Birkie weekend with “Mr. Tougher-Than-Nails”
By Eve Graves
As the special event quickly approached, my yearning to have a purpose on the big day grew stronger. With 21 years of Kortie’s in the books as well as five Barkie Birkie’s, this year I only had an expo on the calendar for Thursday and Friday.
Saturday continued to be vacant.
Just a mere two weeks prior, my immense void was fulfilled via an email from Dan Cnossen, Para Olympic Nordic and Biathlon sit skier, former Navy SEAL, double amputee and Harvard graduate student. He asked if my offer to host him was still standing. After an ecstatic, “Yes, I’ll be your everything but the guide!” the many wheels were in motion.
Multiple uncertainties were swiftly solved thanks to the cooperation of Allan Serrano, Cindy Zsohar, and Ben Popp of the Birkie. Getting an entry into the race that had been closed for many months was taken care of by one of Cnossen’s coaches, Beth Ann Chamberlain, whose husband Dave Chamberlain would be his guide.
Next came the logistical challenge of getting Cnossen a flight, getting picked up at the airport in Duluth while I was at the expo in Hayward, getting to Hayward, getting passes to the start and finish and locating a place to stay. Being a “Get R Done” kinda gal, I had everything nailed down within a couple of days. Kaelyn Williams transported Cnossen from the airport to Perkin’s in Superior where Tim Krohn was waiting to take him to the house we had rented in Drummond at the last minute. The Cable Chamber of Commerce along with Serrano, Zsohar, and Popp of the Birkie helped solve the rest of the puzzle.
Big Event Minus One
Prior to making his connecting flight in Minneapolis on Friday, I had the chance to check in with Cnossen to give him some last-minute details. It was then I found out he had food poisoning all week and was still unable to keep anything in him. At that point, the cause of the food poisoning was just a “bad oyster” from the previous weekend.
His concern was keeping his fuel in; his extreme lack of energy would not allow him to peruse the airport for medications. New wheels began turning in the form of contacting various skier docs and nurse practitioner friends, all the while manning my expo booth.
Consensus seemed to be: immediately get some Pedialite and Imodium in this poor guy! A 45-minute flight delay did not allow Cnossen to arrive at the house in Drummond until after 6:30 p.m., leaving him only a minimal amount of “fueling” time.
Upon leaving the expo, it dawned on me that unless we found someone to take our expo supplies, we’d have to leave them somewhere in order to fit Cnossen and his gear in our vehicle. One panicked call to Kaitlin and Casey Werner, who I knew were headed into town, saved us! They were already on 27 and could meet us at the store where we were picking up supplies for Cnossen’s ailing stomach.
Car emptied, ginger, Pedialite in multiple forms and Imodium in hand, we headed back to the cabin to care for our talented, sick skier.
Race minus 12
Walking into the cabin at 8:30 p.m., calling his name and getting no answer briefly troubled us. Poking my head into the room he was occupying led me to the vision of a very wiped-out, red-eyed athlete who looked in no shape whatsoever to do 56K in fewer than 24 hours as an able-bodied person, let alone using only his arms, upper body, and core.
The “medicine” was taken, and upon further conversation it was discovered that the bad oyster came from a beach guy in the Dominican Republic, where the amazing Cnossen had been learning to surf the previous weekend. We all hoped for the best and he turned in for the night.
Timing is everything. After we showered and dressed, Cnossen came out of his bedroom quickly stating he needed to vomit, and that he did about ten forceful times. At this point, our doubts about him even making the start line were growing as I texted Chamberlain, his guide, to let him know what was going on.
Fortunately for Cnossen that was the grand finale for the night. For me, it turned into a sleepless night of concern.
Six a.m. and Cnossen appeared as the strong athlete I remembered. Able to keep down some oatmeal and a banana that my husband Wayne made him, along with lots of Pedialite and another Imodium, we headed to the start.
Cnossen inquired as to what kilometer of the race would be his last chance to drop down to the Korte. My response gave him more confidence; at least one distance would be covered this year should his symptoms reappear. At this point, he decided this year would be a “tour” of the course and next year would be the race.
Having driven directly to the start line with another sit skier and the bag trucks in past years and the map not making sense to us nor those at the front desk of the Birkie office, we got lost on our way to parking lot A. We missed the sign that was a mile ahead of the old route at 7:20 am, just 35 minutes prior to his start. Lucky for us, Chamberlain returned my desperate call and pointed us in the right direction.
After an icy walk to the start area, I loaded up Chamberlain’s small waist pack with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and lots of Pedialite. Cnossen removed his prosthetics, strapped himself into the sit-ski and headed off to the start line with less than five minutes to spare.
My basic phone would not allow me to track the progress of the pair, so I enlisted the help of an experienced Birkie friend, Erica Sivertson, who was home with two small children this year while her husband and father-in-law participated.
After hearing he was already closing in on OO, we detoured to see for ourselves, cheer him on, and snap a few pictures. Mr “Tougher than Nails” came up that slight incline with what appeared to be less effort than the previous few elite skiers who were his predecessors!
Parking lot “H” where we were supposed to park, still remains a mystery. We pulled into the lot behind the food tent and a gal in charge told us to just go around the block and park on the side of the tent because that was it. When we came back to the car after the race, however, we remained the sole occupant of “Lot H,” making me believe its whereabouts were elsewhere.
Thankfully, my “tracker” friend continued her updates of the pair’s progress and much to my delight, they maintained an even pace throughout, indicating that the lack of nourishment Cnossen took in, lack of training and very little rest had not hampered his performance. The phenom’s pre-Birkie training consisted of at most 30K or 2 ½ hours on a 2K loop he had available to him, and just one loop the week prior to the event.
Flying in, as if full of energy, Cnossen with Chamberlain right behind, crossed the finish line in 3 hours 50 minutes and some change, placing him 166 out of 1985 in the 56K Birkebeiner Classic overall, and 13th out of 113 in his 35 to 39 age group. I asked Cnossen how he felt and what he thought after he finished, to which he replied, “My shoulders are sore and the course was a lot hillier than I expected. I don’t think I would have skied much faster if I had trained and been healthy.” He went on to say, “I probably lost about four pounds from the food poisoning, and being lighter most likely helped me today.”
As we were leaving the finish area, we discovered two things. His other set of poles had been left at the start area and he was lucky the ski stayed on the sit-ski because the screw holding it in place had broken in two during the race!
Visiting the lost-and-found was fruitless, as the poles had not resurfaced at that point. Feeling badly about it, I offered him a set of my poles that could be cut down. Luckily, the following day Serrano sent me an email letting me know they found his poles.
Back in Duluth
While Cnossen enjoyed a massage from a very talented masseuse, Eric Bong, I set on my way to have the poles cut down to his size and to the hardware store to get new screws for the sit-ski.
Mr. “Tougher than Nails” was feeling no pain and food was remaining in him after his ultra ski experience, so the following day we did a short news story, and then he skied 15K on some hilly terrain. Following that ski, he noticed the back part of his special sit-ski binding had broken off of the ski somewhere along the trail. Luckily, Dave Janssen – who was heading out as we were leaving – looked for it and found it.
With just a couple of hours until his flight left, and limited time and resources back at school, Cnossen preferred to have his sit ski in working order prior to departure. Kudos to Hunter Busse at Ski Hut West for going way above and beyond to solve the problem. Knowing the flight was scheduled to leave in just over an hour, Busse determined the entire bottom of the sit-ski that attaches to the ski was bent on one side, but was able to put it in a vice and hastily make the repair!
All is well
With less than fifty minutes to go, we arrived at the nearly-deserted Duluth airport. After a lengthy de-icing procedure prior to departure, which created an even tighter connection in Minneapolis, Cnossen made it safely back to Harvard.
Next year, Cnossen hopes to return and race against his own time, given snow conditions are similar. He said he would really prefer to have other sit skiers of his caliber compete in the event because he says the classic skiing is different than competing on a sit-ski.
Chamberlain had this to say about his experience, “Guiding Dan this year in the Birkiebeiner was probably the best experience I have had in a Birkiebeiner to date. For Dan to finish in a time of 3:50 is an extraordinary accomplishment given the challenges he faces out on the course. The tough part for Dan about skiing the Birkie is that he gets very little rest out on the course. Even on the downhills he is using his body and energy to adjust his sled, and the longer and faster the downhills the more agile he has to be to make it through. When we hit 00 and joined the skaters, he also had to negotiate traffic on the track. It is truly impressive the athletic feat Dan accomplished this year.”
When asked what his goal was for next year, Cnossen replied, “Not to be food poisoned!”