On with the snow: Wisconsin's grueling "Birkie" ski competition

At age 45, writer Bill Donahue aimed to compete in the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. Would it be a winter wipeout?
By Bill Donahue
Sunday, February 6, 2011

There are many ways to contend with the indignities of being middle-aged, but the only tack that's ever worked for me involves flight -- a deliberate fleeing, I mean, from the gray reality that my cartilage is fraying as my teeth travel south. It's pathetic, maybe, but I like to chase after that sweet weightlessness I felt long ago as a kid. I try to escape.

Last winter, at age 45, I ran away to Minneapolis to spend a season cross-country ski racing. It was a bit like going to the South of France to taste wine. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area boasts what is almost certainly the most extensive network of urban ski trails in North America. There are more than 180 kilometers of groomed track. The terrain is nearly all publicly owned, and a season pass, usable at several ski parks, typically runs about $45.

In the Twin Cities, high school Nordic teams typically boast 50 or 60 athletes. There are citizens' races each weekend. Some are serious; some have the loose-limbed aura of a pickup basketball game. And every season augurs toward one culminating late February gala. The American Birkebeiner, staged three or so hours from Minneapolis in tiny Cable, Wis., is North America's premier Nordic ski festival, which last year drew more than 10,000 skiers. There are nine races over the course of a weekend and finish-line family reunions. There is a pancake breakfast for the distinguished members of the Birchleggings Club, all of whom have finished at least 20 times since the Birkebeiner's inception in 1973. There is even a genre of Birkie-specific music. ("Why do they ski so far?" goes one song. "It's a long drive in my car.") But the marquee event, always, is the 50-kilometer freestyle race, which wends from Cable to nearby Hayward, along a wide birch-lined trail, luring both Euro superstars who finish in roughly two hours and hackers who slog through in six. That race, set for Feb. 26 this year, is so nasty with hills that on any given subzero weeknight in January in Minneapolis, you're likely to find whole legions of earnest, Lycra-clad Birkie-ists clattering their way through hill sprints like so many nuns telling their rosary beads.

Myself, I'd never actually raced on skinny skis, but long ago, in college, I ran cross-country and track. And before I ran, I was a downhill skier in love with the magic, swooping, birdlike sensation of gliding on snow. I wanted that delight all over again, and I wanted speed, too.

So one evening last January I found myself standing on a starting line in suburban Minneapolis, amid a scattering of whip-lean 20-somethings dressed in shiny stretch suits and jiggling their calves, warming up for a throwaway little race -- a weekly 5K at Elm Creek Park Reserve. "Three," said the starter, "two, one."

There was the soft sound of poles swiftly smacking the snow, then the rattling whoosh of our skis. We were going -- down a short straightaway at first, then hooking left, under the lights, jockeying for position, an entire pack of skis twisting like one fast-moving snake. I had not entered a race of any sort in almost 25 years. It was revelatory how focused -- how unforgiving and basic -- competition can be. A bunch of kids were whaling ahead of me; my task was to shut up and throw down.

We descended a hill, all of us stooping, our bodies aerodynamically tucked. The field spread out. I lost sight of the leaders. We came, about a half-mile in, to a small hill where I found a young woman faltering. I passed her (yes!) and kept pushing -- and actually managed to gut past one other person, an older gentleman. When I finished, in a little over 14 minutes, I was in seventh place out of 11 and only eight seconds behind a 46-year-old racer who (I did some Googling) had done okay, age-group-wise, the previous winter. I was feeling my oats. I imagined a season of glory and upset.

But my joy was not complete until the next afternoon, when a call came in from my brother, Tim, who was studying the race results on Skinnyski.com as we spoke. "Not bad," he said, his tone judicious and measured. "You hung right in there."


My brother is 41, and he knows how to ski. In the 2009 Birkie, he came in 45th among more than 3,300 finishers. In two other Birkies, he has likewise finished in the top 60. And let me say this: I made the boy. Proof lies in a 1974 black-and-white photo I have taped to my fridge. In the picture, taken by the side of a lake in summer, I am all scrawny and bare-chested and throwing a rock into the water. I am throwing with my left hand. My brother, 4 at the time, is watching me intently and cradling a rock of his own -- in his left hand.

It was no surprise that my brother pitched lefty in Little League, then became a runner, and then (after going to college in St. Paul) a Nordic ski racer. What startled and galled me was how he surpassed me eventually, bringing to athletics a grace I could never quite muster and, in his 30s, an almost scientific precision. One day a couple of years ago, when I asked him to join me for a long bike ride, he demurred, quibbling over my "training technique."

A fraternal iciness ensued, enduring for months. But then around Thanksgiving 2009, I went cross-country skiing, and, thanks to a long summer of road biking, I felt stronger than ever. I e-mailed my brother. His response was one word: "Birkie?"

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