Gus Kaesing races for the CXC Elite Team and recently won the classic race at the American Birkebeiner. This article first appeared in Ski Post – www.skipost.com
Bjorn Daehlie is the undisputed greatest skier of all time. He is also the most decorated winter Olympian….ever. I am a recent graduate from Northern Michigan University and a member of the CXC Elite Team. This is the story of how our paths crossed one snowy February morning.
The setting is the start line of the 2009 American Birkebeiner. The skating elite men/women have left and the first classic skiers toe the line eagerly. In November I received word that Bjorn had a fever, the birkie fever that is. Since then, I had anticipated skiing the Birkenbeiner with Bjorn Daehlie. Now, like some sort of dream I hope doesn’t end, he stands roughly 10 skiers to my right. I clip into my Salomon skis on which I have yet to ski due to my confidence in CXC coach Bryan Fish’s waxing mastery. Bjorn is introduced (as if anyone didn’t know exactly where he was). The thirty second warning is given and the crowd falls quiet. The gun sounds and the banners lift. I, like every other birkie skier ever try to win the birkie in the first half kilometer. I settle for fourth, side by side the Norwegian man in red. I am not a small skier. I stand 6’5” and weigh 195 pounds. So why does it feel like I am looking up instead of down at the shoulders of Bjorn Daehlie? At that moment I was skiing in the shadow of a legend. He then spoke the only words I would here him utter the entire race, “slow, slow” he said to the lead skiers. They obliged and decreased from Bjorn birkie panic to just regular birkie panic. We rounded the corner and were met by and inch or two of freshly fallen snow in the tracks. The pack moved to single file and I fell back to roughly seventh place. Bjorn was in second or third, where he would remain for much of the race. Despite that fact that the first skier was “plowing,” the pace remained surprisingly high. Over the next 27 kilometers, very little happened. Skiers swapped the lead and would sometimes venture out of the tracks in search of a faster line. Overall the pace was slow allowing for a group of 10-12 skiers to form. I generally remained towards the back but would venture forward to break trail for the others periodically. Carl Swenson once said “when leading a mass start race, you better be going either slower or faster than everyone behind you wants.” I took this to heart and would slow the pace when I led. Also, I was admittedly cautious because this was my first race over 30k and I was hoping to avoid the legendary “birkie bonk.”
Eventually, we hit OO and merged with the skate trail where the pace immediately quickened. The tracks were still filled with fresh snow so we blazed our own down the middle of the skate trail. After the acceleration, the group consisted of Mike Myers (who might as well have the birkie classic named after him), another Norwegian named Geir Strandbakke, Bjorn, and myself. For the next 20 kilometers Mike and Geir would swap the lead in an effort tire the pack. Well, it worked and by 38k I was wondering how much longer I could take this pace. Fortunately, I soon received a feed by the CXC crew who did an awesome job all day. Our four skier train arrived at “bitch hill” (45k) and we started up at a fluid pace. However, halfway up we slowed and for the first time I sensed the others were tiring. I on the other hand was feeling much better and even thought about making a break over the top of the hill. I decided to stick to my original plan of attacking on the lake since 9k seemed a long way still. After that the pace slowed some until 49k, when an acceleration was made by Geir. For the first time in a while I decided to move past Bjorn to reel Geir back in. I was able to catch him and we entered the meadow where I knew I had my last feed. Donavon Dums handed me the best Coke I’ve ever had and told me to “go get ’em.” This was refreshing because every other spectator/skier had understandably cheered for Bjorn as we passed.
I fell back into line behind Geir who glanced back and waved me through. Decision time. We had 4k left and I still strong (at least for just having skied 50k). I knew there where only a few hills left and my double poling had become a strength after a summer leg injury had forced me to focus on my upper body strength. I also sensed the group had become momentarily unorganized through the meadow. I considered all of this, thought back to Swenson words and dropped the hammer.
For 2k I skied nearly as hard as I could. I was passing skate skiers like they were standing still. Spectators and road crossings whizzed by. Suddenly, the vast openness of the lake appeared before me. I decided to have a peek back behind me. No sign of Mike, no sign of Geir, and Bjorn Daehlie is standing on the back of my skis. Crap.
I refocused and decided that my arms still felt reasonably fresh. It was 1.5k across the lake and I decided I would be able to keep the high pace to the end. I put my head down and concentrated on going faster. At the 1k to go sign I had another look back. Bjorn Daehlie in still standing on my skis towering over my back. Crap. Time to rethink my plan. I am sure I am destroying myself into a headwind as Bjorn sits in my massive wake ready to embarrass me on main street. I lengthen my tempo a bit in an effort to conserve energy for the now inevitable sprint. As we ski off the lake I chance a look back into the eyes of the Bjorn. Since he had yet to show his hand in the race, I wanted to make sure he was at least close to as tired as I. His mouth was open, some drool graced his chin, eyes were unfocused. I then realized he was in fact human (barely) and got a shot of much needed confidence.
We rounded the corner onto Main St. and I could see the finish banner in the distance. I started sprinting right there. To my surprise, he immediately pulled up even on my left. We stayed that way the remainder of Main St. At no point did either of us pull even a foot in front of the other. Toe to toe with Bjorn Daehlie on Main St. of the American Birkebeiner. We briefly split to pass a bewildered skate skier. We reconnected and with ten meters to go I felt he edged ahead. However, I dug deep and found strength I cannot explain. Two double poles later I was half a body length ahead. I looked up to see the finish tape and my CXC teammates. I crossed the line with a fist raised and was immediately engulfed in people. Someone yelled that my CXC teammates had captured 1st,2nd,4th, and 6th in the freestyle and I was overcome with joy. I was eager to hear about their races but, had one thing to do first. My skis had vanished off my feet so I walked over to Bjorn and extended my hand. He looked up at me and paused, then smiled and vigorously shook my hand. He released my hand and to my surprise, did something for which I was unprepared. He bowed to me at the top of Main St. at the American Birkiebeiner. How cool is that? He rose and for the first time all day, his shadow didn’t seem quite so big.
I’d like to thank my teammates for pushing me and everyone involved with the CXC program for helping me this year. Also, both Solomon skis/boots and Toko waxes. My skis were rockets. Later, I was able to talk to Bjorn in relative length and he could not have been cooler. He was very complementary and a class act all the way, something I will always remember. So thanks to Bjorn Daehlie and I wish you luck with your Multiple Sclerosis research.