THE 2019 AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER ski race is history. For me, there were three important takeaways from this year’s race: 1. I finished. 2. I finished. 3. I finished!

One down, one to go. This year gave me 19 completed 55K Birkies and next year, will be my 20th and final. After that, never, never, ever again.

Friends who have skied the Birkie with me since I did my first one have heard that refrain before, beginning with the time I said it minutes after finishing my first. After slogging my way through that race from Hayward to Telemark Lodge in Cable, which was the direction in which we skied then, my first statement after finishing was “never, never, ever again.”

That refrain was still being repeated as 10 of us stopped at a supper club in Glidden on the way home. Unfortunately, as we sat down to dinner, someone had to pipe up and ask “Did you know that your finishing time moves you up two start waves next year?”

You guessed it. The next year saw me lined up for another long trek to Telemark and when I finished an hour and 20 minutes faster than the year before, I was hooked.

The next eight Birkies got me to the magic mark of 10 completed races, which meant that I got a nice wooden trophy with my name on it and everything. It also found me saying again, as soon as I crossed the finish line for the 10th time “never, never, ever again.”

For four years, I kept my word. I switched to skiing the Kortelopet, which is the half-distance companion race to the Birkie. In the Korte, I came in with a time that was the highlight of my career, a seventh place finish out of 51 skiers in my age class. 

Then, the Birkie monster reared its head again. While skiing the Korte was fun, I found myself missing the grand finish Birkie skiers get to enjoy: the chance to ski four blocks up Main Street in Hayward, which is where we finished after they reversed the direction of the race, with thousands of spectators lining each side of the street three or four deep all ringing cowbells and cheering each skier in as if they were their best friend.

I did my 11th Birkie and was hooked again. One by one, the Birkies mounted up and finally, I was within shouting distance of 20 finishes, which would gain me entrance to the exclusive Birchleggings Club®, reserved for skiers who have finished 20 or more Birkies.

I wanted the special purple bib that went with that 20th finish. Going for my 19th, disaster struck. Trying to avoid an out-of-control skier who veered directly in front of me on a steep, fast downhill, I crashed, tore up my shoulder and was forced to abandon the race.

That was four years ago and after surgery to repair a torn labrum, rotator cuff and biceps tendon, I said with absolute conviction “never, never, ever again.” This year, I caved. My Birkie friends kept at me until I forked over $150 and signed my name to another entry blank for the 2019 Birkie.

And I finished the race. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fast. My finish time was more than an hour slower than I’d ever finished before. If there are 1,000 parts to the human body, all of them were screaming at me to quit shortly after the halfway mark of the 34-mile Birkie Classic race.

I started out with a low expectation of a finishing time and despite a promising pace time at the first-aid station at 9K, it didn’t take too much farther into the race to significantly reduce even my most modest goal.

After a lot of long climbs to the high point of the course at Fire Tower Hill, I was wishing I’d stuck to my never, never, ever guns. Shortly beyond the 26K mark at Highway OO, I also was beginning to see what life is like at the tail end of the Birkie race; something I’d never experienced before. I was starting to believe I wasn’t kidding the day before when I told our condo gang that I would be satisfied if I just managed to avoid finishing last.

At 30K, my personal gas tank was one drop above empty. My reconstructed knee was feeling fine, but my good one was aching. My reconstructed shoulder was feeling great, but my good one was on fire. Every muscle group was one twitch away from a major cramp.

Two things kept me going. One was the fact that my trash-talking son still had not passed me after starting 10 minutes later, one wave behind me. The second was the big reason I didn’t quit. That was a stubborn streak that kept saying over and over “You will not quit.”

All I kept thinking about was how I was going to climb the next hill. How many kilometers did I have to ski to get to the next desperately-needed food station? As I approached the infamous “B---- Hill,” one of the steepest climbs on the entire course, I kept saying to myself “Just one ski ahead of the other.” With costumed nuns and a priest imploring me to keep going, I crested the hill and headed for the food station at Fish Hatchery.

From there, my mind hit another gear, one that told me the end was in sight. After a long series of climbs to the top of Sunset Hill and one last schuss down the hill into Duffy’s Field, all that remained was a 3K ski across Lake Hayward.

Everything was hurting by then. Hours earlier, I had realized that a 69-year-old body, sadly neglected in the physical fitness arena for most of the year, could not respond like the 30-something body I had when I started this Birkie stuff in 1984.

Worn out, running on fumes, I finally climbed off the ice, and up and over the ceremonial International Bridge spanning Highway 63. Up Main Street I skied with the last ounce of adrenaline left in my body, encouraged on by a crowd of spectators that was still three deep seven hours and 46 minutes into the race. Seeing the 19-year decal on my bib, spectators carried me to the finish line with cheers of “All right, 19 years. Great job. Next year, the purple bib.”

Crossing the finish line, I got my reward: a 19-year commemorative pin fastened to my bib. Nineteen down, one to go. Then, never, never, ever again. 

Maybe this time, I’ll mean it.