American Birkebeiner 2012

SSSMST’s own Mike Schaeffer ventured up north again (no, not to THAT state) – Wisconsin!

In his quest for early season lactic acid, Mike competed in the 39th annual American Birkebeiner.    For those of you new to that title, it is otherwise know as North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon (50 kilometers from Cable to Hayward for Skaters, and 54K for Classic Skiers) and attracts over 6,000 Birkie skiers and 11,000 skiers for the weekend’s events.

This year, although an emotional day, Mike didn’t have too much trouble out on course, so before he gets started with his wrap up, let’s see who did:

Birkie 2012

The short version is that I just “toured’ the big ski race this year – no pre-race jitters, no gut-wrenching efforts on the steep climbs, no agonizing muscle cramps…  Just the most enjoyable and best 54Ks I’ve ever skied…  in memory of my Dad.   (Read on if you like a somewhat sentimental story and hopefully an uplifting account of the race I didn’t “race”!)

I decided to do this year’s Birkie as a just a tour — I skied on my dad’s favorite old classical-style skis in memory of him.  This would have been his 35th consecutive “Birkie” finish (and our 14th race together), had cancer not taken his life last March.

This year, the pressure of racing was totally off.  I decided to bring Jill and the kids along, since I was less likely to be pre-occupied with racing.  We skied one of my favorite small “hometown” trails on Thursday and we did the 5K “Birkie Family Fun Ski” the following day (see picture attached).   – Since I wasn’t “resting for the race” I didn’t even give a second thought to wasting precious energy the days before the race.  We ate McDonalds for lunch – what better for a NON-prerace meal! And we splurged for a room at the host resort,  right next to at the starting line.  I even snuck out at sunrise on the day before the race skied alone for about 10K on the course, just enjoying the solitude and perfect conditions.  It was such a strange experience, as every other time on this trail I’ve shared it with 8000 other racers and numerous cowbell-clanging fans!  My sister (skiing her 8th consecutive Birkie and gunning for a PR this year), provided the only hint of “pre-race jitters.”  We agonized a bit over our choice of wax, and we drove Jill crazy discussing all the pros and cons of each wax and how to apply it.  Without my dad to prepare the skis, the pressure was on me a bit, but he’d taught me to wax my own skis by age 9, so wasn’t nearly as worried as my sister was..  A couple of beers took away whatever anxiety still remained in my subconscious…

The race day venue had its usual hype and spectacle, but I got to “take it in” even more than usual.  I took my time getting in the starting gate. – No rush for good position this year – the middle of the wave was fine for me.  My sister (starting a a later wave) sent me off with my dad’s favorite pre-race phrase “ski safe, have fun!”  For the first time in 14 years I enjoyed listening to the announcer giving the customary welcome greeting in 20 languages (one for each country represented).   I made some jokes for the nervous-looking young guys in front of me, and whooped and hollered like crazy at the end of the singing of the “Star-spangled Banner”. (Somehow it always sounds better when sung in falling snow…)

Soon, we were off! — on the most enjoyable 54K I’ve ever skied in my life.  Maybe it was the slightly slower pace, or the perfect kick of my dad’s old skis, but I really didn’t suffer much – at least at first.  When the course got too steep for my wax to stick, I just stepped to the side of the trail and walked slowly up the climbs. My skis were FLYING on the downhills, even compared to my top-notch competitors.  (Almost everyone in the “Wave 1” has fast skis, but dad always said these skis were special!)  The kilometers were clicking by easily from 15-25 K.  The sun started to shine making the snowflakes sparkle like pixie dust as they trickled off of the evergreens…  The landscape on this course is beautiful, and I’d picked the perfect day to slow down and appreciate it!

Fatigue finally started to set in at about 30K.   I was starting to suffer quite a bit when a passing racer commented, “ I used to race on a pair of skis just like those!” – so I had to share my dad’s story.   It turned out that the guy raced with my dad in years past, and he remembered him from the “old days” (this old guy was 64 yrs old and he could still FLY!)  So I settled in behind him and tried to match his smooth strides.  We kept talking (when we could) and had we nice conversation about family and skiing, etc, for the next 10Ks.

At 40K my concentration and energy levels were really sagging.  I dropped my energy gel on a downhill and noticed that my water bottle was frozen solid, but Hey, not to worry this year! – I just stopped (completely) at the next aid station and slammed a banana and 2 cups of HEED.  Then my wax started slipping as the temperature warmed, so (at risk of losing my dad’s old buddy) I stopped again to apply a softer wax from my SSSMST jersey pocket – no rush today, and I was starting to cramp a bit anyway!   With the skis kicking well again, there was no holding back now!  It only took me 10 minutes to re-group with my new “old” friend.  We took turns in the front of our small group, falling back into a nice “tandem rhythm” that is so unique to classical skiing and we passed a lot of skier who were hitting “the wall”.  Finally he stepped aside near the top of the last major climb and he slowed a bit.  I offered some encouragement, but he said “you go ahead son…Actually, you AND YOUR DAD go ahead – you guys gave me a great race today – the best I’ve had in a long time!”  (these were his exact words!)   Tears started welling up in my eyes as I started thinking about my dad again…  but I was too tired and happy to cry, so I just smiled and skied harder!  I actually skied faster than EVER for the last 3K, despite a cramping left hamstring right calf muscle.  I felt kind of bad about dropping the old guy, but I was passing skier after skier.  I charged full speed up the snow-covered Main Street of Hayward, responding to the hundreds of cheering fans and clanging cowbells.  I pointed at the sky as I crossed the line, and felt the warm sunshine on my face!…

I met the old guy again when he came through the finish chute a minute or two later – I patted him on the shoulder and gave me a big hug — no words were exchanged, and none were needed..  I suddenly wasn’t a bit tired, and the pain in my legs was totally gone…. I just stood there in the sunshine, watching skier after skier come across the finish line – all of them smiling from ear to ear.   Even though it was a perfect finish, I really didn’t want the race to be over.   I realized then that I was experiencing a little bit of heaven (or at least my dad’s version)….  He’d been with me the entire time!

p.s. – Race results are posted now, but I still don’t know my exact time – and  I don’t really care – I finished somewhere in the middle of the “wave-1” pack and I’d passed about 20 people in the last 12Ks.  It was a PR I guess, (for the “classical” technique), since all of my previous marathons were done with skating-style.  My sister, on the other hand, set a PR by almost 10 minutes!  No doubt she had some similar inspiration, and she said her skis were waxed perfectly!   “ A good time was had by all,” as my dad would say.   It sure was!!!

Also, race video!   See Mike @ 24:00 in:

http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/20690087

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4 Responses

  1. Great read Mike. Still teary eyed myself.

  2. One of the best “race” reports I’ve read in some time.

    You Dad sounds like a guy everyone should aspire to. I can only hope to build such a relationship with my kids, like he did with you and your family.

    Nice race!

  3. Thanks! He had a special gift of always being “in the moment” around us no matter how bad his day at work was, (or how much he’d rather be out training!)..

  4. That’s awesome, Mike. Thanks for sharing that.

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