Birkie finisher Shawn Cheshire with her coach and guide Jesse Crandall Photo- Kelly Randolph
The 40th annual American Birkebeiner began like any prior Birkie for Madshus sales representative Ben Dubay, spending the OO demo days on the Birkie trail, prepping and loaning the latest gear for curious spectators and anxious participants to test and compare. During the demo Jesse Crandall, a native Wisconsin NCAA ski veteran and seasoned Nordic coach, dropped by to see what Madshus had to offer. Impressed with their latest skis, boots, and poles Jesse borrowed a Madshus setup to demo and came back impressed. In fact, Jesse liked the equipment so much that he asked if it was possible for Madshus to lend some equipment to himself and Shawn Cheshire, a blind athlete Jesse had been guiding and coaching as she worked to be selected for the US Paralympic Team in Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon was whom Jesse was going to lead on her first Birkie. Happy to lend some gear and struck by Jesse’s request, Ben quickly agreed.
Jesse and Shawn later recalled how it was they came to the 40th Annual Birkie together and how the race played out for them on their borrowed Madshus gear.
“I started skiing with Shawn in January” Jesse explained.
“She’s pretty new to cross country skiing and I’ve been able to serve as her guide and coach. She is one of the quickest studies of technique that I’ve ever seen. Despite never having actually seen any technique demonstrations, we work together to improve her body position and power application every time we ski. We train together a couple times a week and do as many races together as possible.”
As Shawn explains, cross-country skiing was not the only new challenge she was facing; “I lost my vision about 9 months ago due to a traumatic brain injury. I ski with my guide Jesse Crandall. Talk about selfless giving.”
“Considering that I have only been skiing since the end of November (just 4 months ago), it is safe to say that the challenges of this race were many.” “
Jesse goes on to describe the innovative system he uses to guide Shawn when out skiing; “I wear a small speaker around my waist that has two audio inputs. One is connected to a headset microphone so that I can give her instructions on what is coming up ahead of us and the other is connected to an iPod so that there is some music playing. Shawn has no vision at all and relies constant sound to follow. Without the music playing, I’d have to be talking constantly. I think that would get pretty boring for her, and be pretty exhausting for me!”
Jesse guides Shawn through the 50km Birkie Trail Photo- Kelly Randolph
Skiing on borrowed Madshus gear, Jesse relied on Madshus sales representative Ben Dubay to assist in their ski, boot and pole selection for optimal performance on the Birkie’s challenging 50k course.
“I worked with Ben Dubay to pick out skis for both Shawn and I to use in this year’s Birkie.” recounts Jesse
“With the fresh snow on Friday before the race, Ben recommended some softer flex skis for both of us and I went with his selections. I waxed them up Friday night and on Saturday morning they were sliding very fast. We raced on Rex Blue and were flying by people on the downhills! The flex of the skis made both Shawn and me very confident on the slightly soft track. They skis climbed very well, despite some soft, chewed up hills and were stable and fast on the downhills. We also used the Madshus race poles which were light and had very comfortable handles. I raced in the racing skate boot and I recommend it highly. It is very supportive and very comfortable.”
“Going into the race, I knew that Shawn was very fit, but we hadn’t done any skis of over 3 hours.”
Shawn; “Swarming around in my mind was the overwhelming presence of fear and anxiety. However, knowing without a doubt in my mind that Jesse would do everything in his power to keep me safe, I calmly faced the fear and anxiety head-on. Finding ultimate peace in knowing that I was not doing this alone. I was calm and encouraged.“
“On race day, the mass of people surrounding us was like being in a swarm of a thousand busy bees. It was more important than ever to really focus on the calmness in Jesse’s voice. To not let every moving person and all the noise around me cause extreme fear. Every step of the way, he explained to me what we were doing, where we were walking to and what was going on around us. And even though I was shaking from the overwhelming urge to find a quiet, calm place to breathe, I just focused on Jesse.”
“I was so excited to ski this race. So very thrilled to be experiencing another FIRST. And extremely encouraged that my guide and coach believes in me and my capability to take on a feat such as the Birkie.”
“The only descriptions that I can give you about the start area are these…. Noisy, people everywhere, voices everywhere, loud intercom, music playing, snow under my feet, excitement in the air.
“The scariest part of the race was the start. (Nope. Not afraid of the downhills) The question of What If the people around me don’t realize I can’t see and run over me? Played non-stop in my head. Deep breath Shawn. Just follow Jesse. And that’s just what I did. He uses a microphone and music to give me noise to follow and verbalizes directions and details when needed. As we made our way through the crowd and onto the course, my legs stopped shaking, I turned my face into the wind and smiled to myself. I was doing something that I truly love to do. Skiing. And I was with the best guide I could ever be blessed with. Let’s have some fun!”
Jesse; “I know the Birkie trail well, and I wanted to be pretty conservative for the first half because I didn’t know how things would go when we went past 3 hours after all of the big climbs in the first half. We got great support from the volunteers at the food stations and drank plenty of electrolytes.”
“I’m really confident in Shawn’s skiing and maneuvering, but I was pretty anxious about how things would go with the crowds of skiers and the fatigue that was sure to set in. I learned that when I’m 35km into a race, I probably shouldn’t try to do too many things at once because I get tired too! I was trying to open some energy food and managed to catch an edge and I went down hard. Luckily Shawn must have heard me hit the ground and didn’t run me over. We got slowed up for a few seconds, but we got our fuel and kept cruising along. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I crashed, but I’m so proud of Shawn for not crashing even once in the whole race.”
“It was also challenging because a few of the other racers didn’t realize that Shawn was a blind skier. There were a few times we got cut off, or she got bumped, but that is a part of ski racing. The skiers that we were around were amazingly supportive and most of them enjoyed the music playing and my narrative from the loud speaker as we went along. The shouts of encouragement from all of the competitors was really a boost to both of us and made the whole race a lot of fun.”
Shawn; “The quality and the quantity of volunteers that helped us get the food and drink we needed throughout race and assisted in directing us where we needed to go, were absolutely amazing. The crowds of supporters along the course urging us along were incredibly brave to be in the midst of so many skiers at one time. (of course, this is the perspective of a blind girl). The energy of the skiers around us felt like the force of a thousand trains, all powering to their destination and sharing encouragement along their way. And in the midst of all the noise, the challenges of this complicated course and my internalized fears was Jesse, guiding me to yet another victory of accomplishment.
Jesse; “One of the highlights for me was cruising by the drummers at the end of the power line. My parents have been drumming there for years and it gives me a great lift to ski by them. Once we crossed OO, I started to push her pace a little bit and asked her how her energy levels were. She said her legs were feeling a little fatigued, but she still had plenty in the tank. We made it up Bitch Hill and then started the last push to the finish and I was pretty excited. I had hoped that we could do the race in around 5 hours, but we were ahead of that pace and moving well. Once we got on the lake, I told Shawn to just let the skis run and push as hard as she could. The speed of the skis helped us out when we passed a double line of skiers on the lake. I guided Shawn to the left side of the trail and had her hop in the tracks. I told her that we were going to double pole HARD for about a minute. In that minute we cruised right by about 20 skiers and then we hopped out of the tracks to finish off the last 500m of the lake. As we came off the lake Brian and Caitlin Gregg were there cheering for us! Shawn had met Caitlin and Brian at the expo on Friday and having the winner of the Women’s race there cheering for us as we got ready to sprint up Main Street was just awesome.”
Shawn- “Jesse and I crossed the finish line at 4:40. When I heard our time, I wanted to cry tears of absolute pride. I think we started this race hoping for a time under 6 hours. I was so proud of us. Smiling from ear to ear. Wishing that I could see the look on my guide’s face. HIGH FIVE!”
“He never gave up on me or doubted my capability. Therefore, I skied the entire race not doubting myself for even a second.”
“So far, through the course of my very new career as a Nordic skier, I have had the support of so many people all giving in so many ways. I can truly say that for this race Jesse and I had the extreme honor to race with Madshus skis and poles. I am normally nervous about using brand new equipment without having a chance to familiarize myself with the ‘feel’ of them. Remember, I primarily use my sense of feeling and balance when skiing. It is crucial that I am comfortable and familiar with my skiing equipment. After racing 50K with these skis and poles, I am extremely impressed. They were fast and comfortable and I did not have any issues keeping my balance. I would love to have the opportunity to use Madshus skis again when racing in the future. Thank you very much Ben!”
There were other victors at the 40th annual American Birkebeiner than those who crossed the finish line first. Madshus was graced with the opportunity to participate in an incredible act of selflessness and human triumph, while Jesse provided Shawn the chance to ski through her disability and realize an incredible goal.
In Shawn’s own words, “Our relationship has been built on the foundation of trust. Complete and absolute trust. And because of this solid bond that we have, we successfully defeated every challenge that this race presented to us. Well, the microphone and music came in handy too!”