AND SO IT begins. With a shade less than two months to go, the countdown to the American Birkebeiner has begun. With that beginning, my four-year retirement from the Birkie has ended.

Finally surrendering to four years of badgering from my Birkie mates of the past 30 years, I foolishly registered for my 19th Birkie come Feb. 23, 2019. Now I have, assuming the snow gods come through in short order, two months to get myself ready for what will be 34 miles of grinding and trudging my way to the finish line in Hayward from the start line in Cable.

Let it be known here that I have much, much work to do before race day. As Robert Frost once wrote “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

The woods along the Birkie trail are indeed lovely, dark and deep, but they also grow across some of the most rugged terrain to be found in northwestern Wisconsin, making those miles to go and those promises to keep a tall task indeed.

Thing is, you have to start somewhere and last week, I started by skiing all of 4.1 kilometers during my first ski outing of the year. The trail was packed, but uneven with very little snow cover. To make matters worse, in places the trail was covered with pine cones and needles, acorns, twigs and small branches, oak leaves and stubble left behind from fall mowing.

On the downhills it seemed like I was taking my life in my hands, especially when my dogs decided it would be great fun to run down the hill ahead of me before turning around and running back up directly in my path.

My intention was to ski about 8 kilometers or roughly 4 miles on that first outing, but after the first long hill climb, my shoulders told me “Uh-uh, you ain’t going there.” So I cut it short, leisurely and carefully making my way until I was down the last steep hill and onto flat ground for the final kilometer home.

One of my Birkie mates, who is currently training hard in sunny Mexico, told me he heard from one of our fellow old-timers that 4.1K is sufficient training for the year for guys like us.

He would know because several years ago, he skied one time for 8K the week before the Birkie, then went out and skied the race. The rest of us had gotten to the finish line hours before he finally came striding up Hayward’s Main Street to the finish line as full darkness was falling. He saved us from having to find a St. Bernard to go out and rescue him.

Anyway, for me the training has commenced and should we get a few inches of snow this week as some have forecasted, it will kick into high gear. Keep in mind that for me high gear is kindergarten compared to postgraduate college for serious Birkie skiers.

I did get a sugar high a week before Christmas, when a kindly elf went to Hayward, spent a couple of hours with the good folks at New Moon Ski Shop and returned home with a brand-new pair of Fischer Carbonlite skis and Salomon RC classic boots.

Since my old skis have Birkie stickers on them dating back to 2004, I guess it was only fair that Santa’s elf decided it was OK for me to get a new pair. They may not make me ski faster and farther, but as Red Green might say if he were paraphrased “If the women don’t find you fast, at least you can look fast.” To which I say “amen” and keep your stick on the ice.

In all seriousness, I thought that four years ago, when I crashed and burned a little more than halfway through what was supposed to be my 19th Birkie finish to the tune of a torn labrum, biceps tendon and rotator cuff in my left shoulder, my Birkie days were done.

I skied 12K after the crash, which happened when I tried to avoid a woman who veered in front of me out of control near the bottom of one of the steepest, fastest hills on the course. I intended to stop at the Gravel Pit food station, but after a little rest there, I decided to push on.

I made it to Mosquito Brook, 6.5K farther, where I quickly asked the first volunteer aid station worker I saw to get my skis off me before I could do something stupid like trying to finish the race. Twelve kilometers of skiing one-armed was enough. I thought it was to be enough forever. I guess that’s why they say “Never say never.”

The other thing I’ve found is that once you’ve contracted “Birkie fever” you never quite get rid of it. It’s always there, at least in the back of your mind, saying “You can do it. You have to do it.” So you go out and do it.

While it may not feel fun for me beginning about the 40K mark, which is where the wheels have usually come off in my previous Birkies, it will be fun getting back together with my old Birkie gang for a weekend.

Most of us see each other just this one time each year and though there are such things as social media and telephones to keep us connected, nothing beats a long weekend in a condo at Lakewoods outside of Cable.

It is there that stories are told and retold about Birkies past, as what is mostly a gang of old geezers, hark back as far as 1984, which is when I skied my first Birkie. There will be stories of Tony falling a million times during his first Birkie and switching my green wax to red for a Birkie which we would ski in less than 10-degree weather, and of Scott skiing the last 2K one year on one ski while carrying his other broken one under his arm. He finished the race and got a lot of applause from thousands of spectators as he approached the finish line.

There will always be stories of the year when I reigned as “King of the Condo,” having classic skied to a faster finish than even my skating condo mates. I make sure those particular stories are told and retold several times during Birkie weekend.

In February, when the starting gun goes off for the fifth wave of classic skiers, I will be off and on my way. Ready or not, the long and winding trail will be there for me to conquer.