Parked at the world-famous “OO” trailhead about halfway on the Birkie trail, I stood outside my little Nissan Versa rental trying to figure out what to wear after sitting in the car for more than five hours on Monday.
I turned around to a man who looked like he was in his 80s and was carrying his waxless skis in crisscross fashion. He stopped at his vehicle next to mine.
“Is it going to snow?” he abruptly asked me with a Scandinavian accent.
I thought he said, “It’s gorgeous, no?” then put his words in context. It didn’t make sense why I would know with my Minnesota plates; I didn’t look like a weatherperson. Heck, I didn’t even look like a skier in my yoga pants and scarf.
But the old man asked anyway, and I told him I heard something about an inch or two on Monday night. Suddenly, I was glad my iPhone didn’t work with the car’s stereo and left me with nothing but local radio for my entire drive north from Madison to Seeley, Wisconsin.
“We need it,” he said.
Looking around at the snow-covered woods, I could already tell the conditions were better than most everything I skied this season. I changed the subject and asked him if he had a good ski.
“Yes, a few hours,” he said.
I’d say that’s good, I responded. He wanted to do 40 kilometers, but retracted his plan in preparation for the Birkie.
“I don’t want to burn out,” he said.
An 80-year-old man worried about burning out. I held back my giggles and watched as he quickly loaded his Lincoln town car and drove away.
That was my first taste of Birkie fever and the angst, dedication and buildup that surrounds the 51 k event. I got another more relaxed perspective from a family of four out on the trail.
Two Midwestern-born sisters in their 20s were getting ready for their first Birkie. Their dad and brother would be at kilometer 39 hooting, hollering and cheering them on.
It’s a big party, the father said. We listen to Motown and dance.
I turned around near the 29 k mark on the skate trail, meandering back north to the parking lot before dusk. It was firm, but not too icy, especially on the lesser-traveled parts of the extremely wide trail. Yes, more snow would help, but this was pretty awesome. Tracks were sold and the conditions were fast – just the way I like it. I zoomed back to the parking lot and packed up, taking a few photos before I left.
One woman said I should take a picture of the clouds in the distance and hope they were snow clouds. What am I now, some kind of superhero with the power to summon precipitation? These people are funny, I thought.
I figured the comments were linked to their excitement. Everyone wants the 39th American Birkebeiner to be perfect. That meant great snow, ideal conditions and reasonable temperatures on race day.
Although days are rarely perfect, I would argue Wisconsin has recently had some of the best weather of the year, if you like plenty of sunshine and mild temperatures.
While in Madison covering the SuperTour sprints last weekend, I was able to stand around and enjoy the races in 30-degree temperatures – and get a tan while I was at it.
My gracious hosts, Don Becker and his fiancé Heidi, lived about a mile and a half from downtown so I was able to walk along Lake Monona to the state capital both Saturday and Sunday.
Not a bad commute, I thought as I looked out at the ice fishermen around dawn and some recreational hockey players skating before dusk.
Work itself was fun with back-to-back sprints Saturday and Sunday on a 1-kilometer loop around Capitol Square. The Central Cross Country Ski Association (CXC) as the SuperTour host coordinated with the city to create and stockpile snow at a nearby energy plant. At 6 p.m. Friday, they shut down the square and dumped it on the streets.
From my understanding, the whole process of unloading about 90 dump trucks and spreading the snow with a single Bobcat bulldozer took more than five hours.
I was there until about 10 p.m., and race director Yuriy Gusev was still zipping around in his John Deer Gator to make sure everything went down according to plan. Later that night, they used a PistenBully to groom the track.
It looked great Saturday morning with four meticulously set tracks for the classic sprint. And while the SuperTour races were the first events of each day, they were only a part of Madison’s eighth annual Winter Festival.
Up on the backside of the hill, skiers and snowboarders competed in a rail jam. Organizers had built a ramp and lifted snow onto it to create a steep enough slope. On the square, junior and high school races also used the cross-country course, along with disabled sit skiers. On Sunday, a fleet of rental skis and boots was available for anyone to rent and ski a few loops.
Working inside a coffee shop overlooking the capital, I watched as some people came by lap after lap. Unlike the newbies on skis, they looked more focused, like they had something on their minds.
Must be the Birkie.
Fever in the Twin Cities
Before Madison, I flew into Minneapolis and spent an afternoon and evening in Saint Paul. I stayed with family friends, including Jay Tegeder, who is embarking on his 26th Birkie. Already a Birchlegger, someone who completes 20 American Birkebeiners, Jay said he might as well go for 30. Maybe they’d have a new club by then.
Jay is about my dad’s age, in his early 50s, and loves the Birkie. I knew this before I stayed with him and his wife, Kathleen, but I didn’t understand how serious he was about it until then.
He’s in Wave 1, right behind the elites. Enough said.
A former top-notch racer, Jay would rather be in Wave 2 so he could pass others more than be passed, he said. But he didn’t seem too concerned about it.
A few hours after my plane ride in from Albany, N.Y., Jay took me to Green Acres, a little nordic and tubing facility east of Minneapolis. There, we skied a 3 k loop around a farm and on a frozen pond, and while it was in an open field on a 40-degree day, the snow and crust skiing was great.
According to Jay, the owners were farmers, not skiers. They apparently knew how to please the nordic community with snowmaking capabilities and some variable terrain (including one honker hill). On a Thursday afternoon, a manure spreader ejected snow out onto the course and rolled along to fill in the thin spots. There were about five people skiing, but it didn’t matter. They made keeping up the trails a priority.
Coming from the East, where you might drive an hour to a nordic center to find that they haven’t updated the website and didn’t groom or aren’t open at all, I was impressed. Tubing was probably the moneymaker of the operation, with plenty of kids zooming down the large hill on a school day (must be worth skipping class for!), but having somewhere to ski close to the city was important, too.
Most years, people in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have plenty of options for pre-Birkie training with several golf courses allowing skiers to putz around for free. This year, they were lucky to have places like Green Acres.
As we zipped around the loop with Jay’s friend, John Wyland, we enjoyed the sunshine and chatted. Wyland, who was also doing the Birkie, was particularly inspirational. After having shoulder surgery last spring, he essentially skate skied with one arm, yet was committed to his training.
We spent some time on an upper flat loop – too long for John. He wanted some hills. And so we dropped down and did some hills, and the two told me their different approaches to racing the Birkie. Jay would try to attack the last half like he always did, and John would aim to survive. I gave them both a lot of credit.
Throughout our 1 ½ hour jaunt, we ran into a few skiers, most of which Jay and John knew.
“Are you doing the Birkie?” Jay would ask.
It almost wasn’t a question. In the Midwest, if you’re skiing, doing the Birkie is pretty much a given. It seemed that unless you were sick as a dog or had some other unforeseen circumstance, you would do pull yourself together and ski 51 k.
I’m not sure I could handle the pressure. Then again, if you live in the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota or Wisconsin, maybe it’s just a way of life, something you don’t think twice about. Maybe that’s what the fever is.