by Phil Dunn
After 30 other full length Birkebeiners, I thought there would be
Think again, Phil.
In late October, after steadily declining in strength and
endurance, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. All I could do was sleep.
On chemotherapy right away, I asked my hematologist if I could ski
the Birkie. She told me she would do what she could.
After six weeks or so, I noticed some small improvements but
there was no snow until mid January and then it was cold. To say the
least, it made for very little and poor training but Birkebeiner skiers
don’t give up easily and I aspire to be one of them.
With my confidence running very low, I prepared a letter, which
I gave to Nicole to be read at the Viking feast, if I didn’t manage to
finish. It explained my condition, congratulated my Red Bid Friends –
“Long may you ski!,” and to the Birkebeiner Society, and all the
friends I have made through it, – Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!
Birkie morning, I was up before 6 a.m. and hadn’t had a nap in
four days, which doubled the number since diagnosis. Cathy was
very anxious and not hiding it well at all.
Brian Lucas greeted me warmly and asked how I was. When I
told him, he quickly instructed me to let the aid stations know how I
was and that he would tell the sweep to keep a special watch for me.
Oh Great! Now the sweep is after me and I haven’t even
Only a few kilometres into the 55K, a lady looked over at me
and exclaimed, “Phil!” It was Karen Vandermeer. She knew my health
situation and seemed pleased to see me. After a few kilometres of
skiing and chatting, I told her that I didn’t want to spoil her ski day.
She kindly replied she would ski along with me to set a pace, distract
me from my condition and keep an eye on me until I needed to drop
out or finished.
I was honoured.
When people asked me how I was, I just smiled and replied,
“I’m Happy!” which was true, even if it wasn’t the complete story.
A chuckle was earned as I came up to a bunch of volunteers
grumbling, “I want to talk to that doctor who didn’t say ‘No!’ to this,”
followed by a cheerful “… and thank her of course.”
In the end, Karen and I crossed the finish line at 7:54:05. I was
spent! Both my Cathy and Bill Vandermeer were standing at the finish
line to welcome and congratulate us.
It was awesome!
Then it was time for my Birkebeiner finish area tradition. I
turned to Cathy and, for the 31st time, stated, “I may never do
another one, but I am glad that I did this one.”
This time, however, I choked and almost cried. After many
years of racing as hard as I could go, it was a celebration just to
finish. It wasn’t so much a celebration of just another Birkie as it was
a celebration of life itself, – as if there is a difference?
I texted Nicole with instructions to shred the letter.