IN A FEW short weeks, it will be time for the 2021 American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race, which annually covers 50 kilometers for skate skiers and 55 kilometers for classic skiers from Cable to Hayward.

The Birkie has been a part of my life since 1984, when, as a neophyte cross-country skier, I started and painfully finished my first Birkie. Since then, I have skied 19 more Birkies, joining the 20-year finisher Birchleggers Club last February. Along with the Birkie finishes, I have completed five of the companion Kortelopet half-distance races.

When people ask me how fast I ski the Birkie, I always tell them, truthfully, that my best finish was two hours and eighteen minutes. What I don’t tell them is that my best finish came the year the Birkie had to be shortened to 24K due to a lack of snow from Highway OO to Hayward. Only until they have finished “oohing” and “aahing” about how I must have been right in the mix with race leaders that year do I let it slip about the race being shortened.

On a full-length Birkie, I have finished in less than five hours just twice. The winners typically finish the classic race in something like two and a half to three hours.

I admit to having had a love-hate relationship with the Birkie for many years. Most years, I have loved the Birkie for about the first 35 or 40 kilometers. After that, my body, and enthusiasm and love for the Birkie usually begins to die. Each stride from there to the finish has felt like one more stride closer to death. Though sometimes I thought death would be a pleasant alternative to finishing, I always managed to keep struggling all the way to the finish.

As a new skier, I started in the sixth wave of seven my first year. Anxious, nervous, rarin’ to go, I was all of that. I sprinted hard across Duffy’s Field from the start line — hard for me, anyway — and was among the first 100 or so of my wave to tackle the first big uphill.

Away I went, skiing to glory. During my first years of skiing, the Birkie we skied from Hayward to Telemark Lodge, and that first year, at the halfway point at OO, I checked the clock at two and a half hours.

“Fantastic,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to finish in five hours.”

Then, came the hills; a long succession of giant hills to climb. It was icy that year, very icy, and downhills were no picnic. At 40-some kilometers, a sudden, excruciating pain stabbed my right thigh as I skidded with all my might around a tight corner at the bottom of a steep hill.

Down I went. A few, make that a whole bunch of bad words, were said under my breath, words for which my mother would have washed out my mouth with soap. A dread fear went through me that all the pain and effort to that point was going to be for naught.

Fortunately, a couple minutes of fierce rubbing made the cramp go away. Very slowly, I crept toward the finish line. It felt like an eternity, but finally, there was Telemark Lodge.

I felt only semiconscious by that time, but I held on and made it to the finish line, all to the cheers of my wife and several friends who had earlier finished the race. Five hours of glory had turned into six hours and thirty-two minutes of agony.

Well, that was it, I told myself, never again. I repeated never again until some idiot foolishly informed me that my time was good enough to move up to the fourth wave next year.

Just like the 49ers who all thought they were going to get rich with gold in California in the 1800s, visions of Birkebeiner gold flashed through my mind. The next year, I was back at the start line; and the next year, and the next year and on.

With 20 Birkies now under my belt, I have decided to permanently retire from doing the full Birkie. This year, I will do my sixth Kortelopet instead, but it won’t be the same as the others.

I will be doing my Kortelopet as a virtual event at Razorback Ridges in Sayner. I will ski the same distance, time myself and submit proof that I did indeed finish the required number of 26 kilometers and then, I will receive credit for another finish in the record books.

The Birkie this year, for the thousands who will do it on the Birkie trail, will be a far cry from Feb. 24 of 1973, when just 35 skiers lined up at the start line for the very first Birkie. Who knew that someday, upward of 12,000 skiers would do the Birkie and its companion races.

One of those skiers who finished that first Birkie was my friend and Birkie legend, Ernie St. Germaine. A very gifted athlete, Ernie had never cross-country skied before, but basically being conned into it by friends, was among the starters.

He finished the race. Today, he is the only person in the world who has completed all 46 Birkies. He is shooting for 50 and I know he will make it.

As for myself, I will probably continue to do the Kortelopet for years to come, but never another Birkie. Never, unless, if I make it to age 90 and can still stand on my own two hind legs, I will ski the Birkie that year.

Hey, a finish at 90 would set a new record, and it would be my one and only chance to ever finish first in my age class and claim a spot on the podium

We can dream, can’t we?