In a life continually challenged and fulfilled by academia, Margot Higgins has always found enjoyment in an unexpected source: a pair of skis.
The 46-year-old Higgins, a native of the New York City borough of Manhattan, came to La Crosse — specifically the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she serves as a lecturer — in 2017. It’s been an adventurous ride for Higgins, with stops in Idaho, Montana, Alaska and California along the way.
I’ll tell you more about each, but in limited fashion, as Higgins’ story could fill a book, and perhaps someday will.
“I took a long break from skiing. I learned to skate ski in my 20s and did a little bit of racing back then, then I moved to the Bay Area (California) for grad school and took a decade off,” said Higgins, who earned a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from the University of California-Berkeley in 2015. “I kind of gave it up and missed it.”
While not all of her life stops included skiing, they did include teaching, learning, writing and sometimes activism. Her academic pursuits led to places outdoors folks only dream about seeing.
So how does any of this translate to an outdoors story?
Enter the Slumberland American Birkebeiner, America’s most noteworthy and prestigious cross country ski race held every February since 1973. In a typical year, it starts near Cable, Wis., and ends some 50 kilometers (31 miles) later in downtown Hayward.
“I had heard about the Birkie for a long, long time. It is kind of the race with the biggest reputation in this country,” Higgins said. “It was always on my bucket list. Until I moved here, I never even knew it was in Wisconsin.”
Needless to say, it will be on her annual bucket list from this point. And in a short time, she’s quite familiar about where it’s held, why it’s held, and who makes it happen.
The people who started it, operate it, and pour their hearts and souls into it have captured hers.
Higgins, with a relentless determination to learn, to improve, to perfect, has conquered the race twice. She completed this year’s modified 45 kilometer (27.9 miles) looped race in 3 hours, 33 minutes, 57 seconds on Feb. 24.
That left her 86th overall in the 45k skate race, 12th out of 64 women in the race, and fourth in her age group, 45-49. By comparison, the top La Crosse area finisher in the 45k skate race, Dr. Jamie Mannion, finished 36th overall in 3:07.19.
Looking back, in 2020 Higgins completed her inaugural Birkie in 4 hours, 3 minutes, 8 seconds, leaving her 2,840th overall and 469th among women.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Birkebeiner underwent a number of changes this year, even offering some virtual races. Still, some 5,000 skiers competed in a number of races, down from the usual 13,000.
What didn’t change, thankfully, was the tradition of the race and the longstanding culture surrounding it. That, Higgins said, may be the biggest draw of the event. Even as much as competing.
“Racing is always great to have a goal and a reference point, but that month I spent in Cable this winter, teaching and getting out every day, observing those communities and the culture, it is really special,” said Higgins, who trained between 30 and 40 days for the event.
“It was a little connection for me with Alaska, with the north woods. I would see wolf tracks, bobcat tracks on the ski trail. It feels like a wildness I thought I would only experience in Alaska.”
A bit of Alaska in Wisconsin was a welcome feeling for Higgins, who teaches in UW-L’s Environmental Studies Program. Having also lived and taught in places like Ketchum, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana, the Cable-Hayward area was a great fit for this point, this time in her life.
She knows she’s fortunate.
“I am so grateful I live in in an environment where these experiences are possible. I have a body that allows me to do those things,” said Higgins, also an avid cyclist who started a new business last year, Driftless Bicycle Adventures, and said more information about it can be found on Facebook.
“I have had some health challenges, some major ones, but I feel so lucky that I am strong and have lot of energy. I recognize that some people don’t have access to these places, to this gear, to this type of thing.”
With that said, Higgins wondered what she got herself into during her first Birkie in 2020. For a person who always seems well-prepared and her subject matter well-researched, she entered a chaotic situation.
“I was in Wave 8 last year. It was literally like being in a swarm of mosquitoes. There were poles flying everywhere, people falling down… It was a spectacle,” Higgins said. “I had never raced in anything like that before.
“The start of the Birkie is insane. (Wave 8), it is all the beginning skiers, a total mix of skills. There are people out there who have very little cross country experience but do have aerobic experience. You combine that with high schoolers who are racing for the first time, it’s just insane.”
Higgins, who said she fell four or five times the first year, didn’t fall once during the 2021 event. She was in Wave 6 this year, and was able to clear the beginning rush with relative ease.
It was quite a change from her Birkie baptism, which left her with some major doubts.
“I thought I would never do this again. I didn’t feel safe,” Higgins said of her thoughts after the 2020 race. “In my 20s, I raced in one (event) which was a 50k, the Yellowstone Rendezvous, but it was less than 800 people, at the most. It was never that density (of the Birkie).”
Still she came back, and came back with more knowledge, more experience and her trademark will to improve, to perfect.
“This year I started in Wave 6, two waves ahead of where I did last year, and very quickly I got ahead of everybody except for one skier who flew out of site within first 3 kilometers,” Higgins said.
“You just kind of see where you can make passes, what is comfortable. I definitely wanted to pace myself and not run out of that energy. It is a mix of keeping up a good pace but not wanting to burn out. It is a fine line.”
She walked that line to perfection, finishing 30 minutes after, albeit in a shorter — but more difficult — race.
Her performance was satisfying, Higgins said, but the real fulfillment came when she took a step back, then looked at the big picture, the history, of the event.
“What inspired me is that it is such a tradition. The mindset does change when you take that into consideration,” Higgins said. “It was a blast, it was totally a blast. I think that it is not just about the day, but all the time around it. This is from a glimpse of a New Yorker about a Midwest tradition.”
Higgins seems to have come away with a better understanding of not just the Birkie, but about herself, about where she’s at in life. Her personal and professional life seem to have found a happy place, if you will.
“I have a partner who is incredibly supportive. You need that support,” Higgins said of Eddy Nix, who grew up in La Crosse and owns Driftless Books & Music in Viroqua. “I had friends out at the finish line. That feels like a big part of it.
“Before I came to La Crosse, I had never heard of this place and never heard of the Driftless Region. I felt a little bored at first, but it turns out it has been a fantastic place to land. I finally found my home.”
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
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