Most of Saturday, I chased the winners of the the 41st annual American Birkebeiner, and gathered their stories of battle in single-digit temperatures, deep snow and gusting winds.
The tales got better later that night, spun by friends and fellow skiers gathering in the local recuperation centers. I hadn’t appreciated just what a historic Birkie this was, until I kept hearing the words “brutal, gorgeous and epic” repeated over and over.
Skiers bogged down in the soft snow on the relentless hills, froze body parts and fought the wind blowing across Lake Hayward, which reportedly created a sandstorm that rivaled scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. One skier described it as the steepest lake he had ever encountered.
Here are a few of the best of the Birkie stories I heard. (Note, the accuracy of these tales is mitigated by the exhaustion, barroom din and spirits that may have influenced the tellers).
Put it where? A friend of mine worked at the aide station at the high point of the course, roughly the 14-kilometer mark. She recounted how one skier came up and asked her if she had any hand warmers.
“Will you put one down my pants?” he asked, seeking comfort for his frozen vitals.
Being helpful but cautious, she opened the warmer, dropped it into his opened pants and directed: “You’ll have to position it yourself.”
Winner’s tale: Thomas Reichelt, a 31-year-old German and former Olympian, spent some of his $7,500 first prize at the Sawmill Saloon. Not all of it. Reichelt said 36% of his winnings were deducted for taxes, so that big $7,500 check handed to him on the podium turned out to be $4,800 for deposit.
Still, Reichelt was thrilled to win his first FIS Marathon series race, a victory that seemed to slip away at times.
“In a ski race, you have many lives,” Reichelt told me, a good reminder for everyone.
And in case you’re wondering: he chose Leinenkugel’s as his recovery drink.
Forty one and counting: Ernie St. Germaine stands alone as the only person to complete all 41 American Birkebeiner races. He finished Saturday in five hours, 40 minutes, more than an hour off his time from 2013.
“For me, it went really good,” St. Germaine told me. “It was windy and it was cold and the track was really slow. I just adjusted. To me, if you try to go fast, it’s going to wear you out.
“I was poling down the hills and striding down the hills and other people were too. From Mosquito Brook Road on, I saw a lot of people standing on the hills, just bonked.
“Those groomer and that Birkie Foundation, they just did an amazing job in pulling that off and getting tht race course in shape to ski on. That’s incredible. Those guys worked hard and long, and the volunteers at the aid stations had to be suffering in that cold, but they were there. That was an amazing feat that they pulled off.”
The clock story: Nearly everyone I talked with finished well beyond their expected, or previous times. The conditions added anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 ½ hours to their day on the trail. A quick review of the results confirmed their stories.
Of the 1,864 skiers who finished the classic race, 730 of them spent more than six hours working to the finish line, compared to 505 in the six-hour-plus club a year ago.
Skaters struggled even more. More than 600 of the 3,780 finishers topped the six-hour mark, compared to 172 of them in 2013.
The attrition rate also told the grim reality of a tough, tough day: nearly 1,500 skiers either didn’t start or abandoned the race, roughly 20% of the 7,117 registered. I heard more than the usual number of reports from skiers who dropped out at the half-way point or other locations on the course.
You can analyze the results by clicking here.
Last to the line: Minutes before 6 p.m., just before the plows started pushing the snow off Main St., Bob Baker skied past the bright Christmas lights and became the last skier to reach the finish, in a time of eight hours, 52 minutes.
Baker, 66, of Oakdale, Minn., has skated the Birkebeiner four times, and finished 2 ½ hours slower on Saturday than he did in 2013. He didn’t celebrate or complain, but merely stated the facts:
“Everybody was slow, and I was slower.”
Frostbite: Steve Smith’s post-Birkebeiner celebration ended with a trip to the Hayward Hospital for a look at a left pinky finger that one described as “bubbling.” Here’s the story of his frozen digit:
“Staring at a heavily bandaged pinky and cringing at a throbbing ache, I’m left to wonder: Was it the howling arctic headwind blasting the starting paddock or the Male Condition that led to the misfiring of my Logic Sensors at the Birkie?
My fingers buzzed a mere 13 minutes after mixing into the beehive of activity that is the launch pad of this epic race. A warm up only left me whapping numb fingers encased in a liner, hand warmer and dry shell glove against my stinging lower extremities, as winter’s angry bite continued to gnaw. I retreated to the warming tent to readjust… score one for logic!
With adrenaline flowing, and the start gun only 30 minutes away, the next decision seemed obvious: go stand in the starting queue for 20 minutes to secure a “good” position in the Wave one grid. Thus, the fate of my pinky modeling career was set.
Two hours AFTER the race, telling stories at the Moccasin Bar, a friendly patron spied the digit and darkly suggested: “I could cut that off for your tonight if you’d like?” She being a nurse, and at the behest of the now growing circle of curious onlookers, I trudged back to the medical tent and ultimately made my way to Hayward Memorial Hospital. Frostbite confirmed; memories of my 11th Birkie are now indelibly recorded in the soft tissues of the pinky of my left hand.
Checking the course: Having missed my chance to ski in the historic conditions Saturday, I ventured out to the Boedecker Rd. trailhead and skied a few kilometers of the Birkebeiner classic course on Sunday morning. The snow squeaked in the two-degree temperature, and my skis seemed stuck to sandpaper. I couldn’t fathom how anyone had trudged through 54 kilometers in those conditions.
It was interesting to see the course after nearly 2,000 skiers had carved their tracks. Deep gullies snaked across the downhill sections, and I imagined picking the right line would have been difficult and precarious. My thought: “This isn’t a ski trail. But how I envision the surface of the Moon.”