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American Birkebeiner: Morales back doing what he loves

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Steve Morales skied the American Birkebeiner last year just five months after having hip-replacement surgery and is back to ski his 40th Birkie this year. Submitted photo

Steve Morales was roller-skiing in September 2018 on a country road near his home in Hayward when he took a tumble and crashed hard onto the pavement.

As Morales was lying on the asphalt he admitted the thought of not being able to do many of the things he loved crossed his mind. One of those things was the Birkie.

Morales, 71, will ski his 40th Birkie on Saturday from Cable to Main Street in Hayward.

“The Birkie is part of the active lifestyle that I prefer,” Morales said. “Any time you injure yourself, you go, ‘What’s this going to do with what I like to do most days of the week?’ I have a lot of other interests, as well, but I’m definitely addicted to exercise. It would be hard for me to be without that.”

From the Rockies to the northwoods

Morales grew up in Montana and Wyoming. After going to college at the University of California, he moved to Frisco, Colo., for a couple years but it wasn’t for him. Mountain living was beautiful but changing too fast, so he moved to Hayward in 1974 after finding a piece of land he discovered while traveling the summer before.

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“With Frisco at that time, if you left for a month and came back, the town looked different,” Morales said. “I was looking for a place that was more permanent. Hayward looked like that to me, and it’s proven to be so.”

Morales married his wife, Melisa, in November of 1974 and not long after they started a cross country ski shop in Hayward. They ran that together for 30 years before selling it in 2005 to their employees. Morales is retired but isn’t passing his days on his favorite rocking chair. He rides bikes in the summer, swims, hikes, trail runs and helps build mountain bike trails.

On Thursday, he was back at his old business, New Moon Ski and Bike Shop, helping out as Hayward goes through its annual ritual of transforming from a town of about 2,300 people to one hosting more than 10,000 skiers, as well as their family, friends and fans.

Morales was helping greet people at the store, fitting boots and selling skis and helping people solve problems with poles. One thing or another.

“It’s going great guns,” Morales said. “There are crowds of people everywhere in Hayward right now. ‘Birkie Fever’ is everywhere. People are excited.”

And making it even more exciting is the fact temperatures are expected to go from frigid into the 30s today and Saturday, making for a great day of skiing and spectating. Morales called this the best year skiing of his lifetime, high praise coming from a guy who has been doing it as well as he has. Friday and Saturday should be about as good as it gets for cross-country skiing, but people still have questions.

“The perfect window is opening for the event, for both skiers and creature comfort alike. You can’t beat it,” Morales said. “The change in the weather gets them all excited about what kind of wax to put on their skis to go fast, but it’s the perfect kind of day. These are the temperatures that make the snow the fastest so it’s most fun to ski.”

Back on track

Morales was preparing for the ski season in September 2018 when he crashed roller-skiing and knew something wasn’t right. His right hip was broken. He wasn’t far from the local high school and luckily, a student happened to come by.

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“I was hobbling towards my car,” Morales said, laughing. “I was about a third-mile away and it was going to take me a long time to get there but this kid stopped and gave me a ride to the car. Then I drove home and picked up my wife and said, 'I think we need to go down to the clinic and see what’s wrong with my hip.' ”

That afternoon Morales was at Essentia Health in Duluth, and he had full hip-replacement surgery as soon as the first surgeon was available. Despite this, it wasn’t long before he was back training for another Birkie.

“I had a traumatic accident, but I learned that if you’re going to break a bone or break a joint that the hip is the one you want to break. An easy one to do,” Morales said, laughing again. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to do the Birkie because I had, like, 143 days to get ready.

“I had to restart my conditioning at a pretty low level, so I had a lot of work to do. I made a schedule of what I thought I would need to be doing the day before the race and then kind of worked backwards from there. I made a graph and model that fit for the next four to five months.”

Morales didn’t just complete in his 40th Birkie. He covered the 50 kilometers from Cable to Hayward in 3 hours, 49 minutes, 28.8 seconds, good for fifth in his 70-74 age group.

Not bad for someone who only months earlier was lying on the road thinking his active days might be over.

“Yes, it crossed my mind,” Morales said. “Then I just said to myself, ‘Well, it’s up to me to make it so I can keep doing what I want to do.’ I was going to give it my best shot and see what happens, and I was really fortunate that I had good medical care so that it all worked out well.”

46TH AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER
What: North America’s largest cross-country ski race
When: 8:15 a.m. Saturday
Where: 50 kilometers from Cable to Main Street in Hayward (55K for classic skiers)
Friday’s schedule: 9 a.m.: Adaptive Ski; 9 a.m.-8 p.m.: Birkie Expo (Hayward High School); 10:15 a.m.: Kortelopet 29K; 1:15 p.m.: Prince Haakon 15K
Friday’s Hayward forecast: mostly sunny with a high of 36

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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