A new adventure

A new adventure

The American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race is sometimes described as a marathon on skis. And as with the marathon, it's the people you meet along the way that is a huge part of the fun.

Blog PhotoThe Birkie is a race on hilly, wooded trails between Cable and Hayward, Wis. The 42nd race was held this past weekend, and it includes the Birkebeiner (either 50 or 54 kilometers, depending on the skiing style), the 24-kilometer Kortelopet and the 12-kilometer Prince Haakon races.

The Friday before race day features lots of fun events in downtown Hayward — kids' races, a family fun ski, adaptive ski events and the Nikkerbeiner, a retro 5K ski tour featuring skiers in wool knickers and other old-school clothing, skiing on wooden skis with bamboo poles.

I met Steve Schmieding, of Madison, Wis., just before the Nikkerbeiner. He was wearing his grandfather's leggings from World War I, knickers and a plaid shirt with a corn-cob pipe in the pocket.

Blog PhotoSchmieding and his wife Jane are longtime skiers. They've been at the Birkie for the last several years, where many of their friends ski the race. Schmieding skis the Nikkerbeiner and Jane Schmieding sit-skis in the 3K adaptive ski event. Steve Schmieding then serves as the required guide for his wife on Saturday, when she skis a 3K adaptive event for the top finishers in Friday's race.

Jane Schmieding has multiple sclerosis, and her husband said she is a big proponent of the benefits of exercise for people with the disease. Steve Schmieding helps build and distribute sit skis for adaptive ski programs.

Blog PhotoI was lucky to be invited to stay during race weekend in a lovely cabin on a lake just south of Hayward, belonging to Gene and Jane Kay. The Kays are Nordic rock stars.

Gene Kay is a ski coach who has skied 25 Birkies. He skied his second Kortelopet race on Saturday, taking 25th place overall in the classic race and first place in his 55-59 age group. The 24 people who placed ahead of him were all under age 25. Jane Kay is also an accomplished skier, and the two are heavily involved in putting on the City of Lakes Loppet ski race in Minneapolis.

Jane Kay cooked her traditional "Birkie pasta" on Friday evening for the 10 of us staying in the cabin. Gene Kay waxed my skis for me before the race and graciously offered advice to this novice on handling the downhills.

I trained for and traveled to the race with my friend and fellow runner Laura Fredendall of Terre Haute, Ind. She and I skied the Kortelopet race. Fredendall grew up in Minnesota and is a great lover of winter and skiing. Her enthusiasm for the race and the landscape was infectious, and it was great to see her have so much fun skiing and soaking up the Birkie atmosphere.

Race day was perfect — one of the best days they've had for the race. Last year was frigid cold with heavy winds, but this year's race day was calm with temperatures that reached into the mid-teens. The area got fresh snow the day before and it snowed a bit more early in the race. The snow-covered trees along the race course made for a stunningly beautiful winter setting.

Blog PhotoEarly in the race we skied a series of rolling hills called the "power line," for the electrical lines running down the middle of the area. Hills that would have intimidated me a few weeks ago were fun. A group of drummers entertained the skiers. I was having a great time.

Of all the people who offered me advice and encouragement, I am most grateful to the ski patrol guides along the course. I was skiing with quite old skis and boots, and one of my ski boots separated from the sole about four miles into the race. I was able to ski on it for a couple of miles to the next aid station, where a ski patrol guide taped it back together for me.

The tape came off in the last third of the race and I struggled until another set of ski patrol guides came by and gave me tape to fix the boot again. There was no way I could have finished without them.

I didn't have the ski I wanted because of my equipment problems. But if my goals were to experience the Birkie, meet some top-notch skiers and to challenge myself to do something that was hard and fun and, frankly, scary for me, then I accomplished my mission before I even put on my skis on race day.

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

Photos: Top, skiers in the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race on Saturday in Cable, Wis. Photo by Paul M. Walsh/AP. Second, Steve Schmieding of Madison, Wis., prepares to ski the Nikkerbeiner on Friday in Hayward, Wis. Photo by Jodi Heckel. Third, Each year, three skiers are chosen to portray the Birkebeiner Warriors and Queen Inga, from the Norwegian legend of the warriors who rescued the infant Prince Haakon by skiing him to safety during the Norwegian Civil War of 1206. This year, they were portrayed by Jeremiah Menk of St. Paul, Minn., and Ben and Alison Menk of Minneapolis. Photo by Jodi Heckel. Bottom: The "power line" section of the Birkebeiner ski race. Photo by Jodi Heckel.

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ERE wrote on February 24, 2015 at 9:02 pm
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Did you finish, Jodi? The Birkiebeiner race site has "no result" for your finish time

Hope this is not a Brian Williams moment of misremembering...

 

Jodi Heckel wrote on February 25, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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I finished, and got my finisher medal. Unfortunately, with all my equipment problems -- and the fact that I'm a novice skier and already quite slow -- it took me a very long time to finish. They had removed the timing device at the finish line by the time I crossed, so I don't have a recorded time. But there is no misremembering those last few miles! They were tough. Still have the sore muscles too ... but after all the hard work of getting through the course, there was no way I wasn't going to finish.

ERE wrote on February 26, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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Awesome-finishing despite all those ski problems is terrrific! Admire your gung-ho attitude to do it despite CU not being a great place to train for XC ski :)

Jodi Heckel wrote on February 26, 2015 at 9:02 pm
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Thanks, I appreciate it. While I'm disappointed the race didn't go better for me, it was still a neat experience. And I'm hoping to go back and do it again in a few years, with better equipment and more training.