Saturday, March 8, 2014

Dale's Birkie Report: Saving the Baby King

The Norwegian Birkebeiner requires you to carry a pack on your back for the duration of the race representing the baby king rescued by the Birkebeiners.  The American Birkie has no such requirement, but Dale decided to step it up for his first Birkie and carried the king anyway.  Kudoes to him and Susie for tackling the race in some of the hardest conditions ever!  Thanks, Dale, for the great story of adventure!

What has 11,000 skiers, 200 hills, 50k distance, zero degree temps, 15 inches of new snow and 20-30mph head winds? It’s the 2014 American Birkebiner in Cable, Wisconsin, and it was our first attempt at this famous ski race. Debbie had talked us into the Birkie last summer, so Susie and I decided to give it a whirl and see what it was all about. We had both finished the “real” Birkebeiner in Norway and skied 444k across Finland in seven consecutive days, so this little 50k skate race would be a piece of cake, right? WRONG! This was by far the toughest event I have ever encountered and if it weren’t for the “Little King” on my back, I would have called it quits at the top of Power Line Hill.

Susie, pre-race training on the Chomonix Golf Course

We flew into Minneapolis on the Wednesday before the Birkie and stayed with my cousin Wayne and his girlfriend Linda in Circle Pines, MN. They had a beautiful home near Chomonix Golf Course that offered a 10k groomed track, and we had fun skiing and hanging out with them. We headed up to Hayward on Friday, visited the Expo and picked up our packets, then headed for our motel in Minong, about 17 miles west of Hayward. After a great meal at the local bar and good night’s sleep, we were ready to tackle the Birkie!

Early next morning, we picked up Wayne and Linda from Hayward and headed to the start. Susie and I were both in the 8th wave so we didn’t start until 9:40am, almost the time the first wavers were nearing the finish. By the time we started, the course was really chewed up and thousands of skiers were thrashing up Power Line Hill. I tried to skate, however, it was way too soft so I just waddled up the hills. By 10k, I’m no longer racing but focusing on finishing. My water bottle is frozen and each hill seems bigger and bigger. We had to wait five minutes to go down a hill due to a “traffic jam” on the course, and it was a challenge to dodge fallen skiers along the way. My only thought was I MUST deliver little King Haakon safely to the finish, and my backpack proudly displayed the King’s name on the flap.

By the halfway point at OO, it was already three and a half hours on skis and we were both undertrained and exhausted. Susie was getting really bad blisters on her feet, so she decided to call it a day. I kept thinking of the Little King on my back, so I forged ahead and took it one “K” at a time. This was the same technique I used on the last 76k leg in Finland and it works! One by one, the hills kept coming, and it almost became a joke. I kept swearing and flipping off each new hill and wondering when I would see the nice flat lake and cruise to the finish in Hayward.

Bitch Hill greeted me around 30k and I just shook my head and waddled up the face, then cruised down to recover. After six hours, I started up the last hill near the Mosquito Road feed station and hit the lake right before dark. The wind was howling with -22 wind chill and I felt like I was skiing at the North Pole.  After seven plus hours, I turned onto Main Street and headed to the finish line banner; what a beautiful sight! I remember shouting out, “I delivered the King!” and felt a rush of emotion come over me. Never before had I felt so exhausted yet so proud.

My cousin bought me a book at the Expo called “Birkebeiner” and it was the story of the Little King escaping from Lillehammer in the 13th century. I read the book cover to cover on the way home, and it galvanized the whole Birkie experience. This event was meant to be tough, a test of will under the most extreme weather conditions with the goal to deliver the King safely to the finish. The 2014 Birkie lived up to its name and made you suffer, only to experience the joy of saving the King!

 Dale at the finish!

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