“Birkebeiner, Redux”

Tomorrow, North America’s largest cross-country ski race, The American Birkebeiner, will be held, despite–as I may have mentioned once or twice–a general lack of snow in the region. Race organizers have abbreviated the course, and only the elite athletes will actually be skiing a competitive, timed race, but, heck, such decisions have salvaged the thing.

Meteorological word has it, too, that The Big One is on the way, so all skiiers tomorrow, whether timed or not, may benefit from a dumpage of new snow.

For this big weekend, I’m going to recycle a post from some months back, when only one person read my blog instead of the large masses of seventeen who now do; it features my favorite Birkie story.

Here ya go:

Let me tell you the tale of an old college acquaintance–let’s call him Joe-O. Now Joe-O is a character in and of himself; he’s strident about leaving the smallest “footprint” he can on the planet, to the point that he only buys in bulk, composts everything, and, if he does create some small amount of garbage, he just burns it every few weeks. When he lived 30 miles from his job, that was not enough to make him drive a car…instead, he viewed the 60-mile daily bicycle commute as an opportunity for fitness. In addition to biking, Joe-O is a fan of all silent sports, cross-country skiing, in particular. For more than a decade now, he’s been into ski racing, with his season capped off by racing the American Birkebeiner, held in the Cable/Hayward, Wisconsin, area every February.

Many of you are doubtlessly acquainted with the Birkie, and some of you may have skiied it yourselves. You would then know that upwards of 10,000 skiers participate, and because of the heaps of steaming humanity standing on slippery pointed boards with sharp sticks in their hands, the race start takes place in “waves.” That means that it’s not a mass start, but rather large groups (each one a wave) begin the race in staggered fashion, every few minutes. The waves are also seeded, which means that the elite American and international skiers are put into the First Wave, and then successive waves are populated by skiers who have achieved certain times in previous races. The sum effect of these waves is that the best skiers start first, the next best skiers start second, and so on, all the way back to the final wave, which is populated by 85-year-old-retired pastors, 8-year-old Boy Scouts, and women in labor.

For old Joe-O, the first year he entered the Birkie, he had no race record and, therefore, was seeded in the last wave. This was a bit frustrating to Joe-O because he had proven himself to be a gifted skier, but he knew he had to rack up a tremendous race time this first year, in order to improve his start position for the following year. With skill and strategy, he knew he would, with a good race, be starting in one of the first few waves in successive years.

So he took his place on the course, having been up late the night before waxing his skis perfectly for the conditions, and now he was primed, waiting for the starting gun, the Eye of the Tiger glinting in his gaze.

And then.



He, well…He…how shall I say it discreetly? He felt a sudden, undeniable, overwhelming need to void his intestinal regions.And, naturally, with 9,999 other jittery and nervous racers feeling the same way, the line at the port-a-johns was not short. Suffice it to say, by the time Joe-O got back to the start line, his wave–the last wave–had already started. He could still begin the race, but his shot at a stellar time, one that would move him up in future years, had gone down the drain with his intestinal evacuation.

Here is the crux of my story, so stop slouching and pay attention: Joe-O took a moment to huff and stomp and mutter, and then he regrouped and came up with Plan B (this moment is also known as acceptance that Some Things Cannot Be Changed). His plan was this: since he was going to be the caboose in this train of 10,000 skiers, he would make the most of it–the sheer amount of detritus left behind by all those participants could be a windfall for Joe-O. He would, quite simply, forget about racing and, instead, pick up every discarded item he could find along the course: water bottles, ski poles, hats, mittens, fanny packs, and the like. Why, he’d never have to buy another cheap pair of UV-blocking sunglasses again, after this day! He’d never again have to invest in safety pins, or fleece neck gaiters, or half-eaten bags of gummy bears!

Hours later, after covering the 50K course as a lurching stop-and-start scavenger, Joe-O crossed the finish line; his one-piece lycra racing suit had been transformed into a bulging crap-carrier. Early on, he’d realized he couldn’t carry all the loot in his hands, so he’d unzipped the front of his suit and started stuffing in every wayward item he encountered, until, at the end, he looked like a red Michelin Man staggering away from a particularly fruitful rummage sale (one that didn’t happen to have any bags for customers).

What do we learn from Joe-O and his “let’s make espresso out of chicory” approach to the race? First, it ain’t over ’til it’s over, so continue to hang in there until the bloody, or junk-filled, end. Second, even if the race isn’t shaping up as you’d hoped, with the right attitude, you can reap unexpected rewards. Third, don’t shove a broken sharp metal ski pole tip so far down into your ski suit that you nearly become a soprano (or, more correctly, a castrato).





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17 responses to “”

  1. Steven Novak Avatar
    Steven Novak

    This is an actual thing?

    People are weird. 😉


  2. Diana Avatar

    Yup. Looks like it’s heading right for yous (and us a bit after yous). I’ve been in running races with a cast of 10,000, but that’s just with each participant armed with rubber running shoes and elbows. I can’t fathom it with sharpened sticks in one’s hands and waxy sticks on one’s feet.

    Bless their silly little hearts. Hope they get the snow they desire and then some.

    Joe-O sounds like quite the lovely soul, but I just might have to slap him if I were to spend too much time in his angelic company. We bitter, cynical, sarcastic folk prefer the angst-ridden for our chronic companions.

  3. Em Avatar

    Three cheers for Joe-O!! I’m certain the spectators remembered him long after the race was done!

  4. actonbell Avatar

    Joe-O is a delightful character! More power to him. I love recyclers, and people who aren’t embarrassed to do what they will. Great post!

  5. urban-urchin Avatar

    Wow people do this on purpose? Well for they’re sake I hope there is snow. Joe-O is the kind of person I aspire to be yet find myself in a pit of despair and thus run away.

  6. Diesel Avatar

    Wonderful story, Jocelyn. At least Joe-O has the courage, or the something-or-other that makes you pick up lots of garbage, of his convictions.

  7. velvet girl Avatar
    velvet girl

    Well, it sounds like Joe-O is quite good at improvising! It’ll serve him well in life.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Holy Dear Abby, recycling posts on recycling! Perish the thought. Joe-O or not, I expect nothing but originality. But it was a nice post, with a fun photo, last time. Nice job on the ice flow… remember the mini-Ice Age in England in the mid-whatever century? Woolf’s Orlando skating on the Thames? That’s what the big lake reminds me of this month.

  9. furiousBall Avatar

    Joe O is cool. Not just for pooping, but when life gives you garbage, you make garbageade.

    XC skiing is a great workout. 50K!!! that’s a lot of…Ks.

  10. CSL Avatar

    Hmmm – I can’t decide about Joe-O. Is it making the best of a bad situation? Or is it a cautionary tale about the foolishness of loading yourself down with too much crap? Hard to say.

  11. Voyager Avatar

    I’ve been in the rear of a few running races, (not actually starting in the last wave even), but all I ever saw discarded were paper cups, orange peels and power bar wrappers. Damn.

  12. Dorky Dad Avatar
    Dorky Dad

    Awesome. Thanks for the tips. Next time I race the Birkie, I’ll do my business well before the race begins. And I’ll carry a backpack. And a tool belt.

  13. Spider Girl Avatar
    Spider Girl

    That’s hilarious! I think I’d like Joe-o!

    We have similar philosophies in some respects, although my hat is off to him for his inventive ski-race tactics.

    Y’know, you can really turn junk into gold if you’re dedicated enough. I’ve been selling other people’s discarded junk for years at flea markets and have been to Europe on the proceeds more than once. 🙂

    But I’d definitely be in the final wave of the race…probably somewhere behind the women in labour actually.

  14. choochoo Avatar

    This time of the year, people in this country are obsessed with skiing. There are skiers everywhere. You can’t swing a bat without hitting some moron in spandex. It’s scary… Also, I’m very glad that I don’t own a bat, because I’m not sure I could fight that kind of temptation

  15. Glamourpuss Avatar

    I still can’t read the words ‘fanny pack’ without sniggering….

    Wilde was right, we have everything in common except language.


  16. Mother of Invention Avatar
    Mother of Invention

    I can so relate to this! My husband’s been doing those races for 10 years too and he’s always up all night waxing and drinking coffee. He calmly shows up late half the time whereas his friend is taking Immodium because he’s so nervous. He’d love to be able to do that race. He’s done The World Masters at Lake Placid and some others.
    Those guys are all amazing!

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