This ski tour ain't no Birkie

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2000

It was about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, as I slumbered into Anchorage's Service High School puffy-eyed and dull, that I realized I was not in Wisconsin anymore.

My task for the day was to complete my first 50-kilometer race at the Tour of Anchorage, an annual event that draws about 1,300 skiers. My race time wasn't until about 10:20, but I was already programmed to be frazzled.

"What time do we have to have our clothes bags to the van by?" was just one of the questions I peppered at the poor lady charged with taking my late registration. The queries sounded like I was a reporter, she was a Pulitzer story, and I had 10 minutes until deadline.

She responded politely, but with enough brow furrowing to indicate she found my franticness a bit extreme.

That's when it hit me. This was no Birkie.

The American Birkebeiner is a ski race similar to the Tour, except it is held in northern Wisconsin, draws about 7,000 skiers and is the nation's largest ski marathon instead of its fourth largest.

I had been doing the Birkie since high school, and it was the standard by which I would measure my Tour experience.

The Birkie mystique starts with merely trying to make it to the start line on time.

Telemark, a ski lodge in Cable near the start, doesn't have a parking lot, or commode system, with the capacity for 7,000 people. Minutes are precious as bus rides into the lodge, and hour waits in line for the bathroom, are scrutinized to determine an appropriate wake-up time.

Sunday, I got up at 5 o'clock in the morning and drove all the way to Anchorage for the Tour, but with no wait for registration and only two- to three-person lines in the bathroom, I was disappointed. This was too easy.

About three or four minutes into the Tour, I discovered why. These people, even the pedestrians placed with me in the last wave, actually seemed concerned with racing. In the rear waves of the Birkie, fun and camaraderie take a front seat, while racing is left to those in the front waves.

I'll always remember standing at the Birkie starting line next to a paunchy man of 45 who obviously had been displaced from his living room couch and Saturday helpings of the PBA and pork rinds.

I could not help but ask him what he was doing at a ski race.

"My wife gets me out here every year," he replied. "If I finish the race, she lets me have five or six beers in the bars at the finish line."

No such characters were in evidence Sunday. There was only one person I saw who considered jeans appropriate race attire, and nobody who donned a cow costume, the old Birkie standby, instead of Capilene.

However, I did hear a Tour racer discuss how she would apply the principles of her "40-k class" during the race. Another competitor fretted he was not going to get in one of his 10-minute warmup periods.

My only schooling is in more traditional subjects, like literature and philosophy, and I always spurn warming up because it's merely a way to waste energy that would be better spent during the race.

Sitting and listening to such dedication, I was beginning to feel like I was wearing my Sunday best and walking on the side of a highway during the height of breakup with a semi fast approaching.

Things were about to get ugly.

Out on the course, racers kept to themselves, intent on the task at hand. There was not a lot of the good-natured chatter, and certainly none of the college rah-rah chanting, that is the spirit of the Birkie.

Rest stops were not a place to socialize and maybe grab a donut hole, they were a place to nimbly grab a cup of water before being warned by a volunteer, "You better hurry up. That guy behind you is going to catch up."

Wisconsinites have an obscene weakness, or some might say a wonderful talent, for turning everything into a party.

To put it in Alaska terms, the Birkie has the aura of Mount Marathon. Or at least the Mount Marathon that existed before armed police decided to make cruel irony of "Independence Day" by walking around and inspecting what liquids Americans, celebrating freedom from tyrannical Britain, were drinking in their plastic cups.

But I digress.

At the Birkie, spectators, armed with bells and horns, line the most treacherous downhills and most grueling uphills, drawing sadistic glee from the pulsing energy that is a good wipeout or the lip-twitching pain that is a cramp at 40 k.

One uphill late in the Birkie, named after a female dog, is lined with particularly twisted individuals who get euphoric release from catching the precise moment when a human spirit breaks.

The skier dragging up this particular hill is like Alaska's moose encountering a wintertime annoyance. Were it not concerned with conserving enough energy for survival, there would be hell to pay.

At the other end of the racing spectrum, skiers at the Tour wind through Anchorage without a lot of fanfare. At one point, I went so long without seeing people or any sign of a race that I wondered if I had pulled a Boyce and missed a turn somewhere.

As one would expect of any event in Southcentral, the Tour enthralls with scenery that would have the flatlanders back in Wisconsin, at least momentarily, losing track of the hours until the Packers kick off their next Super Bowl quest.

The Tour also wanders through parks and along bike paths littered with people out for a Sunday stroll and intent on taking little note of skiers in their midst.

The race is only once a year, but the atmosphere the bystanders give off is that it happens every day.

As it was, I pulled into Kincaid Park, complete with rustic peacefulness but lacking the massive flaming torch and throngs of Hayward's main street, with a time of 3 hours, 33 minutes and 48.5 seconds.

I had bested my previous Birkie times, which usually put me in the middle of the pack, by about 30 minutes. But in the take-no-prisoners Tour, that pace was only good enough to put me 180th out of 200 skiers.

Maybe there's some merit to this hard-core racing stuff, but more than likely next year I'll be back at the starting line of the Birkie, wondering if I have enough time for a quick trip to the bathroom.

Jeff Helminiak is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be contacted at

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