Friday, February 26, 2021

On the Eve of my 14th Birkie, Reminiscing on my First

I skied my first Birkie in 2004, the day after I turned 19.

Me with my Birkie Finisher's medal.

The Birkie was my second ever ski marathon, having done the 58 km distance at the Mora Vasaloppet just two weeks earlier. At the time I was a freshman on the University of Minnesota Nordic Ski Club. Although we were “just a club” there were several serious skiers in the group, most of them male. Every year the team did a week trip over the winter break to the Birkie Trail. Homesick my freshman year, I opted to stay in Bemidji and didn't do nearly the skiing my teammates did.

We drove a 15-passenger van to the Birkie on Friday evening (my birthday). There were three freshman girls in the van and eight boys. One of the girls stayed with her parents and that left two of us freshman girls with eight boys in a northwoods hunting cabin. I recall thinking this situation seemed a bit sketchy but I wasn’t too worried. The conversation in the van ride was lively and made me fret quite a bit about the race. That and the fact that I became acutely aware I had missed skiing the Birkie at age 18 and this would delay my Birchleggings.

Even though these guys were barely old enough to ski the Birkie themselves, it was clear there would be many, many, many future Birchleggers before age 40 in this posse.

Then the conversation turned to the hills. The guys started talking about all the hills that began almost immediately on the “Powerlines” and far into the race there was one called “Bitch Hill.” Aside from the one marathon I’d skied, my longest skis had only been 25 kilometers. I had never skied on the legendary Birkie Trail but I was amongst a bunch of “expert” Birkie skiers. And I wasn’t looking forward to all those uphills.

The other freshman girl, Meleah [Murphy] had made State in skiing twice. She’d also been on the team trip and so had skied on the Birkie Trail. 

Meleah finishing her second Birkie in 2005.

So who were these guys?

There was Erik [Pieh], two years my senior and one of the numerous Mechanical Engineering majors on the team. This was actually his first Birkie and he would be skiing out of Wave 10 along with me and Maleah, but he had skied extensively on the Birkie Trail previously. He had skied the Mora Vasaloppet half an hour faster than me and so I had some wishful thoughts that maybe I wouldn’t be too far behind him.

Erik skiing his second Birkie in 2005 from Wave 2.
 

There was Dave [Anderson], a year older than me and an Electrical Engineering major. No one seemed to like Dave much. I forget if he had previously skied the Birkie, but he had also at least been skiing on the Birkie Trail and was in a higher wave so likely. He also skied the Mora Vasaloppet near Erik’s time and always said bad things about women so I was in the process of making it my life goal to beat him in a ski race. 

Dave, far left, in his U of M Ski jacket. Hmmm...I didn't save any photos of Dave skiing back in college...love you Dave!
 

There was James [Bischoff], two years my senior and another Mechanical Engineering major (although he was in the process of switching to Biology with plans to become a pharmacist). James was a decent skier and would be skiing out of Wave 1. He was full of encouragement but talked the most about the never-ending hills, especially those on the “Powerlines.” 

James at the finish of the Birkie.



There was Per [Batdorf], also a freshman but who had made it to State skiing for Duluth East and brother to the notorious Bjorn Batdorf. The previous year Per hadn’t yet turned 18 but raced the Korte pretty hard earning a Wave 1 start (or so the story goes that Bjorn raced Per pretty hard to where the old Korte cut back to Telemark). 

Per skiing the Mora Vasaloppet.


There was Jason [Liebsch], also a freshman and brother of Matt. He had also skied either the Korte or Birkie the previous year and would be skiing from Wave 1. 

 

Mat and Jason racing the Slush Rush in combo uniforms circa 2004.



There was Travis [Hinck], an Electrical Engineering major two years my senior who had placed 2nd in the Mora Vasaloppet Classic race two weeks prior. He was skiing out of the Elite Wave and the previous year had found Silvio Fauner lined up behind him at the start. He kindly let Silvio start in front of him. After the Birkie that year Travis would say numerous times “I can’t believe we skied under 2:30” while lamenting about finishing a place off 69th. 


Travis coming off Hayward Lake in the 2005 Birkie.

There was Bjorn [Batdorf], a Microbiology Major one year my senior, and former state champion. He was the guy the good male skiers on my high school team talked about on the back of the bus. Also skiing from the Elite Wave, he would place 51st in 2004.


Bjorn skiing the Birkie in 2005 from 51st place.

And then there was Matt [Liebsch], an Electrical Engineering major one year my senior. He needs no introduction. He talked about waxing and ski flex and hot boxing and how to beat the Italians whenever James wasn’t talking about the hills. The year before Matt had his break-out race skiing to 38th in the Birkie. He hoped to better his place this year. 

Matt skiing the Birkie in 2004, Bib #38


I felt like a naive rookie. I had a fitful night of sleep thinking about all those hills. By the time I got to the start of Wave 10, well over an hour after all those good guys had started on course, the conditions were bad. On the downhills I chose my snow-plowed out lane and tried not to fall on the ice. I got in line to wait to ski uphills. The kilometers somehow ticked by faster than I'd ever skied previously. Meleah had gotten ahead of me but as we neared Bitch Hill, I reeled her in and eventually pulled away. By the time I got to the road crossing at Hwy 77, a volunteer said to me “wow, you are skiing so fast, I think you will move up a wave.” Fortunately at that point, having passed most Wave 9, Wave 8, Wave 7, and Wave 6 skiers, I knew I would be moving up much more than one wave. I eventually finished in 3:36, a time which qualified me for Wave 3. 

Skiing up Main Street to finish my first Birkie!

My teammates, who had been done for hours by the time I crossed the finish line, were all very supportive and told me I had skied well. But compared to the talent in that van, I felt slow. I’ve always been a competitive person and I wanted more. I wanted to ski sub 3 hours and make Elite Wave. I bought rollerskis and began training like a skier. It took me 8 Birkies and switching to classic technique to finally qualify for Elite Wave.

Looking back, I was awestruck by not only the talent, but the dedication. Now 17 years later (holy crap- 17 years have passed!), I’m up to Birkie # 14 after the tour in 2007 didn’t count, 2017 was cancelled, and I missed three while living in New York. Erik is also only on Birkie #14 but all the guys above except the “brothers” have amassed an impressive number of Birkies. Indeed, these guys are about to ski their 18th and 19th Birkies and would already be Birchleggers save for the couple years that didn’t count.

Obviously, this is an impressive number of Birkies that came from that van of maroon and gold stars and stripes 17 years ago. 

 

Someone who shall not be named got a little turned around one year at the start of the City of Lakes Loppet!


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