2017: American Birkebeiner

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The 2016 edition of the Prince Haakon 12k served as my gateway to the American Birkebeiner festivities marked by various variants of the #BirkieFever. Hoping to move up a rung and partake in the 29k Kortelopet in 2017 was probably a residual effect of this #BirkieFever thing. With grandiose plans of putting in dedicated training hours throughout rest of 2016 as well as through 2016-17 winter, I did sign up as soon as the registration opened up in May 2016.

Grandiose plans, however, stayed just that: the general procrastinatory trend of 2016 continued into the new year and for much of 2016-17 winter leading up to this event. With new year came the new resolutions: learn to let things go and do things in moderation. In spite of getting a head start to skiing in Ironwood’s ABR Trails (thanks, Christine!), I had probably skied less than 25k while choosing not to participate in Ironwood’s SISU Ski Fest and Marquette’s Noquemanon 12k citing cold weather and icy conditions as excuses. For the annual early February trip to California, I did indeed pack the necessary running gear with hopes of covering at least 25 miles over a one week stay. But calling a sketchy to say the least Redwood City neighborhood my home in stead of the safe and known confines of downtown Palo Alto ensured I ran exactly zero of those planned miles. Even if I had stayed in downtown Palo Alto, I am sure I would have cited the heavenly downpour as an excuse to not run. So, it isn’t too far from truth to say that I seemed to have learned to let things go just fine but seemed to have done so without even the slightest hint of moderation.

What in the world is a loppet? I had the same question and some Googling around led me to some useful information from our friendly northern neighbors: It is a great gathering of skiers who ski on a specifically groomed trail either classic (diagonal stride) or free (skating technique) of various distances. Enormous amounts of food and drink are consumed during the event. After there’s a party and celebratory banquet with awards and prizes and usually a time (dance). The Loppet means different things to participants. For some it’s intense competition, for others it’s a relaxing way to spend a day outside, taking in the pristine beauty of the country side or wilderness, and enjoying the home grown entertainment and great food and drink at the rest stops along the trail.

It was only natural to then search what Korte meant. Ancestry.com came to my rescue: Dutch and North German: nickname for a short person, from Middle Dutch, Middle Low German kort ‘short’.

So, put the two together, and we have Kortelopet (or just Korte for cool kids): a short great gathering of skiers, geared more towards recreation, who ski on a specifically groomed trail.


The excitement of hanging out with friends over a long weekend while making new ones, a pit stop at my favorite eatery in Ashland (Wisconsin), skiing on a new course that finishes in downtown Hayward like the pros do, doing so in what would have been the longest ski of my life, getting to watch the pros in action on Saturday, enough convincing from dear friends that I’d find ways to complete the Korte AND the childish and materialistic need to get that first timer pin for Korte … were sufficient to still be wanting to go to the event. That’s all the planning I ever did for this event: I didn’t wax my skis properly, and I even forgot to pack hand and toe warmers. Rest, including housing arrangements and travel logistics, were done by Stephen and Christine. The event staff, led by their executive director (Ben Popp), put out as many timely trail updates as possible in the days leading up to the event. The drive down to Hayward, punctuated by a pit stop in Black Cat Coffeehouse that included a lovely conversation with a local, was uneventful barring about 30 miles of blowing snow. It was also here that I learned, from a fellow first time Korte-r (later learned that she was a friend of one of Christine‘s friends), that the event was officially cancelled.

I stopped at the pre-race expo in Hayward High School to pick up my bib and few other things (a hat or two, a buff or two, a portable ski wax bench setup, etc.). Trying to scan the bib without realizing that the scanner wasn’t even plugged into the computer anymore (remember, the event had been cancelled by then) made me feel foolish but watching me do so must have provided some comic relief to at least a few volunteers and die-hard racers. I soon met with rest of the group in downtown Hayward and we shopped around the local business establishments. Running into couple of Kenyans of Madison (Wisconsin) origin, Kelly and Mark, in one such establishment was a very pleasant surprise (good find, Stephen). After a hearty meal in the cabin, cooked/prepared by Andi, Christine, DJ, Jim and Stephen (you’ll soon notice the trend: not only I prepared the least on my own, I also did the least of any of our group members) and The Game of Things, and we were all off to catch some sleep.

A very full night of sleep later came a hearty breakfast that DJ prepared (see, I wasn’t lying before: I did very little work), and we all headed to the start area. Seeing the usually snow-packed (or even icy) parking fields bare was weird as was the Main street in downtown Hayward. The bus ride to the starting area was quick and easy. With new structures and builds and bells and whistles and flags and other things, the starting area was even grander than it was last year. I bet it’ll make for spectacular video of the start of the race as a drone-powered camera leads the lead pack of elite/pro skiers next year, and I am looking forward to seeing that. In spite of the cancellation, there was no dearth of the Birkie spirit: though not in as greater numbers, skiers — including our own — had decked themselves out in fantastic outfits! I had my ski boots on but the trail conditions (a fun 5k loop was in place for anyone wanting to still ski) were too icy for my skill set. While Christine, DJ, Jim and Stephe skied at least one loop, I just walked around the start area with Andi and Boyd. Given that I fell a couple times just walking around, I would have had a hard time not hurting myself or others while going up/down the hills.

A couple bowls of soup and a short bus ride back to the parking lot with Elvis saw us all drive back towards the cabin. We stopped at The Sawmill Saloon for a quick bite to eat with Christine’s parents and Liz and Peter, and I had my fair share of my Wisconsin favorites: cheese curds and a Spotted Cow on tap. Rest of the evening was spent in the cabin. While I learned quite a bit of useful things from our conversations, I have a long long way to go in learning many more useful things. It’ll suffice to say that my night (and maybe even days after) would have been very painful if not for the group caring for me. We packed up our belongings on Sunday morning, had a lovely breakfast at the Rowleys (friends of Christine‘s parents), and stopped at Redbery Books in Cable (Wisconsin) and JW’s BBQ & Brew in Bergland (Michigan) on our way home amidst a snow squall during latter parts of the journey.

It feels (and probably is) very unfair that Mother Nature chose to reward my utter unpreparedness for this event and punish thousands more that had very diligently trained for nearly a year with unseasonably warmer temperatures and even rain in days/weeks leading up to the weekend. I don’t quite understand why or how I deserve this OR what lies in store for me as my way of paying the dues. Maybe this was a manifestation of the topics of my mental debate during last year’s Prince Haakon 12k: Learning to want what I have vs Wanting what I cannot have, at least not yet; Does one get everything she/he deserves? vs Does one deserve everything she/he gets?; and Does one deserve to keep something she/he undeservedly receives now in spite of not getting something that was perceived to be deserved in the past? While I have no way of returning this undeserving gift, I’d like to express sincere apologies to all those who trained hard, sacrificed interests, made detailed plans, spent a lot of hard-earned money to make the trip and yet didn’t get the desired/deserved race experience.

Once upon a time in Norway

Around the year 1200, two rival groups - the Baglers and the Birkebeiners - shared the identical goal of controlling the entire country. King Sverre's death in 1202 meant some decrease in the power of the Birkebeiners. The Birkebeiners were named as such by the Baglers and was originally intended to be offensive (or a slur) - referring to their leggings of birch bark, indicating that they were poor and incapable. King Sverre's successor (King Håkon Sverresson) died only two years later, leaving his son Håkon Håkonsson as the ultimate target for the Baglers to get rid of as the contender to the throne.

In 1206, the Birkebeiners set off on a dangerous voyage through treacherous mountains and forests, taking the then two-year-old Håkon Håkonsson to safety in Trondheim. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners' bravery with preserving the life of the boy who later became King Håkon Håkonsson IV. He united Norway, after thousand years of civil war in 1240, led the country into its golden age during the Middle Ages and, forever changed Northern Europe's history through his reign.

The name, Birkebeiner, carries a sense of pride, strength and endurance. The story of his rescue is etched in history. It's something thousands of people, participating in the historical races every year - Birkebeinerrennet since 1932, American Birkebeiner since 1973 and Canadian Birkie since 1987 - keep striving for. All who race do it test their own strength and endurance but also to honor the courage of the woman and men who risked their lives to save a young prince and bring peace to their country.


In hindsight, we (the collective phrase to represent all of us and not just the Royal plural) are quite fortunate that this lack of snow thing happened in 2017 and not in 1206 in Scandinavia. Should that have been the case, as one unknown racer put it, the Prince couldn’t have been saved, and we wouldn’t have the event in 2017 … or in any other year. Maybe the 2018 edition will turn out to be different and more rewarding to a greater fraction of the participants. We, the Yoopers, will happily send our Heikki Lunta to dance around (and dance hard) in necessary regions of northern Wisconsin!

Thanks be to

the rejections and opportunities life has brought my way, event folks (organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timers, law enforcement officials, photographers, fellow participants and spectators), and the family of good friends in and outside of my community for all the unexpected, undeserved and unrewarded acts of kindness and constant encouragement as well as offerings of constructive criticism to improve myself as a human and an athlete. I am eternally grateful to all those who let me train with them, who shared their invaluable experiences with me, who helped keep my mind, body and soul in good health, who helped me stay the course during the training cycle, who continued to teach me the value of work-life balance, and who cheered me on from home or along the course.

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