Birkie 2018, As Seen By Jay Wiener…
“… I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.”
So begins “Good Vibrations”, a landmark song by The Beach Boys, one of the iconic American bands of the Rock-and-Roll era.
“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations.
She’s giving me excitations.”
“… I love… the way the sunlight plays upon her hair” reflects the perfection inherent in the beautiful days which were Friday’s Korteloppet and Saturday’s American Birkebeiner, this year. “Good vibrations” and “excitations” abounded.
Last year’s race had to be cancelled owing to a lack of snow. Thus this year marked the first time that the two races were held on successive days and that the Korteloppet finished on Main Street in Hayward which, to my way of thinking, is the best finish to any one of the Worldloppet marathons: To travel several blocks down a wide thoroughfare and hear one’s name announced to the assembled crowd watching, as one approaches the finish line, is a fitting conclusion to an admirable effort.
There was a snowfall on Thursday evening and again overnight after the Saturday race, but both race days were suffused with golden sunlight.
It was cold at the start of the American Birkebeiner, approximately minus 12 Celsius. The hallmark of the race, under the leadership of Ben Popp, has been a commitment to improving the infrastructure. The only other race which has so demonstrably done the same is the Marcialonga, under the leadership of Angelo Corradini. This is not to say that other race organizations do not operate optimally; only that these two races have invested in their future as none of the others have seemingly pursued. The new building in which to gather at the start line, the Tony Wise Museum of the American Birkebeiner, and the International Bridge, over U.S. Highway 63, into Main Street, evidence what occurs when leaders look towards a brighter future rather than satisfy themselves that what worked in the past provides an adequate future.
There were separate sequential start groups for both the Skate and the Classic races on Saturday. The two follow separate tracks for most of the first half of the race. Then they proceed simultaneously. The five-minute delay in sending out each start group creates a reasonable interval so that skiers are not on top of each other, early in the race. It was, more or less, the right amount of time for preparing to depart the start area.
This year, for whatever reason, I was in Skate Start Group Six. I enjoyed the privilege immensely: I cannot recall when I have seen such bad skiing and enjoyed endlessly good laughs. Many of the racers skied as if they were obese, moving onto each ski without rotating their bodies, with no weight transfer or placement of one’s hip upon the corresponding ski: from ski to ski without moving one’s body.
And poles: Keep them at shoulder or eye level to maximize destructive potential if one should fall. Some of the skiers even turned them outward, one meter from each shoulder, offering opportunity to amplify any destruction.
One cannot operate an automobile without being licensed. Why there is no direction for beginner skiers to learn how to participate in mass start races, with countless other racers around one, both as to technique and etiquette is beyond me. Even if they knew right from wrong, it would not hurt to provide pointers “to raise the bar”, incrementally.
After my recent broken finger (which did not occur during a race, I might add), I am all too focused upon how quickly and easily accidents happen. All efforts to avoid them should be undertaken. People are vulnerable, and they can be injured. Everything possible ought to be done to avoid carnage on the racecourse.
The first half of the Skate Race was on loose snow that had the consistently of powdered sugar, at a depth of 15-20 centimeters. It was no fun: slow going. Then, magically, things improved.
The feed stations were, by and large, topnotch. Volunteers were friendly, helpful, and seemed to be well-trained. Drinks were distinguishable by different cups. To be able to do so is immensely useful (HOWEVER: It would be helpful, if online, in race information printings, at the race bib distribution, and / or at the starting area, to orient skiers prior to the race: Otherwise it takes several feed stations before one figures out what drink is in what cup). Names should be somewhat standardized: I know what Gatorade and Nuun are but, if I was from elsewhere and unused to the names of North American sports drinks, I might miss that they are the equivalent of Enervit and “Energy” — and vice-versa.
The race admirably offered energy gel at every feed station but, at most of the middle ones, the supply had been exhausted. Whether that reflects poor planning or a higher demand than is anticipated is irrelevant: Every race organization needs to understand an important reality: Unless there is a discount to be paid for in the back of the racecourse, everything offered at the front of the race should be provided to everyone, without exception or dissembling. It is more tiring to stay out longer, especially on cold days or during inclement weather, and there is an fundamental disconnect when race organizations lose sight of that truth. Fortunately there was energy gel available at the final feed stations.
It was not my most energetic start, but I became stronger and stronger as the race progressed. My times reflect that fact.
Around 40 kilometers, when I knew that nothing would eclipse my completion of the race — not even the pain from the brace on my hand, which was overly tight and constructing the outside edge of my hand, I turned a corner and — Voila! — I espied Bib Number 14422. The carrot at the end of the stick, the fourteenth Worldloppet Master certification awaiting me at the Birkie Office in Hayward, became palpable; as if a sign from the heavens. I hurried onward, to my “rendezvous with destiny”. Every racebib beginning with 14 (the 4th Start Group of the Classic Race) was a reminder thereafter: Notwithstanding my broken finger that delayed the accomplishment by three weeks, from the König Ludwig Lauf (the site of my first Worldloppet Master, Number 1442) to the American Birkebeiner, I would succeed: That unlucky number, Number Thirteen, would be put to rest and hopefully, with it, the bad luck that plagued me, this season.
Down the hill to the lake and into Hayward, in the final kilometers, I skated energetically, utilizing resources which have seemingly eluded me in past. A slow beginning but, having saved energy for the end, I was no longer among Start Group Six and Seven Skate Skiers exclusively but among Start Group Four and Five Skate Skiers and Start Group Three and Four Classic Skiers; continually passing people until I arrived in the finish area.
One of the great achievements of Northwest Wisconsin — and, if the truth be known, across the Worldloppet circuit — is the local people who welcome visitors from elsewhere into their homes and into their hearts. A reception to honor those offering such hospitality ought to occur, a month before or after each race (preferably the former, in order to turbocharge such munificence), at each and every venue — with an eye to encouraging everyone, everywhere, to want to be a part of it.
My hosts, year after year, Mary and Jim Krook awaited me at the finish line. We went from there to the Birkie Office, where I obtained my fourteenth Worldloppet Master. Ronda Tworek, Director of Volunteer and Participant Services, and Cindy Zsohar, the recently retired staff member who sold innumerable Worldloppet Passports to me over many years, made a BIG fuss over my accomplishment — but, HEY, race organizations, make a BIG fuss over everyone: Nothing better can be done to endear a race organization to customers than the linchpin of good service, customer satisfaction.
I also enjoyed interfacing with wonderful Chad Gregg, whose sister-in-law Caitlin Gregg won the Women’s Race, the first individual to win five Birkie Championships. I LOVE Caitlin (and her husband Brian): Lots of individuals are champions, but how many of them are humble, approachable, and possessed of the basic humanity to demonstrate how everyone ought to act? Caitlin is one of those rare individuals who everyone aspires to be. Her charitable work with inner-city kids who do not have the athletic opportunities that children of privilege enjoy is not well-known or publicized: Caitlin and Brian are not engaging in that work for the publicity that it might bring to them: They are “the real deal”, and the sporting community ought to applaud the positive image that they provide to all of us!
Afterward leaving the Birkie Office, I accompanied Mary and Jim to four o’clock Mass at their church home, Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church. It was a fitting conclusion to the day: I gave thanks for completing the race, for the healing of my broken finger, and for obtaining my fourteenth Worldloppet Master — the only American to have done so and only the sixth person on the planet. I wish that there would be an equivalent opportunity to sing “Hosanna in the Highest” at every race! It felt great!
Afterwards Mary, Jim, and I went to dinner and then home.
I cannot conclude without offering one more “prayer of Thanksgiving”. There are a lot of great sports shops across the Worldloppet venues. Both New Moon and Riverbrook in Hayward rank high among them. In recent years, Chris Young at New Moon has “hung the moon and stars” and aligned the stars to assist this skier arriving at the eleventh hour from afar, as many of us do.
Chris, I cannot acknowledge or thank you enough!!!
Other venues take note (especially the Gatineauloppet after Pecco’s recently ceased operating after forty-six years): Worldloppet races have to be oriented to skiers travelling long distances from elsewhere, often overseas. They cannot be run as if everyone lives nearby. May lightening strike you dead if you don’t get it: DO NOT TELL ALL SKIERS THAT THEIR SKIS HAVE TO BE IN HAND BEFORE OUT-OF-TOWNERS ARRIVE AND EXPECT TO BE TREATED AS A SERIOUS INTERNATIONAL ATHLETIC EVENT. Such suggestion is delusional. Everyone knows better. People talk. You WILL pay a high price for acting contrarily: GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER.
Foreigners will not attend races at venues that do not respect them. Why would they?
That was not the attitude at the 2018 American Birkebeiner.
“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations.
She’s giving me excitations.”
ed: Sunday, 3/4/18, Jay completed the Swedish Vasaloppet marking the 20th anniversary of his first World Loppet finish.