Temperatures hovered near 40 degrees Saturday in Hayward, Wisconsin — a February heat wave if you're from Fairbanks. Yet David Norris had a case of the shivers when he finished the American Birkebeiner ski race.
Skiing in front of a crowd so loud he couldn't hear himself breathe, Norris won the country's biggest cross-country ski race by 1.1 second.
Norris secured victory in the 55-kilometer marathon by pulling away from a group of six Europeans when the race reached Lake Hayward, two kilometers from the finish line in downtown Hayward.
He reached the finish line 1.1 second ahead of Ivan Perrillat Boiteux of France and 1.4 seconds ahead of Benoit Chauvet of France.
Norris, 25, said he had no idea the competition was so close.
"It finishes with a 2-K across the lake and then you kind of wind up off the lake onto Main Street," he said. "The last 200 meters on the lake I took the lead and pushed it from there on all the way to end of the line."
As he charged the final 500 meters down Main Street, it was impossible to know where his pursuers were.
"Normally I'd have a better sense but Main Street was cheering so loud that I had no clue," Norris said.
"I couldn't hear myself breathing. It was insane. It's the loudest thing I've ever heard. It gave me shivers while I was racing."
And the thrill didn't end there. In the next five or six minutes, three of his Alaska Pacific University teammates finished — Lex Treinen in 15th place, Tyler Kornfield in 17th, Jack Novak in 22nd — and Norris got to relive the moment.
"They asked, 'How'd it go?', and I said, "I won,' and the excitement they had for me gave me another round of shivers," Norris said.
A Birkie rookie but a veteran of numerous 50-K races, Norris finished in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 35.4 seconds.
Norris joins a small group of Alaskans who have won the Birkebeiner, which dates back to 1973 and attracts a field capped at 10,000 skiers for the 55-K Birkebeiner, the 23-K Kortelopet and the 13-K Prince Haakon. Of those various races, the 55-K freestyle race is the centerpiece event.
Chris Haines of Anchorage won the men's Birkie in 1975, Judy Rabinowitz of Fairbanks won the women's race in 1979 and Holly Brooks of Anchorage took the women's crown in 2012 and 2015.
A couple of years before he moved to Alaska and became a three-time Mount Marathon champion, Todd Boonstra of Kenai won the 1992 Birkie. And Kelly Kimball was training in Fairbanks during the time of her 1988 women's victory, according to long-time Fairbanks coach John Estle.
Norris is a 2009 graduate of Lathrop. He skied two seasons at UAF in Fairbanks before finishing his college career at Montana State. After college, he joined APU's nordic program and has lived in Anchorage for the last couple of years.
Norris, Treinen and Kornfield were all part of a big lead pack for the first half of the race, which began Saturday morning in Cable, Wisconsin, amid 37-degree temperatures that hit 40 a little as the day went on, Norris said.
With about 15 kilometers to go, the three APU skiers were among 15 still in the lead pack. With seven kilometers left, one of the Europeans made a move and the lead pack shrank to Norris and six Europeans.
Five kilometers later, the pack of seven reached Lake Hayward — a stretch of trail Norris had trained on earlier in the week.
"I knew the lake was about two kilometers long and when you got off the lake, the trail got really narrow and had some turns in it," he said. "So in my mind I figured the best option for me was to lead off the lake.
"Traditionally I'm not the greatest sprint out there, so I wanted to be up front and try to hang on rather than try to make a pass in the final couple hundred meters."
The strategy made him the first American man to win the Birkie since Tad Elliott in 2012.
The women's victory went to Minnesota's Caitlin Gregg in 2:22:44.5, who collected a record fourth title. Brooks, the defending champion, skipped the race.
APU had two women in the top 15 — ninth-place Rosie Frankowski and 13th-place Lauren Fritz.
In the men's 55-kilometer classic race, 85-year-old Reno Deprey of Anchorage — the only skier in the 85-99 age group — finished in 7:32:41.
Deprey, who turns 86 on Sunday, placed 1,833th in a field of 1,985 skiers.
Norris, who rode the momentum of two SuperTour victories earlier this year, topped a field of 3,101 in the men's 55-K freestyle.
After receiving a bouquet of flowers at the awards ceremony — he also won $7,500 — Norris received a hero's welcome as he walked through Hayward's crowded downtown.
"I had the flowers in my hand and people knew I'd been on the podium, and it was impossible to move through them, so many people were shaking my hand," Norris said.
"…People were trying to buy me brats. People who I don't think are ski fans are ski fans for this one race, and they were really excited when they found out an American won."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing