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Birkie 2004: Boondockles and Brats.
By:  Karl Saidla   (2004/02/29)

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OK, so I just got back from the infamous "Birkie" in Wisconsin. For those of you not already educated, the Birkie is the biggest ski race in North America. It is, like the Keskinada, part of the WorldLoppet series, and this year, also part of the F.I.S Marathon Cup. Some describe it simply as the Boston Marathon of cross-country skiing. It is so big and famous, for instance, that one of my traveling partners, when being questioned as to his destination by the US border guards stated simply "We're going to the Birkie!". I guess he figured no other explanation would be required (the border guard thought otherwise).

So, naturally, when I came home on Monday, various acquaintances asked me if everything went smoothly. They were probably expecting an answer along the lines of "yeah, no major problems". If they knew much about the Birkie, they might have predicted the story I am about to tell.

Day One: Met an Italian named Franco on the plane who needed a ride from Minneapolis to Hayward, and wanted to my help. My help! The person who needed the help was me. I was supposed to be picked up by a guy I had never met or talked to before, and I was going to consider it a small miracle if I simply found him. Of course, I agreed to help. My skis arrived, but my boots and every other necessary piece of equipment did not. "No problem", said the airline worker. "We will get you all your things by Monday!". Seeing as the race would take place on Saturday, this was a small problem. Of course, I basically dumped this problem on the very nice guy who had volounteered to pick me up at the airport, along with the task of finding Franco a ride. (A big thanks to Eric Dott and his family!)

Day Two: Started off with a mountain of "cakes" as they call them at the Sawmill Saloon and Eatery for breakfast. The name of the establishment probably gives its character away: Antlers and dead animals on the walls, an abundance of neon, smiling cigarette-smoking waitresses, and the type of breakfast that "stays with ya", as the locals might put it. Spent most of the day trying to find my lost bag, and lining up some borrowed equipment in case my bag were not to arrive. Enjoyed the festivities at the "Pre-Birkie Brat Feed and Frozen Turkey Bowling Event" outside the Sawmill saloon. Too bad it was so warm and the turkeys started to thaw out. Bag arrived at 9pm. Late, but better than having to race with boots that didn't fit and skis stiff enough for Juha Mieto.

Day Three (Race Day): Woke up at 5:30 am to make sure that I made it to the start by 8:20. At the Birkie, this is no small task. There are 7000 people who actually do the race, and about twice that number that watch. Traffic jams in places with names like Seeley, Wisconsin, Unincorparated. (Don't ask me about the unincorporated part, because I don't know). Made it to the start on time. Gun sounded, sheer chaos ensued. No less than 5 crashes and many mangled poles to avoid in the 1st kilometer. A horde of Italians forced a torrid pace that I simply could not match. Apart from this, things went well. I avoided more crashes and broken poles, and made it to the finish in mostly one piece.

Party time! Little did I know that shortly after the finish, precisely half the population of Wisconsin would be congregating at the aforementioned Sawmill Saloon. Here I witnessed great cultural events such as the devouring of pickled turkey gizzards, the not so subtle sampling of West Virginia moonshine, the bare-chested belly shaking of a member of the less than modest snowmobile crowd, not to mention the revving of an enormous Yamaha sled engine virtually inside the saloon. Needless to say, some visitors from Paris, France that I was speaking too were getting a terrific introduction to the heritage and culture of world-famous Wisconsin. Eventually, given, I think to the inhalation both of cigarette smoke and snowmobile exhaust, I decided to call it a night.

To make a long story short, I made is safely back to Ottawa two days later.

To sum up, my trip to the American Birkebeiner this year was more than going to a ski race. Humourous, challenging, adventurous, enlightening, frightening. That is how one might describe it. All worth going back for sometime soon!

A big thanks to Peter Hale, Eric Dott and family, and the rest of the Madshus/Alpina racing team for helping me out in ways too numerous to mention.

 
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