My feet placed firmly on the floor where the center console should have been, I braced myself for any bumps in the snowy road ahead.
At 5-foot-8, girls my size are too big to sit on a box in the middle of an Astrovan, but I was lucky to be there and had no complaints whatsoever. Andy Gerlach graciously let me tag along with the Salomon support team on Feb. 25 as they chased eight racers throughout the 2012 American Birkebeiner.
That meant I could squeeze in a van loaded with skis, energy gels and water bottles and listen to Gerlach and the Birkie radio announcers narrate the 50 k race. What a great way to cover it.
Hinging my head forward to avoid hitting the ceiling, I chatted with Gerlach in the driver’s seat and his passenger, Salomon Nordic Brand Manager Alex Haas. Once the man behind the Subaru Factory Team, Gerlach was back for his 18th Birkie. He took two years off, but caught the bug once more and was back.
Haas was in Wisconsin for his first Birkie. He had come all the way from France along with Salomon’s designer to see what this race, the largest nordic event in North America, was all about. Salomon sent nine service people to the race, including U.S. nordic product manager Isaac Wilson and Zach Caldwell, the guru of stone grinding.
And here I was, bouncing around the back roads near the Birkie trail with them. I had been told we’d have to run on some snowmobile trails to get to the feed spots, my vantage points. I planned accordingly, wearing a pair of tennis-shoe-like kicks that were paper thin.
One spectator even made fun of me out on the course. I’ll be better prepared next year, I thought. Meanwhile, I pretended they were warm, and when the packs of racers whizzed by, I forgot about my frozen toes.
I was like a kid on Christmas, but this was better than the excitement one feels that December morning. I hadn’t been to the Birkie in 10 years, and 10 years ago, I was an adolescent newbie on the scene.
Back then, I skied the 23 k Kortelopet and didn’t see any elite racers until I hopped on a bus and rode down to the Birkie finish in Hayward. And I don’t really remember what I saw, except Main Street brimming with groomed snow, lots of spectators, and finally, my mom struggling to stand up at the finish.
Now I was taking in every sight, smell, sound.
“Pole, pole, pole, POLE!”
The cry for help intensified as the chase group entered an open field and skated toward the Salomon guys around 44 k.
Liebsch had been using a some kind of touring pole for the last five kilometers; his former Central Cross Country (CXC) teammate, Santi Ocariz was still trying to give him his. The Team Strong Heart/Team Birkie skier refused at first, but accepted when he realized a replacement wasn’t waiting for him with 6 k to go.
Liebsch ditched the heavy pole he picked up after breaking his, and Ocariz handed his over. Both yelled for a pole. Once Salomon figured out who needed it, they ran it to Ocariz (CXC) and he continued behind the group.
After the race, Ocariz said he didn’t need the pole as much as Liebsch did. He knew Liebsch had a shot at the podium, and Ocariz was OK with finishing a few spots back.
“What’s the difference if I’m eighth or 14th? He had the chance to win,” Ocariz said after placing 11th.
Sometimes, acts like those go unnoticed. That probably didn’t matter to Ocariz and his wife, Carolyn (the women’s 54 k classic Birkie winner), who will start rollerskiing across the country in early March to raise money for those starving in Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, most every man in that chase group had something nice to say about Santi after the race. At the end of the day, he was a human rather a competitor. He had grit, he had endurance, but he saw the big picture.
As the top elites and citizen finishers looked up at the banner stretching high above the finish in downtown Hayward, many of them wore similar expressions. They were either ecstatic or exhausted. Either way, I’m guessing they were thrilled to be done.
After the Birkie and the next morning at Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wis., I’ve never seen so many athletes high on endorphins. They were still happy, giddy even, and it was contagious.
I don’t even remember when my feet thawed out. It didn’t matter.
“Birkie Fever” is overused, but it’s appropriate. Glad I caught it. I’ll be back.
Note: This blog has been corrected to reflect that I apparently never met Matt Liebsch’s dad and it was someone else that ragged on my shoes. Too bad.