The volunteer, a jowly church-going grandma from Hayward, was smiling and cheerfully jabbering away as she searched through the racer packets for “Smith”. In a blink, pulling my envelope from the bin, her demeanor convulsed as though I’d just stood up during the homily and cussed out her congregation.
“Well,” she sighed, perhaps whispering a silent prayer, “Good luck with this.”
She laid the envelope on the table and quickly moved away, leaving my burden clear for all to see: #1666. The Bib of the Beast. Fittingly, in the midst of the 5th warmest winter in the history of Milwaukee, I’d be skiing the Birkiebeiner with a “bad luck” bib more suitable for a member of the Demons of Styx Ski Club.
But the Birkie is nothing if not unpredictable. Over nine runs on the fabled track, I’d learned to adapt to whatever the Birkie gods had in store: new snow, ice, rain, and yes even too MUCH snow! This year’s run-up to the race had been particularly trying based on the the complete lack of snow. So it would be “just another year,” even if devils would be chasing me down the trail.
The threat of six inches of snow Friday night never materialized and race day arrived with a “perfect” forecast of 15-25 degree temps and partly cloudy skies…and a solid blanket of white throughout the Chequamegon National Forrest.
Eager to get underway, I lined up in the middle of the 500+ Wave 1 skiers — Embrace the mayhem! Many of Team Hollander opted to start 2 minutes after the start gun, strategizing that the trail would be “thinned out” once they moved across the official electronically monitored start line. I’d be the rabbit. They’d be the pitchfork wielding diablos!
The race erupted in its typical chaotic glory as skiers flailed away from the start banner; bodies flopped; poles snapped. It always demands that one eye focus down the trail and the other behind. Marty Feldman would make a great skier. If the start is unpredictable, there is one constant:hills. Big ones, small ones. Rubberizers right from the gun called Power Line. These gave me (us?) a wake-up slap. Sure didn’t get much training time on the upslopes this year! Skiers started drifting backwards with each grinder.
There are no devilish details in my Birkie approach, which breaks down the course into “four hills”: Tower Line (17k), Double OO (22 k), B-hill (38k) and the Wicked Sisters (45k). I’d planned to ski hard in between, evaluate physical condition at the top of each and repeat as necessary until Main St.Legs and skis held steady through Double OO.
But the relentlessness started to make the gams quiver. I’d jump on a skier’s wheel, then he’d fade, then a twinge would flicker through my quads after a climb, and that dude would pass me back.
Just before Mosquito Brook Road, with head-bone struggling to stay focussed, I skied into a guy’s glide…saw his ski cross my tip and down and over I went! Staggering to my feet, Jeff Bradley came gliding past looking fresh. He’d caught the 2-minute man! Butter, Jabo..they all must be back there!
So I hammered it hard, rejoined Jeff on B-Hill (and quickly lost him again on the backside) and then skied out of fear. At any moment, I’d get the tap and hear the three words any competitor hates to hear from his hard-charging teammates: “Keep it up!”
Technique was anything but textbook, but I reached the base of the final climb, the three-tier “Wicked Sisters,” all alone with nobody in sight behind. Two years ago, Jabo made the catch here and took 5 more minutes out of me in those final 5k…so I put the head down and charged right into her. Each slope of the Sisters hurt, ice-picks were jabbing into my quads and I feared a massive cramp would limit the ability to pilot the fast downhill remaining. So it went. Ski/look/ski/look/ski/look. The top of the Sisters would be a celebratory moment were it not for the reality of making to make a final passage across Lake Hayward.
The demons in my head were screaming. They made that flat expanse disappear into a shapeless horizon. Despite their recommendation, I dare not look back. The finish would never come!
The sight of fans cheering on the shoreline drew me home and up into the cake mix snow of the streets of Hayward. The 2 feet of snow trucked onto the closed roads always turns into a maddeningly slow slog. It’s only a block, but feels more like a bonus 1k packed in the last 500 meters. Legs don’t fail me now. The final obstacle is to look sharp for the patrons of Angler’s Bar & Grill. Composing what was left in the tank for a passable V-2, I joyously cruised up Main Street.
Crossing the finish line, I was happy to call this hellish winter “over”…let the cycling season commence!
— Smithers —