Mashed potatoes as far as the eye can see.
I skied across the airstrip along the Telemark Resort, at the beginning of my first American Birkebeiner, and it dawned on me immediately just how tough this 50-kilometer race was going to be.
The snow was chopped up and soft, not good for a guy like me, pushing 200 pounds through the mush. No easy glide, no good rhythm. The skis sunk with each push. It was the kind of deep snow that would easily frustrate me during a training session. I’d just go home and wait for it to firm up in a day or two.
This is going to be a long day, I thought. Epic.
I had flown into Minneapolis, Minn., from Los Angeles, where I trained as best I could, on snow all of seven times. The rest of my training was built on cycling and gym workouts. I was more than a little worried that my lack of training would leave me bonked out on some soul-sucking hill, in the middle of nowhere.
We turned left, and ascended the power lines, a series of hills that rise several hundred feet, thousands it seemed. Spectators cheered, and the hills kept coming.
Surrounded by dozens of skiers, I noticed the quiet. There was no idle chatter. We were deep in the north woods, on a beautiful, snowy February day, and people were doing work.
The deep snow forced me to step high to keep my skis from getting caught up in the fluff. My balance failed, and I lurched forward more times than I care to admit. My quads and glutes twitched and burned.
I got passed by skiers older than me, heavier than me. I got passed by men and women, teenage boys and girls. I got passed by a guy with one arm. For no good reason at all, I fell hard on a straight downhill and face-planted in the middle of the race. I lost my hat and my faculties.
I remained undeterred.
I had a game plan and stuck to it: stay relaxed and easy through the first 23K until Highway OO. That seemed to work fine, except for the severe cramps digging into my left foot.
While I had the energy to keep pounding away, I was hindered by the cramps. My form deteriorated. All I could do was battle.
With about 15 kilometers to go, I skied into a mental tunnel and didn’t come out until I reached Main Street in Hayward.
The human mind is capable of amazing things. It was never a question of quitting, but a constant mind game to convince myself everything is OK.
“You can do this. Don’t panic. Relax. Stay loose. Can’t stop, won’t stop. Think of what you’ve completed, not what you haven’t,” my brain urged. “I hit 30K, so now let’s just get through the 30s. Gotta keep the energy up for Bitch Hill at 42K. Then climb that steep one and it ain’t that bad. OK, don’t get too excited, still gotta keep climbing. I know when I hit 45K, I can breathe easy and just ski across Lake Hayward.”
Crossing that frozen lake, with Hayward’s water tower looming, seemed to take an eternity.
Turning onto Main Street was just surreal. It’s such a warm feeling to see all those excited people cheering, ringing their cowbells and swilling their beer.
I crossed the finish line and received a medal for completing my first American Birkebeiner. Scores of people congratulated me when they saw it.
I had been at the finish line of the Birkie three times before, as an observer, but it felt indescribably great to finally be a Birkie finisher.
I had come much farther than the 50K, a long way, from when I learned how to ski in 2010.
I vividly remember flailing up the first little hill on the green loop at Lapham Peak, in Delafield, and the first little incline at North End Trails, in Cable. I posed the age-old question all first-time skate skiers ask: “How in the heck am I supposed to go uphill on skis?” It felt so unnatural. Now I can climb dozens of them consecutively; like it’s my job.
My split times were steady throughout the race, and I finished in just over four hours, a bit off my goal of 3:30, but OK in the slow conditions. For comparison, the winner, Sergio Bonaldi, skied nearly two hours faster.
I learned a lot in my first go-round at the Birkie. I should have worn thicker socks. I should have trained more. I could have pushed myself harder. I need to take lessons again.
Most importantly, I’ll be back next year.
Editor’s note: Ben Poston learned to Nordic Ski during his five-year stint as a reporter and editor with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Ohio native recently took his database skills and his skis to Los Angeles, where he trained for the 2013 American Birkebeiner. You can read his training report here.