An Unexpected Award: the gold I earned at the back of the pack
I followed the arc of the sun over the day while outside, it was a long day. Nearing four PM many things were clear. One, my body was suffering. Two, the sun will set. Three, I was determined to finish. And four, I was trying to enjoy my gold at the back of the pack.
“Dear Dr. Hanson, It is a pleasure to inform you of your selection by the Board of the Fulbright Foundation in Norway and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for a grant to teach in Norway. This grant is made under Public Law 87-256, the Fulbright-Hays Act, the basic purpose of which is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through educational and cultural exchange.”
This letter set into motion the fulfilling of dreams. Among the many dreams to be realized with a year in Norway was the opportunity to ski in the Birkebeiner, the “real” Birkebeiner that is. As a boy I dreamed of the birkie since I first read about it in an old copy of Wisconsin Trails magazine from the mid-70’s that my grandparents had (I have it now). I skied the Kortelopet (half-Birkie) first, because of my age, and then skied the full race several times. But the lore of the American Birkie in Wisconsin was tied directly to the legend and race in Norway, so naturally I pinned for the original.
Within a fortnight of arriving in Oslo I was registered for the Birkebeinerrennet, 19 March 2016 couldn’t come fast enough. We had brought our skis so I felt confident that I would get enough on-snow training to be ready. The goal of the Birkebeiner also sharpened my ambition to run, and run, and run all over Norway, wherever my travels and teaching took me.
I was excited and apprehensive that Saturday morning. The thrill of joining the ranks of finishers got me out of bed at 4:29 AM with ease. The concern that my shoulders would give out and general skiing readiness clouded out excessive optimism. Plus, it was dark and early, there is no sense in being too happy at that time of day.
The dark morning was mild. By 4:41 I was awaiting the taxi for a 4:50 pickup. A white Prius from Norges Taxi arrived at 4:49. As I got in, another taxi, a navy wagon from the same company, pulled up. They double booked, not me.
At the Oslo Bus Terminal drop off I was happy to see many fellow skiers, just follow the herd. The locals led me to the bus and by 5:10 I was seated, port side against the window and amidships. There were a lot of middle aged white guys aboard the coach. When did I become a middle aged white guy?
The driver did a silent head count at 5:21, the sky was inviting a blue suggestion of sunrise into the dark heavens. In addition to the usual suspects there were 4-5 women aboard. Among the riders there were eager conversations, quiet routines, and bodies trying to get just a couple more minutes of shuteye.
The cabin door closed at 5:29 only to reopen for a man rushing in with a coffee and the grin of a cheshire cat. The lights went out and we pulled away. 5:30 AM, right on schedule.
An early morning bus ride awakened memories of college band trips and drill weekends in the Marines. By 7:12 AM there was a steady parade to use the toilet across from my row. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Good morning Rena, Norway,” I thought as we stopped to unload. A stream of contestants coursed towards the welcome building. It was like a large pole shed that housed the race packet pick up as well as a small vendor fair and cantina. I passed on an early morning hotdog.
I weighed my backpack at the hall. All racers must carry a 3.5 kg pack to mimic the weight of the baby viking king carried by the original warriors. I boarded the shuttle bus to the starting area, a 3 km journey. We left at 8:46 AM.
The sky was overcast but the mood was merry at the start. The portajohns were aplenty and the wave-by-wave starting zones well designed. Ebullient commentators broadcast enthusiasm and well wishes and for all the intrepid. I just wanted 9:35 AM to hurry up. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark, we were burning daylight and Wave 18 was chomping at the bit. “Boom!” went the starting gun, finally.
I predicted a demanding day, the warm and course snow would be a challenge for glide and grip. But I didn’t predict the condition of the course would be so bad. In classical skiing, the track is the key to happiness. The tracks for Wave 18 were in sad shape where they existed at all.
I passed the sign, “53 km to finish” and knew I was in a for a long hard day. My skis defied physics, they had neither glide nor grip. The worse was the lateral slipping. I fought and fought to keep my skis underfoot. Soon my adductors were burning and my feet were getting bruised in their boots.
The clouds thinned and the breeze increased. The atmosphere of the event was a fusion of RAGBRAI and a Big Ten football tailgate party. The river of brightly clad skiers flowed through the woods and up the first mountain pass. Along the way, hearty revelers who camped in the woods were now basking in the sun atop their sofas of snow. A fire to grill meat and warm the spirit was ubiquitous, as were the spirits. The Norwegians make up for their work-a-day sobriety on vacation, today was the start of the Easter Holiday. I seemed to notice a bias towards Carlsberg for beer and Jagermeister for liquor. Aside from being happy to be on vacation in the glorious nature I think most of the spectators were pleased they weren’t skiing.
I got a reprieve at 10 km, the groomer made a pass and laid 4 new tracks. My stride was still labored but at least I wasn’t fighting the splits. The gift was temporary though, after about 4 km the groomer doubled back and we were all forced back to the trampled tracks of thousands.
It was a beautiful and sunny day. I managed a moment or three to shed my backpack and take pictures. There was an invisible force that none of my photos captured though, the constant headwind was an unwelcome companion.
The Birkebeiner in Norway differed from the the American copy in several ways. One, this race was classic technique only. Two, the climbs and descents were sweeping and long. Three, most of the route was over three mountain passes and quite exposed.
Some people from later waves passed me. I passed some from prior groups. But generally I found myself skiing among an increasingly familiar cadre. But I wasn’t the only one suffering. The lack of banter was but one indicator of the demanding conditions. The long lines at the aid stations were another.
Oh, the aid wasn’t for thirst or hunger, it was for skis. Techs from SWIX worked feverishly to treat the skis of the needy to give them some traction. I paused once to apply a little klister; in a battle you make arrows from any wood.
By the highpoint of the race I was two-thirds to the finish and approaching Sjusøen and the complex of trails spreading from Lillehammer. Relief. I had been on these trails before and the course would lose about 400 meters of elevation to the finish; that is, mostly downhill.
Relief soon gave way to panic as the descents at Sjusøen were steep and curved. Compounding the treacherous course was the windrows of loose snow over an icy surface, the result of thousands of snowplowing skis.
I survived the hills and I do mean survived. At this point in the journey I was not sure I would be getting up from a hard crash. And then back into the deep woods and silence as there were no spectators. Just the weary and the goal, and the gold.
Skiing into the lowering angle of the sun gave us slow movers a gold medal of our own. The solar angle was 16º The snow absorbed the warm energy and reflected a most wonderful color, a very bright and yellow gold at the edges. It was like Mother Nature and Father Time conspired to reward the back of the packers with a visual prize commensurate with our persistence.
I shuffled into the stadium grounds, 1 km to go. On the last little descent I fell for the third time, this time with a full face plant in front of a couple of ladies. Only my pride was hurt. If the announcers called my name, I didn’t hear it. I just needed to finish, I was done in so many ways.
Time! 5:03 PM. I crossed the line and managed a smile as I accepted my finisher’s pin. My official time was 7:28:31 I had hoped for five hours but I was very happy I just finished at all.
Off came my skis, uff! Somehow I managed to touch the klister and then wipe my mouth. Don’t ever let klister touch your lips! My attempt to quench the burning with a hotdog in lefse was unsuccessful.
The stadium shuttle took the smelly and bleary-eyed to Håkons Hall. I changed, retrieved my finishers diploma and wolfed down the bag of cookies I carried on the race. At 6:22 PM my bus to Oslo was underway. Too tired to rest, I watched the countryside fade away into nightfall. My mind replayed the day, all the ups and downs, but most especially the gold I earned at the back of the pack.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 9: Signs and Trails
Top of World! I’m writing these words from our planet’s most northern city, Hammerfest. This is my new record for latitude and longitude. Sun had set by the time I landed so the wonders of this oasis in the arctic will have to wait another day.
New birds: zero
Signs and Trails
Whoosh, I’m trying this at home, err…on my skis. I suppose I feel at home on my boards. The speed, the wind in my face, the sights flashing past my eyes, and the occasional rumble of my skis. I feel so free.
But upon reflection, I was not free. No, not barreling down that hill, not at any time during the entire jaunt, never free. As testament to how contrived my run down the hill was, this was actually my second run. During my first descent I realized this would be cool to film skiing down past the Olympic stadium, so up I climbed to run it again (note, the “short” video was too long to load).
The Friluftsliv beacons me as a concept; it’s an ideal. And yet, the pursuit of Friluftsliv probably isn’t attainable for me. Perhaps it is more analogous to a journey than a destination. Yet, pursue I shall, mediated by signs and trails.
I dragged my skis along on this trip to Lillehammer. This visit was much anticipated. One, I would get to give lectures to education students at the local university. Two, I would give the lectures with my friend, brother-from-another-mother, and fellow Rover, Andy. Three, I was glued to the television in 1994 watching the Olympics and eating up everything Norway that NBC was willing to dish out. My heros skied in Lillehammer, and now I would too.
For 30 kroner I caught the city bus up the mountain, I think that’s pretty good as lift tickets go. My destination was the Birkebeineren stadium, but in true Norske fashion, the bus doesn’t actually take you there. Too decadent perhaps. Rather, you literally got dropped off on the side of the road, at a seemingly random blue sign, into a snowbank. Next, clamber over the bank onto a trail, and then to ski to the stadium. Still a small price, and frankly a much more romantic way to get to the stadium and the faded echoes of olympics past.
My arms were still killing me from last week but Lillehammer called and I was damn sure gonna answer. The sun had fallen behind the mountain but there was plentiful light to take a small lap around the Abbortjernet lake loop. I just had to get back to the road in time to make the 6:30 bus or it would be a very dark and long walk to the hotel.
People were skiing but not too many, just the way I liked it. I skied out of the stadium area and onto the Birkie trail. Let’s chalk this up to research. A familiar “Powerline” stretch and a series of right turns took me back in due time. Homework complete, I only had to wait for Thursday for my longer effort, and hopefully with more functional arms.
Later than intended but outfitted with spiffy new skiing glasses with the tilt-up lenses, I paid my 30 kroner and ascended to the stadium again. We were three on the #6 bus, I was the only skier. What do the locals who don’t ski do during the winter? The noise and vibrations from the chains on the tires were comforting, a bus on these roads demanded confidence.
The heavy overcast probably looked flat and especially cold, unless you were on skis and reveling in the surroundings. A couple of young men were practicings biathlon. There was no special fencing or warning. In Norway they trust you to make good decisions and then live with the consequences; i.e. if there are guys shooting guns then keep your distance. There would be no one to sue if you got shot.
My new app, Skisporet, helped me plot a reasonably adventurous course up and around a mountain. However, my ability to read maps (when you’re out of cell-phone range) has been found to be God awful in Norway. My apologies Senior Drill Instructor Sgt. Dominguez.
Despite my effort to read the signs, the trail seemed to take me where the trail wanted to go. On I skied. A light snow of large wet flakes hushed the woods and gave me a sense of solitude to a greater degree than was accurate. Within 20 minutes I had stripped off my windbreaker and heavy wool sweater. Without wind, a wool undershirt sufficed to keep me warm enough.
The signs pointed me towards Sjusøen and I followed. I skied at Sjusøen in December, I didn’t realize how close it was to Lillehammer. On this side of the valley is a world of well-groomed and interconnected ski trails. My head spins at all the possibilities of adventure, I lifetime might not be enough.
I stayed on the trail. I kept to the right side of the wide groomed surface bordered by parallel lines for traditional skiers, coming and going. Frequently I met a senior citizen from the other direction, I always gave a smile and I always got one in return. Several times I was passed by a silver-haired streak, that made me smile too.
The trail split, to the left was towards Sjusøen, higher and farther from Lillehammer, but with an aura of mystery and potential. Right was clearly a more direct path to my starting point. Discretion being the better part of valor, I skied left. The signs and the trail were clear.
I was lucky I missed my turn for the higher mountain because this area of trails rested on a shelf. So while on a mountain, the trails were paradoxically level. The trails were well marked and I supposed if you had to ask for help then it would come freely.
There were signs and trails that contrasted with the manicured scene. On occasion a narrow path darted into the woods, a sign to seemingly nowhere: an ungroomed trail.
While Ola Nordmann may have a reputation for taking to the wilds, at least here those side trails were usually covered with untrammeled snow. Are they really trails if no one takes them? Do the signs matter?
Another sign that caught my attention was a antler rubbing on a young pine. The orange of the bruised tree called out amongst the common backdrop of evergreen and white. This was a sign, but to where? The trail had long since been covered with snow. Did the perpetrator stumble upon this opportunity for dendographic violence or was this tree on a path, its destiny decided?
Trails in the woods, paths for exploring, and accompanied by signs, do they set us free? Thousands of people will pass point X on this trail this year. But how many people will ply the snow just 10 feet off the trail? Probably none.
Norwegian language has a wonderful way of combining words rather matter-of-factly to create a new word. So, Friluftsliv was created from three words: Fri, free; luft, air; liv, life. The Free Air Life was an apt neologism, and spoke to the ideal and ambition of people to live large in nature. But the word hides in plain sight a limitation, the impossibility as a mortal human-primate to achieving the goals of Friluftsliv. The air is the domain of birds, and we are stuck to the ground with our feet. In three dimensions and without trails or signs birds alone may come the closest to living Friluftsliv, the rest of us will continue to dream and to rely on signs and trails.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 7: Near or Far, you’re a star
My spoiling is nearly complete, cross-country skiing back in Iowa just will not ever be able to live up to the wonder, diversity, and quality of trails here. Yesterday was the American Birkebeiner, 54 KM from Cable to Hayward. It’s a big deal. In four week I get to try my luck at the “real” Birkebeiner in Norway. So far, so good with my conditioning. I have conceded that this will be an event for me and not a race: finishing during daylight will make me quite happy.
New birds: zero
Near or Far, you’re a star
“Dad, is our sun a medium size or a big sun?” asked #1 son. I replied that our sun was a medium to small-sized sun. I intended to add some additional unsolicited wisdom but he interjected a fact of his own, albeit wrong, about how many earths could fit into the sun. And then we had a moment, some unanticipated silence where we both marveled about how big our sun was even if it was on the small size.
The power of the sun is returning to the high latitudes. This week I felt the rays of the sun for the first time, warming my face and neck in the cool air. I suspect it was the type of sensation that brings a smile to just about everybody.
The transition from the low and remarkably weak solar rays to the relatively vigorous radiation of this week surprised me. It is ironic that during our winter the sun is actually closer to the northern hemisphere than during the summer. But it’s not the miles that separate us as the angle unto which we are separated. Some poet-scientist has probably already artfully commented on that. Neil deGrasse Tyson anyone?
Yesterday the altitude of the sun in Oslo was almost 20 degrees, the effect is apparent. I had local teachers in Trondheim come within a hair’s breath about complaining about the sun because now it can be painfully bright when driving or skiing. I have seen melting take place on walks and pavement, trust me, that’s a big deal.
Of course back home in the corn kingdom, the sun has already surpassed 20 degrees by 9 AM. At high noon, the altitude of the sun is about double in Linn County. I’m not jealous, the sun’s rays are gaining strength here at a remarkable clip. Everyday I write in my log the sunrise, sunset, and amount of daylight, if I didn’t I think I wouldn’t believe it.
The birds were singing with full throats in the woods this morning, such was the glory of the sun. The trails today were a steady stream of skinny skiers with snazzy tinted glasses. I saw a man riding a mountain bike down the street, with just a dark t-shirt on. Such enthusiasm, all from a free boost in photons.
My moment of inspiration to choose this topic came while waiting in the glass-paneled walkway to board my flight to Trondheim. In that space the greenhouse power of the glass amplified the already stronger rays, I had to take notice. I hope you will too.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 4: Trails and Impressions
Another late Nature Call. Well, I could come up with some lame excuses but I’d rather just own it. If only I was clever enough to come up with fascinating excuses…
New birds: zero
Trails and Impressions
Man has not invented a better way to record the passage of a being than snow. As a medium of travel and impression collector, snow is unparalelled. But more than just a medium, snow is a thing unto itself. Snow is a destination, a means to a destination, a dream, and so much more.
Our skiing has been wonderful, I feel so lucky to have the access that Oslo residents have. Of course, no one “gave them” the forest, they fought for it. The trails did not appear by magic, they worked to make public access. The grooming machines don’t run on good feelings and dugnad vibrations, people pay.
I love a freshly groomed trail. In the low sun it can look like futuristic art. In the dark it’s a path that invites wonder and adventure. The trails have been balms for the long nights.
The Nordmarka trails gave me an unexpected gift, a sense of hope. I have been really hoping to see a Norwegian Moose, “Elg” in these parts. The moose have remained as elusive as the Northern Lights. But crossing the trail was the distinctive tracks of a deer. Yet the deer tracks in question were no bambi but the large and splayed impression of the king of the forest, Acles acles.
Bullwinkle had coursed from the forest on a pretty direct route to a pile of cut logs. No doubt looking for some easy and concentrated nibbling. The trackes winded around the pile and then off in a lazy pattern to a distant line of trees. Tracks makes me wonder, they conjure smiles.
Wishing you miles of trails and smiles of impression.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 1: Hello Snow
2016, game on! Sorry for the late post. My excuse, the need for extended contemplation. 😉
Zero (Vulgaris incognito)
2016 is here, enjoy. The denizens of the Oslo Fjord area are finally breathing easier, because many are breathing harder. Oh, not breathing harder because of air pollution or carrying the extra weight from extended holiday merrymaking, but because so many are finally able to hit the local trails and get in some k’s.
My number one son is fond of telling me that Norwegians invented skiing and, “They’re born with skis on!” I’m glad he believes that, he and number two son start cross-country ski lessons after school on Thursdays. The technique of number one is, well, ah, how should I say it…”unique.” I no longer have the cache to give suggestions let alone lessons. Hopefully the authentic experts from Norway will have better luck.
On Saturday we boarded the bus, with skis, to hit the trails. We were not alone. Our bus was well represented by skiers as was the parking lot at trails end. Near Skansebakken I was treated to a sight of wonder, hundreds of little kids in ski school. The various groups were spread amongst a rare piece of level ground and making the most of their birthright and weather.
If you have cold and snow, then you should ski. What a great way to commune with your fellow human (or kid) and nature. Norwegians seem to have a determination to commune with nature that is unmatched in America. The reasons why could fill a book. Many of the reasons I would cite would surprise you.
At any rate, at a young age, children here are outside, “Everybody does it.” The positive feedback loop of exposure and opportunity (Allemannsrett) is enviable. The Sunday Nature Call aims to inspire, but does it? Writing about the authentic world of life out-of-doors makes me appreciate more my time with the heavens above my head. I hope it does for you. Go. And if your climate allows, say, “Hello snow.”
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
Trysil Caption Contest
I’m staying at the Trysil-Knut Hotel. It reminds me of Telemark Lodge in its day, a lot of mementoes and pictures, and history of skiing. In the dining hall I snapped these three historic photos that were blow-up large in frames. 48 hour Contest for the best captions, leave a comment. Winner gets a postcard from Trysil.
#1 “Boy Jumping”