Another Birkie (the American Birkebeiner ski marathon) has come and gone, a wonder in itself given this winter’s lack of snow.
My Birkie was a roller derby of sorts. My back had been sore for weeks and I wasn’t sure if I could ski the race. I loaded up on ibuprofen all week and had a deep tissue massage to work out the kinks; things seemed to be working well enough to ski the race, so I decided to have fun, go easy, and see how my back felt.
Conditions were perfect — upper teens to 20s, sunny, pretty fast snow, and fast skis. I tried not to go too hard, trying to get a feel for what my body could handle that day. I mostly do freestyle, or skate-skiing, which is how I ski the Birkie. The technique requires a powerful crunching motion in your core, which can aggravate a sore back. So I had to focus on not overdoing that so as to not make my back pain worse. I skied the first half of the 50k race, which is uphill for 23k, and then got a new drink bottle from my Team Birkie support crew at the “OO” feed stop, which is the midpoint of the race. After skiing away with my bottle, I stopped to get some water from a volunteer. At that point some guy who couldn’t stop skied over my skis while I was standing there and knocked me down. I felt a sharp pain shoot through my groin and left leg. After untangling myself I merged back into the race — onward! Then, at another feed station, a guy ran into me from behind. I didn’t turn around to look at him, but I just thought to myself, Come on, people —control yourselves! And then, going around a fast downhill corner, I caught a washed-out classic track and took a spill in the middle of the trail. Luckily I didn’t get hit by other skiers and picked myself up and continued shaking my head over my “take it easy” Birkie.
I was still having a good race and had just climbed “Bitch Hill,” a long uphill climb at 40k, and had started skiing downhill when I hit a crazy patch of something sticky and orange, probably a spilled bottle of sports drink, right in the middle of the trail. I somersaulted nearly off the course and into the woods, and when I landed I was lying on the ground with a broken pole in my right hand. Great! I thought, and then I yelled to the skiers behind me to watch that patch.
I had about 9k to go and had to pole with my left arm the whole way, losing all my momentum and chance to finish with a good time. And there were still some big, long hills left to climb, as well as the flat 4ks across Lake Hayward and down snow-covered Main Street to the finish line.
Skating and poling with one arm, I gave thanks for those “single stick” (one arm) workouts I’d done earlier in the season with my Team Birkie group. I just kept focusing on enjoying the moment for what it was — an unexpected challenge —and tried to keep my energy output at a measured pace so I could make it to the end. After all, I’d never had to deal with this before and didn’t know what was required of my body.
I’d long forgotten how my back felt — now I was focused on my left arm and if I could keep up the repetition of relying on only it and the skating motions of my legs. I concentrated on just moving forward — I knew I’d eventually finish and it would all be over.
Finally, I made it across the long, flat lake and onto Main Street, where the snow that had been brought in to cover the street had turned into about six inches of deep, sugary corn snow from all the skiers who had passed through it. All you can do is try to maintain your balance, trying to not fall down in front of the cheering crowd, and get to the finish line a few hundreds yards ahead. As I crossed the line, I saw my wife, Kathryn, snapping photos of my relieved but disappointed face. I’d made it through another Birkie with more challenges than I could have imagined. And my back would end up more sore than when I started. Yes, the Birkie always provides a story, and I’m happy to be able to tell one, even though I don’t need that much excitement.
After assuring my wife that my pole was the only thing broken, I made my way to the changing tent, where dry clothes, and warm food awaited. There begins the part of race day where all 9,000 skiers have stories to tell. It also signals the end of one ski season and the beginning of the next, as we begin thinking of how we’ll start training for next year’s race, and the stories we’ll have to tell.