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Brown finds Birkie preparations a challenge

As for so many Northland skiers this winter, Elton Brown has found one of his biggest challenges to be finding decent snow on which to ski. Brown, 58, is preparing for his 13th American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., next weekend. Normally he part...

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As for so many Northland skiers this winter, Elton Brown has found one of his biggest challenges to be finding decent snow on which to ski. Brown, 58, is preparing for his 13th American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., next weekend. Normally he participates in two to four races to prepare for the Birkie, but this year he has done only one. Wednesday, Birkie officials decided to shorten the race because of trail conditions. Because of the difficulty in finding good training conditions, that's fine with Brown. "I'm approaching it as a different kind of Birkie," he said. "It's there to enjoy. I'm going to forget about trying to beat people."
Like many Duluth skiers, the minister at Woodland-University United Methodist Church, has gone over to Brule, Wis., to find good snow this winter. However, that's 38 miles away, so it is not something he does every day.
He has tried other areas closer to home, like Lester Park and the Superior Municipal Forest, but found "the trails haven't been good even one day."
Then last week, he had "a really smart thought." Brown went out to Spirit Mountain, paid $4 and discovered the cross country trails to be in excellent condition. "I got in two 4 kilometer workouts over three hours each."
Although he has been a cross-country skier for 30 years, Brown said that it took him a long time to work up the courage to enter the Birkebeiner. The number of skiers and the difficulty of the race both set him back. He notes that while the Mora Vasaloppet is a little longer, the course is a little flatter. In the Birkebeiner, he said, "You feel like you're spending most of your time going uphill. You have to be in good shape."
That all changed after his first Birkie, when he learned he could complete the race. Now he skis in the first wave right behind the world-class athletes. "I need to have this annual date to keep myself honest," said Brown. "It's a strong motivator, because if I'm not prepared, I'm not going to enjoy the Birkie."
His first Birkie, Brown was proud to finish 374th. Hearing of his accomplishment, however, one of his parishioners said only, "Well, at least you finished." Non-skiers may not realize that 374th in a field of 6,500 puts one in the top 6 percent of all skiers entered.
Brown also broke three hours one year, but was planning on a 3-hour 30-minute time before the race was shortened this year.
Brown likes the pageantry of the event. He goes down to Cable, Wis., the night before and spends the night at a condo with some other cross-country skiing clergy. He has two pairs of skis, and he waxes them both the night before, one set slightly different from the other in preparation for the most likely weather conditions.
He usually has spaghetti the night before, and drinks plenty of extra fluids. In the morning he has a light breakfast, and during the race he has some high energy bars to chew on the trails. He sticks to the fluids at the aid stations to help keep up his energy. He enjoys all the camaraderie and the other events surrounding the Birkie.
At the end of the race, he walks the four blocks to the school for post-race festivities. Some years, he said, those four blocks are the longest part of the race because of fatigue. Still, he loves the sport and the race. "I'm so grateful to have this sport because it uses your whole body, but it is not as hard on a body like running a marathon so you recover more quickly."
Even with the shorter race, Brown knows that at the end he will be tired. He adds, "But if I pass a few people at the end and am not suffering, it will be a successful race."

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