Across the Disappearing Finishing Line

Searching for the keys to endurance, a ski racer pushes his body and heart to the limit—until his father's sudden illness changes all the rules

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

WE MADE IT TO THANKSGIVING, and I spent the week in West Yellowstone—my longest absence from his bedside so far, a guilty vacation—at the annual cross-country training camp that fills the town with gaunt, wax-obsessed nordic racers trying to cope with the 6,600-foot altitude. I flew home on Friday, though, for a delayed turkey dinner, where we managed to convince ourselves that we had much to be thankful for and that, with Dad propped up at table's end, all was joy. After the pie settled, I went for a run and instantly understood why athletes are so eager to train at altitude. My body had compensated for the thin Montana air by adding extra red blood cells. I ran through suburban Boston on a high—no matter how hard I pushed, I couldn't make myself hurt. My heart-rate monitor showed I was working reasonably hard, but I could have been out for the lightest of jogs. I felt out ahead of my body, as if I was outrunning my feet.

Sadly, the corpuscles quickly disappeared, and with them the sense that I had become a minor deity. Worse than that, the East was still warm and bare as December began. The temperature hit the seventies on the first of the month. The pond by our house was filled with summery ripples. No need for the woodstove; we slept with the windows open.

It bothered me on many levels. For ten years I'd been a nearly full-time student of global warming—worrying, tracking the rising sea temperatures that were bleaching coral reefs, writing about the increase in the strength and frequency of hurricanes. But I felt it most personally come winter. Always my favorite of seasons, it had become deeply unreliable. As the man from Fischer Skis had told me in West Yellowstone, global warming had already damaged their business, interrupting every winter with long stretches of mud and thaw. Business would doubtless carry on; in fact, I'd just come across a series of economic forecasts proving, in the smug fashion of economists, that increases in the greens fees from golfers would outweigh the losses from declining ski sales. But I didn't want to play golf—I wanted to speed sublimely through the woods, riding on an outstretched ski, pushing with every muscle in my body. I wanted the annual remission from friction.

Rob had been pushing me to pick a final race to aim for, something grand enough to be worthy of this whole experiment—and he'd been urging me to think about the Norwegian Birkebeiner, the mother of all cross-country races, held each March on a course that runs over the mountains from Rena to Lillehammer. Open to all comers, it attracts thousands of Norwegians, and most of the world's best marathon skiers. As they race, they commemorate the pivotal event in Norway's 13th-century civil war. The Birkebeiners—Birchleggers—were the underdogs, "often in such dire need that they had nothing but the bark of birch trees as footwear." But they were determined that the rival faction, the Baglers, not capture Haakon Haakonsson, the toddler son of their dying king. So on Christmas Day 1205, two Birkebeiner skiers spirited him away on an epic journey across the mountains. The boy grew up to be King Haakon and to finally rout the Baglers, raising Norway to its medieval glory. And hence, each year in late March, racers pound those same grueling 58 kilometers, about 40 miles, mostly uphill, each carrying an eight-pound pack to match the weight of the young king.

I doubted I could go. With Dad dying, the prospect of a trans-atlantic trip seemed unlikely. And I wondered if I could even finish the race. But I still logged onto the race Web site and clicked the button for an application. Maybe Dad would get better for a while—maybe the "good time" would arrive. I knew I wanted to go; it sounded crazy, hard enough to justify this crazy year.

This crazy year in which winter seemed never to come. By mid-December we'd set up the Christmas tree at church and gone caroling in shirtsleeves. Finally, December 17 brought a little snow to the Adirondacks, and a few phone calls established that the Olympic trails at Lake Placid were partially open. They were barely covered, but it was skiing, and I kicked around and around the same short loops with the junior biathletes, guns strapped to their backs, and the local masters skiers, all of us desperate for snow. The next day warm, foggy air melted big tawny patches in the snow, and it was back to the damn NordicTrack. December was shot.

We got through Christmas Day in Boston just fine—a lot of the ornaments hung at wheelchair height, testament to Dad's pleasure in the work—but then, tired from the strain of this last big celebration, Dad was all but comatose for a couple of days. "Were it my dad," said the surgeon, "I wouldn't do much more."

At which point Dad emerged from his fog for the first time all day to ask yet again that he be treated "aggressively." Which annoyed the hell out of me—some part of me wanted him to go away and stop bothering us. Stop making me feel guilty for not being more help to my mother; stop pulling me away from my family; stop stop stop being so damn needy, so unlike my father. Which, of course, left me feeling twice as guilty as before.

A snowstorm might have righted me. It usually does. A couple of hours alone in the woods, gliding along, pushing up hills and carving down them, breaking out into the open on Adirondack lakes and tucking back into stands of hemlock, reminding me of the proper order and scale of things.

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