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.
“I could just live here, it’s so fun,” said Owen as we left Leo’s Lekeland. Leo’s is a franchised indoor playground. We had a little banter about where would one sleep and so forth and then I asked him if it would stop being fun, you know, if you were there all the time? Owen screwed up his face a little, maybe he didn’t like having his fantasy damaged. Who would? “No, I guess not,” he answered.
Travel brochures, family propaganda, fun literature, and internal aspirations create ideal places. Judge for yourself, think about: The Cotswolds, Bavaria, New Zealand, Nepal, or Tuscany. It is difficult to imagine life there as anything but mundane. “How fascinating… Must be nice… Couldn’t you just picture yourself…,” and all those other familiar phrases of lowgrade jealously. “Folks in Vail must never be bored.” “I wonder where people from Miami go for vacation?”
Norway is no exception to those examples. The chamber of commerce and tourism bureau do a bang up job here. And when you travel on a tourist’s agenda you expect to see, smell, hear, feel, and especially taste everything that makes a place wonderful. You better or disappointment begets negative press.
The reality is that life is so similar. Globalization has brought Levi’s, Coke, and Nintendo to all corners of the world. People go about their daily lives and gripe about the same issues. We should all be so lucky to complain about the mundane. When you live with famine, or displacement, or violence the trivia of life must become a dream.
Today was mundane. It was a nice day but like a day I could have had almost anywhere in the modern world. Saturday began with our new routine, which I detest: the boys spending a couple of hours on their e-tablets playing Minecraft. I don’t have too much standing to complain because since they’re playing quietly I troll the internet on my devices, Meghan does too. Codependents, all of us.
We needed to do something, to have a goal and get out of the house for the sake of our mental health if nothing else. Yesterday was stellar, the bar was low for today but there was a bar and we needed to cross it. Last night we scored big experiences for nary a Kroner so I was feeling generous.
What to do? Meghan and I settled on a choice for the boys: the Røa indoor pool or the indoor playground in Østerås. Leo’s was the winner even though it required traveling in a new part of city. But hey! That’s what makes every seemingly simple trip special. We hoofed it to Røa, took the #5 train to the end of the line at Østerås and then returned to Shank’s Mare for the rest of the trip. It took about hour total. I’ll be waiting for some local reader to suggest a more efficient route. Meghan quipped it would have taken 11 minutes if we had a car.
Leo’s was nice. It was clean. It had a lot of room and a surprisingly sophisticated food selection. In fact, the staff would even deliver the handsome open-faced sandwiches to your tables – no intercom blaring, “Solbretsen, dine pølser er ferdig. Solbretsen!” So actually, in those ways it was different from my experiences in America, but I digress.
We paid for the boys, we all took our shoes, and then, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Meghan and I found a comfortable brown leather couch. This place was organized for the contemporary world. That is, the parents are almost all on their smart phones, not paying attention to the children. So, the comfortable seating and couches were dispersed through the play areas. Kind of a soft supervision, if a child cried out at least there would be an adult nearby who’d look up in curiosity.
I am giving the architect a lot of credit. If it was an accident of design, then well done anyways. While the boys played Meghan and I read. She had her novel, I grabbed the house copy of VG, a daily newspaper. I was pleased to read a featured story about a Norwegian family living in sun-drenched Spain. The title was, “Lever Drømmelivet i Spania,” or my translation, Living the Dreamlife in Spain.
As a young couple they skipped out of Norway to Spain with just enough money to live for six months – to have an adventure. 17 years later they have two kids, a borrowed turtle and “hverdagsliv,” everyday life. That is they say their lives in sexy Spain don’t live up to their friends and countrymen’s ideas of what life is like in that Francophone slice of heaven. The weather is different, but after that it life is remarkably similar, said Hilde.
I predict this will be my abiding insight to living abroad, a year in Norway will strip away the gilding. I will get to appreciate the beauty and the wonderful people, but also that Norway is like most anywhere else. People go to work, worry about how their kids are doing in school, wonder what the election will mean for them, and complain about the weather.
And if you life movies, or sport, or repairing old cars, then you will find that most anywhere you live. Sure, if you really like ski-jumping, painting sunsets over the Channel Islands, or attending first-run theatre, then you need to choose your geography. But if you’re like most people, and you are, then where you live doesn’t matter that much. Same Difference. Continue reading →