Bang and everyone charges off across the hay field. The Washington's Birthday Race circa 1971 or so. Credit: Spencer Grant
Bang and everyone charges off across the hay field. The Washington’s Birthday Race circa 1971 or so.
Credit: Spencer Grant

 Such Fun. Should We Do It Again?

What a celebration of winter it was. Imagine several hundred cross-country skiers, some serious racers—even Olympians—, college kids, couples and families, office people (like us) up from the Big City, all in a long line, awaiting the gun in a big, snow-covered Vermont hayfield. Bang, and everyone charges off, either fast skating or slowly shuffling to the far end where the field funnels into a tractor road and the rest of the 20-km (12-mile) course beyond.

This was the Washington’s Birthday Touring Race, a “people’s race” in more or less the same tradition as Sweden’s Vasaloppet where you went from point to point or town to town, not stopping if you’re racing or stopping for a picnic snack if you weren’t. In 1963, Eric Barradale, a Brattleboro dentist and former Dartmouth Outing Club member, and a cluster of southern Vermont educators, business people and professionals, thought a race like the Vasa would help promote cross-country skiing in the US. Back then, Nordic skiing was esoteric, and an event like a great, big race would—and did— attract lots of attention.

A small group of SKIING magazine staffers participated in the 1971 edition along with about 1000 other folks. We arrived with brand new kangaroo skin boots, wooden skis, four pin bindings and bag of waxes. It was our first time ever on cross-country skis. In fact, SKIING magazine’s editor and our boss Al Greenberg gave us a lesson in his office before we left for Vermont in our rented car. “Just shuffle like you have bedroom slippers on and keep your arms moving.” Doug Pfeiffer, the editor-in-chief at the time, opined about ski wax. “Some concoctions are said to include whale blubber,” he hinted mysteriously. The hook was set. The night before the race, we learned how to put on pine tar and wax in the basement of the Whetstone Inn, in Marlboro. From that delicious aroma, we knew we were going to love it.

The GWBDR was modeled after Sweden's Vassalopett. Credit: CardCow
The GWBDR was modeled after Sweden’s Vassalopett.
Credit: CardCow

The first race in 1963 had 54 participants. Bob Gray, a two-time Olympian and student of John Caldwell, a long time coach, member of the 1952 Olympic team and eventually USSA team coach, was the winner. Bob told us in a recent interview the first race went from Hogback Mountain to Brattleboro. In subsequent years, the race was held on different courses throughout southern Vermont, some more challenging than others, all linking towns around the area. And the numbers of participants grew. Bob said, “We had the US Women’s Cross-Country team in one race. More and more competitive racers started coming.” That’s when Barradale started having second thoughts.

“There were racers knocking people off the track,” said Gray. “Barradale got discouraged.” The charm of a citizen’s race was disappearing as more and more serious racers showed up. Over the years, we had always thought the race was finally called off because of lack of snow. We asked Bob Gray if that was the reason. “No, it was because the race became too much of race.”

The final official Washington’s Birthday Race was held in 1973. Bob Gray was in that one, too, as he was in five since 1963. The people’s race run by a group of volunteers was experiencing the embarrassment of success. Too many details, too many arrangements, and too many racers. “After 1973, there were about five years where we had loop races around the a county club in Brattleboro for real racers, but the basic idea was lost,” said Gray. Gray said he got to keep the Winner’s Bowl when the race “retired”.

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_WashingtonIn 1971, our group from SKIING managed to come in dead-last. Our wax had long gone, we got lost, yet we laughed our way to end point at Putney School. We did get a pin for finishing. It instantly became one of our proudest possessions.

Should we have another generation of the Washington Birthday Race? Would you go?

 

4 Comments

  1. What fun! Yes, let’s do it again. I’d still come in last, of course.

  2. Susan Winthrop says:

    My father and I did this race together along with many other family members including x-c ski legend, Charlie Kellogg who probably finished first!

    • Michael Maginn says:

      We probably passed each other back in 1971! What I remember was the blueberry soup that was supposed to be an energy booster. That idea came directly from Sweden’s Vassalopett where skiers picked up soup along the track.

  3. Ragnar Midtskogen says:

    Loved the race. My prodest moment was one year when I beat Olavi Hirvonen. I was normally no match for Olavi, member of the Finnish CC team in 60, But the conditions were wild, 50+ degrees and rain the night before. Somehow I managed to hit it with the wax, some weird combination of klister and hard wax. It was actually my fastest BDay race.

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