What’s a “Birkie?” Terra’s Mike Elliott tells a tale of triumph.
With 48 kilometers behind me and seven more to go, the last aid station appears like an oasis in the snowy north woods of Wisconsin. The phrase “no pain = no gain” has new meaning in this marathon. To finish, I need to climb with skis over the last of the seemingly endless hills, cross a windswept lake and over a bridge to reach the finish line. Since I know the pain will only get worse, I find the best approach is to focus on the cheering spectators ringing Nordic cowbells and the celebratory beer that awaits!
I am a recreational skier at the midpoint of my life who is still addicted to the event after 7 finishes. We skiers like to call it “Birkie Fever;” it is the driving force behind the hours of commitment needed to find snow in order to train every weekend (not an easy feat in Chicago).
The American Birkiebeiner, or the “Birkie,” is North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon. Over 10,000 cross-country skiers of all levels travel from nearly every state and 36 countries to ski the 55 km American Birkiebeiner, which starts in the town of Cable and ends on Main Street in the town of Hayward. It began with a few dozen skiers in 1973 and Tony Wise, who started Telemark Ski area in 1947. He envisioned recreating the original Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet in Norway here in America. Forty-five years later it has matured to an event that draws tens of thousands of spectators to Northwest Wisconsin.
The “Birkie” has become an annual event for me each February. I get excited to ski with old friends and my two brothers. We share stories of how we trained through fickle snow conditions and found time in our busy lives to hopefully be prepared. The most stressful decision every year is how to “wax” our skis. Like running a marathon, the “Birkie” certainly requires you to be fit, but unlike running, a skier must also prepare for unpredictable winter conditions and have the proper ski equipment. To most people outside of this odd niche sport, the phrase “waxing your skis” sounds ridiculous. Yet a wrong decision can create more pain—unnecessary pain that you can’t afford to endure.
The bottom surface of a classic ski has a kick zone and a glide zone. As it sounds, you need to apply specially formulated wax to the kick zone to propel yourself down the ski tracks. A poor choice is like trying to run across an ice rink in slippers. A well-prepared wax in the glide zone will sling you down the hill like a one-man bobsled. My skis were fast but my kick wax didn’t work well with the new snow and warming temperatures. Unexpectedly, I found myself stopping to chisel ice off the bottom of the skis. Even when following the pros’ recommendations, there are no guarantees.
Despite the pain, training and shorter winter ski seasons, I always think I will return. In fact, over 1,000 skiers are over the age of 60. I find that amazing and inspirational! Birkie Fever will pull me back in 2020 in hopes of completing my eighth!
Thank you to Rebecca Peplinski Photography for some of the great photos. Special thanks to Verizon for bringing out a temporary LAAMA to make a huge difference for communications, medical, and skier tracking. Terra Consulting Group even prepared the drawings for the setup.