After the cruel punishment that the Snow Gods have bestowed upon the American Birkebeiner in years past, 2008 will be remembered as the year that They made up for all past transgressions. Even the drive up to the North Woods from the Chicago suburbs on Tuesday morning was different this year. Snow mounds were piled everywhere. There was not a patch of brown to be had anywhere north of the Wisconsin border. I knew that even if we experienced a few of those fifty degree days that Birkie week has come to expect, the race would be on.
Arriving in Cable and setting up our wax room was my top priority. Sharing a house with 12 skiers, some of whom are actually fast, means the fluor will be flying. As the Midwest Wax Tech for Solda Wax, I wanted to make sure we were prepared for any conditions. When the boys start arriving, I see skis in all conditions. Some of them have not been waxed since last year’s Birkie, while others are shiny, lightning fast, and just waiting for the wax of the day.
Studying the weather for a week before the race made for some interesting conversation this year. The major weather services were – as usual – all over the board. Some of them had temperature differences of as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit for race morning. The one thing I knew for sure was that the snow temperature was going to be cold. The amount of snow on the ground and the low temperatures during the day had created a thermal pack that the Birkie Trail had not experienced for years. Doing some glide testing soon after my arrival, it was evident that the snow temperature did not catch up to the air temperature until about 11:00 a.m. and that was only in the sun. Like it or not, the guys in my wax room were going to be waxing for cold snow temp, not air temp. That is the way it should always be, but that message is sometimes difficult to sell.
Race day dawned a bit less sunny than predicted and a few degrees colder, but the snow held steady at a cool -12 Fahrenheit. As soon as I rousted myself out of bed and checked the conditions, I knew we were dialed in. If only my engine could go as well as I knew my skis would. Heading over to the start, I saw the temperature on the car computer slowly rise, and the sun even peeked out a few times. Hopefully it was coming out to stay. I listened to the start on the radio and was as surprised as anyone when they announced a ten-minute delay due to â€œtraffic congestion.â€ The cynic in me immediately wondered which stud was missing from the start line. I heard the cannon boom and hoped that my friend Jim Didomenico had fast skis and would continue his streak of being Illinois’s top skier. Without the ability to even get a sniff of the Elite Wave, most of us in my Birkie Posse live vicariously through Jim.
Turning my thoughts to my own â€œrace,â€ I ambled down to the start line to set off in Wave Five of the Korteloppet. I had skied the Korte once before and made a deal with myself that if I was not in shape to go the â€œfull pullâ€ I was not going to suffer through it. Sure, skiing down Main Street is one of the greatest feelings one can have on skis, but the days of just â€œsurvivingâ€ the Birkie are over for me. The Korte course is beautiful, well-maintained, and presents a decent challenge; not to mention it is only twenty-three kilometers. Getting done early and heading into Hayward to cheer on the Birkie finishers is not a bad way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.
As I listened to the finishers on Main Street, all seemed to share a consistent theme. Every skier raved about the conditions of the course, the excitement of the fans and volunteers, and the great weather; chilly at the start but fantastic the rest of the way. In other words, a typical American Birkebeiner. The new classic trail also got excellent reviews. This was certainly an epic year for classic skiing with all of the snow, and none of those skiers complained about their course being two kilometers longer. Most of them would have stayed out there all day.
As the day ended with our usual trip to the Moccasin Bar, we all had some great stories to tell. The adrenaline was flying high as many of our group skied their best Birkies ever. Some skied the Korteloppet for the first time and said they might never go back to the long race. Jim D. did not have his best day but he too was all smiles. He finished 155th and kept his spot in the Elite Wave. I often wonder how it would feel to not be at your best and still finish 155th in the Birkie. That is probably not something I will find out any time soon, so I guess I will stick to making sure my friends have fast skis and that I enjoy a great day of skiing in the beautiful North Woods.
Driving home on Sunday is when Birkie skiers are most motivated for next year. I think about what I have to do to get my body ready to go the full distance and what went wrong this year. Birkie 2009 is February 21. It seems like it is right around the corner; I can hardly wait. I am counting on those fickle snow Gods to come through once again. If they do, I promise no more Korteloppet for me.