A lot of people who grew up, have lived, or do live in the upper midwest are familiar with at least one facet of the American Birkebeiner or have at least heard the name. To the uninitiated, the Birkie is a well-established and well-respected cross country ski race weekend. (Read more here.) The main event is a 50K/54K marathon, but these days there are oodles of different race events including a skijor race: The Barkie Birkie, in its 3rd year as part of the Birkebeiner weekend, and our second skijor race ever.
After the Loppet, I realized that I needed to make sure I had some sort of eyewear for races. Goggles, sunglasses, whatever. A 3K race is a surprisingly different animal than a 3K practice run, and my eyes weren’t happy with going naked. So as part of my preparations for the next race was picking up not one, but two pair of sporty wrap-around sunglasses. Anyone who knows me well, and knows my past history with keeping track of sunglasses, knows why I picked up two pair. To wit: I immediately, that very afternoon, accidentally left one pair behind at a rally class. The second pair survived the rest of the week and the drive to the cabin where we stayed for the Barkie, then mysteriously disappeared somewhere in my bags on the morning of the race.
The reason I feel compelled to tell this sunglasses story is that because the Barkie Birkie is held on Friday, I found myself without a helper. It turns out that not all employers see the same value in giving employees a day off for a skijor race that mine does, and all my potential helpers had to work. I faced the daunting task of leaving the comforts of home and heading northeast to the comforts of a friend’s adorable cabin and then managing myself, my dog, and all our gear all alone. When I can’t even keep track of a pair of sunglasses by myself.
Anxiety and stubbornness are funny things, though. They ebb and flow, alternately yielding to each other sometimes seemingly at random. Maybe it was because I’d broken my race seal with the Loppet and had a good idea of what to expect. Maybe it was because I wouldn’t be able to face people if I’d taken the day off work and then chickened out. Or maybe I just realized how nice and helpful skijorers and skijor race organizers are, and that this really wasn’t going to be a big deal. But this time, even though I had a moment of panic as we were lining up to start when I thought I could still just leave right now and nothing bad would happen, stubbornness won in the end.
And Squash made it easy. Maybe I don’t say this enough, or maybe I say it too much, but he’s just a really fantastic dog. He maintains a calm composure no matter what happens, and even when he does get worried or overwhelmed he bounces back quickly. One moment that I won’t ever forget was after one of the race volunteers had offered to help handle him at the start (the handler holds your dog out away from you a bit to prevent tangles at the start and allow you to concentrate on skiing right away). When the guy first took his collar from me, Squash got worried and tucked his tail until I said “It’s ok, Squash, you’re ok!” when he almost immediately relaxed and forgot his worries. That’s the kind of dog he is, and his composure helps my composure. Maybe it’s corny, but we’re a team; we help each other.
And when I stop and think about what this was all like for him, he just absolutely blows me away. He rode in the car for 3 hours; stayed overnight in a strange place without the rest of our family; rode in the car the next morning for 45 minutes to Hayward; waited patiently in the car while I picked up my bib and race packet; waited patiently in the car while I walked a few blocks to the gas station to buy two new pairs of sunglasses; accompanied me to the HQ/warming house to get geared up; navigated crowds of other dogs and people uneventfully; waited patiently with me in the staging area until it was our turn to line up; heard numerous announcements over a very loud PA system; experienced a completely different race start format (interval rather than mass start) where he was in close proximity with a lot of other dogs and skiers; had a stranger/volunteer helping me handle him at the start; got stuck behind/ in a big pileup of dogs soon after the start; raced for 3K on an unfamiliar course in 2-3 inches of fresh snow while it was still snowing; ran by crowds of spectators cheering and ringing cowbells (ok he loves this stuff and hams it up shamelessly); endured countless encounters with spectators who wanted to stop, chat, and/or pet him while we made our way back to the car; posed for pictures; and finally, rode 3 hours back home – half of which was through a very heavy snowstorm that probably should have terrified me more than it did but mercifully I was too pumped up on post-race endorphins to worry about it.
This is how many effs Squash gave about staying at an unfamiliar cabin:
And this is how many effs he gave about walking around on unfamiliar property:
We drove up on Thursday night and while there was plenty of snow for the race, it wasn’t snowing. When we woke up on Friday morning, though, it was snowing pretty well.
Because we didn’t have a helper, I also don’t have any race pictures. There were dozens of professional and volunteer photographers, so eventually we will have some; I just don’t have any right now. I rigged up a much better mount for video this time, but because it was snowing pretty hard the whole time this is what happened to the entire video because of snowflakes on the lens:
Which is a tragedy. Our start was pretty choppy with some enthusiastic running back to jump on mom, and there was a huge pileup of dogs and skiers who were also having choppy starts that we got entangled in. And when he got tired, as usual, he got very silly. But in between I noticed a world of improvement between this race, the Loppet, and our recent practice runs. He got pretty excited when we were lined up for the start, and while he didn’t slam his harness like some dogs do he did do his patented “I’m excited so I’m going to jump up and down in place a few times” routine. He was much more serious and kept a tight line almost the whole time. His ON BY was hugely improved and he didn’t stop to pee on all the things (until he got tired and silly towards the end). For the most part he passed and was passed uneventfully and moved over when I told him to (until he got tired and silly towards the end when I had to reel him in). We took the turns beautifully. I heard a volunteer say, as we gracefully passed by instead of stopping to say HI HI HI LOVE YOU, “That’s a strong dog.” And while he didn’t hold this pace the whole way, several times he just absolutely hauled ass. For whatever reason (probably just because he thinks it’s fun) he really, really loves running up and down hills. We were mostly on a golf course and what hills we encountered were pretty gentle, but when we hit them he opened up into an all-out gallop that I had never seen out of him before this race. The feeling of being behind this dog running that way is just indescribable. You can get a blurry hint of it above, but it wouldn’t do him justice even if it was focused.
I don’t know what the official race results were, and I don’t care. It was a Good Day with a Good Dog, and that’s all that matters. I’m proud of my amazing boy and I’m happy to be his partner.
Post-race kind stranger picture:
This is the last race we’re signed up for this year. I know of a couple more coming up in the next few weeks, but I think I’m going to stick to practice and meet-ups for the rest of this winter. Now that I’m aware of the races that are out there and when they’re typically held, I’ll probably sign up for more events next winter (like the Ham Bowl, the Snowflake in Duluth, and the Mush for the Cure up on the Gunflint which has a skijor event). But I think for now I’m going to let these experiences settle in and percolate, and use what we’ve learned to work on the things they showed me we need to work on.