My first Birkie. And you’re right: What a doozy! I’m talking about everything from getting there, to the actual race, to getting home. Would I do it again? That’s a silly question. Not only am I planning on it, I’m also planning on bringing a few friends from the mountains of Montana.
It started with a robo call late Wednesday afternoon from the airline reservation department. Cancelled flight, nothing re-booked, and nothing available on Thursday from the local airport. I spent the next several hours on the phone and on the internet trying patiently to find another flight out. The next available flight from the local airport would have gotten me into Hayward at around 1am Saturday morning, so that wasn’t an option. It was off to Plan B—flying out of Missoula, about 2 ½ hours away. I was able to get an early morning flight, but by now it was 9pm. I had to pack, catch a few hours of sleep, keep eating carbs, and leave at 1:30am to catch a 5:30 am flight.
Fortunately, the flight was filled with other racers. Great energy and plenty of enthusiasm. You know how they say that traveling on airlines is one of the highest risk activities for catching airborne diseases? Well, this flight was experiencing an epidemic of biblical proportions —Birkie Fever. It was a good flight.
After a long drive to Hayward for my bib, and then to Ashland on just a few hours sleep, I checked in to my hotel on Lake Superior, where I met my dad. No sooner had he pulled in, and it started snowing. And blowing. And the temperature plummeted. By Friday morning, we had howling winds, a couple of inches of snowy-icy rime, and a snow drift around the rent car that I could have skied down. It reminded me of my youth, growing up north of Green Bay. It was good to be back, I think.
Being the hardy types, we decided to drive back to Hayward on Friday to check out the Expo, and to Cable to check out the logistics of getting to the race start. I also wanted to see the famed, and shuttered, Telemark Lodge. A grand, old structure. Hope they do something good with it.
Needless to say, diving conditions made for a long trip between Ashland and Hayward, but we got there and back safely. Ready to go the next morning.
About that next morning. When I awoke and checked the weather report, I wondered if I had enough layers in my suitcase. For that matter, I wondered if there were enough layers anywhere in Wisconsin. I kept thinking about standing at the start, on an airport runway, in single-digit temps with 15-20 mph winds in nothing but a skimpy race suit, thin race gloves, and couple layers of poly-propylene. I finally settled on what I was going to wear, and went one layer less. Heck, I live in the Rocky Mountains. I could take it.
Turns out that the start of the race was the nothing compared to the race itself. The cold, soft snow, combined with the choppy track from thousands of racers who preceded my Wave 8 start, proved considerable. I was warm enough by the time I hit the power line and started easy up the first hill. I’ve skied downhill in plenty of boot-deep powder, but this was going to be a whole different experience.
I finally settled into a rhythm and began to enjoy the course. Just get in line on the ups, and watch out on the downs. I narrowly escaped the pile of a skier in front of me on Bobblehead Hill. A couple of luge-run changes on the way down it to stay out of the way of other unnatural juxtapositions of skis, poles, and human limbs, and I was in the clear. All to the cheers of the snowmobilers. One even complimented me on my pants as I flew by! It was getting fun.
By the time I hit OO, I realized that it was going to be a very, very, very slow race. I overheard one skier say he was 90 minutes off his pace. Nonetheless, I kept banging out the kilometers.
Before I go any further with the race story, I want to stop and compliment all the volunteers. Perhaps the best I have ever experienced. Friendly, quick with a helpful answer or cup of water, and always a smile on their faces. Superb hospitality.
Back to the race and Bitch Hill. It’s not as steep or as long as some of the other hills, but it is at the end of the race, so it feels like it. This day was especially hard going. Pushing powder and navigating the berms that developed in each uphill line made it feel like you were going up two hills at once – the one looming in front of you, and the one mocking you under your feet.
Winding my way through the last of the woods, I hit the meadows. Thankfully, I was able to tuck in behind another skier when the wind started to pick up and get to the last feed station after passing a bunch of other folks who, like me, were probably waiting for that first glimpse of the lake. When I finally got to the lake, I tucked behind another skier who took the lead the entire way. Almost no one passed us. Half way across, I looked behind me and saw a train of about twenty skiers all drafting. I guess they took a look at my 6’6” frame and decided that they wouldn’t find a better wind break. I just want to thank that poor skier in front of me who broke trail all the way across the lake. I owe you one.
Then came the bridge to Main Street. A chorus of cowbells began to crescendo. And there were more cowbells, and more cowbells, and more cowbells, like some kind of a skit from SNL. I chuckled to myself thinking of Will Ferrell. He is, after all, a Wisconsin boy. I wonder if he got the idea for the cowbell skit from watching the Birkie when he was young. Finally, I turned the corner and skied the easiest part of the race, the sprint to the finish! What a day!
As I bent down to undo my skis, my hamstrings cramped up. I knew I had left it all on the course. Finally free of the sticks, I looked around wondering if I should eat, get my bag, or just stand there a little longer. Before I knew it, the radio guy was in front of me with a microphone asking how my race went, if anyone drafted behind me on the lake, and if I’d do it all again. Like I said, silly question.
As everyone who raced this year knows, the roads home were like an ice rink. But when you travel that far, and ski that long, you take it just a bit easier on the way home.
By the time I landed in Montana the next afternoon, a snow storm was looming in the mountains. And I was thinking about next year. On Monday, I shared stories at the office with my fellow skiers and handed out the swag I brought back. By the end of the day, I had forgotten all about the cancelled flight, the bone-chilling start line, and Bitch Hill. Instead, my only thoughts were on how I could improve my race time next year.
See you in ’15!