Doing 4 Birkies in 10 days seemed like a bad idea. So this Edmonton ultra-athlete did it anyway

Gibby Davis had never cross-country skied — didn’t even have equipment, in fact — when he signed up for the 55-kilometre Canadian Birkebeiner. 

'I've found it to be a lot more rewarding than I was expecting'

Gibby Davis created a Birkie Quad challenge for himself, during which he completed the 55-kilometre event four times: running, biking, skiing and skating. (Supplied by Julie Vizbar)

Gibby Davis had never cross-country skied — didn't even have the equipment, in fact — when he signed up for the 55-kilometre Canadian Birkebeiner. 

When the beloved nordic ski festival was cancelled due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions, Davis went the distance on his still-new classic skis. 

Then for good measure, he repeated the distance on skates, his fat-bike and on his own two feet, completing a 220-kilometre fitness challenge over 10 days in February, when Edmonton was in the grips of a polar vortex.

Why? Great question.

"Uh, I'm a sucker for punishment?" the affable Edmonton athlete said with a laugh, one day after finishing the fourth leg of his made-up relay.

"I guess, I'm always up for trying to figure out what I'm able to do, and I'm always kind of surprised that the limit is always much farther than I thought it was," he told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"I honestly dreamt this thing up and thought to myself, 'That's silly, I don't think anyone could actually do that.' And then I was like, 'But I'm going to try.'"

Davis did selfies along his various routes, even when he was skiing and cycling in the dark. (Supplied by Gibby Davis)

The Canadian Birkebeiner festival was scheduled to take place over the Family Day weekend. 

When the races were cancelled, festival organizers launched a virtual Birkie that allowed participants to complete their event over a 10-day period and gave them an option to use a variety of different sports.

Once Davis had decided he would do much, much more than was required, he planned times, dates and routes. On Feb. 12, he headed out for his first event — a 55-kilometre ski at Edmonton's GoldBar park — and realized that even the best-laid plans can't trump the weather.

"I intended to do a five- or six-hour ski, but there was too much snow and the trails hadn't been groomed, so I went skating," he said. "And it was really cold.

"I'm not one to be thrown off too much by the weather. I do my best to get outside and enjoy the outdoors whenever I can, regardless of the temperature. But I will admit it gets a lot harder when it gets -30 or -40 degrees outside."

In the end, Davis did the skate (about 50 laps of Hawrelak Lake) during the bitter cold of Feb. 12. Four days later, he hopped on his fat-bike and did a meandering, 56-kilometre tour of Edmonton during some equally cold temperatures. 

Gibby Davis took this photograph of his very sore feet after running 55 kilometres to finish his self-made 'Birkie Quad' challenge. (Supplied by Gibby Davis)

On Feb. 19, he finished the ski — his third attempt — which he started at 7 p.m. and finished at 12:30 a.m. "I was the only car in the parking out at Cooking Lake," he said. "It was just me and a bunch of random animals screaming in the dark."

He did the run two days later.

"A shocking amount of this is mental," he said. "There is certain preparation you can do for physical condition but then you need that mental preparation to convince yourself that you're OK. That even though your body is sore and you're hurt, that you're OK."

That mind-over-matter struggle was keenest on his second attempt to do the ski. It was bitterly cold, his jacket was soaked and, after completing 25 kilometres, he knew he had to call it.

"When things looked like they weren't going to work or just weren't possible, I just had to walk away."

A keen competitor of ultra-style events, Davis said the pandemic has made him realize how much he misses group events.

At the same time, it has also given him the gift of finding new ways to explore his world and challenge his limits.

"What I've enjoyed over the last, probably, eight months is coming up with some audacious things that you should never try and then just  doing it," he said.

"I've found it to be a lot more rewarding than I was expecting."