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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?

"Wave 10 power!"

We started to climb the first incline, the infamous Power Line, a 4-kilometer-long series of giant rollers that rise and undulate skyward like killer waves in a surf movie. A couple of kids passed me. I let them go. We turned left into the woods, and suddenly on the next climb there was a thick clot of skiers in Wave 9 bibs toiling along like an army of ants.

It is not easy to pass through packs of skating skiers, for they are wider than, say, runners, with their legs splayed and their poles cast wide. When I spoke to the greatest late-wave skier in recent memory -- one Jason Liebsch, who stormed out of the now-extinct 11th wave in 2003 to finish 235th overall -- he described a long struggle that saw him churning past more than 2,000 slower racers. "I was jumping over people's skis on the downhills," he said.

I propelled myself up some hills using only my poles, so as to be narrower. "Coming through," I kept shouting. "On your left, on your left." We worked through the eighth wave. The trail kept climbing. Fire Tower Hill, 12K in, is the highest point in the race, at 1,730 feet. My brother told me that's where he always felt the most tired. I felt oddly fresh.

But the trail was spent. On curving downhills, the snow was carved up, so that you were confronted with four or five narrow chutes shaped like luge tracks, each ice-bottomed chute walled with a couple of high berms of shaved ice. You had to pick your chute, pre-descent (no one wants to climb out of a gully at speed), and on one plunge, Bobblehead Hill, I found myself closing in on a dawdling Wave 7 skier and at risk of great ridicule.

Bobblehead is where about 300 snowmobilers gather, Birkie time, to grade skiers' crashes on a scale of 1 to 10 by holding up little numbered placards, as at a diving contest. The place brims with NASCAR-esque peril. Bryon Schroeder, the owner of Hayward Power Sports and the de facto dean of Bobblehead Hill, told me: "I've seen 40 skiers in a pile at the bottom, and if you go off the trail, there are blackberry brambles. And those are pretty hard to pull out of spandex."

I was 30 feet behind the lady from Wave 7, then 20 feet. It was going to take some crazy tricks to avoid smacking into her and wrecking my knees. I jammed my poles downward, ruddering deep in the snow. Then, slowing slightly, I leapt the berm, teetered and skated clear amid, I believe, a small burst of hooting joy from the gallery.

***

By the time we reached the halfway point, crossing County Highway OO, the real race was long over. The elites were done, and yet I came across a tall, somber man standing trailside, keeping score. "You're running sixth and seventh in your wave," he shouted at me and a cohort. I was touched -- someone actually cared. And I was buoyed, too, by the spectators clumped on the highway, wildly rattling cowbells. "More bell!" I said. "More bell!"

The truth is, I felt very good. My technique was a horror show still, but I had trained for this race. I felt strong. At the next water station, I dropped a couple of kids from my wave. I was still conserving, though.

The Birkie's most infamous climb, Bitch Hill, which rises 90 feet in just 200 meters, starts at 40K. My brother had told me that Bitch was nothing compared with the cragged mountains we knew growing up in New England. I'm not sure I quite buy that take, but this time, at least, Bitch did not kill me. And when I crested the top, I let myself imagine the village of Hayward: the swarmed finish line, the little shops, the spectators roistering in the warm midday sun.

What was strange, indeed almost disorienting, was that my brother wasn't down there. He was still back in New York, stranded by a blizzard. He'd made absurd efforts to get out, excavating two feet of snow from around his car at 4 a.m., then driving to the airport in Newark, but all flights were canceled, and when he called on the eve of the Birkie, he was pained. "I trained 500 hours for this race," he said. Later, he recognized that this was my moment, too. He called back, leaving a message. "Bill," he said, his voice at once sardonic and sweet, "do it for us, for the victims of the Blizzard of 2010. Ski smart. Think technique. It's all you."

My brother had been kind to me. I had come shambling along, begging admittance into his world, and he'd opened the door and shared with me all of skiing's intricate wonders. He had been patient. On several occasions, he offered counsel as I hemmed and hawed over whether I should be using poles that were 160, as opposed to 165, centimeters long. Such conversations were always urgent and clipped. We spoke a common language stripped of superfluous gesture. We were brothers.

On the ice on Lake Hayward, fighting a headwind, I tried to ski like a machine punching nails. I wove through a traffic jam of Wave 5 skiers. Then I climbed a tiny slope onto the snow-packed city streets and kicked in. My finish time was 2 hours 46 minutes 3 seconds -- a string of digits that at first made my blood sing with ecstasy. (In 2009, the winning time was 2:11:48.) Soon, though, I learned that on the morning's firm, fast snow, Fabio Santus had set a course record of 1:56:58 as he became the seventh Italian to win the 50K freestyle race. Everyone blazed, and I was, well, the 723rd-place finisher of 3,645. I'd missed qualifying for Wave 1 by less than two minutes, and I felt a shade of chagrin. Why had I left so much in the tank? And all that hollering I did on the highway ("More bell, more bell") -- why had I stooped to such junior varsity horseplay?

But my self-recrimination was slight, and contained. When I sidled into the Moccasin Bar on Hayward's main drag, what I felt mostly was a physical potency. For years, I had hungered for one more hit of that clean agony that only racing can yield: that taste of blood in your wheezing throat, that knowing that you have to push, and that you will, and that you will survive. I had not skied a perfect, all-out Birkie, definitely not, but I had come close enough to feel quite alive.

And so when a friend jostled toward me through the crowd with a pitcher of beer, I commenced drinking. And somewhere in the back of my skull there lurked a bright, splendid thought: In five years, I'll have the technique licked. I'll be 50, sure, but there'll still be plenty of fight left in the dog.

That's right. Read my lips. The Italians are going down.

Bill Donahue is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., and a contributor to the magazine. He last wrote about a Tea Party bus trip to the "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


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