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Woodland Trails: February and the Birkie

I love February! I just walked outside and watched the moon rise as the sun set. Geese were flying everywhere as I stood outside in a short-sleeved shirt eating ice cream.

And the horned larks are back, the first returnees of birds that go south each fall. Each day, we are picking up several minutes of additional daylight; about an hour and a half of time has been gained since the winter solstice. I love February because it seems like it was just beginning and it's already half over. With its passing go the worst of winter cold since January is now just a memory.

But the real reason I like February is that it brings back memories of the Birkie, a race that I have skied in the past. The American Birkebeiner is the premier North American cross country ski race. Trekking over some of the most beautiful areas of the Hayward lakes region, the 34-mile cross country ski race is set to take off from Telemark and end in beautiful downtown Hayward Saturday, Feb. 21.

I'll always have great memories of the race, the hills and all the people. Every time I look at my old Fischer racing skis I see the racing sticker I got before the big race. And what a day it turned out to be. A group of us headed up to a cabin we had rented on Nelson Lake. It seemed to be a good option compared to the more expensive hotels in the area. With a kitchen it provided us with our own cooking area with rest and relaxation out of all the hustle and bustle of Telemark and Hayward.

The next morning, the day of the big race, broke cold with temperatures just above single digits with predicted highs around 20. Perfect racing weather!

Going outside that morning you had to decide what to wear. How many layers are enough and how many layers are too many? And then it was time to pick the right wax. Being a traditional skier at the time, "pre-skate/skiing era," I was a traditionalist in every aspect of the sport.

The big thing about my first Birkie was the lack of snow that year. In fact, they had to haul in snow to cover bare spots on the trail. But the big change was that the race would be skied backwards. On this Birkie the race would start on Lake Hayward, head through downtown Hayward and end up at Telemark Ski Resort! It was the one and only time that was ever done!

I'll always remember that start. The elite racers were in the front and the rest of us took up positions somewhere in the pack. I was in the middle and tried to get to the outside to make a break for downtown Hayward once the gun went off. Excited. Nervous. Worried. I waited with goosebumps all over my body for the start of the race. Or maybe I was just cold. And then the WCCO helicopter came flying over low, sending tornados of snow all over the lake and around all the skiers like a scene out of a super bowl!

Like on a movie director's cue, every skier raised their poles and pointed them toward the ski and let out a roar at the chopper! It set the stage for the warriors who were about to embark on the 34-mile adventure. When the cannon went off, the herd of humanity took off and got into lanes and patterns. There I was stuck in the middle of 8,000 skiers with sharp tipped poles and skis flailing all around me.

The first hill was an adventure. It was there the first bottlenecks occurred. Skiers took their turn just waiting for the skier in front to get far enough down the hill before they could launch themselves down the slope behind them. And there are some major hills on this course, hills that make your eyes water from breakneck speed that is gained, and you tuck and glide.

Tucking in a fetal position on skis is how I look back at it. Your hands up around your face to protect your eyes and face from the sharp poles of other skiers. You tried to hold your lane and keep your balance. A fall could mean being buried in an avalanche of humanity with broken poles and skis!

On one such hill a skier toppled in a heap down the hill right in front of me! All I heard was a scream and something about pain in their leg as if it was surely broken. It was a place where many people fell and medical crew was there to help. As I flew down the hill at high speed I came upon the fallen skier fast! I quickly weighed my options, planted my poles as I lifted my legs and flew over the fallen skier. Somehow I landed cleanly and kept going, to my surprise, and rocketing heartbeats as a few folks let out a cheer!

About halfway through the race I thought I was going to die. But water stations and blueberry soup along the race course keep you up and moving. And there are always the people along the trail to cheer you on and lift your spirits. Eventually I made it to the finish line in one piece and managed to stay upright a couple of hours after the top racers had finished the race.

I'll never forget the feeling of crossing the finish line and getting that beautiful heavy medal and ribbon placed around my neck as a couple of friends waited and waited for me to make it to the finish line. I never thought I would place in any top category. I never tried to beat anyone.

On the trail I skied alongside many other skiers from around the world and made a few friends that eventful day I never saw again. But when it was over, I knew I had accomplished something special. I learned that any one of us can do anything if we have the faith and courage to just try. If we each had the faith of a grain of mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, each of us would succeed in what we choose to do. Just like that faith of the tiny seed that grows into a large and wonderful plant -- nothing that you set your sights on will be impossible unto you!