Photo By Kelly Randolph
Birkie 2012 is officially underway with the lighting of the Birkie Torch at this year's Welcome Ceremony, Thursday evening at 5:30 on Main Street, Hayward, WI. Laurie Landgraf lit the torch in memory of late husband, Dave Landgraf, Birkie Founder, who was killed in a bicycle accident during a training ride this past August. Dave was one of three remaining Birkie Founders who had skied every Birkie since the first event in 1973. This would have been his 39th year.
A dedicated athlete, coach, community member, husband, father, and friend, Dave was starting and finishing in the Elite wave every year, his red Founder's bib in the mix of competitors many years his junior. Dave's children, Cole and Emalea, will be wearing their father's race bib during Saturday's Birkebeiner race.
Read this interview with Birkie Founder, Dave Landgraf, and his telling of the first Birkie. This interview is an excerpt from Walter Rhein's book,BEYOND BIRKIE FEVER, to be released October, 2011. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Following Dave's untimely death, Walter sent us this story to share with our Birkie family.
The First Birkie
As told by American Birkebeiner "Founding Skier," David Landgraf
Back in 1973, the American Birkebeiner was just the dream of legendary Northwoods Wisconsin promoter Tony Wise. The first race had less than forty participants, and was a considerably different experience than the tremendous spectacle that it has become today.
Among those competing in the first event was David Landgraf. Landgraf himself is something of a living legend, although he's too modest to describe or even think of himself as such. Today, retired and having completed every single Birkie, Landgraf is still competitive with the fastest skiers in the event.
I sat down with Landgraf on December 31st, 2010 to get his account of the first Birkie. Initially I had asked him to write it down himself, but soon found that when there's snow on the ground it's fairly difficult to pry the man off the ski trails.
As we enjoyed a bowl of split pea soup, I glanced around the walls at a lifetime of Birkie photos and mementos. It was instantly obvious how elevated a position the Birkie occupied in Landgraf's life. I soon discovered that he was a wealth of information on all things skiing as he regaled me with stories about the improvements in equipment and clothing throughout the years as well as the various histories of the individual Birkies themselves.
"That's the year that Adidas introduced a boot that everybody had to have since the only other alternative left your feet feeling like blocks of ice," he said, gesturing at one photo.
"That's the first year that Fischer introduced a ski specifically designed for skating, note how it still had the long, classical tips," he said while gesturing at another.
"That's the year that everybody wore black and yellow ski suits because the Norwegians had worn a similar suit when they came for the Birkie the year before."
Many of the little developments along the line struck a chord with me. My mom had been a Birkie participant for as long as I can remember, and I have distinct memories of the ripples of excitement that passed through our household from any little advancement in cross-country skiing equipment. Some of the skis, bindings, and boots that Landgraf alluded to were familiar to me, but the others were new to me and it was satisfying to have somebody come along and fill in the gaps in my knowledge. It's pretty remarkable to consider that within our lifetime, people were still using skis with three-hole bindings. What's even more remarkable is how much better the current technology has become.
As we finished our soup, I hit the voice recorder function on my Blackberry and pushed the device over to sit in front of Landgraf as he jostled with some notes he'd jotted down in preparation.
"I wanted to set the stage as to what 1973 was like," he said, and then proceeded to list off a series of interesting facts, "a gallon of gas was 40 cents, the average income was $12,900, and a new house cost you $32,500. The popular films of the day were 'The Exorcist,' 'Deliverance,' 'American Graffiti,' and the best picture that year went to 'The Godfather.' On the radio you were listening to 'Dark Side of the Moon' as well as groups like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Abba. And...the first American Birkebeiner took place in Hayward, Wisconsin."
At this, Landgraf pushed aside his notes and became reflective. I got the impression that he had told this story many times although I didn't get the sense that the tale had inflated or become exaggerated through repetition. There are some moments in life that are so precious that people seem to do everything they can to preserve their veracity, and that's how I perceived Landgraf felt about his first Birkie experience.
It all started with a phone call from Landgraf's childhood friend and fellow founder, Ernie St. Germain in early February of 1973.
"David," St. Germain said, "Tony Wise is having a cross-country ski race up in Telemark. I dare you to do it!"
Among other things, Wise had established the Telemark lodge up in Hayward as well as the Lumberjack World Championships that still are held annually in Hayward to this day. Landgraf had worked up at Telemark throughout high school and college, so he was well aware of who Tony Wise was. What he didn't know anything about, at the time, was cross-country skiing.
"A cross-country ski race," Landgraf replied, "what's that?"
"Well you strap some skis on and ski from Hayward to Cable," St. Germain replied.
"Well, that sounds kind of crazy."
"Come on let's do it!"
At this point, Landgraf emphasized that neither he nor St. Germain had ever participated in any kind of endurance sport before. His love was baseball with the occasional game of pick-up basketball thrown in. He had downhill skied a dozen times or so because he had worked at Telemark and could downhill for free at night but he had never cross country skied before. In fact, he didn't even know what a cross-country ski was and neither did St. Germain. But St. Germain (perhaps trusting Wise's ability to create special events) said that since Tony was having this race they should do it.
Thus committed, Landgraf went about the task of getting himself some cross-country skis. He was living in Bloomington, MN then and he went around the local ski shops in quest of skis, boots, and poles that he could rent for a couple weeks. Eventually finding a pair, Landgraf was beset by another problem.
There wasn't any snow!
No place to practice.
Nothing upon which to train!
After another exhaustive search, Landgraf discovered that there was a big snowbank around Met stadium where the Twins and Vikings played. Presumably the snow pile was what had been left over after the parking lots had been cleared off. Well, Met stadium was right near where Landgraf lived, so he walked over there a couple times, and skied on top of the big snowbank that went around the stadium and after a while figured, "well, that's not too bad." But of course he'd never been on a hill, never been on a trail, and those meager laps around the Met comprised the entirety of his preparation.
Today, people train all year in order to have the fitness necessary to complete the Birkie. 50 km is more than 30 miles! A running marathon is a grueling 26.2 miles, and those are generally run on warm summer days. Landgraf had sentenced himself to more than a marathon distance in the sub-freezing conditions of a Wisconsin winter to boot.
No endurance training.
No bicycle riding (in fact Landgraf didn't even own a bike).
Not even a decent familiarity with how to balance on a pair of cross-country skis.
This was Landgraf's preparation for one of the most grueling sporting events in North America.
He's the first to admit that he simply didn't have the first clue about endurance sports.
But things were about to change.
When you're 23, you can get away with such unprepared craziness.
On the day of the race, Landgraf showed up with his rented equipment at the designated starting area behind Historyland (another Tony Wise creation) in Hayward, WI. Landgraf was wearing a pair of sweatpants, an old wool sweater, cotton long underwear and, appropriately, a tassel hat.
Less than 40 people were there at the start that day.
Somebody shot off a starter's pistol.
And off they went...
Today the Birkie trail is a national treasure that cuts through the rolling Wisconsin wilderness and is as wide as a county highway. The trail is groomed with the best equipment money can by, and is touted as one of the premier cross-country ski destinations in North America.
In 1973, that wasn't the case.
Heading out across lake Hayward, Landgraf soon found himself upon a unmarked, haphazard trail that winded along on old logging roads and abandoned railroad beds. The trail itself had been made by a guy on skis being pulled along behind a snowmobile (which was probably an exhausting task to complete in itself).
For the vast majority of the race, Landgraf never even saw another person.
Surely the fact that 'Deliverance' was in theaters at the time, did little to abate his concerns.
Slowly, slipping and sliding along on his rented skis, Landgraf made his way towards Cable. Most of the time he was uncertain if he was in the right place or not. The single aid station reassured him that he was still on track, but otherwise he was sure he was lost the entire time.
The one saving grace was that the temperature wasn't all that bad during the first Birkie. Although as Landgraf recounted this he was quick to add, "the next year, however, was a brutal fourteen below zero! This was made worse by the fact that we didn't have the right clothing of course. But that first year wasn't bad."
Hours passed, disappearing into that vortex of time that only exists in the midst of a cross-country ski race, and a certain sense of despair began to creep in. Cross-country skiing is essentially the act of skiing uphill, which can be fairly tricky on a piece of equipment that is designed to be free of resistance and is made to glide across the snow. Skiing uphill can be difficult even if you know what you're doing, but for somebody who has no idea, it's virtually impossible.
So it was that as the kilometers clicked by and the exhaustion set in, Landgraf eventually resorted to literally crawling up the hills on his hands and knees. His only salvation was that he knew the terrain surrounding Telemark and the finish line was quite a bit more hilly, so as things got more difficult, he knew he must be approaching the end. Eventually he piqued up when he thought he began to hear the downhill ski lift equipment up at Telemark echoing off in the distance.
The hills continued, up and down, and Landgraf trudged wearily on, crawling on his hands and knees. Suddenly, at the top of the next rise, Landgraf caught a glimpse of something that gave him a surge of energy.
There, also crawling along miserably on all fours, was none other than his old friend Ernie St. Germain.
"The guy who got me into this mess."
Encouraged by the fact that, St. Germain looked just as miserable as Landgraf felt, he got inspired and made a super-human effort to catch up.
Flailing like mad, Landgraf eventually pulled up alongside St. Germain at the top of the bunny hill at the Telemark lodge. Some choice words were probably spoken which have since been lost to history, and the two of them proceeded on down the bunny hill towards the glorious finish only to subsequently crash in a tremendous tangle of limbs, rented ski poles, and the sincere desire to simply have the race be over.
As they were sitting there trying to figure out who's arms, legs, and poles belonged to who, they heard a tremendous voice scream "get the hell out of the way!" which sent both Landgraf and St. Germain scrambling.
The voice belonged to Karl Andresen who had been Landgraf's political science teacher back in college at Eau Claire. Later, Landgraf would find himself moving back to Eau Claire, and it would be Karl Andresen who would take him under his wing and teach him how to ski, to train, and to eventually love and appreciate the sport.
But on the day of the first Birkie, it was all about survival.
Stumbling to their feet, Landgraf and St. Germain skied up the last little hill to the finish where they had an unassuming table set out in the cold. Landgraf couldn't remember if they were given a medallion or some other trinket, and he was probably too exhausted to care.
Prying off their skis, Landgraf and St. Germain stumbled down to the Ratskellar bar there at the Telemark lodge and proceeded to order pitcher after pitcher of beer.
"It was the most miserable athletic event that I'd ever been involved in, and I made a vow right then that I would never be talked into any other kind of ridiculous escapade by Ernie St. Germain," Landgraf said.
A vow that he has diligently broken once a year for nearly forty years and counting!
The magic of the Birkie is that is has a way of drawing you back each year for more.
As I was packing up my things and heading out the door, Landgraf nodded with one final thought.
"That phone call from Ernie in 1973 literally changed my life."
The Birkie changes everyone's life, and always for the better.
How You Can Support "Ski Strong"
Note from Walter: My friends at CyclovaXC are printing up some hats to raise money for the Ski Strong Foundation that Emalea and Laurie Landgraf started in memory of Dave. Click Here for more information.