On Feb. 22, Lori Steinbach, 64, of the Town of Cedarburg, will compete in her 26th American Birkebeiner, a 54-kilometer cross-country ski race between Cable and Hayward.
While the Birkie is the highlight of the winter for most competitors and one of Steinbach’s favorite events, it is only one of dozens of ski marathons, most of them on other continents, that she competes in each year.
Steinbach is nearing her goal to reach master status in the Worldloppet Ski Federation Circuit, something she expects to attain March 8 when she completes her 10th Worldloppet event in Switzerland.
To earn master status, skiers must complete 10 of the 16 Worldloppet events held around the world. The Birkie is on the circuit, but can only be counted once.
It is a quest Steinbach embarked upon after retiring in 2004 from the Grafton School District, where she was a high school math teacher for 31 years and coached the girls’ varsity basketball and swimming teams. She still announces track and swim meets and basketball games.
“When I was teaching, I wasn’t able to do winter events,” said Steinbach, who now combines her love for travel and skiing.
“My motto is it’s easier and much more fun to stay in shape than to get in shape,” said the 5-foot 4-inch woman, who has incredible stamina.
On Feb. 4, she was in Austria, where she completed her eighth Worldloppet event. Last weekend, she skied a pre-Birkie 43K race on the same trail she will traverse Feb. 22.
After the Birkie, she will fly to Poland to compete in her ninth Worldloppet race on March 1, then fly to Switzerland to earn the Worldloppet masters medal and get her 10th stamp in the federation’s passport.
Her Worldloppet passport already has stamps from races in Italy, Germany, France, Japan, Estonia and the Czech Republic.
In addition, Steinbach has competed in Masters World Cup events in Italy, France, Canada and Austria as well as the U.S. In 2009, she finished third overall in a Masters World Cup relay in France, where she was randomly assigned a partner.
In October, she participated in a ski camp and clinic in Austria, where she skied on a glacier and learned from the top skiers in the world.
At the camp, she met Olympic Nordic skiers Brian Gregg of Washington and Jessie Diggins of Minnesota. She’s following them now as they compete in the Winter Games in Sochi.
“It’s a great international family of ski friends,” Steinbach said. “You tend to see some of the same skiers at each event. The camps are fun because you get to see each other again and ski together instead of competing against each other.”
She’s attended the Austrian camp seven times and West Yellowstone Ski Camp in Montana the past four years.
Steinbach competes and trains in both classic and skate, also called freestyle, techniques. Most events have competitions in both styles, but sometimes only one is offered, usually freestyle, she said.
She used the classic technique her first eight Birkies, then skate-skied for 10 races. When a separate trail for classic skiers was added to the course, she returned to classic skis.
“I prefer classic,” she said. “That’s how I started skiing, and it just comes more natural. I love the flow and rhythm.”
Steinbach did her first Birkie in 1986 and has always skied the full course.
“Friends were doing it, and it was a challenge,” she said. “I got hooked. I got Birkie fever.”
This year, she gets to wear the coveted purple vest that’s issued only to those who have completed 25 Birkies and hopes to win the women’s division in her age group. She’s come in second or third in previous years.
“It’s always just a joy coming down Main Street, listening to the crowds and hearing Birkie bells ringing along the course,” Steinbach said.
She was introduced to cross-country skiing her first year teaching at Grafton High School in 1973.
“Grafton had an outdoor club, and they needed a female chaperone. Since I was the new teacher, they invited me to come along,” Steinbach said. “We all rented skis, went up north and skied on snowmobile trails. It was a way to enjoy nature and be outdoors in winter.”
She fell in love with the sport and bought her first pair of cross-country skis a few years later.
“I wore knickers and knee socks and broke a trail on the Ice Age Trail,” Steinbach said.
She now has 12 pairs of skis for different snow conditions, about evenly divided between classic and shorter skate skis, and she has waxing down to a science.
Steinbach trains several times a week on groomed trails at Fox Hills in West Bend or the Kettle Moraine Zillmer or Greenbush trails, skiing 20 to 30 kilometers for two to three hours, switching between skate and classic skis.
“Those are the best groomed trails in the area,” Steinbach said. “It’s like training for a marathon (run). You do smaller runs to build up your stamina.”
On days she doesn’t ski, she works out at Form & Fitness in Grafton, participating in a variety of conditioning and strength programs.
When she’s not skiing, Steinbach is likely biking or hiking.
“I bike 3,000 to 4,000 miles a year,” she said. “I’ve biked in Croatia and did part of the Tour de France and plan to go to Slovenia, Italy and Iceland.”
She hiked to the base camp of Mount Everest in Napal and to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru.
“Activities and travel are a great way to see the world,” Steinbach said.
Steinbach’s husband Pat Pretty, a track-and-field coach at Grafton High School who teaches health and wellness classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College, also travels for his sport. He is a Big10 Conference official who officiates track-and-field meets throughout the country.
Image Information: A glacier behind her, retired Grafton teacher Lori Steinbach posed in Austria after competing in a cross-country marathon race. Photo by Sam Arendt