IT WAS DIFFERENT. It felt strange and it was fun.

Sunday morning, instead of lining up for an American Birkebeiner with a few hundred other skiers in my start wave and sharing the Birkie trail with more than 7,000 other skiers from Cable to Hayward, I lined up all by myself at Razorback Ridges in Sayner to start my virtual 2021 Kortelopet companion race of the Birkie.

After completing my 20th 55K Birkebeiner last year, this year, in a nod to a 71-year-old aching body, I signed up last June to do the shorter 26K Kortelopet.

Somewhere around one-third of all skiers registered for the Birkie, Kortelopet or Prince Haakon race, myself included, later opted for a virtual race.

My course was different, with Razorback being challenging at times, but without the huge steep hills found on the Birkie trail. Razorback is my trail, one I founded in 1981, and the trail system I have skied thousands of kilometers on so I had that going for me.

My cheering section at the start consisted, first and foremost, of my lovely wife with her ever-present camera and equally ever present, and sometimes annoying, clanging cowbell which she shakes with great gusto. Also on hand were Gordie and Molly, faithful dogs both, and fellow Razorback trail groomer Robert Polic.

The usual throng of spectators at a Birkie start were missing. So were the throngs of skiers testing their wax, skiers kibitzing in the warmth of a mammoth warming tent, the cannon shots that start each wave on the way to Hayward, the dozens of school buses bringing skiers to the start area and all the other things that make the Birkebeiner such a spectacular event.

Gone too was the youth that once carried me to times ranging usually from 4:50 to 5:20 on the Birkie course. Gone this year was any kind of serious training. First, it was no snow, then, bone-chilling cold which I used to ski in, but now won’t even consider venturing out in.

Because of the cold snap, I hadn’t skied in 17 days until I did an 8K warm-up outing the day before my virtual Kortelopet.

When it came time to start, I pushed off in high spirits. Just me, the trees, a little breeze and occasionally other skiers I either passed or who passed me, more often the latter.

My first lap was a 9.1K loop around Lions Pride. I felt good, strong. I didn’t ski particularly fast, nor really slow, mostly just half-fast.

Back at the warming shelter, I hydrated with a bottle of energy drink and slid a couple of gooey energy replacement gel packs down my throat. Then, it was off for lap No. 2.

Along the way, recreational skiers out for a Sunday tour gave me words of encouragement. I stopped here and there, and chatted with a few. That was part of the fun of a totally un-serious Kortelopet “race.”

Back at the warming building it was more hydration and gel packs. With some hearty “hiyah, hiyahs” from skiers getting ready to head out for their recreational tours, I was on my way for a third and final lap.

Having skied only about 12K on my longest previous ski this winter, I knew I would be wearing down. Arms and legs get heavy when forced to carry a load more than twice as far as they have carried in a long time.

Whereas early in the race I counted off kilometers, by the time I got to about the 5K mark to go, I was measuring the remaining distance in tenths of kilometers. Heading up a series of four hill climbs, it was a countdown of four, three, two, one and on to a flat easy ski to the finish.

Earlier in the week, I had joked about having thousands of cheering supporters lined up safely 6 feet apart along the inbound trail for a mile or two, but somehow, they were missing. Instead, some wiseacre had hung two jock straps from a tree not far from the finish. He or she must have wanted to make sure there would be at least two supporters to silently cheer for me.

Thanks to my lovely wife, I did have a bunch of her friends waiting for me at the finish. My wife had her cowbell going and just like at the real Birkie, there was that final little rush of adrenaline as I crossed my personal finish line to their cheers.

Unfortunately, none of them had brought a single dollop of Crown Royal with which I could celebrate my solo Kortelopet victory, but good friend Linda Waddell Tameling saved the day when she later brought, not just a dollop, but a little jug of the precious liquid. I put a small amount of it to good use in short order, sincerely thanking my new “bestest” friend for providing the best rehydration drink of the day.

Next year, hopefully, it will be back to the real Birkie course. It will be another Kortelopet for me, as I have sworn that my full Birkie days are done. The finish will be on Main Street in Hayward where thousands of spectators will cheer me and my fellow skiers to the finish line.

Birkie Fever is still in my blood.