“Ouch. Jeez. What the?"
These were the words that came out of Marty’s mouth after Marguerite punched him in stomach at the crowded Musky Bar in downtown Hayward, Wisconsin.
Chances are good that you have never read an article in the Birch Scroll or Cross Country Skier Magazine. But even if you have, you more than likely have never run into a story like this one.
The year was 2004 and the month was February.
We, as in my sister-in-law Marguerite, my brother Pitter, shortened for his legal childhood nickname of Pitter-Patter-Pooper-ick, our friend Marty, my husband Sven and I, were crowded around a small shellacked table in a dimly lit kitchen of a cabin. The interior décor was a mix of anything that included a moose or was hunter green, or both, and there were enough antiques to open a mall, including the oven we were seated next to.
All of the dozens of buildings and the restaurant on the site were oozing with much of the same, right down to the toilet paper holders. The antiques looked unnatural against the glossy wood logs and the shiny wood floors.
“You gotta be kidding me!” Marguerite was saying. “One hundred dollars?”
Marguerite is my spicy sister-in-law. She’s a brunette who wears her wavy hair short and she never goes anywhere without a twinkle in her shiny brown eyes.
We were all a bundle of nerves. The next day was going to be the first cross country ski race of our lives, for Sven, Pitter and me, that is. We were registered for the Kortelopet, a twenty-three kilometer race. Marty, was making his return debut to the ski scene on the same trip and was signed up for the American Birkebiener, which is fifty-two kilometers. Marguerite, had not had any time to train so she’d come along to lend us moral support. She’d planned to see us all off at the starting line, ski a few K’s at Telemark Resort where the combined Birkie and Kortie began and the Kortie ended. After a short ski she would go for a swim, sit in the hot tub, have a massage and then read her book in front of the fireplace in the lobby that is out of this world. She hoped to time her activities in a fashion that would have her at the finish line when we three very nervous, novice ski racers, would eventually, with any luck, cross.
Assuming that we did finish the race, the four of us were to drive to Hayward, hopefully with good enough times to see Marty along with the other skiers and thousands of cheering onlookers, ski up Main Street.
At registration in the afternoon we’d received word that there was no public skiing at Telemark on race day and the Kortelopet was now a whopping one hundred dollars to get in.
The news was sinking in at that table, in that kitchen that night and Marguerite was starting to pout, in her very Marguerite style.
“I can’t believe I came all this way and I can’t even ski.”
“Just ski without paying. It's no big deal,” says Marty.
“It’s easy. All you have to do is wear a windbreaker and zip it up to your chin. When everyone goes through the gates for the 10th
wave, (he was referring to us beginning hackers) stay in the middle of the pack, away from the officials who are checking for bibs. Even if they see you, they’ll just think you have your warm ups on. Who would sneak into the 10th
wave anyway? Then ski a couple K's, turn off on to one of the other trails when you get tired and ski back to the resort. It should be a piece of cake.”
She took a slug of the long necked bottle that Sven, Pitter and I were staring at longingly, since we’d already had two, against Marty’s advice. We didn’t dare have another.
“I’m going to do it,” she says, slamming her bottle onto the table.
“Really?” I said.
“She might as well,” Marty said. “People do it all the time.”
“What if she gets caught?”
“Yeah, what if I get caught? Will the Birkie police take me to jail?”
“Just act like you didn’t know that you had to register,” Marty said. He knew all the ins and outs. He'd been an alternate in the Olympics in his day.
So Marguerite opened another bottle and practiced her sign language, in case someone questioned her. She convinced me that she was confused and hard of hearing.
The plan was all set when we turned in at 10 p.m. to lay in bed listening to the hum of snowmobiles that never did end.
The temperature was a mere four degrees the next morning when we stepped off the yellow school bus at Telemark Resort onto bright crystals of snow that crunched under each step. We merged into a herd of brightly clad skiers, all traveling to the ominous warming tent by the start line.
Marguerite wore a loose fitting yellow and olive green windbreaker that was zipped up tight to her chin, as advised. Underneath she was layered in long underwear, ski pants, another ski jacket and she had a small backpack containing her book, her swimsuit, her shampoo, her crème rinse and her hair brush.
Marty sprinted off with his fellow 5th
wave skiers, leaving the rest of us rookies wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.
Five waves of skiers later the loudspeakers were calling for the 10th and final wave of the Birkebiener and Kortelopet to enter through the gates.
Marguerite was shoulder to shoulder with Pitter and Sven. I was immediately behind her. We moved as a single unit into a stampede of people shuffling on skis, with sheer terror in all of our eyes.
The sun was shining brightly as we stood waiting for the gun to fire.
That was the last time I saw Marguerite, Sven and Pitter until two hours and forty-five minutes later when I skied across the finish line with tears in my eyes and, what felt like fire in my lungs. Sven placed a heavy gold medallion around my neck and we had our picture taken together portraying our euphoria.
“Where’s Marguerite?” I asked my brother as we made our way to the Prince Haakon Bar for a victory toast.
She must be in the hot tub. I haven’t seen her yet,” he replied nonchalantly.
“You know,” said Sven, “I didn’t see any place that she could have gotten off the trail. Everything was blocked.”
“I noticed that too,” I said. “You don’t think….”
We drank our beer and ordered another round. Pitter went to check all the spots again. No Marguerite.
“You don’t think she’s still out there skiing with all those clothes on and all that stuff on her back, do you?”
“Naw. She’s gotta be around here someplace,” Pitter said, unconvincingly.
About an hour later Marguerite silently slipped in next to us, grabbed Pitter’s glass right out of his hand and drank it like she’d been drifting aimlessly in the Sahara Desert for three days.
Her hair was glued to her forehead when she took off her soaked hat. She looked like a human sauna, with a bottle of shampoo stuck to her back. I don’t know if it’s possible, but she seemed to be five pounds thinner than she had that morning, as she began stripping off layers of very wet clothing in the crowded bar, sputtering all the while.
"There was no way out. Where's Marty? I’m going to kill him.”
“He’s probably in Hayward by now and he’s probably been there for awhile. We need to go there to pick him up.”
She ignored the comment. “Pitter, please get me another beer.”
He was on it.
Marguerite started her story, “It was fun at first, but I couldn't see where I could turn off. And then at the first rest stop one of the volunteers put an orange slice in my mouth and said, bless you my child. It was like he knew I was guilty. That’s when paranoia started setting in. Oh my God, I felt like everyone knew I was a racing imposter and a sinner. That guy knew I was a sinner.”
“There was no way to escape?” asked Pitter, handing her the Pilsner he’d fetched.
“No. There was no f’n way outta there. And people kept looking at me, looking for my bib number. I had my jacket zipped all the way up and kept on skiing and skiing and skiing. At one point a medic was skiing with me. He asked me if I was okay because my face was bright red. I was so hot I thought I was going to pass out, but I had to keep that jacket zipped.”
“Yeah, holy crap. It warmed up about what, thirty degrees since this morning?”
“So did you have any fun?”
“I met some pretty cool people. People who paid to be in the race. People who thought I was an honest person and that I paid to be in the race. People who didn’t know that I was a liar and a cheater. We were singing and telling stories and cheering each other on up and down the big hills. My favorite new friend was a twelve year old kid. We skied together the most because we were going about the same pace. He was so brave out there all by himself. He said he just wanted to try it, so he did. And then, right in the middle of his sentence, I ditched him. I came over that last hill, saw the parking lot and the camera guy and the finish line. I could hear the officials announcing names as people crossed it. I totally panicked and I took off like a bat outta hell for that foot path. I took off my skis and ran. I couldn’t look back. I can’t even imagine the expression on his poor little face.”
We finished our drinks and drove to Hayward to pick up Marty. He was in the Musky Bar, leaning against the wall, shivering, still in his wet clothes.
His blue eyes lit up like a little puppy dog’s when he saw us come in.
Three of us smiled and waved.
And then Marguerite punched him in the stomach.
Good luck to all of you Birkie and Kortie skiers next year.