SEELEY, Wisconsin. Somewhere way back I think I read that the â€œbonkâ€, brought on by glycogen depletion, is pretty much all in your head. You really have not lowered the level of glycogen to a point where it physically starves the muscles of energy. Instead, the brain has a safety mechanism that kicks in way before this happens, causing all of the familiar mental anguish that effectively keeps you from really hurting yourself. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but I can attest to the fact that my brain has never let me down when it comes to suffering.
Wouldn’t you know it, after all of that work alone, we three stooges converged right at the end of the lake. Now together, we had three or four city blocks of slight uphill sugar snow to plow through to the finish line. One of the skiers pulled alongside me and suddenly we also had a â€œsprintâ€. I tried to channel my thoughts in a direction that might let me put more energy into getting to the finish. â€œWhat if this guy next to me got to the box first and took the last handfulâ€? I also tried to think about my three kids and Grandma and Grandpa that were probably somewhere on Main Street watching this drama unfold. â€œDad can not lose yet another sprintâ€! It seemed like I was watching myself in slow motion until I realized that it was slow motion — nobody could confuse this for a sprint, anyway. If you are a Seinfeld fan, just picture the scene where George and the senior citizens race each other down the sidewalk on those electric scooters. My competitor finally pulled ahead in the last 30 meters, but he thought we were sprinting for the banner ahead, and I knew the real objective.
That â€œsprintâ€ used up every last bit of brain food in my body, and then some. I was no longer capable of cognitive function. I doubled poled beyond the finish line and found myself smack in the Twilight Zone: I was trapped in the finish corral and the only exit was through one of half a dozen chutes, each marked with a sign that had a different sequence of numbers. The numbers ranged from 1 to about 25. It was obvious that I was supposed to make a selection based upon the numbers, but I just could not figure out how. I think I stood there looking back and forth at the chutes for two minutes just trying to comprehend what it all meant. I don’t think at that point I understood exactly why I had to get through the chutes, but a deep primal instinct bubbled up little flashes — â€œfood, sweet, small, round, other sideâ€. But there was also this feeling that I had to make the right choice. Finally, a lady at one of the chutes asked me what my â€œnumberâ€ was. I pointed to my bib and spat out my number, along with some drool. She looked at me like I was from another planet and said, â€œNo, how many times have you done the Birkie? We need to give you the right pinâ€. I struggled to rewind two decades: Was it 2 Birkies and 1 Korteloppet, the other way around? Or maybe it was all a dream. I mumbled something and they stapled a pin to my bib.
I wish that I could tell you this story had a perfect, happy ending. After a long stagger of a block or so to the warming and food tents, I made my rounds and came up short — settling for orange slices and dinner rolls (the evil sports nutritionists got to them). Now that I am well sugared and caffeinated from a stop at the Mooselips Java Joint in Seeley, I have my faculties back and can tell you that the American Birkebeiner is an extremely well run race (probably the best) even though they don’t provide donut holes at the finish.
As I sat sipping my mocha my son Colby asked me if I was sad that I had bonked and finished about 30 places back from my â€œgoalâ€ (there may also have been something in there like â€œand mom had a really good raceâ€, but my selective hearing is excellent). I told him that I probably lost just a few places and I was pretty happy with my race, because I had skied as hard as I could and enjoyed all but those last 3k. I gave him the requisite speech about what truly motivates us endurance athletes — all that business of doing it for the love of the sport, just finishing, and the like. Someday, when he is old enough to understand, I will tell him about the donut holes.