THE COUNTDOWN HAS BEGUN in earnest. In just six weeks, I will fit boots to bindings on cross-country skis before setting out to complete my 20th American Birkebeiner ski race.

Looking back, I can’t help but think it’s ironic that a person who skied his first Birkie in 1984, with the intent of never doing another is still challenging the Birkie trail 36 years later.

It’s been a long, strange trip. It would have ended after one race had a friend, two hours after my first Birkie at which time my aching body was suffering miserably, informed me that my finishing time that day would move me up two starting waves for the next year’s Birkie.

Against all logic and with total abandonment of the intelligent side of my brain, I was signed up and at the starting line the next year, the next and still another next. After 10 Birkies, I did take a break to ski several of the half-distance Kortelopet races in one of which I had my best race ever by placing seventh out of 51 skiers in my age group.

Doing the Korte was fun, but it didn’t have the magic of the Birkie nor the exhilaration of skiing up Main Street in Hayward to the Birkie finish line with thousands of spectators lined up four deep or more along the sidewalks cheering you in as though you were their best friend.

Without having had a vaccination to prevent a recurrence, “Birkie fever” hit me again. I was off on a quest which would gain me entrance to the coveted and exclusive Birchleggings Club reserved for those skiers who have completed 20 Birkies.

As I look back on all my Birkie years, it’s hard to believe how many great memories I have gathered along the way. It’s been a lot of good humor; the pain of tearing the rotator cuff, labrum and biceps tendon in my left shoulder when I crashed six years ago trying to avoid an “out of control” skier; the sharing of innumerable stories with my good friends; the ups and downs of race successes and travails, and so much more.

One of my all-time favorite memories, certainly the funniest, was the year one member of our condo gang got into it on the race course with another good friend of ours. After the race, we were relaxing at the condo when Cheri came in and told us in excited terms what a good race it had been except for a repeated run-in with a guy on the course. Several of the words she used could not be printed in a family newspaper. Finishing her story, she headed for the shower.

Minutes later, Ted came in and immediately began telling us how his race was upset by some woman whom, at his nicest, was described with a word rhyming with witch. It was déjà vu all over again, except from the other side of the story.

We were all biting our tongues and holding back laughter until Cheri emerged from her shower and she and Ted saw each other. The rest of us howled with glee while the two of them, red faces and all, tried to turn invisible.

Over the years, the Eichman brothers, Tony and Mitch, both skaters, have been in a spirited competition with me, a classic strider. One year, Tony, who had skied a great Birkie the year before on skis I had laboriously waxed for him, pranked me by subbing red klister in a wax box for green binder klister. While I was in near panic, he and Mitch, in on the gag, tortured me with their best bad-mouthing efforts.

I got revenge the next day by skiing my best Birkie ever to beat them by 10 minutes, even though skating is a much faster technique. I think after the 100th or so time I reminded them after the race that I was the undisputed “King of the Condo,” they started planning revenge.

They got that revenge two years later. During that race, we duked it out over the entire course. On the big hill areas I would pull ahead. On flat or gently rolling terrain they steamrolled me. It came down to a stop at the last food station. We got there at the same time and knowing that on the long flat ski across Lake Hayward I would have no chance of staying with them, I sneaked off ahead, leaving them filling up on energy drinks and orange slices.

Double poling across the lake for all my worth, I neared the far shore. Like a little engine, I started telling myself “I think I can, I think I can;” 200 hundred yards from shore I changed it to “I did it, I did it.” Only I didn’t. From 50 yards behind me came cackles and jeers as Mitch and Tony overtook me. With final taunts they skated off to a 40-second victory. The king’s reign had come to an end.

It was kind of the same thing the first year my son, also a skater, skied the Birkie. Not having a prerace qualifying time, he started two waves and 10 minutes behind me. I knew I had virtually no chance to beat him and from 30 kilometers on I started looking over my shoulder expecting to see him.

I got to the Gravel Pit aid station; no Brooks. At Mosquito Brook he still hadn’t caught up. Visons of grandeur began seeping into my brain. Through the last food station and onto Lake Hayward I was still in the clear. Suddenly, I began to realize victory was within my grasp.

But once again, no. I was oh so close to finishing the lake crossing when, from behind, came dulcet tones chanting “Oh, Daddy, oh, Daddy; guess who’s not getting to the finish line first.” From the catch to 50 yards from the finish I thought he was going to pay tribute to his old pappy by skiing with him side-by-side across the line. But without warning he sprinted ahead and finished seconds ahead of me. He got written out of the will that very evening.

This year, I will become a Birchlegger. In all seriousness, I am proud that I will join the ranks of skiers who have shown the physical and mental toughness it takes to conquer 34 miles of rugged terrain 20 times, sometimes in blizzards, sometimes on a dangerous ice-covered course, once even on a day when the temperature soared to 57.

I will be happy to be a Birchlegger. I think I might be even happier that I can, should I choose to, declare my retirement from the Birkie. 

My aging bones will thank me if I do.