Birch Legs (From the archives)

A milestone for Dad.

I am not sure why we often tie our celebrations and recognitions to the base ten system… 10 year reunions, 50 year anniversaries, bi-centennial, millennium, etc…

I guess it makes it easier to remember or recognize the longevity of something when the most recent number forces the next column of the odometer to go up a tick.

The reason for this review of the connection between base 10 system and celebrations is that my Dad recently hit a significant base ten milestone. Was it his 70th birthday? Nope…he already did that. His 50th year class reunion? Despite repeating a grade due to moving between countries he already celebrated that one too. His 50th wedding anniversary? Good guess, but that milestone is still a few years away.

Depending on how you look at it, the milestone I am referring to requires an even greater commitment and perseverance to reach than the aforementioned ones. Give up yet?

The occasion I am referring to was my Dad’s completion of his 20th Birkebeiner Cross-Country ski race. The race is 35 miles long, the approximate equivalent of a marathon on skis, and runs from Cable to Hayward, or Hayward to Cable depending on the year. Upon reflection, 50 years of marriage probably takes slightly more commitment and perseverance, but skiing the Birkie 20 years in a row is a close second.

Actually my Dad skied 20 Birkies in 21 years. His reason for missing a year was that all the snow had melted and the race was cancelled. That almost didn’t deter him, and he had to go up to the start of the race to hear the official news of the cancellation in person… whereas a more reasonable but less enthusiastic skier (think his son) was more likely to conclude from the weather reports and mud on the ground that the race was a near impossibility and stay home. But not too many would accuse my Dad of being unenthusiastic where cross-country skiing is concerned. If it is snows a ¼ of an inch in November or December, he is out there pushing through this miniscule precipitation and the much larger quantity of leaves to get in a precious early season workout. In Southern Wisconsin you never know how long the snow will be around, so my Dad would say you have to make the most of it. If there is a heat wave and the snow melts, he will try the mostly frozen lake, and ski through slush or standing water to get one more workout in.

For those of you who know my Dad well, you probably have heard a Birkie story or two or hundred. Why he missed the first 15 races I can’t imagine, but when he was 50 years old a friend of his who had done the race a few times convinced him that he should give it a try. My Mom was worried about him completing such a long and grueling event, and asked me if I would go along to make sure he was o.k.. She shouldn’t have been worried, at least not about him, because he finished that first race before I did, and with rare exception most every other race we have skied together (I have finished 15 Birkies to date).

After his first race he was hooked, and the race has been the highlight of his winter (if not year) ever since. I would guess that just about any other day of the year is negotiable in terms of where he will be, but not Birkie day. No trips shall be scheduled, or events planned where his presence is required on this most sacred of days.

I must admit there is something special about “The Birkie”. It begins when you bite the bullet, sign your life away and submit your race application. After this is done you usually have a moment where you say, “Do I really want to do this again?” which is typically followed by a yes, no, maybe debate in your head.

Once you sign up you are in, and this is the lever that helps you avoid going into hibernation in the long Wisconsin winters. You start saying to yourself 0 degrees isn’t that cold, and study the weather report like a meteorologist. You become an expert on polypropylene and the wicking properties of various fabrics. And if you know what is good for you, and from past experience you do, you get your butt outdoors for extended periods of time to build up your endurance for race day.

Then there is the Birkie weekend itself, which begins with the drive, which is spent hydrating and stopping every 60 minutes for a bathroom break on the way up and the packet pick-up where everyone (well except us) tries to look like they are a word-class athlete and above the fray while greedily searching their goodie bag for hard as rock free samples of granola bars.

Then there is the enigma and nemesis of “The Wax”. There are numerous conflicting and constantly changing wax reports. There are the “old pros” who are reluctant to share what they plan to do in fear that they will lose their waxing advantage. There are the wax sellers (a.k.a. carpet baggers) at the expo, who conveniently tell you what you are planning to do is all wrong (This year they said, and I quote, “What you plan to do is fine if you want no glide in the beginning and no grip at the end”). They follow this by telling you what you need to do is buy whatever wax they happen to have left and start over. After 20 years of diligent effort, I think my Dad still hasn’t found his holy grail of waxing, although I am confident he will keep trying.

Of course the highlight is race day which is comprised of two seemingly equally challenging events… getting to the start of the race on time, and the actual race itself. There is one road into the busses that get you to the start of the race, and 8,000 people all jockeying for position and parking. Traffic jams are the norm not the exception. Once you get to the start of the race the nervousness and self-questioning starts… Did I train enough? (Answer: No)… Did I get the wax right? (Probably not)… Do I have time to go to the porta-potty one more time before the gun goes off? (Hardly!).

Then the gun goes off and the fun begins. Each person has their own tricks to get them through to the end of the race. It is the one time of year where you can get several continual hours to reflect on everything from soup to nuts. Sample thoughts that enter your mind include: … This is great!…I’m going to do 30 more of these… This hurts!… This is the last one I am going to do… only 53 more kilometers to go… only 52 more kilometers to go….only 51 kilometers to go… only 50.5 kilometers to go… well you get the point.

Then there is the finish, where crowds of strangers and if you are lucky a person or two that you know cheer you on, and offer words of encouragement as they down their 11th beer of the afternoon.

When you see the finish line you realize your journey is soon reaching its end, and the post race rituals are about to begin. Beer and brats rarely tastes better than they do at the Angler Bar in downtown Hayward after a long day of skiing. It is time to undo all of the good you have just done by exercising all day, and after a beer/brat and a shower we usually find our way to a restaurant for some guilt free eating and imbibing and repeating of stories that are 20+ years in the making and sometimes telling.

I think the lesson of the Birkie is that life is what you make it. Tony Wise the founder of the Birkie had a vision of an event that could draw thousands of people up to Northern Wisconsin, and he boldly made this vision a reality. Each person signing up for the race has their own vision for the future too, and they go about making it happen. Wisconsin winters can be long, cold, and dark. The Birkie provides a way to thrive in this environment by motivating you to get outside in the elements. Each year you get at least a few magical moments where it is pretty much just you moving through a beautiful and peaceful snowy woods, and these moments make it all worthwhile.

I am proud of my Dad for achieving this base-10 milestone. The Birkebeiner has undoubtedly added to the quality and likely the quantity of his life. His example of what is possible merely if you choose to make it so will impact those around him for decades to come.

I am reminded of a quote I like from the movie Cousins where a man in his 70s is talking to his adult son, and says “…son, you’ve only got one life to live… you can either make it chickensh*t or chicken salad”.

Well after completing 20 consecutive Birkies there is little doubt about which of these two paths my Dad pursued, and continues to pursue in his life. Congratulations Dad! You are a true Birkebeiner!

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