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

By Bill Donahue
Sunday, February 6, 2011; W18

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?"

I sidestepped the question. My racing days were so ancient that I'd distilled them into myth, so when I regaled my daughter -- now 16 and a runner herself -- with tales of my running "career," my essential mediocrity was forgotten. I was a walking highlights reel, 24-7. I was the worst kind of has-been, and I was okay with that. Sort of. Eventually, I went down in my basement and dusted off the skinny, rubber-wheeled "roller skis" my brother had scared up for me a decade before. I began skiing the streets of my city, Portland, Ore., each afternoon.

Most people, upon hearing of my Birkie quest, spooned me stupid bromides such as, "Oh, even finishing would be an accomplishment." My brother took me seriously. When I spent Christmas with him at his home on Long Island, he turned the visit into a skiing colloquium, rolling the meandering roads with me for two hours each day before we repaired, evenings, to his laptop to analyze technique videos starring German wunderkind Axel Teichmann.

Tim's refrain was "dynamic compression": When you ski by skating along, as I would in the Birkie, you want to engage your abs and bend your shins low toward the snow before you stab both poles, rise and repeat. The motion is musical violence: Decompressed, with his hands held high, a good skier looks like a conductor poised to render a crescendo of Wagner's. I looked more like a question mark, with my back bent and my pole plants mincing, so one morning my brother, playing coach, rode beside me in his car as I roller skied. It was 25 degrees out and snowing so hard that I was slithering and floating along on the slippery pavement. "Nail it!" my brother shouted each time I planted my poles. "Nail it! Nail it! Nail it!"

***

But my brother teaches high school in Manhattan. He couldn't travel to Minneapolis, so when I landed there I needed a new guru. I went to Finn Sisu, arguably the Twin Cities' premier shop. Finn Sisu is the sole U.S. purveyor of a Finnish-made roller ski, Marwe, that my brother deems sine qua non. There are ancient ski posters on the wall there, and there is a little museum of vintage roller skis. The proprietor, Ahvo Taipale, is a Finnish émigré who twice coached the University of Minnesota's women's Nordic squad to a national championship. He now coaches citizen racers. He is 64 and small and owlish, with a halo of red hair and whiskery red eyebrows. When I arrived, he was in his office, reminiscing about '70s-era ski racing with a crony.

"Do you remember the Winter Carnival race in 1976?" he said. "It was 4 below that morning, and when I tried out my fiberglass skis" -- Taipale waved his hand, dismissive -- "very slow. I won that race on birch-bottomed skis, and I still have those skis out front -- under glass by the counter."

Taipale was giving voice to a deeper aesthetic. For him, skiing isn't about snazzy gear. It is, rather, about the pursuit of perfect, Platonic technique, and he actually glimpsed such technique once, as a kid back in Finland. He listened to ski races on the radio then, and his hero was Nikolay Anikin, a Russian. Whenever Anikin's picture appeared in the newspaper, Taipale cut open a potato and, using the juice, pasted the photo into a scrapbook. Decades later, Anikin immigrated to Duluth, Minn. Taipale saw him ski for the first time. "His technique was exactly as I imagined it," he said. "So graceful."

Taipale's eyes welled with tears as he told the story. Usually, though, he is a crisp man -- stern, even. He maintains that nearly all Birkie skiers have "terrible" form, and he says, "It takes me four to six years to teach someone to ski race. There are no shortcuts."

When I asked if it was possible, ever, to learn in a season, he saw me as a symptom of a national pathology. "Americans," he sniffed, "all they want is instant gratification. Every race, they start out too fast and then die. When I took a group over to Finland to race, they were all moaning: 'These damned grandmothers with bamboo poles passed me.' "

I had come hoping to talk Taipale into giving me a private lesson. Now, tentatively, I asked. A few days later, at 7 a.m., we met at Battle Creek Park in St. Paul.

Taipale wore a knit ski cap that did not quite cover his eyebrows. As he watched me ski, he squinted, like a jeweler inspecting a watch. His reviews were sour, and also technical, alluding to various permutations of skate skiing. After I clambered up a small hill, he said: "I don't even know what that was. That wasn't V1, that wasn't V2, that wasn't open field skate." He shook his head. "I don't know what it was."

I conceded that I struggled on uphills. "Of course," he said, "because you are not using your core. Your technique is not sustainable."

I repeated the hill five or six times, taking pains to crunch my abs and to time my pole plants so they coincided precisely with when I set my ski on the snow. I wanted so much to please him.

"That's a little better," he said finally.

It was an opening. "I understand what you're saying," I said brightly. "But I just can't make my body do it."

"That's why I say four to six years."

***

I kept skiing. I looped about the 25K trail network at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis -- over a hilly golf course and through a bog and some woods -- for two hours each afternoon. I joined a team, Balance Nordic. I got a shiny gray uniform and two days a week streamed about on the snow with my gray-suited homies. I skied sometimes without poles to work on my balance. I did sustained sprints. I got better.

Still, I was trapped in a caste system. The Birkie's organizers sort all skiers into 12 separate "waves" months before the race even begins. There is my brother's wave, the "elite" men, who get to start first, when the snow is pristine and (usually) cooler and faster. There is the elite women's wave. Then, for racers with slower qualifying times, there are 10 numbered waves whose start times are separated by 10-minute intervals. By Wave 8, there is a major funk factor going on -- people skiing in Halloween masks and kilts, that sort of thing.

And then there are the lowliest waves, Waves 9 and 10, reserved for skiers who have no marathon credentials at all and are hence obliged to ski in rutted tracks, amid the PowerBar wrappers shucked by their betters. I was in Wave 10, of course. I got no credit for riding my bike 150 or so miles a week back home or for keeping pace with Wave 2 skiers in practice. I was unjustly oppressed, so I wrote a plaintive, carefully crafted note to the Birkie's wave placement specialists, pleading for a promotion. No dice. I spent much of February vacillating between a smug certainty that I'd prove them wrong and a black self-doubt, a fear that they'd apprehended something that I myself lacked the courage to apprehend -- that I was old and washed-up: done.

***

The start of any long-distance race is a release -- a reprieve from the waiting. And when they let us loose, finally, beneath blue skies at the Birkie, it was a glorious moment. Almost instantly, I was way, way out in front of 500-odd skiers and ensconced, along with 10 or 12 other intent Birkie rookies -- college guys, mostly -- in a sort of Wave 10 wrecking crew. We were the lords of the gutter. We were kings, and early on we shared sprightly banter.

"Yeah, bro!"

"Dude!"

"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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company