Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Double Birkie

We’re back! The office is open again, with everyone digging out after vacations filled with turns. The new year looks to be a good one with lots of snow, and in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, we received a great entry from Hansi Johnson on setting goals and pushing boundaries:

For every type of skiing there are defining moments – the graceful dip of a telemark turn in waist-deep powder, the power of a locked-in heel on a hard GS carve. For Nordic skiing, that feeling is the one of great glide on a long endurance ski.

For the past 20 years a group of pro cyclists in the Midwest have come together in late December to get in a long slow arduous day of skiing. The brainchild of former US Pro Cycling Champion Tom Schuler, the goal to continue hard winter training on skis instead of a bike. With the bar set at 1,000 hours of training, the idea of the Double Birkie came soon after.

The American Birkebeiner is a legendary Nordic race, covering 55km on an obnoxiously hilly course in Northern WI. The race trail is kept immaculately groomed all season by the race foundation and is open by to anybody who wants to come and prepare for the big race in February. The winners race the course in a little over two hours, and the average skier however will take three to five hours to complete the grueling tour. For Tom Schuler, the early winter training mark would be skiing the course from the south end to the north end and then turning around and skiing it back – a 90km ski that at training pace quite literally takes all day!

The night before I spent a lot of time on my skis and on getting support gear prepared. I put a couple of layers of wax on my Karhu skate skis and prepared a bag of dry clothes to drop at the course finish for the second round on the way south. I am not much of a racer anymore, relying on not so scientific food choices like a box of pop tarts, some Gatorade and a ham sandwich. The ski starts at 8am. There is no fee, no organization; you are on your own. If you bonk at 40km, you have to hitch home on your own or beg food off other skiers. On the way north, there’s plenty of talking and laughing, but coming south there is just silence and a veritable trail of tears.

My skis feel effortless as we start, and my mind is eased as I relax into long strides and great glide. Had my wax been off my workload would have been heavier, but I’m beating my buddies to the bottom of the hills and gliding further back up. The milestones fly by – the Double-O cutoff, Snowmobile Hill, Bitch Hill (aptly named for its size and for the the two guys who dress in drag every year and scream at racers as they zone up it), Mosquito Brook, the North End trails, and lastly the famed powerlines and the Telemark Lodge at Cable, WI. At the lodge we sit down for a cup of soup, dry clothes and hear the excuses of people begging off for sore muscles, sickness or blisters.

Generally it is here at halfway that you look deep inside your self and really discuss in your heart whether or not you have the stamina and the drive to drag your ass 45 km back to the start of the ski. For me there is no choice, I came by myself, with no support, no person or car at mid ski to pick me up or save me so I have to ski back.

I shove down my food and stand naked in the guest laundry room of the lodge as my clothes dry in the pay dryer. My Ipod plays Low’s “I am a Prisoner” as I slap on my skis and head south. I marvel at the fact that as a human I can travel by ski over hill and dale for such a distance, an alien surfing a white road on a frozen planet.

The Birkie trail heading south is much easier. The hills seem to flow faster, and my mind and my soul seem to lose track of time as I slug up hill after hill and tuck down endless rails on my way home. Eventually the pain becomes extreme, and you have to really bear down and try to keep your composure and your form. That is the zone where you become a better skier, when you have to keep it together regardless of the fact that your legs are stumps, your lungs are seared, and your back feels like a broken hinge.

People that I had trouble skiing with on the way north start to filter back to me. Some say hi, others say nothing, leaning over on their poles and staring down the trail at something only they can see. I trudge on.

The light is getting dim and the alpenglow is tickling the snow covered pines, and I still have 10km to ski. My skis seem to speed up, and my glide is becoming my only saving grace. Even though I am blown, I just point them where they are supposed to go and hold on as they seem to speed forward. Eventually I catch up to Tom Schuler himself, at 51 nursing some pains that only an aging retired professional cyclist can describe. He no longer skis the full 90km, but still cranks out more than his fair share with nothing to prove to anybody. When I pass him he smiles and waves and exclaims what an unbelievable day it has been and invites me back next year. I recall his invite as I finish the ski in the dark, too cold and exhausted to lift the back door of my car and change into my dry clothes.

Hmmmm… next year? Wonder if I could ski 120km???? Nah!

-Hansi Johnson

For more info check out: The Double Birkie Turns 20

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samh said...

Well said.

dharma bum said...

Indeed. Very well said. You deserve as much props for the telling as for the ski itself.

Well, OK, I think the 90 km was maybe a bit more of an accomplishment. But still, thanks for the enjoyable read.