Two weeks to go: looking perfect

Never say never, but I can not see any circumstance right now which would lead to anything other than a picture-perfect postcard race.

I’ll go right out and say it here: there is about as close to a 100% chance that the Birkie will go off on February 22 (and the Korteloppet the day before) as there ever has been.

The last 30 days, temperature-wise, from the MRCC

The last 30 days, temperature-wise, from the MRCC

This is not, however, for atmospheric lack of trying. Much of this decade, winter has been dominated by the (scare voice) polar vortex. As the polar jet stream as weakened, cold air has spilled south to send frigid air to Birkieland and nearby. Some years have stayed cold the whole way through (2014). Some have been variable. Last year January was quite warm overall, even if the second half of the month saw several days staying well below zero. January of 2017 had seven days in Hayward with a high below 10, and this January that happened just once. This year was warmer, overall, than 2017. Yet the highest recorded temperature in January in Hayward this year was just 34, while in 2017 there was a week straight with highs above 38, and several days in the 40s.

In fact, since 1998 (before which there is a gap in record keeping in Hayward), there has been only one other year when the temperature in Hayward has stayed below 35: 2011. Despite being warmer than all but three years of the past 23, January this year stayed just cool enough to keep the snow around. Sure, it reached 34 four days in a row. But 34 doesn’t really melt snow. (Yes, I know, it it 45 earlier this week. But the snow is surviving.)

season.sdevThis year has had a zonal flow, with modified Pacific air predominating with only small blasts of arctic cold. It hasn’t been particularly wet, but there’s no snow drought, either. The snow fell early in Birkieland, and it’s stayed around. Here’s a map of snowfall in the Midwest. See that little dot in the middle of Northern Wisconsin? That’s the Birkie. (Interesting to note, the Keewenaw has seen less snowfall than normal, but the eastern UP a lot more.

So the Birkie has a foot-plus of packed base. What does the next week hold in store? All signs point to more of the same.

More of the same is good. The American model out to the Birkie shows it staying colder than it’s been, with a few days dipping below zero. The European model is a bit warmer, but still keeps Hayward below freezing. Both are reasonably dry. But that means a fast, transformed, set up course, not one the Birkie has to plow with Pisten Bullies the day before the race.

This is definitely something we can get behind!

Weather for race day? Who knows! It’s two weeks out: we can deduce some trends, and make educated guesses. But as usual, the start pen temperature at this point should be somewhere between -15 and 45. 15 above is a pretty good guess. But don’t start panic waxing too quick.

Getting in clown range

Weather nerds sometimes speak of “clown range” for weather models. Clown range implies that, beyond a certain time frame, the weather models are about as good as a clown predicting the weather, usually beyond about seven days. But for very wide-scale trends, there are ways to read tea leaves to discern large-scale trends: wet vs dry and warm vs cold. Will it be 0 or 45 on race day? Who knows. But even a month out, we can say whether there is a greater likelihood that it will be warmer or colder than normal: we were worried in early February of 2017 because the models painted a picture of very warm weather four weeks out and look where that led.

So far? So good. The next two weeks look warm-ish (but not snow-melting-warm) and then cold-ish. And beyond that? Normal-ish. I’ll take normal-ish with a good base in place. Normal-ish doesn’t melt two feet of snow. And normal-ish make for some of my favorite Birkies, like 2009 and 2010: cold to start, warm and sunny by afternoon.

But I’ll take anything with 50k of snow on the ground to Main Street, frankly.


One month to go (or so)

So, time to fire up the old Weather Speculation machine!

Long story short: I think we’re in decent shape.

The next two weeks are warm. On the long-range maps, they show up as anomalously warm by 2 or more standard deviations. But anomalous warmth can be either good warmth (not too cold with some frozen precip to build the base) or bad warm (high temperatures or rain which eats the snow). And the next couple of weeks look like good warm.

For instance, the normal high in Hayward today is 22, with the normal low of -1. The next couple of days will sit right around 32 with some light snow or wintry mix. Not enough to add to the base, but nothing that will remove it either, and with last week’s storm, the base is in pretty good shape. For the rest of the week, the temperature will remain between 20 and 35, but it will stay dry. So is this quite warm? Sure, but it won’t do anything to the base. I’d much rather have this type of weather than temperatures of -10 followed by a rain storm.

This pattern may continue clear into early February, before it finally cools down. Not much new snow, but nothing that appears to be a major meltdown. I’d actually rather see this followed by a cool down closer to the Birkie than the other way around. Weather is cyclical, and a few warmer weeks are often followed by a few colder weeks. If we can survive the warm and get into a colder cycle come Birkie, as the models suggest, we’re in good shape.

Obviously, a ton can change between now and race day (and a lot will). And one of the best things on our side this year is a reasonably early race: February 22 rather than the 27th or 28th. If we assume that in any given year, the chance of the Birkie happening is 90% (since it’s been canceled about once a decade in its history) I would put the chances of the race happening, given current conditions, higher than that, in the neighborhood of 95%.

Ski on!


I’m running the New York City marathon this weekend.

So are:

Kikkan Randall, Brian Gregg, Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen.

Combined, we have 11 Olympic appearances. I’ll let you guess who has zero.

But Kikkan and Brian were kind enough to come on the podcast and talk about their race preparation, and how it is to go from skiing towards running (and probably back to skiing soon).

(Oh, yes, Kikkan Randall on the BirkieGuide Podcast, pretty exciting.)

Find the podcast here, or download the .mp3 directly here if you want.

More results aggregation

Another entry to the burgeoning field of aggregating race results, this with data back 20 years! Birkielo (an elo rating system for ski races) gives you a score based on where you placed in races (taking in to account the strength of the field, using math!). Also, if you’ve skied a lot of races it doesn’t show all the results. Still a very cool tool, and probably has results going back as far as I’ve seen!

Race Replay

This year, the entire race was streamed live and is up on the Internet.

My favorite point is at 1:51 in to the video, when the men’s Elite field’s leaders pass a female skier wearing a colorful race suit and bib 501. None other than Kikkan Randall. She pulls off and double poles and the racers glide right by. The best part? The announcer doesn’t even notice!

Around 2:17, the men pass the women, just before Bitch Hill. I’m sure they’re working hard, but they look better on Bitch Hill than I did! Both races formed in to small packs around Highway OO, with four women and three men skiing the second half of the race together. At 2:38, Alayna Sonnesyn breaks the women’s pack on the Highway 77 climb, and the men stay together to the finish. The men hit Main Street at 2:49 for the sprint, and the women a minute or two later.

Congrats to the winners … and to everyone else who didn’t make the video.

Quick Birkie recap

Not a bad Birkie. A little snow, a little soft, a lot of skiing. And, no, the drizzle and rain that some predicted didn’t exactly materialize. The course skied cold and soft. This is quite often the case.

Way before I had the chance (or time, or energy, or skills) someone’s gone ahead and posted a bunch of data visualization. Check it out! And stay tuned for podcasting in the next few days. We have a bit of editing to do, but it should be a good podcast this year.

I may even post a personal race story for the first time in … a long time.