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‘We’re Not Exceptional Skiers. We Just Keep Going and Finish’
Monday, May 2, 2022


In 2007 nurses Berit Kuykendall and Patrice “Paddy” Yancey took their place among 240 Nordic skiers as they toed the starting line of the 50-kilometer Fossavatnsgangan Ski Marathon in the mountains above Isafjordur, Iceland.

It happened to be the warmest day ever recorded in April in Iceland—certainly since the event had started in 1935. And the unexpected heatwave taxed the reserves of all 240 participants, including those who had won World Championship and Vasloppet medals in other contests.

Skiers bogged down in the slushy snow and even endured a brief winter storm that blew in, leaving them guessing where the race course was. And Ol’ Man Wind blew their ski poles every which way, giving them a yardstick by which to measure all other windstorms moving forward.

Kuykendall and Yancey were the last to cross the finish line, the weather clearing right at that moment as if to smile on their perseverance. But even though they were last, they were celebrated as heroes for having finished. And they won gold and silver medals in the 50- to 59-year-old bracket since others their age had given up.

They gleefully replenished all the calories they’d burned with Icelandic desserts that all the townspeople baked. And they vowed to keep skiing.

“We’re not exceptional skiers. We just keep going and finish,” said Kuykendall. 

Kuykendall and Yancey are familiar sights around Sun Valley, spending a week here each month during winter to ski Sun Valley’s Nordic trails with their good friend Jan Schlicht. They take breakfast each day at Perry’s, often taking Keith and Paula’s dachshund Dudley into their arms.

And they’re quick to spin stories about the adventures that Nordic skiing has taken them on since they took up the sport in the days before skate skiing was even a blip on the radar.

“We’ve had such a wonderful time all these years. What makes cross-country skiing so special is that it’s so unassuming and so mellow,” said Kuykendall. “Skiing in Iceland was so beautiful, with the beautiful white snow set against the blue, blue ocean. And, when we weren’t skiing, we were doing all the things the locals did, like enjoying these huge hot pools.”

I first met Berit Kuykendall, Paddy Yancey and Jan Schlicht years ago when I volunteered for the Bogus Basin Ski Patrol. I typically volunteered for Nordic patrol duties since everyone else wanted to patrol the downhill slopes, and I spent most of my time skiing up and down the road to More’s Mountain, clipping shrubs that poked above the snow on a track that rarely got enough snow to cover it.

It was there that I met the threesome whom I quickly dubbed “The Lunch Bunch” because of their propensity for celebrating the end of each ski with a picnic lunch that they’d spread out on the side of the trail, anchoring a tablecloth with a bottle of wine, some chicken salad and brownies.

Now, I had the opportunity to sit down with them during breakfast at Perry’s to catch up on the adventures they had had since I last saw them 20 years ago.

It turned out they still have a fire for adventure in their belly and a penchant for picnics along the trail. The trio’s cross-country skis have taken them around the world. And it all started in Sun Valley.

After trolling around on cross country skis for a few years, one of them ventured that maybe they could ski the 34-kilometer Boulder Mountain Tour in 1987.

“We looked at it and then we thought, ‘We can’t go 34 kilometers,’ ” Yancey recalled. “But then we went up to the ski trail at Banner Ridge above Idaho City. It was 15 kilometers so we skied it, then sat in the back of the car for a while. Then we did it again.

“And we said, ‘Okay we can do the Boulder. We did it on no-wax cross-country skis, and it took us four hours to do it, but we did it.”

Emboldened, they set out to do more. They took a skate skiing lesson from Bill Koch, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist who popularized what was then a new cross-country skiing technique that resembled ice skating on skis.

They skied the Cascade Loppet in 1993 on a whim, enduring a blinding snowstorm that came out of nowhere. Kuykendall took first and Yancey second in their respective age categories. And--shades of Idaho—they were treated to a buffet of baked potatoes at the end, along with a buffet of home-baked cakes and pastries.

All three skied the 70-kilometer Marcialonga Worldloppet in Italy in 2005, training beforehand on the Harriman Trail where they would head north from the SNRA in the morning, have lunch at Galena and ski back to the SNRA.

They stayed at a convent one night and enjoyed the services of the Italian army with two miles to go in the race, as the army men took off their skis and waxed them so they could get up the steep hill leading to the finish line.

“The last person in gets a wreath of roses just for finishing—the last person gets as much attention as the first,” said Kuykendall. “It was so fun because you had old ladies lining the streets cheering, ‘Viva America!’ They’d look at our number and begin cheering our names.”

All three skied the world-famous 54-kilometer Norwegian Birkebeiner-Rennet from Rena to Lillehammer in 1997. The race commemorates men on skis who wore shoes of birch bark as they escorted the infant heir to the throne through the woods from Lillehammer to Trondheim.

Schlicht was a little handicapped as she had broken her wrist in the Boulder Mountain just a month before the Norwegian Birkebeiner. But she got back on skis almost immediately, skiing without poles so she could keep up with training.

The trio took a Barbie doll they dressed in a fur bikini to Norway with them, utilizing “Lisa” to send postcards home. And they placed her in their daypack as they skied the Birkebeiner, the doll waving a Norwegian flag in one hand and an American flag in the other.

“I remember a little girl saying, ‘Mom, look at that doll!’ ” Kuykendall recalled.

Returning home, they took part in the American Birkebeiner, a 50K race held in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Then they joined a thousand other skiers for the Canadian Birkebeiner, a 55K race held in the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area of Alberta.

There Kuykendall and Yancey were awarded the Haakon Haakonsson Award for having skied the Norwegian, American and Canadian Birkebeiners.

They were only the fourth and fifth women to do it.  And they were only the 41st and 42nd skiers to accomplish that feat, counting the men. As of 2016, they noted, only 74 skiers had been awarded the award. By 2019 187 skiers had earned the honor.

They’ve skied Yellowstone, encountering a herd of bison that prompted them to hide in the woods. And they always include the West Yellowstone Rendezvous, which typically marks the end of the ski season, on their itinerary.

They make sure to stay for the medals ceremony as they always seem to rake in a few more medals. Then they ski into Kuykendall’s cabin in Montana, which sits seven miles from any plowed roads in the winter.

“We tried to snowmobile once, but the snowmobile kept sinking and we had to keep digging it out. We were totally exhausted and thought, never again,” said Yancey, who recently retired from St. Luke’s.

At the cabin they live the life of frontierswomen, melting snow to wash their hair outside in minus-22 degree weather. When birds left a mess on the windows, obstructing their view of mountain ranges, they even found themselves washing windows in subzero temperatures.

“We love that cross-country skiing is so unassuming,” said Kuykendall. “You see people out on the trail—even people like Bill Koch and Alison Owen Kinsler--and it so easy to chat with them. You can’t do that in so many other sports.”

The three haven’t gone abroad since the pandemic began, but they have managed to keep up their Nordic skiing at Bogus Basin and Sun Valley. Occasionally, they spread a picnic lunch out alongside the trail. And they certainly haven’t gone soft.

One recent morning in Sun Valley they headed out on the trails around SNRA for a sunrise ski. Never mind that the temperature was a mere 2 degrees above zero.

“Our non-racing skiing adventures have been just as fun but most likely made possible by being in just a little better shape because of the racing,” said Yancey. “As nurses I think we saw every day that life is tough in different ways for everyone so you have to go out and create your own inner toughness so when you are hit with the rough stuff you can get through it. You might as well have fun while you are getting tough.”

Ski racing has not only provided many adventures and the opportunity to meet wonderful people, but it’s given them goals, improved their skiing, reduced stress and made them flexible and creative in times of crisis, added Yancey.

“We raced in the slow lane for the fun of it not for the medals, but when medals did come that was extra fun, extra champagne!”

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