I have spent the last two weeks traveling around the Midwest. While the races that were the focus of the trip went extremely poorly for me, everything else about our journey was amazing.
The first highlight is that after a long day of driving, we landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we stayed with my friend Hot Legs (a.k.a. Sean Prentiss). Sean took us to a great pub, and then teased us with an offer to drink PBR out of pink flamingo lawn ornaments. This was all a hoax as neither the PBR nor the flamingos appeared. It’s okay, though, I’ll still be friends with you, Sean. Don’t screw up next time though.
From there we drove to Madison, where we stayed with the parents of a college friend. They had a fantastic house and took very good care of us, in some instances refusing to let us cook for ourselves. Mimi made us multiple delicious meals, and we were blessed with a big comfy bed for each of us and a television to watch the Olympics – which was exciting! At no other time do you ever get to see nordic skiing, biathlon, or nordic combined on TV, so we made the most of it.
The races in Madison were a new experience for all of us. The first race was criterion-style, with 8 (for the women) or 12 (for the men) laps of a 0.75k loop around half a city block. I can’t deny that it was cool to be skiing right next to the impressive-looking Capitol building, with spectators cheering from the sidewalks. But it didn’t feel like a ski race – not enough terrain! The frustrations of the weekend were typified by Tim’s very questionable disqualification from Saturday’s race. Enough said.
The other highlight of the Madison trip was that two of my best friends from high school happen to live there. In between the qualification and heats of Sunday’s sprint, I met up with Julia Schwartzman and Bethany Schimmel in a very hip coffee shop less than a block from the race course. While a cup of coffee might not have been the best snack in between races, it was fantastic to get to see them after such a long time.
Next, we drove to Spring Brook, a tiny town in northern Wisconsin. We stayed at a cabin owned by Ollie’s grandmother’s college roommate, who was very cool. Despite being 86 years old, “Herm” still skied more than us on several occasions, tromping through the woods with her spaniel, Scooter. The cabin was lovely and relaxing, and I don’t think we could have asked for a nicer place to stay, or a nicer lady to stay with.
Why were we up in the land of lakes/great north woods? The Birkie! We were fairly overwhelmed with the scale of the race and the rabid midwesterners for whom the event is something of a cult. But on race day, everything lived up to the hype. We were bussed to the Telemark Lodge, and got to soak in the atmosphere of what is surely the largest collection of ski racers in one place on the continent… as well as their midwestern accents. The governor of Wisconsin fired the gun to start us, confirming what a big deal the Birkie is out there.
The course was excellent, the snow was great, and it was fun. Going up the first really steep hill, we were flanked by native Americans from a local tribe playing drums, which was amazing. There were hundreds of spectators out on the course, which was impressive considering that it is point-to-point and there aren’t a ton of easy ways to get to the trail. Cheering was especially loud on “bitch hill”, which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. The closer we got to the end, the more spectators we found. The last 3k are across a big lake, where people had driven their cars out onto the ice and in some cases were grilling up food (which smelled delicious to me!). At the end of the lake, you pop up onto the road and go around a block before you are spit out onto Main Street, which is, as Brayton Osgood said, “a tunnel of noise”. There were spectators three or four people deep lining both sides of the street, and they were cheering wildly. It was exhilarating, if anything can be after 50 kilometers of skiing!
The whole experience was great, and gave me a taste of what it might be like to race in one of the bigger races in Europe, where people actually like to watch skiing. That isn’t something that happens in the U.S. – the Birkie might be the only race in North America where you can feel that magic. I am definitely ready for a return trip next year!
After napping all afternoon, we got ready for the afterparty at the Sawmill, which lived up to its reputation. I was happy to see so many friends who had raced that day: Dartmouth teammates Courtney Robinson, Audrey Weber, Brett Palm, Pavel Sotskov, Carolyn Bramante, Kristina Trygstad-Saari, as well as plenty of other friends. There was a live band, and life was good.
The next morning, I woke up the boys and they went to sleep in the van while I drove the first three hours. I had meant to leave at 6, but my watch was off somehow, so I woke them up just before 5, although I didn’t realize it until we stopped for breakfast. That would explain why they were so grumpy and I was so tired… We decided to drive through the night to get back to Vermont. With an air mattress in the back of the van, we were able to take turns napping, which meant that the drive wasn’t that difficult. When we arrived home at 6:30 on Monday morning, we made french toast and bacon, and ate it giddily while laughing at absolutely everything. It was a mess. Luckily, we went to bed until lunchtime, and we all seem to have recovered.
It’s good to be home, but the trip was a lot of fun and I’m left with fond memories of the midwest. Thanks to everyone who hosted us, you were awesome!