Ah, the age old question, “why do we (insert endurance activity here)?” Spectators on the side of the course or trail look at the field of endurance athletes with a sense of bewildered awe. I cannot count how many times I’ve been asked, “why do you do something that causes so much pain?” Whether it be running, skiing, cycling, inline skating or any other form of marathon, there is no doubt that a serious amount of suffering goes on while on the course. What’s the point? The average long distance athlete gets little to no recognition for their achievements other than an announcement at the finish line and maybe a few mid-race pictures that capture the moments leading up to a hard-core bonk. These athletes then typically get a finisher medal, t-shirt, and a pat on the back of a loved one before making their way back to where they came from. Sounds glamorous right? Of course not. It’s brutal, painful, and negligible. With this being said, why do thousands of people come out to Hayward, Wisconsin for the American Birkiebeiner? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Birkie, it is the largest ski marathon in the United States. It runs from Cable, to a downtown finish in Hayward 50 or 55 kilometers later (depending on if you are skate or classic skiing, respectively).
My 2020 Birkie experience started at 3:55 AM on the morning of the race. I woke up, ate some oatmeal, then headed to the chartered bus that would take me and other Duluth-based skiers to the starting line. Once there, I took a quick nap, ate some more carbohydrate-filled food, and got ready to race. My skis were exceptionally fast; I had hit the wax just right. In the corral before the start, I went through the race plan in my head. I knew where I wanted to take Gu packets, knew where I wanted to take it easy, and knew where to put the pedal to the medal. The guns went off, and so did the rest of us. Coming out of Wave 1, the lead entire lead pack had one thing on our minds: catch the Elite Wave. After about 6 kilometers, we caught our first Elite skiers and continued passing them until the end. I took the first 23 kilometers pretty conservatively, grabbing Gu and hydrating every chance I got. After hitting the unofficial halfway point at Highway 00, I started making moves to get myself in a better position for the flats and downhills that were coming up. I was feeling great as I started working my way up towards the front of the Wave 1 group. I took control of a group of 4 skiers heading into the last aid station. We worked with each other up the last of the big hills before making our way down to the infamous Lake Hayward, roughly 4 kilometers from the finish.
Picture Credit: skinnyski.com
Our group tore across the lake and headed into town with a full head of steam. The Main Street crowds roared as we jump-skated up the international bridge. The 5 of us all wanted to cross the line first. Our muscles were burning a hellish fire that only a small percentage of humans have experienced before. Our breath came out in short wheezes as we skated the last 300 meters to the finish. The way the fans were cheering, you would have thought we were Olympic skiers duking it out for a gold medal. With 100 meters to go, my tunnel vision tightened. Nothing else mattered. In that moment, life was perfect. Time stopped, the crowd noise ceased, and nothing else was relevant. I crossed the finish line in a heap of skis, poles, and free Kemps Chocolate Milk. The 5 of us congratulated each other after a very close finish, and went our separate ways. I looked down at my watch and let out an exasperated, yet audible “Yessssss.” I beat my goal time by 7 minutes and was roughly 40 minutes faster than the previous year.
Words could not describe my emotions at that time. Exhausted? Yes. Ecstatic? Absolutely. Relieved? Also yes. My training had paid off. I had prepared myself over the course of 10 months for this very moment. It worked. There was a reason I woke up early in the summer to get my rollerski miles in. There was a reason I stayed at the gym until 9:30 PM working on balance and coordination. The reason was so I could stand at the finish line of the American Birkebinder saying “I did it.”
That, folks, is why we do this to ourselves. It isn’t necessarily for fame, fortune, or popularity (in the ski world, few actually achieve any of these things). It is for The Feeling of overwhelming satisfaction and relief after accomplishing the goals we worked so hard for. The Feeling of reaching that light at the end of the tunnel. The Feeling of finally nabbing the carrot dangling right in front of our faces. Yes it is painful, yes the training can be brutal, yes I felt like giving up multiple times during the summer because I didn’t think I could do it. It is at this point, whether it is in the middle of a 60 kilometer rollerski or in the middle of some threshold intervals, that you think of The Feeling. The Feeling at the finish line knowing you put everything you had on the line. The Feeling of elation when you look at your watch and realize you could have been 7 minutes slower and still met your goal. That Feeling. Some people experience this Feeling differently than others, but we all feel it.
After about 15 minutes, this Feeling fades and is replaced by another…