Four years ago almost to the day, I finished my first Canadian Birkebeiner, completing the 31km distance in -26 Celsius. Yesterday, I celebrated the Birkie again, this time as a volunteer. Both days make my short list of Awesome Memories.
I took up nordic skiing to cross-train as a runner. Naive and optimistic, I bought skis, signed up for the Canadian Birkebeiner, and took a lesson. This is the back-ass-ward way to start skiing, not recommended. After the first lesson, I concluded – “I’m gonna die.” My lesson coach agreed. As it turns out, nordic skiing is really technical! Being fit but not athletic, it became clear that my learning curve may not match the race timelines.
If it’s possible to fall in love with a sport that is trying to kill you, I succeeded. Most of those training months were spent in a prone, groaning position sprawled across tracks. I learned how to release my boots from skis while in mid-air scream. I also learned that a well timed head-tuck mitigates concussions. That a grade four ankle sprain from doing splits around an icy curve is not a limiting injury. That deep inside my hip flexor is a painful tendon, the psoas (pronounced “sore ass), and that health professionals who enjoy “releasing” this tendon missed their calling in eliciting spy secrets for CSIS. “I will use one finger at this single pressure point and you will beg for mercy.” True story.
That event was the most magical, ear-to-ear-grin race of my life. Lifted the glass ceiling of what I believed I could do. Improved me as a runner. Made me more confident. ME…Me…me.
Fast forward to yesterday. Sixteen of us are clown-car-jammed into a convoy with Donald the Driver. We’re a motley mix of trail runners, some new, others veterans, familiar and unknown together making introductions and joining forces for a single, worthy cause. We are committed to an entire day on a frozen landscape, no way out until the last skier passes. What could go wrong? As it turns out, absolutely nothing. Trail running seems to bring every person of every pace and background together in the most altruistic and inspiring of ways. The highlight reel includes –
- A beverage competition. One of our team would run down “the mean hill” to greet exhausted racers and ask what they’d like – water, apple cider, gatorade – then yell the choice up to those holding drinks. Volunteers with the winning option would raucously cheer and high five, providing great distraction for skiers who were at the top enjoying a warm drink without even realizing the hill was done. Next year, we will be adding a score board.
- A pre-station cheer station. The lookout person at the bottom of the hill eventually turned into a half-dozen volunteers clanging cowbells and shouting mad encouragement for as far as the eye could see. Inappropriate signs and motivational chants of “Kill The Hill” kept the racers entertained well before they turned the corner to our aid station. Next year’s plans for the pre-station include lawn chairs, umbrellas, bamboo carpets and margheritas.
- Bob and Doug Mackenzie. About seven hours into the race come along two young guys with a six-pack of beer stuffed into their already-too-heavy packs. Five years straight, they’ve skied together. Five years straight, they’ve tried to get their buddies to meet them at the finish line. At our station, they phone to check on the gang – nope, everyone bailed at a nearby bar, again. “We thought for sure this would be the year!” Shrugging, they hand out extra beer to our troupe, enjoy a can each, and are off. “It’s not a race, right?” Whatever you say, hoser.
- The Man with the Broken Boot. I’m watching this guy herring-bone up the hill with his right foot out of his ski, kicking it ahead of him until he’s at the top. That looks really inefficient. A volunteer asks me if we have extra boots. Um, no. Turns out the skier’s boot clip broke at 17km. Undeterred, he has slid, pushed and kicked his right ski for 30km to our aid station. This was an obviously fit and fast athlete who will show the absolute worst time ever, but was willing to finish almost dead-effin-last rather than quit. We were in awe.
Days like yesterday are a good reminder of why volunteering is important. Every elite athlete should know what it looks like to be on course for hours on end, and every mid-pack runner should observe the intensity and strain of fighting hard in the lead pack. Witnessing a race from beginning to end brings understanding, insight, and most of all, camaraderie. Volunteering is something every athlete should do, regularly. No “pat-on-the-back-I-gave-back” checklist. Just because you’ll be glad you did. It makes us better athletes and a stronger community. We. Whee!!