I will admit I was a tad “miffed” at once again being left off the U.S. Olympic Team but after some self reflection I can hardly blame the Nordic “powers that be” for asking me to stay home. I am sure there were other recreational skiers similarly situated who didn’t get their ticket punched to Vancouver so I decided to let it be and focus my attention on the American Birkebeiner. With all the “big boys” skiing for the Mother Land this could really have been the year for a breakthrough. I was envisioning myself jumping from the 4th Wave all the way to the 3rd.
Arriving in beautiful Cable, Wisconsin on Wednesday of Birkie Week I was pleasantly surprised to find the usual winter wonderland that the North Woods are known for. Excitement was already building to a fever pitch with the record number of entrants and fabulous ski conditions. In years past, 3 days before the race is pretty quiet in the Cable/Hayward area but this year many more skiers had already arrived. Wax and weather talk had already begun on every corner along Main Street and the usual discussions about the conditions of the trail were running rampant.
As Wednesday came to a brisk end (about -15 F overnight), my thoughts turned to final preparations for the big race and an assessment of where I have been and where I was going in terms of my Birkie skiing. It was at that moment, as I sipped a cup of coffee staring out at the frozen tundra atop Lake Namakagon that I realized I had made a terrible tactical error in my Birkie preparation; I had yet to ski this year! Granted, I am one of those guys who are into the science of the sport and the waxing rather than the physical pain involved but this was ridiculous. Here I sat, 2 days before the big day and my “ski legs” were still unpacked from last year’s race. Trying not to panic I convinced myself that running a few slow miles every morning and spending 10 minutes on the leg press machine would be enough to get me through. I was registered for the Kortelopet so no worries right?
Frantically formulating a strategy I knew I had limited options; ski myself into shape in 2 short days or get into the “lab” and make my skis lightening fast. Wisely I chose Option B. As a Birkie veteran I sent my mind to that “happy place” where your skis are so fast you glide half way up the next monster hill.
Studying the four weather reporting agencies I rely on did not give me much peace. They were evenly split between Friday’s overnight low being -10 F and +10 F. Based on that data I knew it was still too early to make any kind of important wax decisions so I ironed on a few layers of blue and left my skis on the bench, hoping the weather predictors would come to some kind of consensus. With that, I grabbed another pair of skis and headed out to the North End Trail figuring my maiden voyage for the season could only help my cause. My goals were to ascertain if I still had any balance, whether or not my arms worked, and if I remembered how to step into ski bindings. I passed all 3 tests with flying colors and after about 15 minutes of “Birkie training” I knew I could at least survive.
Little did I know at the time that later in the day I would be on skis once again when my friend Nordic George convinced me to go slide around with him at Telemark so he could shake his legs out. We really hit it hard for a whopping 10 minutes and then retreated to the Baby King Haakon Bar for a refreshing malt beverage.
As Birkie day approached my master plan seemed to be coming together. The course was going to be hard and fast, the weather was going to be beautiful, my skis were going to be rocket ships and if that was all wrong, who cares; it is still fun being a part of the “greatest show on snow”.
I won’t bore you with the details of my Kortelopet journey but trust me when I say it was a fast day in the Northwoods. I skied a Kortelopet personal best by 7 minutes and was thrilled to be a part of the Birkie festivities. Main Street in Hayward had never seen so many fans. The cheers and ringing cowbells for the “full pull” finishers was deafening. The sunny, 40 degree weather added to the atmosphere and it seemed as if no one was ever going to head home. Shockingly, by 3:00 in the afternoon one of the local watering holes on Main Street had its draft beer supply completely depleted. How does THAT happen in Wisconsin on the biggest weekend of the year?
Of course I will be back next year. I make the same commitment that many of you do; get in better shape, use those roller skis that stare at me from my basement and ski more when the snow flys. All of those are worthy goals and I certainly don’t recommend the training regimen I used for Birkie 2010 but I learned an important lesson; the American Birkebeiner is not necessarily about fitness levels and finishing times. It is so much more than that. The Birkebeiner to me is about renewed friendships, great Nordic camaraderie, the sense of satisfaction on the faces of first time finishers as they walk around Hayward with their medals around their necks, the sound of laughter and cheers and ringing cowbells, and most importantly the feeling of “I can’t wait for Birkie 2011”.
Chris Wheaton of Naperville, Illinois finished 828th in the 2010 Birkebeiner. Wheaton, who completed the race in 1 hour, 52 minutes and 55 seconds, takes a look at preparing for and racing in the Birkie from the perspective of a citizen racer.