Bill Schilling quietly glided through the trees Friday on Casper Mountain, his arms swinging methodically with his skis.
His bright red vest stood out among the muted whites and browns of the snow-covered pines. At 72 years old, Schilling moved gracefully on his skis, his age hard to detect beyond the wrinkles around his eyes.
No matter it was the coldest morning of the week — according to Schilling, the cross country skiing gets better as the temperature drops. The crunch of snow beneath his poles becomes louder, the air burns clearer in his lungs, the silence becomes even more crisp. There's little glamour in the sport, but it opens up another world to Schilling.
"I just get into the rhythm of the stride," he said. "And I love the silence — the silence of solitude."
Schilling has skied for decades, ever since he moved to Minneapolis in the 1970s and needed a hobby for the fleeting days of winter. After work, he would ski across Lake Harriet, enjoying the solitude and the dark.
Over the next 20 years, he skied hundreds of miles. But in recent years, the quasi-retired former president of the Wyoming Business Alliance and Wyoming Heritage Foundation has had little time for the sport as his calendar has filled with commitments: spearheading Leadership Wyoming, leading Gov. Matt Mead's ENDOW executive council and serving with his Rotary Club, among other involvements.
So now, after barely skiing for the past four years, he plans to take on a 33-mile cross country race — roughly the distance between downtown Casper and Alcova.
On March 14, Schilling and a friend from Laramie will travel to Rena, Norway, to compete in the Birkebeiner ski race. Three days later, the pair will join more than 17,000 others attempting to make the journey through forests, over bare mountain terrain and ski up over two passes. The race is considered the most difficult of the Worldloppet Ski Federation races, a series of competitions across five continents.
The race commemorates the 13th-century rescue of an infant Norwegian prince. As the legend goes, two skiers rescued the 18-month-old child from capture by a warring faction. They carried the child to safety over the mountains to the city of Trondheim. That prince later became the king who united Norway after 1,000 years of civil war.
Participants now have to carry a backpack weighing at least eight pounds, symbolizing the weight of the child. Schilling will be 73 when he starts the race, putting him squarely among the "old fogeys" who cross the starting line first. While the race is well known, the track is only accessible by vehicle at three points. If something goes wrong, help takes a bit of time.
Schilling had always wanted to complete the Norwegian Birkebeiner — it was a bucket list item — but he had never made any serious plans until his friend in Laramie reached out in August. His friend said that he was planning to complete the race and invited Schilling to come as well. After a brief hesitation, Schilling agreed.
"Now we've been talking about it for so long I can't back out," he joked.
The plaque he won for completing the series — the 96th person to do so — still hangs on his wall. But the race that stands out to him most was the 62-mile Finlandia marathon in Bemidji, Minnesota.
The race was split into two days: 31 miles on Saturday and 31 miles on Sunday. On the first day of the race, about 40 skiers lined up at the start in the minus 40 degree weather. About half the skiers were professionals from Scandinavian countries. Schilling knew he was outmatched.
"They took off like they were in Ferraris," he recalled. "And I was driving a beat up '60s Volkswagen."
But competing in the races was never about winning for Schilling. He describes himself as a "plodder" — slow but steady.
More important than medals or trophies, the races give him goals to work toward and a sense of accomplishment (as well as entertaining anecdotes to share). To train for the March race, Schilling has been working out almost every day: walking, working with his personal trainer, riding a stationary bike and, of course, skiing.
On Sunday, he worked out for a half hour with his personal trainer and then walked three miles along the river trails. It was a rest day.
In total, he estimated he's been training about 12 hours a week for the race. He's gained strength in muscles he hasn't used in years. It keeps him spry — he walks with energy and speaks with enthusiasm about skiing, Casper and his varied work.
If he doesn't complete the race, he said, at least he tried. Although the grind is daunting and the potential achievement is solitary, he made the attempt. He's not getting any younger, after all.
"You never know if you have five years of gas left in the tank or 20," he said.