Masters Minds: From a Bum Knee to a 2015 Birkie Age-Group Win

BrainspiralApril 14, 2015
John Wood, of Anchorage, with his first-place hat and cowbell after winning his age group (65-69) in the 2015 American Birkebeiner 54 k classic in February in Hayward, Wis. (Courtesy photo)
John Wood, of Eagle River, Alaska, with his first-place hat and cowbell after winning his age group (65-69) in the 2015 American Birkebeiner 54 k classic in February in Hayward, Wis. (Courtesy photo)

My name is John Wood, I am 67 years old, and have lived in Alaska since I was 11.  On Feb. 21, 2015, I skied to an age-group win in the 65-69 year old classic division of North America’s largest cross-country ski race, the American Birkebeiner.  I placed first out of 112 male skiers in the 65- to 69-year-old age group and 164th out of 2021 competitors that completed the 55 kilometer classic race course. Eighteen months prior to the 2015 Birkie, I underwent total right-knee replacement surgery; this is my story.

It all began a few years ago when, on my 60th birthday, I joined the Alaska Pacific University (APU) masters cross-country ski training group. I was new to the APU program, but I was not new to competitive cross-country skiing, having competed on team Alaska in the 1965 Junior Nationals in Bend, Ore.,  and the former Alaska Methodist University ski team in the mid 1960s.  However, I drifted away from the sport after moving to Fairbanks and enrolling in engineering school.  A serious knee injury in a soccer game when I was 21 and before modern knee-surgery techniques brought my competitive athletic career to an end.

After the injury and as the years went by, I continued to live the active Alaskan lifestyle, which included things such as dog mushing, hunting, fishing, and chasing after my growing children. During this time, the size of the brace on my right knee grew larger and larger as the number of arthroscopic cleanouts to my knee approached the number of fingers on my right hand. Consequently, my lifestyle was becoming less active as my mobility decreased.

Training with the APU group reversed this trend. It was a pleasure to be back on skis on a regular, structured basis, and I enjoyed the comradery of the APU masters group and coaches.  My clunky knee brace allowed me to ski the classic technique OK, but skating continued to make the knee hurt. As my fitness level rose, I began to achieve local age-group racing success in the classic technique events.

Right knee prior to surgery.  Note the bone-to-bone contact and lower leg angle. (Photo: John Wood)
Right knee prior to surgery. Note the bone-to-bone contact and lower leg angle. (Photo: John Wood)

During the summer of 2012, I turned 65 and decided that it was time to seriously consider a knee replacement. The dull pain in the knee was constant and my footprints left in fresh snow showed the right foot pointed off at an angle to the right of my direction of travel. I had grown tired of living with a large knee brace.

The plan that I came up with was to first ski the 2013 American Birkebeiner 54-kilometer classic race, wind down my ongoing work as a consulting engineer, spend time with my wife and family at our favorite summer fishing holes, then have the knee replaced.  I scheduled surgery for Aug. 22, 2013.

The surgery took place as scheduled and was performed by Dr. Powell and his able staff at Alaska Orthopedic Surgery in Anchorage.  I was released from the hospital after three days and was pretty much in a residual anesthetic fog for the first week. I discovered that my body did not tolerate pain medication well, and as a result, I quit taking all but the weakest ones and pain was my constant companion.

During the second week, my flexibility and mobility started to get better, and my mental edge returned. Rehabilitation began upon returning home, and by the second week became the focus of my life; knee bending machine six-plus hours a day and rehab exercises three times per day.  At the beginning of the third week, I began out-of-home therapy and on Day 19 was able to take my first steps without crutches. By this time, I had lost 15 pounds and was down to my high-school weight, which is to say that my appetite had not yet returned.

Wood undergoes physical therapy after his right-knee replacement. (Courtesy photo)
Wood undergoes physical therapy after his right-knee replacement. (Courtesy photo)

Slowly, so slowly it seemed, I made steady progress.  During the third week I was able to peddle a stationary bicycle; the fourth week I began to climb down stairs without using a handrail. During the seventh week, I reached a real milestone and was able to bend my knee 120 degrees (with a lot of help from my physical-therapist friend Mark).  During the eighth week, I began walking as far as my body allowed and started to participate in APU strength-training days.  My appetite and weight started to return.

During this time my whole body was adjusting to the new knee alignment; first my ankle hurt, then my hip hurt, then my back hurt, then all three together, and finally … the pain stopped! Similarly, the soreness in the connective tissue surrounding the knee was gradually subsiding.  After 12 weeks, I quit taking all anti-inflammatory medication and started to feel like a real person again. The best thing was that I had not worn a knee brace since rollerskiing the day before surgery.

Another thing I had to overcome was getting my brain to realize, spatially, that my right leg and foot were now aligned differently. This caused all sorts of stumbles and trips, and I had to consciously place every right footstep. It was a real accomplishment when I finally could walk, unaided, in the dark.

At 13 weeks, my new knee and I took our first 20-minute ski in the front yard, and over the next few weeks I graduated to the local ski trails. By 19 weeks, I had begun to ski easily with the APU masters skiers in the regular workouts, and in week 25, I participated in my first interval session.  Finally, during week 28, I participated in the year-end Oosik Classic ski festival that is disguised as a year-end race.  My knee was almost back!

Right knee at one-year checkup (Photo: John Wood)
Right knee at one-year checkup (Photo: John Wood)

Every year a group of skiers from the APU Nordic Ski Club masters and elite programs travel to Wisconsin to participate in the American Birkebeiner ski race.  In May 2014, my new knee and I got the itch to return to the 2015 Birkie with the APU contingent. When I registered for the race I discovered, to my delight, that I qualified for the first classic wave, and through good fortune was able to secure a room in a B&B in Hayward near the finish line. The stars were moving into alignment.

I began to take my offseason three-day-a-week APU training sessions more seriously. Weights were added to the routines during strength sessions, intensity sessions in the hills were run/walked with poles and, to my delight, I discovered that I could skate roller ski! Both of these activities were done for the first time in at least 30 years. Weekly over distance workouts were with a group either on road bikes or mountain hikes.

Snow and skiing arrived on the hills behind Anchorage on schedule in mid-October, but disappeared three weeks later. November was brown and barren, so training returned to hill bounding, speed hiking and mountain biking. Privately, I was concerned about my training and developed a self-imposed on-snow deadline of Dec. 1 … no snow, no go for the Birkie.

Wood pushing his limits in rehab (Courtesy photo)
Wood pushing his limits in rehab (Courtesy photo)

On Nov. 28, the day after Thanksgiving, it started to snow and the local Anchorage trails and Independence Mine trails were once again skiable. My Birkie plans were saved. Training took on a regular schedule again, with a typical APU masters group week including a strength day, an “intensity day,” a technique day, an over distance day, and one or two “off” days.  Snow conditions continued marginal in Southcentral Alaska, but the recently installed snowmaking loop at Kincaid Park was now in service and proved to be a reliable standby venue.

During December and January, before the February taper, I averaged 31 hours per month on snow and participated in five local citizens races ranging in distance from 2 kilometers to 30 k. I was particularly happy to be able to ski both classic and skate legs of a 15 k duathalon race. My fitness level was as good as it was going to get.

Before I knew it, mid-February had arrived and off to Hayward I went.

Race day dawned to 10 degrees and light snow. I arose at 5 a.m., ate breakfast with several other skiers who were also staying at the B&B, was driven to a skier pickup point, and arrived at the start area via shuttle bus an hour prior to my 8:10 a.m. start. Although flurries lingered at the race start, several inches of fresh snow from the previous day had been packed by the trail setters overnight and the trail, although not particularly fast, was firm.  Thousands of skiers were milling around trying to stay warm and everyone took their turn standing in long lines to use the Porta Potty for the last time.

As my wave time approached, I put on my ski boots, removed my warmups, put all of my non-race paraphernalia in the bag provided to race participants at bib pickup, and placed it in the waiting vans to be hauled to the finish line. I moved to the racer-holding area, put on my skis, and self-seeded myself into a lane in the middle of the first wave which consisted of 278 skiers.

Soon the flag was dropped and skiers at the front of the lanes were off. Those of us in the middle had to wait a few seconds ’til the skiers in front began to move out, then we, in turn, could begin. After about 100 yards my lane came to a sudden halt, and a guy about half a dozen skiers in front of me hollered that he forgot to wax his skis, and began to look around for a way to exit to the sidelines. The problem was that skiers were streaming by in the lanes on either side, and nobody in our lane could move!

Finally I found a skier gap in an adjacent lane, hopped in, and got around the stalled skier. Off I went, now moving at the same steady-but-slow speed as all the other skiers that I could see up and down the trail.

After a couple of kilometers the trail necked down into four lanes, then three, and the skiers began to separate. After about 5 k, I was able to slowly pick up my speed to a more comfortable level and didn’t have to expend precious energy by going around slower skiers in the unused lanes that contained fresh, slow snow.  At some point near the 26 k mark where the classic trail merged with the skate trail, the three lanes became two and favored the left side. Passing slower classic skiers on the right side now meant jumping out of the classic lane and dodging among the skate skiers in their lane. What a blast!

As the race progressed, I really concentrated on working the transitions while conserving energy on the uphills. I skied the more challenging downhills conservatively, not wanting to instigate a high-speed fall and land awkwardly on my new knee and risk an injury.  This tactical decision to conserve energy allowed me to open-up my double poling during the flatter second half of the race, where I continued to work my way up through those in front of me.

I had an immense sense of elation as I crossed the temporary wooden Highway 63 overpass and skied up Main Street and across the finish line in a time of 3:39. I had finished strong!

After I retrieved my drop bag I walked the four blocks to my B&B, where I removed my APU ski suit that was frosty and frozen from the energy drink that I had splashed down my front while drinking on the move. I sat in a hot shower, savoring the moment with a bottle of cool refreshment. I didn’t know how I placed, but I did know that I felt good about my race and new knee. Nothing was hurting and my entire body was pleasingly tired.

Later, one of the young ladies who was also staying at the B&B showed me on her smartphone how I placed: first in the 65-69 year age group by four minutes. Boy, was I happy and excited … a dream come true! That evening, when I picked up my monogramed first-place age-group hat and engraved cow bell the events of the day finally sunk in. New knee, Birkie classic age-group win.

I owe a great big “thank you” to the efforts of a lot of people that contributed to my Birkie success: Dr. Powell’s most professional surgery team, PT Mark and his staff’s patience with my rehab whining and complaining, great coaching from my APU masters coaches Greta [Anderson] and Galen [Johnston], and most importantly the unfailing support from my fantastic wife Cathy.  What a wonderful life!


Masters Minds series: Are you a masters skier who loves your club? Submit camp or training recaps, announcements, or stories to with the subject line: “Masters Minds”. Articles can be first-person accounts or written from an observatory standpoint with comments from others.


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