Sometimes I open the door to this column and some extraordinary athletes walk through, like Jake Hegge, Michael Borst or Dan Luebke, to name a few.
They let me enter their lives, if only for an hour or so, and tell me their story. I hope you enjoy reading the tales of these silent athletes as much as I enjoy telling them. They deserve, but don’t necessarily enjoy, a brief turn in the spotlight.
They are, to a person, extraordinarily humble.
That leads me to this week’s story about Chris Davis, a 52-year-old Onalaska woman who wasn’t sure if she fits in with this group of athletes. She wasn’t sure she has accomplished enough to be story-worthy. Rest easy, Chris, you fit right in.
Who else could take up cross country skiing a year ago, then challenge the Slumberland American Birkebeiner head-on — and win? Well, she didn’t win the Birkie, but she did finish the 50K (31-mile) race held Feb. 26 in the Cable and Hayward, Wis., area.
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And who else has run – and finished – 12 marathons, including Boston three times, and New York and Chicago once? Who else has tackled a 50-mile bike race — the Firehouse 50 — held near Cable, Wis., and won it?
“Thinking back, nothing satisfies me like running. I guess you could call it a runner’s high. Nothing gives me that feeling of like I did something for the day than running,” said Davis, a 1988 Central High School graduate who went on to earn a degree in physical education from George Mason University.
“And I definitely like the training more than the marathon itself.”
What sent Davis over the top, at least for me, is that she not only runs, skis, does triathlons and operates a “Moms on the Run” franchise (instructor-led fitness program) in Onalaska, but she’s an avid and accomplished hunter, too.
A hunter who has harvested 140-inch and 150-inch white-tailed bucks — both 10-pointers — with a bow. This, she quickly intercedes, is a credit to her husband Steve’s ability to share — and teach — his considerable outdoors skills.
“I like being outside. I could sit in a blind or a treestand all day. To me, it is kind of like a marathon, as there is such a sense of accomplishment,” Davis said. “If I see this 10-point buck, 140 inches, great. If I had a chance to harvest him, great. If not, it’s still a good day just being in the woods.
“And archery definitely takes skill. You don’t just walk into the woods and shoot a deer. We practice a lot on targets we have in our backyard.”
Let’s backtrack for a moment and see how Davis, a mother of two — Mackenzie is 23, and Lizzie is 21 — was able to transition from a highly competitive marathon runner to a Birkebeiner finisher. It all started, Davis said, when the golf course she lives across from changed its rules, allowing cross country skiing and snowshoeing during the winter months.
“I live on the (La Crosse) Country Club golf course, right across the street. I can walk across the street and ski. I lived out here for 19 years and the previous golf superintendent wouldn’t let anyone on the course (during the winter),” Davis said. “Now the new superintendent lets cross country skiing, snowshoeing. That was the prime reason for taking the sport up again.”
A downhill skier while growing up in La Crosse, Davis didn’t do much cross country until a year ago, partly because the Birkie intrigued her. It was a challenge that was seemingly built for her.
“Last year I went to a (cross country) clinic in Hayward. I just loved it,” Davis said. “I felt like my training was perfect (for the Birkie), as two or three times a week I would ski two hours at a time. I would go about 10 to 12 miles a time, or 20-some miles a week.
“And I am running 30 to 40 miles a week right now, training for Boston (April 18).”
There was no doubt Davis was aerobically fit and ready for the Birkie, but what about the thousands of competitors the prestigious race draws? And how would she, and her competitive nature, handle being in the final wave (Wave 8) where first-timers must start?
“I felt, being in the last wave, Wave 8, it was really slow. You are with people of all fitness levels and experience levels, which is fine, but the course is so churned up and it is so rough is it like beach sand,” Davis said.
“It is really slow, so you are almost penguining up a hill. It was fine, I can do it. I think marathons are a lot of mental challenges, too. You don’t tell yourself, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got 20 miles left to do.’ I break it into 5K (segments), then 10K, then at the half-way point. It is kind of a mental game.
“With the Birkie, it doesn’t count up, it counts down. It starts at 50k and decreases. I don’t know if I like that (yet), but it was another part of the mental game.”
One thing that Davis was surprised by was the steep grade of the hills throughout parts of the Birkie course. Her downhill experience in the past helped, but it was still challenging. She was proud of the fact that she fell just once, and that wasn’t even a complete fall as she landed on her backside and bounced right back up.
She was a bit disappointed she didn’t meet her goal of finishing in 5 hours (she finished in 5:31.51, placing 3,347th out of 3,839 in the 50K classic skate race), however, but there is no doubt she’s hooked.
For next year, and the next, and the next.
“You couldn’t really race in it. You were caught up behind people, but it was so much fun. I asked myself, ‘Why I did I wait almost 52 years of my life to do this?’ The people were so friendly,” Davis said.
“It was fun! I don’t run a marathon and say it was fun. It was too much fun not to do it again. I want to move up in the waves.”
The next “fun” thing on Davis’ agenda is a fourth attempt at the Boston Marathon on April 18. This time, she and Steve are hoping for better weather conditions as they have encountered everything from 90-degree heat to snow flurries.
“We have never had perfect weather for Boston. Last time we did it (2018), it snowed. The first one (2012) it was 90 degrees. No one wants to run 26.2 miles in 90-degree weather,” Davis said. “It definitely puts a damper on the whole experience.”
It’s all part of the running experience, she said, knowing you have to roll with Mother Nature’s punches. Besides, she’s got a goal of being a Six Star Finisher, so weather isn’t going to derail her.
What’s a Six Star Finisher, you ask? It’s someone who completes all six major marathons in the world – Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo. Davis has already done three — Boston, New York and Chicago — and has Berlin scheduled for September.
That’s tentative, at this point.
“There’s so much going on in the world right now, it kind of worries me,” Davis said of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I don’t want to be selfish.”
In the meantime, she will continue to run, ski if weather permits, and prepare for the upcoming spring turkey and fall deer seasons. Preparation, she says, is the key.
“It is such a rush, how it all comes together,” Davis said of shooting a turkey or a deer. “The preparation, the practice, the scouting. You have to prepare well for the hunt with the shooting at the target, the trail camera thing, the patience in the stand.”
She admits to loving the preparation as much as the hunt. Or the training as much as the run. Or the hours of skiing before the race. And, she adds, she knows not everyone can find the time to do it.
“I didn’t always have the time for all of this. I am very fortunate that I don’t work full-time,” Davis said. “I don’t think I am anything extraordinary. I don’t want to say I am a ‘Go big or go home,’ type person, but maybe I am in some sense.”
One thing’s for certain: Davis doesn’t like to, and won’t, sit idle. That’s a given.
ANY IDEAS? I’m always open for ideas, as the outdoor community is full of interesting people who do fascinating things. I just need help finding them. It can be someone who is into canoeing, trapping, hunting, fishing, skiing or runs ultramarathons. If you know of someone, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at email@example.com