not much help, but in the end it’s pretty simple. Every skier has to sort out what makes them happy. Is it placing, moving up a wave, beating last year, beating a friend, getting to the finish line, not bonking? For me, I was just excited to be going skiing with thousands of fellow XC lovers, on one incredible trail, and I felt blessed to be able to ski.
My personnel plan was to take what the trail gave me rather than fight conditions, focus on great technique every step of the way, get to Hayward with just a little gas left in the tank, and thank God that I was there. In the end, that all happened and I felt great all day. Given a 10 year break , my memory was a little foggy, but I think this was the first year that I was surprised how quickly the feed stops rather than counting the kilometers to the next! An early highlight was skiing with Shawn Cheshire and her guide, Jesse Crandall. I heard music ahead and knew it was too soon for a food stop and I soon learned that Jesse was wearing a waist pack with tunes and a mic to talk to Shawn. Very cool. When I came up behind them it didn’t immediately click as to what was going on. We were just getting to the Fire Tower climb and as I often do on climbs, I locked into someone climbing with a great technique and a nice light stoke. That was Shawn. That girl is a great skier! We climbed, rhythmically breathing while Jesse talked about the climb and its history. Thanks for the ride and the memory, Shawn and Jesse!
It had been 10 years since I’d skied the Birkie Trail, but after all the years of doing it, I know all the crux climbs and I am familiar with the fearful anticipation of them, but not this year. This year at the High Point Feed I realized that I was looking forward to the classic climbs like more old Birkie friends I han’t seen for a while. The OO climb, 29k; I couldn’t wait. Years ago in another fresh snow Birkie I remember trudging up the Mosquito Brook climb with friend Art Mitchell and we still relive that moment when we see each other. I couldn’t wait to again stare up at Bitch Hill and thank God I was there. After that it’s just the sharp little buggers after Hwy 77 that previous years had broke my stride to a standstill, but this year I couldn’t wait to see them. These are the features that make the Birkie special and at long last I’d figured it out. Bring ‘em on!
The whole trip went well and it followed the cycle of, Focus on Great Technique, Eat and Drink, Thank God, repeat. All that’s was left was to do was to V2A the lake, smile, the joy of Main St, and I’m home. Some dry clothes, family, friends, a beer and a brat.
Here’s a weird post race observation. I was browsing through some photos posted on the Birkie website and those offered by Marathon Photo, and noticed in almost every photo I was smiling! That’s another first.
The winners went twice as fast as I did but heck I figure they only had half as much time as I did to ski and have fun! I’m not positive that I’ll be able to replicate the great ride I had this year in future Birkies but I truly think I can. I do know for sure that good Lord willing I’ll be there and I’ll again be looking forward to the Birkie rather than fearing it because now I know that this old dog wags his own tail.