My Birkiebeiner Adventure

The American Birkebeiner is an amazing experience and I will not soon forget it. It was only 4 years ago that I took up cross country skiing as a way to augment winter fitness/health.  In that time, I have kicked those skis a few thousand miles, learning all I can about cross country skiing while racking up the nerve to ski the “Greatest Show on Snow”, also known as the Great American Birkiebeiner. Last year I finally got the nerve to sign up for the legendary race only to learn that registration had closed just days prior because the American Birkebeiner is so awesome that it fills up fast. So, this year, I signed up early despite the fact my knee was still in the early stages of recovering from an injury that has now sidelined me for the better part of half a year. So earlier this year when I signed up for the race, skiing was completely out of the question because I couldn’t even walk at that point. But I entered anyhow with the hopes that my knee would fully heal in the following few months. I really had no way of knowing if the knee would be good enough to ski on by race day or not, but I figured it would give it my best try. I did everything I could to help it heal, like wearing a brace all day, everyday, for months now, even at night when I sleep. I also remained somewhat optimistic that if the knee wasn’t 100% by race day, that my heavy duty carbon fiber “Don Joy” brace would be up to the task of holding the knee joint securely in place long enough for me to finish the race… Thinking about all the possibility’s in the weeks prior the race actually left me with a few nightmares of how ugly it could all turn out if my knee didn’t hold up and was re-injured, costing me more missed work, more missed future adventures, injury that increase the need for surgery, etc… I really didn’t know how it would workout and some of it actually scared me, but my stubbornness and desire to conquer the Birkie overwhelmed my desire to sit it out. Talk about pre-race jitters…

I couldn’t be 100% sure I would regret my decision to sign up for this race, but I was 100% sure I would always regret the decision to not try. I had recently re-injured the knee on several different occasions that resulted in me being unable to bear weight on it so I knew that what I was hoping for was somewhat of a miracle but I remained optimistic the knee would be strong enough in time. In the months leading up to the event, I was unable to ski anything other than easy tracks out on the flats because everything else resulted in pain and swelling. So in the months leading up to the Birkie I remained more focused on protecting my knee so it could heal, then training for what lie ahead. I knew that wishing for miracles wasn’t the best race plan, but it was the best I could come up with under the circumstances.  Some of my thoughts leading into the race led me to believe the downhill sections would be the most problematic for my knee, but as it turns out, the opposite was true. Going up the hills proved the most challenging and I believe this fact had just as much to do with my choice of skies, as it did the fact I was skiing on an unstable knee joint held in place only by a brace…

 I had brought two pair of skis with me to the race , one with wax and one with skinz… I thought long and hard prior about what ski would be best suited for the hilly course before making a bad guess. With temps forecast to hit mid-high forties I was worried I would have trouble getting any glide skiing klister/wax because I knew it might pick up all the crap left on the trail from the thousands of skiers that would be in front of me, killing my glide (my experience skiing Vasaloppet). So at the last minute I chose skinz over wax and I think this proved to be a huge mistake because within just a few short miles my skinz had no kick inside or outside of the tracks. My glide on the other hand was INCREDIBLE… I was able to double pole well on flat terrain but there was very little flat terrain on the course. Wasn’t long before it seemed like all I was doing was climbing. The downhills were very fast, resulting in a quick trip back to the bottom of another hill. I was forced to herringbone up hills that I would normally kick my way right up and this quickly took its toll on my knee. The downhills continued to be wicked fast, while the uphills were a complete icy grind due to no kick/grip.

The glide on my skis was incredible so at least I got something right. Glide was so fast that I had to use a lot of caution, waiting for others to clear out of my way on the downhills to prevent running right them right over. This was the fastest my skies have ever been. If it would have been flat to downhill all the way to Hayward I would have done well… I had no trouble passing lots people on the downhills, but then they would pass me going up the next hill as they kicked it hard while I was forced to herringbone and claw my way to the top. For every fun, wicked, descent came another long climb back up to the top and my knee was not holding up well to that all climbing without the aid of any grip/kick from the ski… There were a couple downhill sections where my knee briefly complained as I dug in the ski edges with everything I had, trying to stay on the trail through some steeper sections that had slight curves/turns midway down the hills that were way too fast to ride/hang in the tracks. But aside from just a couple times the knee complained on the downhill when I dug in really hard, most of what was bothering it was all the endless herringbone up those hills.

On some of the downhill sections it was all I could do to miss other skiers. The trails were loaded with people and many wiped out on the downhill sections. I managed to navigate around a few unlucky skiers that were sprawled out on the downhills and I count myself lucky that I was able to remain on my skis as I narrowly got around them. At one point, I had to yell at a guy, “either move or brace for impact”. He was laying down in the middle of the only part of the trail I knew I could hang on too as I rocked down the hill… I had no other options and was moving way to fast to stop. He rolled out of the way just as I flew by, narrowly missing being run over by me. It was a close call and had he not have heard me yell and  looked up to see me coming down that hill as he rolled out of the way, the collision would most certainly  have sent me off the trail and into the trees at a high rate of speed.

Not far from the start, I did became part of one pile up on the section of trail that parallels the power lines but otherwise I remained on my skis through all the challenging downhills. The pile up on the power lines was caused more by congestion then steep conditions. There were slower people in front of me on the tracks I was skiing when I noticed the far left tracks were wide open as I crested a hill looking down. One other guy saw the same opportunity as well and jumped over into the left tracks ahead of me and started double poling hard down the hill. I thought he looked fast enough and far enough ahead that I wouldn’t catch him and run him over so jumped into the same tracks and followed suit, grabbing as much speed as I could, hoping to carry that speed up and over the next hill but it didn’t go as planned. Because my skies had faster glide than his, I caught right up to the guy and was only inches from his skis when he somehow tripped and landed on his face only a foot or two in front of me. I had no where to go other then over him, wiping me out in the process and somewhat causing a bit of a cascading pile up with a few others who couldn’t miss and piled in. Fortunately, that was my only crash of the day and It caused zero injuries other than a slight injury to my now slightly bent pole…

Not sure where but at some point out there my knee started signaling me with some pretty hard/sharp pains that I could no longer ignore. It started becoming ever more obvious that my knee wasn’t going to tolerate much more of this. I was becoming more worried that these protests of pain would be followed with more pain and swelling lasting for weeks/months as it did before, leading once again to muscle disengagement and leaving me unable to walk/bear weight. In the past months of dealing with this injury, I have learned the hard way that the warnings leading to the point of not being able to walk are subtle and few. So at that point of the race I knew full well I was really pushing my luck. I have already lost weeks of work with this injury because I wasn’t able to walk, so going into this I had planned on bailing if the knee started giving off signs it couldn’t handle the race. So now here I was, knowing I needed to call it off, but none of the of those reasons I was calling it off made the decision to call it off any easier. Fact is, it was really hard to take myself out of the race. Part of me knows I could have crawled my way to that finish line… But at what cost…?

I really felt like a complete looser for quitting, there is no denying that. I don’t like being a quitter and nothing stings more, no matter the reason behind it. At that point, my pride is hurt more than then my knee but It its been hurt before and I know it will get over it much faster then my knee. I made my way to the short bus with the rest of the wounded, and deep down knew I made the right decision. After all, this entire journey is supposed to be about my health and nothing benefits our health when allow our brains to override the pain, pushing through… I used to think that pushing through the pain somehow made me tougher, but today I know better. Listing to our body so we can live and fight another day is what makes us tougher…

I set out to see the greatest show on snow and this I did. I wanted to finish that course in the worst way, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year and not because I didn’t give it a good try under the circumstances. Next year will be a whole new story and I will conquer the Birkie. Mean time I will continue rehabbing this knee while planning more epic life adventures to keep this heart healthy.   No matter the mental anguish caused by quitting, I remain grateful for this humbling life experience no matter the temporary mark on my pride and I will try again next year using the lessons learned… At the end of the day, with all this focus on my knee, I almost forgot how grateful I am for the strength of my once wounded heart… I will take a blown out knee any day over a failing heart…

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