THE OLD BODY just ain’t what it used to be. After finishing my 20th 55-kilometer American Birkebeiner, I’m more than sure my 70-year-old body is not even close to what it used to be.

Sun and blue skies shone down upon 5,798 skiers who finished either the 55K Birkebeiner Classic or the 50K Skate Birkebeiner on Saturday, while 2,824 29K Kortelopet skiers and 665 15K Prince Haakon skiers enjoyed the same sunshine for their Friday races.

The sun was a blessing and a curse. At race time Saturday, I gathered with around 200 other skiers in the 70 Wave reserved for skiers 70 years old and older with full sun on us and a temperature less than 20. Perfect.

Starting from the front row of my wave, I got off to a great start. My wax was terrific, delivering great glide and kick. My son was tracking me on the Birkie app and through the first 20K, I was skiing at a pace more than five minutes per kilometer.

That was far faster than even my best possible projection and had I kept it up, I would have had my best Birkie finish in years. But then that sun, which was so nice to have ’til then, turned on all of us classic skiers. It got way too warm.

A rewax job at 20K kept me going at a good pace until I was past the halfway point, but with 25K or about 17 miles to go, the sun had turned what had been excellent conditions into either soft, mushy, wet or hard-glazed icy tracks and from that point on, all kick was gone.

The rest of the way, I struggled along with everyone else near me on every uphill and there are plenty of them; herringboning up even the small humps painfully and slowly.

I could have gotten discouraged and, to be honest, I did a little. But realizing a good finish time was out of the question, I stepped out of character and took time to fully savor what was left of what I am 99.99% sure will be my last Birkie.

Normally, I don’t talk to other skiers or even friends who might be spectating along the way, but this year, along that finishing stretch I did. At the 32K Gravel Pit aid station I wound up chatting with another 70-plus skier who had completed more than 40 Birkies while we tried to rewax. That pleasant chat went probably 20 or 25 minutes and was a highlight of my race.

Later, stopping after an exhausting uphill climb, I chatted with a lady I guessed to be in her late 60s. Funny as it may sound, we talked about children, her grandchildren, how much we like to ski and anything else except what a hard time we were having in keeping one ski going in front of the other. Another enjoyable 10-minute respite.

With only the trail across Lake Hayward left in front of me I figured I would give ’er heck for a finish burst; that is until I hit the lake and immediately heard a small group of spectators about 100 yards out on the lake hollering my name.

Turns out it was the Repenshek family from Sayner. For probably at least 20 minutes we chatted. I was forgetting about the time, until I noticed the sun was slipping behind the trees to the west and suddenly, Elton John singing “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” started running through my head.

With ice-glazed tracks, I made fairly quick work of the 2-mile lake crossing and made the final turn for home on Main Street. I was thinking that my “stopping to talk along the way” stops were over, but wouldn’t you know it, as I crested the very steep and tough to climb International Bridge over Highway 63, there was my grooming cohort at Razorback Ridges standing along the spectator walkway at the side of the bridge. That was another stop and some more talk. Another 10 minutes without moving a single inch. By that time, who cared? I didn’t.

Finally, down the bridge and up three blocks of Main Street I went. Now, normally, when I get to that point there might be 50 or 100 other skiers finishing at the same time and sometimes, your name won’t even get called by the public address announcer or if it is, the crowds at that time are still huge and really loud, and you don’t even hear your name.

Not so when you are the only skier on Main Street for your entire three block finish. I think the public address guy had to keep thinking up things to say about me as a crowd still numbering several hundred people cheered in an old guy wearing the purple bib of a 20-year skier to the finish line. You can’t imagine how much that did for my spirits.

I can tell you this; no matter how exhausted and how beat up my body was, it was with feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment and pride that I crossed the finish line with a final stride.

The Birkie trail had taken its measure of me, pounded me every which way, had me saying all kinds of swear words, in my head only, with each long hill climb I looked up at during those final miles and yet, I had conquered it for the 20th time.

As I made that final stride, in my head I could hear Roy Orbison singing “It’s Over.” I was happy and sad for that. But hey, you never know. It’s never really over ’til it’s over. 

Who knows? Even though I have said never again, there’s always next year.