Birkebeiner organizers to honor founder who died in bike accidentDave Landgraf, one of only three men to have skied every Birkiebeiner, died last August when he was struck by a car while bicycling near Hayward. His children will carry his ashes in this year’s race.
By: Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune
John Kotar arrived home at his cabin outside Cable last August when he noticed a voice message on his phone.
He played it, and a friend relayed news that Dave Landgraf of Bloomer had been struck by a car while bicycling on Highway 27 just south of Hayward, and he wasn’t expected to survive. Three days later, Landgraf, 62, was dead.
“It was a totally mind-blowing message,” Kotar recalled. “It puts you down in your seat. Unbelievable, completely, if you can imagine.
“We all bike like that, on the same roads, and it hit way, way too close to home. It could be anybody. We hear about such accidents all the time, but when it’s someplace else, another person in another place you don’t know, it’s not the same, but this was smack in your closest circle.”
Kotar, Landgraf and Landgraf’s lifelong friend, Ernie St. Germaine, are the only people to have skied every American Birkebeiner going into the 39th running of the event on Saturday morning from Cable to Hayward.
Landgraf’s son, Cole, and daughter, Emalea, will take part in the ceremonial start at 7:45 a.m. Saturday, taking turns wearing their father’s distinct racing bib and carrying his ashes on the 50-kilometer trail. Special edition “Landgraf hats” also are being sold, with all proceeds going to Emalea’s Ski Strong foundation.
St. Germaine said it won’t be the same.
“Dave and I were as close to brothers as you will find,” St. Germaine said. “This will be my most difficult Birkie, not because I am not ready for it … but because my heart aches for my friend who was always there with me.”
The 11 people who skied the first 10 Birkies are called “founders,” and they are clearly distinguishable on race day by the red bibs they wear. Some years there are more red bibs on the trail than others, but only Kotar, Landgraf and St. Germaine raced them all. They had been the “Iron Three,” — all by themselves in terms of having completed every one, for about the past 10 years, Kotar figured.
This year, there will be more red bibs on the trail.
With at least three founders having died, Kotar and fellow Birkie Board member John Leighton met at Riverside Eatery in Cable shortly after Landgraf’s death. They began talking about ways of keeping the memory and message of the founders alive, when they came up with the idea of adding more red bibs, but only 35, in honor of the first 34 men and one woman who raced the inaugural event in 1973 (Now, more than 9,000 ski the Birkie and its support races, making it North America’s largest cross-country skiing marathon).
Kotar’s daughter, Katie, then 13, came up with the idea of “Spirit of 35” after the song “Spirit in the Sky” played at Landgraf’s memorial service, and the name stuck.
The Spirit of 35 bibs will be worn by those skiers on Saturday who have raced the most Birkies.
“These bibs are about longevity and commitment to this event,” Kotar said. “Something keeps them coming back, and it’s ‘Birkie fever.’ You can ask around, but that’s exactly what it is. It can be defined many ways, but it’s clearly there.”
While Birkie fever means different things to different people, Kotar said Landgraf personified it.
Landgraf retired four years ago after a long career as physical education teacher at Bloomer Middle School and track and field coach. He was a decent athlete in his day, but he molded himself into an exceptional skier, cultivating his talent through hard work and perseverance, having completed the Birkie in about 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Landgraf continued to compete in the elite wave until the end, and he was the friendly, familiar face leading the post-race news conferences, where it looked like he had never even broken a sweat. He came across more like a coach than someone who had just completed the race 30 minutes earlier. He was an expert in the sport, yet could explain things in layman’s terms.
St. Germaine is still coming to terms with the loss, and Kotar read his tribute to his longtime friend at the Birkie banquet on Wednesday night.
St. Germaine has carried the ashes of founder Wayne Lindskoog every year at the Birkie since 2003, after Lindskoog died from cancer, and he said he has been doing tributes to Landgraf every day since he died.
“I suppose we are a lot alike in the one respect that I remember him most: We never grew up,” St. Germaine said. “We loved competing, and he was never satisfied just being able to do something. He had to do it to the best of his ability, and many times, just a bit beyond.
“I know he will be with be there in spirit (on Saturday), and I hope to carry that spirit with me in a good way. I will ski strong for Dave.”