At dawn on Saturday, Randy Sisulak will be standing in a frozen field in northern Wisconsin, waiting to test his athletic prowess with thousands of other skiers.
He will set off on a 35-mile, cross-country marathon that will stress his 58-year-old frame. After six hours of striding and gliding, he will ski triumphantly down the main street of the small town of Hayward to the cheers of screaming spectators.
This is a routine of sorts for the Crownsville man, who is competing for the 30th time in the American Birkebeiner race, the most prestigious of its type in the U.S.
Sisulak is not only one of the few Marylanders to ski the race this weekend; he is one of the few people anywhere who have been so devoted. In the 35-year history of the event, part of the 14-race international cross-country ski marathon circuit, only 90 of 180,000 skiers have competed as frequently as he.
"It's a real mind game," Sisulak said. "It's brutal."
The Birkebeiner, or Birkie for short, was modeled after the original Birkebeiner Rennetin in Lillehammer, Norway. The race commemorates an event that took place during the Norwegian civil war in the 13th century, according to the American Birkebeiner race Web site. Two Vikings, called "birkebeiners" for the birch bark leggings they wore, carried the infant prince and heir to the throne 55 kilometers to safety from invading forces.
The American Birkebeiner began in the northern Wisconsin town of Hayward with 34 skiers who did the whole race and 19 who did the half, or Kortelopet.
This year, the town expects to host about 6,800 for the full and half races as well as 2,000 for other events such as the children's race, said Cherie Morgan, media coordinator for the American Birkebeiner. The crowd will include Olympic and championship skiers from the U.S. and 19 foreign countries.
The race attracts skiers from every state, but few from Maryland, Sisulak said, because it is difficult to find areas to practice.
Last year, nine skiers from Maryland participated, but Sisulak remembers many years when he and his family were the only ones holding the Maryland sign during the opening ceremonies.
The race has been a big part of the Sisulak family's lives. Randy's brother, Tom Sisulak, of Chicago, will compete with him. Randy's sons, Erich, 25, of Kenosha, Wis., and Christopher, 23, of Crownsville, will do the half-race. Their 27-year-old sister, Rachel, will fly up from Florida to watch.
Sisulak's wife, Mary Sisulak, has done the half-race four times, although she won't be able to join the family this year.
Randy Sisulak started the Birkebeiner in February 1978. He has not missed a race despite lost luggage, Army Reserve duty during the Gulf War and an accident that sent his car sliding into a ditch only hours before race time. Rainy weather canceled the event in 2000, although Sisulak has already made the trek up there.
Sisulak, a research analyst with the Department of Defense at Fort Meade, was born in Illinois. While working in Minnesota, he heard about the race and decided to try it. Despite practice in his snowy adopted home, the rhythmic "diagonal" glide and kick pattern of the what is known as the classic stride took a toll on his neck, back and groin muscles.
But he kept pushing through year after year, even when he moved to the considerably warmer climes of Maryland in 1982.
The hilly course, which differs from the flatter European trails, can be grueling for cross-country skiers. If they don't have the power or momentum to glide up, they must walk up, placing their skis in a sideways, herring-bone pattern. Descending is even more difficult in the crowded Birkebeiner race. Skiers can hit each other coming down. Tom Sisulak broke his nose at the beginning of one race.
"Some of the downhills are real screamers," Sisulak said. "You don't want to fall because there are 100 skiers behind you."
While racing, Sisulak wears minimal gear: a nylon ski suit, jacket, a hat and "lobster" gloves that allow greater finger control than mittens. Despite the low temperatures, Sisulak works up such a sweat that he often dumps his jacket at one of the 11 food stations along the trail. Skiers can refresh themselves with warmed Gatorade, doughnuts and bananas. But it is imperative that they keep moving in such cold weather, Sisulak said.
"When you stop, you shake like crazy," he said.
Although Sisulak uses the cross-country ski machine at his gym, he does not train specifically for the race. He remains active by biking, canoeing, golfing and playing volleyball during the year. For several years, he coached the cross-country ski team for the Special Olympics.
Erich Sisulak, a soccer player and former gymnast, jokes that the race is an "obligation" to his dad. He said his father signed him up as soon as he enrolled in his alma mater, Carthage College in Wisconsin. The younger Sisulak has found cross-country skiing exhausting and difficult. Everything hurts afterward, he said.
"My shins, my quads, my back of my neck," Sisulak said.
He marvels at how much his father does, saying it can be tiring to be along for the ride. In Randy Sisulak's spare time, he does woodworking, organizes golf tournaments and runs 5Ks. In 2006, he rode in a bike race of just under 500 miles.
"This guy will blow your mind away," Erich Sisulak said.