George Hovland skied his 33rd American Birkebeiner on Saturday. All day Saturday.
Hovland, who is 85, started the race in the sixth wave of skiers at 9 a.m. He finished 8 hours, 25 minutes later.
"It was a beautiful sunset," Duluth's Hovland said.
Not only did Hovland finish the race, but he skied the entire race with his heart in atrial fibrillation, a condition described as "an irregular and often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow to the body," according to the Mayo Clinic website. "Atrial fibrillation symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and weakness."
Owner of Snowflake Nordic center in Duluth, Hovland is an excellent cross-country skier who has often won or finished high in his age group at the Birkie. He was a member of the 1952 Olympic Nordic combined team that competed in Oslo, Norway.
He said Saturday's race was more than challenging.
"It was cruel and unusual punishment," he said in a telephone interview Sunday evening at home. "Do you know how you get to that point where you feel like you're going to have to stop or something? I felt that way a dozen times."
Hovland has a special pacemaker that converts his heart to a normal heartbeat if his gets too high, but the pacemaker did not activate during the race.
He had consulted with his cardiologist, Dr. Mark Neustel of Duluth, about whether he should attempt the race. Neustel reviewed Hovland's history and cleared him to ski.
"I said, "Just go do the Birkie,'" Neustel said. "He skis all the time. He's active. I said, 'I think it will be safe.' "
Hovland isn't sure how the atrial fibrillation affected him during the race.
"I just keep going as long as I can," he said. "It sure was nice to finish."
Few have a better perspective on Hovland's performance than John Kotar, 72, a former Duluthian now from Eau Claire, Wis., who has skied all 39 Birkebeiners.
"I'm not skiing anywhere near as well as George did 13 years ago," Kotar said. "Here he is 85. The way he skied, it is downright amazing. ... For that age, he is really putting on a remarkable performance."
Hovland said the 54 kilometers -- 33½ miles -- he skied Saturday equaled the total of all his skiing before the race this winter. He skied using the classic technique.
"I stopped for about 12 minutes at Double-O (Wisconsin Highway OO)," Hovland said. "I took a little nap. I called Jane."
He told Jane he wasn't feeling good at that point, roughly halfway through the race. She cut him no slack.
"She said, 'George, you committed to this thing. Don't quit,' " he said.
So, he got back on the course and kept skiing. His downhill skiing technique is good, and he would often pass other skiers on the downhills, he said.
"Then I'd go for about 150 yards and wait for them to catch up," he said.
Hovland finished first in the 85- to 89-year-old age group for classic-style skiers, Birkebeiner officials said Monday. In the online results, Hovland is listed as second in the "80 and over" age class to an 80-year-old skier, John Chapman of Eagan, Minn. Birkebeiner officials said the 85-89 age classes had been added, "but we probably forgot to tell the timers," said Cindy Zsohar, a registration official.
Hovland was the oldest skier in the race, Zsohar said. Birkebeiner officials say they can't determine the oldest skier ever to ski the race in its 39 years.
On Sunday afternoon, Hovland was feeling good enough to ski the downhill run at Chester Bowl as a forerunner before a youth ski race.
Hovland said he isn't sure he will ski the Birkebeiner again next year.
"I may wait until I get into the 90-and-over category," he said.
He figures his chances of winning his age group would be better that way.