Every year in February, when the weather (especially this year) becomes almost too unbearable and spring is a distant memory…a fever begins to build here in the tundra. Chatter about conditions, grooming, weather, training, technique and fueling the fire are constant. An obsession to train regardless of the conditions, this year including continuous subzero temps, all hinges on one magical race: The American Birkebeiner. The Birkebeiner is always held on the fourth Saturday of February in Hayward Wisconsin. The race runs from Cable to Hayward, a 52 kilometer feat that is daunting enough for a beginner to feel as if they climbed Mount Everest and still difficult enough to qualify as a World Loppet for seasoned professionals. Thousands of skiers in multiple waves, depending on your qualifying time, start at the same point and begin a journey that truly binds them into an elite brother/sisterhood.
Nothing compares to it. There is something completely insane about skiing 32 1/2 miles in skin-tight uniforms, freezing faces and beards, multiple clouds from the moisture of warm breath hitting ice-cold conditions, lungs burning from bitch hills and the euphoria that comes from successfully making it to the top over and over again. But they do it, every year without fail. The hours after skiing across the lake and downtown Hayward over the finish line, is spent replaying the best and worst moments and making a plan to do even better the next year.
What is also amazing is how well this international feat usually plays out. There are no worries about crime and violence. A town of a few thousand transforms to 10 times that amount and handles the influx with ease. This year, the warming tent had some problems, but that won’t stop the fever, it just gives the participants a point of reference when they talk about the many Birkies they’ve done. It connects people from all over the world; knowing someone has done the Birkie breaks down walls and creates immediate friendships. If you can ski that far in long underwear, you must be a quality human being. I agree. All the qualities it takes to finish that race, are qualities that will make you shine as a human being. I just don’t think bad-hearted people could do it…it’s too hard, stamina like that demands hard training that is developed over time, there are no short cuts.
Sadly, I wish I could be one of the many that partakes…my broken spine won’t allow it. I can say that have I biked the trail, so I know how grueling it is (the black flies biting at my ass were a great incentive to keep going). I live vicariously through my husband and close friends that partake in this joyful insanity. This is the kind of fever you hope is infectious, to inspire every other challenge one faces in life…even if it is simply tolerating winter until spring.