IT WOULD SEEM rather odd that during a spell of 87 million consecutive days with temperatures rising above 80 that one’s thoughts would turn to days of snow. And yet, as I slowly pulled a mower over several miles of Razorback Ridges cross-country ski trails last weekend, that was exactly what I was thinking of.

From the age of 7, I grew up as a downhill skier for years at Mus-Ski Mountain in Sayner, later at the Porcupine Mountains’ Powderhorn and Indianhead Mountain, both in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I bought my first pair of cross-country skis in 1982, and two years later, I skied my first American Birkebeiner. That was almost my last Birke.

That was the last year the Birkie trail, which we skied from Hayward to Telemark Lodge back then, was groomed for classic tracks only. Two Swedes skated that year using the marathon skate method, and they ran away with first and second place.

Anyway, my first race was the “ice year” for the Birkie. Temperatures in the 40s for several days prior to the Birkie, combined with an overnight temperature below zero on the eve of the Birkie made for a surface that was rock-hard ice.

Tracks were set, but on any downhill were quickly wiped out by snowplowing skiers. Grooming equipment of the day couldn’t till things up like that of today, so we skied the entire 50 kilometers, more than 30 miles, on what was essentially an ice rink.

I was young, full of confidence and, I thought, in good shape. I skied a good pace to the “OO” crossing, at which point I thought I was going to be good to finish in around 4 1⁄2 hours. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

About a kilometer after OO, I looked up to a long, long climb and just like that, my legs went out from under me. I quickly learned that the bulk of the killer climbs going that direction on the Birkie course were on the last 25K.

Along with everyone else in my skiing neighborhood, I began stumbling up all those hills at an ever slower pace. Constantly snowplowing down ice-covered hills on the other side took a big toll on my thighs and groin muscles. At the 42K mark, I faced a big downhill with a sweeping left turn at the bottom. I got to the turn, started to swing myself around it and in an instant, found myself sprawled on the ice with the worst cramps I’d ever had.

I thought my race was over, but somehow, after much rubbing, stretching and a steady flow of bad words, I got myself up and skied on. At 6:32 of the race, I finally staggered across the finish line.

Several friends who had all finished long before me were waiting to congratulate me and the first thing I told them was “Never, never, never, ever again.” My face was chalk white, covered with salt because I had stupidly skied the entire Birkie having barely taken a cup or two of water for the entire race. Instead, I thought a 2-inch chunk of banana and a slice or two of an orange at each stop was plenty to keep me hydrated. Lesson learned the hard way.

Stopping for dinner at a supper club in Glidden with our friends, I kept repeating the mantra “Never, never, never, ever again.” Unfortunately, one of my friends, whom I should have disowned right then and there, told me that, slow as it was, my finishing time would move me up from the sixth to the fourth wave the next year. The rest is history.

That first Birkie for me was in 1984, and at present time, I stand at 18 completed races, plus four Kortelopet finishes, which is the 24K companion race to the Birkie. My goal became 20 Birkie finishes which would put me in the Birchleggings Club, something that is reserved for those who have finished 20 or more Birkies. Those skiers are given a special purple bib for their 20th and subsequent races so they are readily identifiable to all the other skiers in the race.

Sadly, in my 19th Birkie I crashed hard trying to avoid a woman who veered in front of me at the bottom of a really long, fast downhill at around the 27K mark. You would think a skier 65 years of age would have had the brains to have the ski patrol take him off with a snowmobile and rescue sled when said skier could barely move one shoulder, but this 65-year-old Birkie skier was not that smart. I skied 15K farther, essentially one-armed, until at the 42K food station I finally told a volunteer “Please, take my skis off before I try to do something really stupid like keeping on skiing.”

Three weeks later, I had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum and a torn biceps tendon fixed and, once again, I was repeating “Never, never, never, ever again.” Twenty Birkies was no longer a goal.

But then, last weekend, as I mowed trails at Razorback Ridges, visions of glory suddenly flashed before my eyes. A new vow to get back in shape, ski hard, train hard and prepare properly swirled through my head. Never mind that scores of previous such vows have been ignored, illusions of grandeur had begun playing with my mind.

Memories of a beaten, exhausted, trashed body trudging to the finish line of several Birkies like a zombie have suddenly faded into darkness. Once again, the thought is there that I should finish 20 Birkies. I haven’t completely given in to the hallucinations just yet, but a few more hours waiting for me with the mower has me worried that total capitulation is near.

After all, if I ski the Birkie two more times, I’ll get my purple bib at the age of 70 or so my feeble mind tells me. Also after all, there are a small handful of 80-plus skiers who finish the Birkie each year so “If them, why not me?” is what I ask.

I haven’t actually hit the send key on my registration yet nor have I pulled out a credit card to cough up the $140 entry fee just yet, but the itch to do so is just a quivering finger away. 

Tony Wise, why did you do this to me?