Monday, February 28, 2011

Birkie Brrrrrrrr!

Have you ever set a long term goal?  I've been working on one specific goal since 1989.  I am slowly working towards the notable achievement of being a Birch Leggings member of the American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon.  To become a member of this inspiring group of fit skiers, one must complete 20 full Birkebeiner ski races.  The race is held once a year.  Therefore, it takes a minimum of 20 years of hard training, dedicated racing, a lot of equipment and plenty of traveling.  Then, you must have some good luck to not be ill or have sick children on race day.  Finally, there is the weather.  Occasionally, Mother Nature wins the Birkie by melting the snow or freezing the faces, toes and fingers of the participants.

My first Birkie was in 1989.  My room-mate, Tracy and I bought skis on the Wednesday before the race and took an American Youth Hostel bus up to the race.  We didn't know how to ski, and although I gave it a good effort, I missed the cut-off time at the half-way point by 90 seconds and they took my chip and pulled me off the course.  Birkie 1, Chris 0. 

Birkie 1990.  After a winter of working to learn to skate ski, I completed my first Birkie.  This was one of the "cold" Birkies - with sub-zero temperatures and even lower wind chills.  I was ecstatic to finish the race after my 1989 DNF.  But when I got my boots off, my right foot was swollen and black and my left was halfway black.  Frostbite.  My right foot was numb for almost ten years as the nerves slowly repaired.  But this year, I earned my first Birkie finish and the sweet medal that goes with it.

Birkies 1991 and 1992 went by without incident.  I got faster and broke the 4 hour mark.  No more frostbite.  Just a glitch in the busing that got me and most skiers to the race start at Rosie's Field twenty minutes after my wave had taken off.  And in 1992, the race switched directions, now starting at Telemark Resort and finishing on Hayward's Main Street, an improvement.  I earned my 2nd and 3rd Birkies.

Birkie 1993.  I was skiing and racing in January while attempting to work, go to Northwestern for graduate school and student teach.  Not surprisingly, I got mono.  It just about killed me to be a spectator for Jeff at the race that year - as I was too tired to even think about skiing.

Birkie 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997.  I earned my 4th-7th Birkie pins in all kinds of weather including the 1996 tropical race that finished in 50 degree weather with an ungroomed trail.

Birkie 1998 - the weather took its toll and melted the second half of the trail.  The race was cut in half, but those of us who had signed up for the Birkie were given credit for the full race.  The half race ended up being a quick sprint to OO with my skiing buddy Shelley in record time.  Birkie 8 was pinned to my medal.

1999 - My first pregnancy was only weeks old.  My doctor said that it might be OK to ski, but how would I feel if it wasn't OK?  I didn't ski and found myself spectating for Jeff once again.

2000.  After working incredibly hard to get back into shape after my daughter was born AND bringing my in-laws and baby up with us to the race, Mother Nature intervened with high temperatures all week and heavy flooding thunderstorms on the day before the race.  We literally watched the snowy trail melt before our eyes and the race was cancelled by the evening newscast.  No Birkie once again for me or anyone else.

2001.  After three years without racing the full distance, I was anxious to complete the journey to Hayward once again.  Mother Nature said, "Ha!" and sent about a foot of snow on race day.   This made the trail the slowest and hardest skiing possible.  Times were 45 minutes slower than usual and I cried tears of relief when I made it to the finish line.  Birkie 9 was in the books.

2002.  Baby number two was born a month early in January with an emergency C-section.  We were moving the next week.  Jeff and I both skipped the Birkie that year out of absolute necessity.

2003.  There was no snow in Chicago that winter.  We made due with exactly four trips to the local downhill ski area to do hill repeats and dodge snow boarders.  Fortunately, the weather and conditions were fast that year and Jeff and I both had good races.  I got my 10 year Birkie pin and plaque. 

2004, 2005, 2006.  These were good years with strong races and good times.  Birkie 11, 12 and 13 for me.

2007 - Mother Nature stepped in again and melted the southern half of the course.  The northern half of the course was coated with two inches of ice.  The race director declared the course unsafe for racing and eliminated timing for all but the elite racers.  We were allowed to start whenever we wished and finished at OO.  Jeff and Bob and I skied together and had a great time!  Birkie 14 pin on my lapel.

2008, 2009, 2010.  Birkies 15, 16 and 17 came and went without too much struggle.  The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm in the 20s.  The course was firm and fast.  Life was good for the skiers especially in 2009 and 2010.

So, Saturday was Birkie 2011.  At race start, the temperatures were -12 F.  90 minutes into the race, temperatures were still at -8 F.  Despite wearing my warmest gear, hand warmers and my trusty balaclava, at kilometer 17, I was frozen and hypothermic.  My face was frosty with ice, my eyelashes were clumped with ice, my hands and feet were numb and I was shivering in my core.  With the decade that I couldn't feel my right foot still fresh in my memory, I was very, very tempted to pull out at an aid station and get in a warming tent.  But the drive to become a Birchlegger was stronger.  I am planning to get that beautiful purple bib in 2013 if at all possible.  So, I skied on.  I welcomed every hill and charged up them at full speed in an attempt to warm up.  My mantra was, "I can do this.  I will do this."  I was focused on purple and I kept skiing.

Although my race was slow and uncomfortable, I won my battle with the Brrrrr Birkie.  I crossed that finish line and got my 18th Birkie pin.  All for that darn goal - a goal that I started working towards 23 Birkies ago.  A goal that I started when I was 23 years old and if lucky, will finish at age 47 - more than half of my lifetime.  It's hard to explain how I will feel when I earn that honor.  But I am sure that I will be looking to become an Uberlegger - a skier who has completed 30 Birkies and gets a beautiful golden race bib!

1 comment:

Jennifer Harrison said...

Hey Chris! I have enjoyed reading and keeping up to date w/ you on the Birkie - what a HUGE accomplishment each year - and this 18th Birkie - congrats to you both...and here's to more! :))