Not even cancer can keep skier Phil Dunn from maintaining his 30-year Birkie streak

Phil Dunn's dedication to the Birkie is almost unrivaled. The 66-year-old is one of just five skiers who has finished every 55K event since the long-distance ski race began 35 years ago.

Spruce Grove resident will ski 55K race on Saturday, like he has every year since 1985

Phil Dunn competes in the 55-kilometre Birkie in 2018. Dunn was diagnosed with cancer just a few months before the race. (Cheryl Howlett Photography)

On February 9, 1985, Phil Dunn was among the skiers who competed in the first ever Canadian Birkebeiner race.

Having picked up cross-country skiing as a student at the University of Alberta, Dunn, along with 126 other skiers, travelled in extreme cold from the Westridge Golf Course in Devon to Fort Edmonton Park.

It was so cold that Dunn wore five layers of clothing on his legs and feet. The moisture froze into sheets of ice between the fabric and his moustache turned white with icicles.

The route has changed — instead of following the river, skiers now race from the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village through Elk Island National Park to the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area — but the Canadian Birkie Ski Festival's marquee race has largely remained the same.

This year's festival goes this weekend, with the main events Saturday and others for families and kids on Sunday.

In the most challenging race, skiers cover 55 kilometres of rolling terrain while carrying a 5.5-kg pack. The pack symbolizes the weight of an infant prince, whom, according to legend, Norwegian warriors skied to safety during a civil war hundreds of years ago.

Phil Dunn participating in the first Birkie race in February 1985. (Phil Dunn)

Dunn, who lives in Spruce Grove, doesn't always race with a pack, but his dedication to the 55-kilometre Birkie is almost unrivaled. The 66-year-old is one of just five skiers who has finished every 55K event since the race began 35 years ago.

It's an achievement shared by Klaus Huckfeldt, Andy Lamb, Gerald Streefkerk and Paul Zimmerman, who are all signed up for Saturday's race. They're known as "red bib" skiers because they are permitted to pin their numbers to a red bib on race day.

Listen to Phil Dunn talk about skiing and perform a Birkie-inspired poem on Radio Active:

"We all want to be the last one," Dunn told CBC, though he suspects that honour will go to one of the other men.

Health problems have plagued the retired educator, though they have yet to end Dunn's racing streak. This next Birkie will be his 30th — in Canada, at least. He has also finished Birkies in Wisconsin and Norway.

One of Phil Dunn's red bibs is covered with pins from past Birkies. (Phil Dunn)

Coping with cancer

In late 1997, Dunn underwent radiation treatments for a brain tumour, but that didn't stop him from suiting up for the February 1998 race.

For that effort, Birkie organizers honoured him in 1999 with the Ole Hovind Award, which goes to the skier who best represents the spirit of the Birkie. Dunn also won the award in 1993, for organizing teams of student skiers, and in 2007, for his red bib.

Cancer struck the skier again. In the fall of 2017, Dunn was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a relatively rare cancer of the bone marrow and blood. He started chemotherapy, knowing the 2018 Birkie was only a few months away.

As race morning grew nearer, Dunn felt so weak he sent a letter to the Birkie office with instructions to read it at the annual Vikings' Feast should he not make it to the finish line. The letter congratulated friends for finishing and thanked the organizers and fellow red bibs.

The letter went unread. A few kilometres into the race, Dunn ran into Karen Vandermeer, the wife of his friend, Bill, and the pair ended up skiing together for the rest of the race, finishing about six minutes short of eight hours.

"She stayed with me and distracted me from how tired I was," Dunn recalled.

He choked back tears as he crossed the finish line that year.

Dunn still has leukemia, and has been told it will never leave his body, but he has responded well to treatment and takes a daily chemo tablet to keep it in check.

It's the friends and volunteers who make the Birkie such an important annual event, Dunn said.

After finishing the race, he says the same thing every year.

"I may never do another one, but I am glad that I did this one."


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.