Birkebeiner reflections

It has been almost 40 years since I first tackled the Norwegian Birkebeiner, carrying symbolically then the endangered 5.5 kilo infant Norsk king in my rucsac to escape the marauding hordes from the East – a land since called Sweden. Since its creation 73 years ago, the Birkebeiner has become the big “Daddy” of the World’s veteran xcty ski races!

Yesterday, I was amongst some 16,000 annually commemorating this event, racing on xcty skis over 54 kms of mountainous terrain, trying valiantly to finish under the maximum “merk” time for their 5 year age groups, calculated by averaging the five fastest times in the group and adding 25 %. The “merk” typically is reached by approximately the top 20% of the field, the remaining finishers having to content themselves with simply having done it. That in itself however means one more Birkebeiner tick, adding up to attractive trophies every ten completions. Yesterday, I received my 10th completed Birkebeiner engraved glass plate and also my tenth “merk” trophy! Always getting the “merk” in my ten races was the important trophy. So would have been more podium placings, which through heavy attrition over this past decade brought the podium tantalizingly close. However, this was only once achieved – a second place in my first 80th year, backed off to 4th in this my third year in the 80+ group, beaten by three of the “newboys” entered into this year’s grouping. Not unexpected – speed deteriorates very swiftly with advancing age!

When I first entered the Birkebeiner, I was in my 40’s, blood coursing easily to my muscles, with lungs and heart beat quite able to push the oxygen through as required. Thus, even with still much left to learn technically, I negotiated the distance that first time in 3 hours and 47 minutes. Yesterday with much effort I arrived in 4.58. Only an hour and a bit longer, however under yesteryear’s conditions and equipment, carrying 2 more kilos than today’s 3.5 kilos, and skiing 2 kms longer, Saturday’s ski would surely have taken closer to 6 hours.
Chronology takes its toll. Anything requiring physical effort, with the heart having to beat more slowly while attempting to push oxygen through increasingly restrictive blood vessels, the energy part of the equation lessons and we simply slow down. Add to this, an increasing unwillingness to endure pain or even discomfort, completes the recipe for diminishing performance.

There is also the matter of ego. Our memories vividly remember the way it was. As we oldies ( women over 65 and men over 70 ), starting at 0730 – 30 minutes before the fastest wave, graft away on the back side of the power curve, and wave after wave of younger skiers float by us, our minds tell us how pathetic we have become. Small wonder that competitiveness requiring exertion quite naturally wanes. In the 2015 Birkebeiner, registrations in the five year age groups reduced from almost 1500 between 50 – 54 to 28 for the 80+ grouping, the attrition rapidly increasing with age! Fortunately however, those left in the struggle represent the hard core and so the competition is still keen throughout the years.

Through some combination of mind and body, surely a time should come in every active elderly person’s life to face the reality of the future, mapping a new way forward compatible with one’s goals. “Extreme” should change to “maintenance mode” and new endeavours within this envelope brought into play.

This “watershed” moment has arrived for me. At almost 82, I feel the pull of “maintenance mode” just as I feel the need for new activities and direction. I want to apply myself to my memoirs. Other directions as well which the training and racing graft of recent years have severely impeded. Time to smell the roses!

All that said, my 10 Birkebeiner trips over a span of some 40 years have been a gauge of my well-being through my middle ages and I wouldn’t have exchanged the package for anything else. Winter is the time of year when I can get my body back into shape through xcty skiing – a very pleasurable activity for the entire body in mother nature – this year in Switzerland, Canada (BC, Ontario and Quebec) and Norway, not some local, fausty gym. And the Birkebeiner was the incentive. Typically 100 hours + of xcty ski training in a season in advance of the big event. The Birkebeiner throws everything at the skier from extreme cold to wet, from sleet, rain and snow to wind but also glorious sunshine. In its over 1300 metres of vertical climb from a few hundred metres above sea level to exposed, above tree line conditions, the weather extremes are as varied as the landscape, dotted with thousands of well-wishers egging one on. One’s body and mind match these extremes from sheer highs to deep lows. For me my nemesis was always the foreboding 300 metre climb from the Kvarstad mid-way point over the next 7 km to a plateau. This time powerless muscles ached and legs began to cramp. “Puff” evaporated and the hordes kept floating by! No light in the tunnel, however finally I got over the top and the Sjusjoen mountain hamlet came into distant view. The worst was over. The pace picked up and in no time I arrived at the wild, 600 metre vertical descent over the last 12 KMs towards the “Mal”. The “smell of the barn” inspired the body to new effort and daring as skiers spewed over the track, crashing into trees and each other, all somehow avoided at knife-edge speed. Then sheer euphoria as the sounds of the “Mal” enveloped my senses as I rushed madly up the final 2 Km undulations to complete.

That was yesterday – in brilliant sunshine! After the prior day’s fog, rain, snow and wind, the overnight temperature dropped to –10. Just in time! The tracks were firm, although sometimes partially filled with wind drift new snow forcing those with skis like mine, prepared with a klister base, to ski often between the tracks. Otherwise – a perfect day!
My first Birkebeiner started with a knock-down within seconds of the gun. Yesterday, having survived everything the track could throw at me, when negotiating the final downhill curve into the stadium I flipped over the bank attempting to avoid a skier crashing immediately ahead of me. Interminable moments before someone in the crowd understood my plea to help get me back up on my skis! The first one fell in the effort however finally three of us managed it. Ninety seconds was all it took to slip off the podium into 4th place.
What with a crash at both ends of my 40 year span of Birkebeiners, surely no better time to call it a dayl!
Bye Bye Birkebeiner. I did (mostly) enjoy the rides, etched in my memory bank!

Victor Emery
March 21, 2015