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Young, old skiers shine at the Birkie

For Adrian Watt and Benjamin Bauer, last weekend's American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin, offered a tale of two trajectories.

The 75-year-old Watt, of Esko, skied his 46th Birkie, on his way to a goal of reaching 50 in his lifetime. Watt finished the 53-kilometer classic race in 5 hours, 6 minutes, among the top 1,000 competitors (939th) in a race that included 1,702 entrants. He finished fourth in his age group, 75-79.

"It's the only race I do every year, and my goal is to finish with a smile on my face," Watt said.

Meanwhile, Bauer finished 65th overall, and 14th in the men's 18-to-24 age category, in the 50K skate race that featured 3,943 participants. His time was 2:28:20.48, proving that he belongs among the sport's top competitors.

"To be able to start in the elite wave was super-exciting," Bauer said. "A big part of ski marathons is skiing with a pack of super-fast skiers. It helps pull you through the race and allows you to go even faster."

Bauer was an accomplished prep skier for Cloquet High School, and now hits the trails several days a week as a member of the University of Minnesota Duluth nordic ski club. A mechanical engineering major, Bauer has participated in a host of marathons leading up to the Birkie, helping lead UMD to a second consecutive Midwest Collegiate Ski Association Collegiate Cup victory last weekend.

"I'm still competitive," Bauer said. "We get to do a bunch of midwest marathons as part of the Collegiate Cup."

To celebrate the team's success, Bauer and friends planned to visit the Korkki Nordic Ski Center outside Duluth this weekend. Korkki is a classic-only trail, featuring a 10K loop loaded with smaller hills with tight turns.

"We'll try to do a long ski - 100K," Bauer said.

Bauer said his Birkie performance hit a wall at the last aid station.

"My body started to feel the 42-ish kilometers before that, so I lost the group of people I was with," he said. "I was feeling great up until that point. My body was toast afterward."

The Birkie offers a mass of humanity barreling up and down a course from Cable to Hayward that's unique to other Midwestern venues.

"The amount of hills it has is more than your average race," Bauer said. He recalled cresting the iconic flag-draped, manmade hill near the finish line as a relief.

"You hit the last hill after three kilometers of flat racing across the lake," Bauer said. "Going up the hill feels really good because it uses different muscles to get up. Then, you get to see the finish line."

His mother, Rebecca Bauer, and younger brother, William Bauer, a half-marathon Kortelopet finisher, were waiting for him at the finish line with a warm jacket.

"When I got done, I knew I'd be cold and my body wouldn't have any energy left to keep me warm," Bauer said.

For Watt, the Birkie offers a lasting goal in a lifetime filled with sporting achievements. A Duluth-born ski jumper, Watt competed in ski jumping at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

"I probably ski four or five times a week," said Watt, who lives with his wife, Sue, on property bordering Jay Cooke State Park.

"It's really easy for me to put on my skis, go out the back door and head into the park," Watt said.

A state champion ski jumper for Duluth East, Watt is an enshrinee of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center Athletic Hall of Fame. He was a member of the U.S. Ski Jumping team from 1965 through 1972, and won the national championship in 1969 in Brattleboro, Vermont. Watt also set a North American record of 337 feet during the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials in Iron Mountain, Michigan.

He's wary of "different ailments that could come up and grab you," so he's not counting on reaching 50 Birkies until it happens. A knee replacement 13 years ago put an end to his skate skiing. Ever since then, he's been only a classic skier.

"I just want to keep moving," Watt said. "That's the Number 1 thing."

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