BABY, IT’S COLD out there. We all knew it was coming and now our first cold blast of the winter is upon us. Cold though it may be, bitter cold is the weatherman’s most overused definition of it; in reality it’s only mildly cold for a Wisconsin winter. 

I have competed in cross-country ski races in temperatures well below what we have experienced so far. One of the most frigid ski races I was in was the very first Badger State Games 20K classic race, for which the start was held off from mid-morning until mid-afternoon when the thermometer reached all the way up to 17 below zero.

After a mandatory layer of Vaseline® was spread on my face and with racing gloves switched out for leather choppers with wool liners, I was on my way. 

The course, as I recall, was shortened to 15K, which was a good thing because with the dry, cold snow everyone’s pace was much slower than normal. I don’t remember my finish time, but I do recall that up to that time there had never been a ski race in which I had been happier to see the finish line.

But you want to know the truth? Outside of hoar frost on my eyebrows and beard, along with icicles growing from my nose, I never really felt the cold during the entire race. Dressed for the temperature, I was pretty comfortable throughout the entire race.

I can’t say the same for another cold race that stands out vividly in my mind. That was the American Birkebeiner, the 1990 or thereabouts version. At that time, the race started in Hayward. We skied down Main Street with a cannon shot to send us on our way, church bells and cow bells ringing, and thousands of spectators lining the way.

It was cold that morning, brutally cold. I don’t know what the official temperature was, but at the house where we stayed the thermometer read 16 below zero early on.

I went off with about 700 other skiers in Wave 4 and for the first half-mile down Main Street I felt great, full of adrenaline and feeling strong as I double-poled my way along. Strangely, it didn’t bother me that 54 kilometers or approximately 33 miles of rugged northwestern Wisconsin terrain, lay between me and the finish line.

I felt good. I still felt the warmth a heavy coat and wool pants that were shed just minutes before the starting gun had been giving me. Whatever it was below zero at the start and winds that were gusting to 25 miles per hour didn’t faze me. I was about 40 then; old enough to know better, but young enough to be dumb enough that I was going to have fun over the five-plus hours it would take me to get to the finish line.

I got a rude awakening as to how it was not going to be all fun and games when we hit the shore of Lake Hayward. To get to the other side required 3K of skiing across the lake, all the time with the wind smack in my face. I nearly quit on the spot.

But, like about 6,000 other skiers, I kept on and made it to the actual Birkie trail at the other end of the lake. Once in the woods and at least a little sheltered from the wind, I began to make my way forward, one ski sliding in front of the other.

I could be wrong, but my recollection of that day was that the high temperature got all the way up to 2 below zero. I finished, which was one important thing. The other important thing was that it only took two weeks to get my body temperature back up to 85 degrees and another two weeks to get it to 98.6 degrees.

Another really cold ski race I found myself in was a Hayward Lions Pre-Birkie race which is annually held two weeks before the Birkie. That race, a mere 28 kilometers, began with the temperature still on the south side of zero. Scott Joswiak, a good friend and fellow Birkie veteran, stayed with me and my wife at a Hayward motel the night before and together, we began the first 3 kilometers of the race across Lake Hayward.

In those days, I was always a jack rabbit at the start. I would double pole like mad and remain among the top dozen or so skiers for the first 200 yards of the race. After that, I would begin to slow and slow and slow, and most of the pack of skiers I had led early would come striding back past me as if I were standing still.

My biggest problem that day was the passage across the lake. There was frozen slush on the lake and not much snow, so there were places where we were skiing on ice.

By the time I reached the far shore, despite a careful wax job which included a binder layer of green klister, much of my kick wax had been scraped off. For those of you who don’t cross-country ski, kick wax is the stuff that grabs the snow for each stride ahead and without it a skier slides backward two steps for every step gained forward.

As soon as we hit the big uphills I was forced to stop and rewax, and when I did, Scott, who I had left in my dust going across the lake, went striding past me. I would not see him again until about 6 kilometers from the finish.

It was there that I came around a corner and found Scott and a young woman wrapped around a young 20-something skier who was completely underdressed for a subzero race, wearing a thin racing suit, thin gloves and no hat.

I stopped for a moment and was reassured by Scott that the ski patrol snowmobile was on the way, and with his and the woman’s body heat surrounding him, it was likely the young guy would survive a bout with hypothermia.

The young man was rescued, Scott caught up to me about a kilometer from the finish and we both got our commemorative sweatshirts at the end of a cold, cold race.

We survived and I’m quite sure we’ll survive this “baby” cold blast which is upon us now. Hey, it’s up north and it’s winter. Deal with it.