There were only two kilometers left in the race, but Ron Capacio didn’t think he was going to make it. Having already skied 73K from Hameenlinna through Finland’s grueling terrain, his body had hit the dreaded wall.
“I just laid down on the trail,” Capacio said. “Then I started thinking, ‘All those guys you passed are going to pass you. Get your butt up.’”
Spirit renewed, he managed to get back on the course, skiing the final 2K into Lahti Stadium, a world-class cross-country skiing venue.
The race took him 4:49:34, a time good enough to place him 592nd out of approximately 13,000 skiers. He was the first American across the finish line.
That was back in 1987.
Capacio has gone on to complete many more marathon ski races throughout his lifetime. From the American Birkebeiner to Masters World Cup to the Minnesota version of the Finnlandia, his skiing adventures — and adventures they certainly are — have taken him around the country and around the world.
Now 70 years old, Capacio still hits the ski trails almost daily in the winter to strengthen his body, work on technique and enjoy a bit of Northwoods solitude.
A new passion
Capacio has not always been a skier. He grew up in Madison and joined the Madison Central cross country team in high school.
“I used to run in the summer through the Arboretum; it was like a two mile run,” he said. “You wouldn’t see people running like you do nowadays. I was like the Lone Ranger.”
When he moved to Arbor Vitae in his late 20s, Capacio brought his love of running with him.
On a trip up north a few years earlier, he had met Ken and Pam Schoville who immediately encouraged him to try skiing.
“They knew I had been a cross-country runner and so it just followed suit to commit to cross country skiing,” Capacio said.
The Schovilles are longtime skiers and coached the Lakeland Union Nordic Ski Team for approximately 35 years, developing one of the most successful teams in Wisconsin.
As beginner coaches, they helped Capacio with his classic technique.
It didn’t take long for him to catch on, and in his first ski race during the winter of 1979, he took eighth place for men ages 20-29.
“I remember my lungs were burning after that,” Capacio said. The race, which he did in jeans, was 7K and his time was 39:53, a time and distance that would eventually feel short.
Over the next few years he competed in more and more races. In 1980 he joined a league called Northwoods Nordic, which organized a series of races around the Northwoods in Phillips, Rhinelander, Merrill and Minocqua each season. Skiers would get points based on their race finishes in a kind of World Cup format.
Along with Capacio’s name in Northwoods Nordic results are several well-known names in the Lakeland ski community including the Schovilles, Dan Clausen, who owns the ski shop at Minocqua Winter Park and Wayne Fish, whose son, Bryan Fish, is now a coach for the U.S. junior ski team.
Thanks to Capacio’s athleticism, he quickly became competitive among these Northwoods skiing greats.
He remembers one particular moment during the Great Bear Chase, a 50K race in Calumet, Mich., where he finally beat Wayne Fish.
With 10K to go, Capacio glided past his friend.
“I’m skiing by him and he goes, ‘How the hell did you get so fast?’” Capacio recalled. “It must have been just the right timing for me. Everything came together.”
Capacio was being modest. As his skiing career took off in the 80s, he was consistently one of the top local skiers in the American Birkebeiner, a 50K race from Cable to Hayward, and the largest in North America. More than once he finished in the top 100 overall among more than 5,500 competitors.
In addition to the Birkebeiner, Capacio raced at nine Masters World Cup competitions during the late-80s and 90s, which took him around the world to Canada, Norway and once again, Finland.
His highest finish was a 30K skate race in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1992, where he just missed out on a medal, taking fourth in his age group.
Skiing is often referred to as a lifetime sport and the case is certainly true for Capacio. It has been over 41 years since his first ski race and he continues to make it to the start — and finish — lines of races each season.
He has now completed 26 American Birkebeiner races, his most recent being in 2018 when he finished the 55K classic race in 5:55:18. Though the time was over an hour slower than his time in the 75K Finlandia-hiihto, considering Capacio was 68 years old rather than 37, it was arguably a more impressive finish.
Marathon skiing requires grit and a strong work ethic — two qualities Capacio gained as a soldier in the Army during the during the Vietnam War.
In August of 1969, 10 years before he moved to the Northwoods and discovered his passion for skiing, Capacio got his induction notice for military service in the mail. He had just turned 20 years old.
“‘What the heck?” Capacio remembered thinking. “‘This will be one way to mature a little bit.’”
He was assigned to the 191st Military Intelligence Company of the U.S. Army’s First Calvary Division.
After basic combat training in Virginia at Ft. Belvoir, Capacio was sent to Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam in February, 1970.
Though he had been trained on generator repair and maintenance, he took over responsibilities for hauling food and water for the company mess hall and showers.
He was later sent to Bien Hoa and took a class to become the base camp’s projectionist.
“I showed movies at night and that was good for the guys,” Capacio said. “They had something to do instead of just sitting around.”
He felt lucky to have secured a role within the base camp.
“It’s safer than being out in the boonies,” Capacio said. “A lot of my friends got killed or maimed.”
Though he was in a company area, there was still danger.
“It’s all over,” Capacio said, referring to guerrilla warfare. “We had guard towers and razor wire and concertina wire all the way around. We had to man those towers at night and all day.”
He remembers the Viet Cong shooting mortars and rockets into the base camp because it had an airport.
“Those things will blow up a cement bunker, they’re so nasty,” Capacio said of the weaponry.
Despite these threats, he managed to stay safe throughout his 12 month tour and decided to stay an additional two months, which would ensure he wouldn’t have to serve once he got stateside. It was during these two months he had his first real brush with death.
One night, Capacio was laying on his bunk recording a tape to send back to his family.
“We had been on red alert and one of the guys came back in and was messing around with his weapon the next night and it went off,” he said.
The bullet hit the angle iron of Capacio’s bunk bed, went through the mattress and sent shrapnel from the iron bed frame into his back. He was rushed to the medic.
“I came back to the company headquarters and the major says, ‘Ron, did you ever see how close you came to getting killed?’” Capacio said. “He walked me down and showed me that hole, and the angle iron, and the big hole in the side of the building.”
At that point, Capacio only had 20 days left in the Army.
“I mean that’s what you call friendly fire, (but) it’s not very friendly,” he joked.
When Capacio finally left Vietnam three weeks later, the company commander awarded him not one but two Bronze Stars. He was surprised.
“I don’t really think I knew what I was getting at the time, until I looked it up,” Capacio said.
He returned to the United States on April 1, 1971 amid war protests.
It wasn’t until Capacio had the opportunity to take an Honor Flight in 2015 he felt his service was truly recognized.
“It was so nice,” he said. “We flew into Reagan (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virg.) and you get off the plane and people start shaking your hand and you just start welling up,” he said.
Capacio and the other veterans on his Honor Flight spent the day in Washington D.C.
It was his first opportunity to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and he said the whole experience was “overwhelming.”
Capacio continues to seek adventure to this day.
In March, 2019, he set off to ski the Norwegian Birkebeiner, or Birkebeinrrennet, on which the American Birkebeiner is based. The Norwegian course covers 54K from Rena to Lillehammer and requires that each racer wears a backpack weighing 3.5 kg, which is roughly eight pounds.
The weight is meant to represent the 18-month-old Prince Haakon, who was carried to safety by two Birkebeiner skiers over the mountains through war-ridden Norwary in 1206.
“I’ve been wanting to do it for years, but it’s harder when you’re older,” Capacio said.
He made it about 10K into the race before deciding to call it quits.
Though disappointed, Capacio was still able to appreciate the experience. He remembered hearing the shuffle of skis behind him on one particular climb.
“I heard the ‘shh shh shh,’ that just sounds like a train coming,” he said. “It’s a whole pack of a wave; they’re all together and they ski right by you. It’s just so beautiful to watch.”
Capacio said if he can get into shape, he would love the chance to attempt the race a second time.
For now, he plans to refocus on the American Birkebeiner.
On Feb. 21, he will strap on his classic skis and line up for the 29K Kortelopet Race, or half-Birkebeiner, along with 3,000 other skiers.
The following day, Capacio will stand on Hayward’s main street, crammed amid the mass of people cheering and ringing cowbells.
He will scan the hordes of racers coming in, watching in anticipation for one in particular: his daughter, Carli, in her first ever Birkie.
As one ski career winds down, another is just beginning — a passion passed down, a legacy preserved.
Delaney FitzPatrick may be reached via email at [email protected].