Race Report, 2009

Originally posted at http://skimsp.blogspot.com/2009/02/birkebeiner-birkebeiner-birkebeiner.html

It’s never a bad thing when you leave for Birkie in a snow storm. Except for the traffic. We headed down to Randolph to gas up and then hit 35E and then hit traffic. Collin was writing messages to cars in other lanes in the condensation on the window, and I was cursing at other drivers. When one of the skiers told me to calm down, I channeled my inner Walter and said “calmer than you are” and when they questioned that I just repeated “calmer than you are.”

We got through Saint Paul and headed up 35E in traffic and snow, in a rear wheel drive van. Safety first. I was sucking down gatorade and water from my bottle the whole way (we’ll get to why in a sec) and we made it to highway 70 and headed east in the snow. In Wisconsin, I was being helped in navigation by one Sarah Van Etten, a native, who didn’t really know where the turn-of was. Luckily I knew that it was at a curve in the road, and since I can count the curves on Highway 70 on one hand (almost) I spotted it easily. We turned in to the feed and ate well there.

The feed is a big Birkie tradition, and there are many skiers who have skied many races. The total number of Birkies was tallied, and the total was found to be something like 206. I did some quick math and said that it was the distance from the equator to the North Pole in Birkebeiners, which impressed some folks. We ate, and then went downstairs to scrape the last layer of wax off and then add fluoros. As a “coach” I sacrificed my lung capacity (with a mask on) to put on the cancer to make the skis fast. When those were done (I waxed Jakob’s skis, too, returning a favour) we shipped out for a short but snowy drive over to the Van Etten household.

With mattresses for all we retired pretty quickly, hoping our 5-15 wax job would suffice in the morning. Lights went out and we did our best to sleep, with a 5:25 wake up call the next morning. Before my alarm rang, Sarah’s dad came and told me it was already 12 degrees—the forecast low had been closer to five. Collin heard this and freaked out about wax. “I need to rewax,” he said, at 5:05 a.m. I assured him of two things. First, his wax would be fine. He had a wax good to 15, with a fluoro overlay, and on the cold new snow what specific wax it was didn’t matter as much as a smooth base and some fluoros. Second, I told him there was no way he could put on a new coat of wax, and if he did, he’d lose his fluoros. He relented, and we ate and got ready to leave. The van was hastily packed (I forgot a pillow in fact) and we departed the Van Ettens, only to slide on the driveway. After a few minutes of cursing the rear wheel drive (and cursing the driver, uh, me) we made it on to Highway 53.

Being late for our rendezvous with Jakob when we got cell reception (finally) we informed him to wait for us at Trego, which he did. He jumped in for the ride north and we set off. The sun came up on the way to Hayward and by the time we hit Como Field it was light out, and snowing lightly. Traffic wasn’t too bad and we had time to use the port-a-john (or, in my case, a pile of snow) and jump on to the bus to Telemark.

The start was hectic, as usual, but I made my way to the first wave pen. Yes, the first wave. I have a bit of a history with the Birkie. In 2006, Jakob and I got thrown in the second wave. Me because of my Hoppet time, which I did in 40 degree temperatures at 6000 feet having been sick the entire week before. Jakob because he had some good shorter races and we whinged some. He should have been in the Elite wave—I should have been in E or 1. He wrote on his bib “sorry, elite wave next year” because he was bitter or something. We skied out of the front of Wave 2 and he qualified for elite, I almost did. He, in fact, came second in the wave. We both got bogged down passing most of the first wave.

The next year was the shortened Birkie. Being in the fake birkie saved my skis—I went on my rock skis. So there was that. And last year, well, I’ll blame coaching. Jakob and I went on a no-carbs then lots of carbs diet. For two days we were on the Atkins diet: carb starvation. I ate avocados, sour cream, eggs, cheese, meat, but no pasta, bread or other goodness. Then for three days it was all carbs. It is supposed to starve the muscles of carbs so they absorb more. Or something.

The problem was that I was so obsessed with eating the right things at the right times (we had great discussions at practice that week: “Hey do you feel like crap? me too! This Atkins diet is a load of horse hockey, isn’t it!”) that on Friday afternoon I forgot to drink water. This was a mistake. Between about 2:00 and 10:00 I had, uh, two glasses of water. When I went to bed I cursed myself, in driving, coaching, etc, I’d made the big mistake of not having a full water bottle in my back pocket. Poor form.

I didn’t pee overnight—bad news bears. (This year I peed twice in seven hours, and again when I woke up.) I guzzled some water in the morning, but way too little, way too late. Two kilometers in to the race I was at the front of the first wave, but the dehydration hit on the power lines and I dropped like a fly. Every feed was three glasses of water until I hit OO and was rehydrated, but by that time I had been passed by 150 guys and had to claw my way back to finish in 350th place.

So I had better hopes for this year, and was certainly better hydrated. I lined up in the corral, and with all the new waves (Elite men, elite women, elite classic) we had some false starts but I got up on to the front of the line, then took off my clothes and went running across the front. I saw some familiar faces, including one Jesse Crandall, a local boy skiing his first Birkie (due to various circumstances) out of the first wave. I had a quick, pre-race chat, amounting to “I’ll see you in Hayward, probably ten minutes after I get in.” I saw Blaise Sopiwnik, too, who is coaching at Northland. Could I lose to a Sopiwnik? He was gunning to the Elite Wave, too.

The thing about the Elite Wave is that it has about 200 guys in it: the top 200 from the year before who show up again (usually about 150) plus other folks who qualified in. For instance, John Swain hadn’t skied a Birkie since he was at Colby but he petitioned in to the Elite Wave with a win at the COLL classic race and top twelve-or-so at Mora. Collin was in due to his ’06 Birkie and Mora race (after initially being in Wave 1 when they saw his COLL time). The rules are pretty rigid, but they can be bent if you have the right numbers. Or know the right people. I was determined to ski my way in, however. Like qualifying for Boston.

Finally, fifteen minutes after the Elites had left us, the gun went off and the gates went up and off we went. I skied out near the front, but determined not to die at the start. Jesse stormed out, and Blaise was on his tail, although I stayed near Blaise along the Power Lines. Those hills are killer, but I wasn’t in pain at the top and settled in to the rhythm of the course. Up and down. Up and down. Up and up and up and up and—there’s High Point.

The First Wave isn’t horrible. Each year about 40 guys from the First Wave qualify for Elite, so the front of it, at least, is a bunch of pretty good skiers. Because of the seeding and, of course, the sheer number of people, the Birkie is often quite crowded, but because the first 50 in the First Wave are akin to the last 50 in the Elite Wave, the front of the wave spreads out pretty well, so I wound up skiing with a nice little group. One interesting thing were skiers from further afield who did not really understand the pack mentality of large races. One guy was being very aggressive at 10k, and skied off, after drafting a bunch of people and saying “track” (uh, the trail is 10m wide). His uniform said “Ohio.” Figures.

One other thing about the first wave is that it is a boys club. Most women who ski first wave times are in the top 50ish and, thus, the Elite Wave. So there are only a few women in the First Wave, and none skiing near its front. I haven’t lost to more than a dozen women or so in total this year, so I didn’t expect to see any females with four digit bibs.

A bit after High Point we passed the first Elite Woman. That felt good—we put 13 minutes on her in not much more than 13k. She had the nerve to tell us to all take it easy, as she felt crowded out. Or something. I wanted to turn around and say “uh, hon, we’ve put 45 seconds on you per kilometer. If you belong in the first wave you should have skied from the first wave.” But I maintained tact.

The hill up High Point was fun, Bubblehead Hill was not bad at all with the conditions. The snow on the trail was fantastic. It had been groomed the night before but about an inch of snow had fallen since. So it was not straight corduroy, but soft new snow over a firm base. Perfect for my softer skis—I was happy and my skis were relatively fast. The classic race looked interesting, there was close to an inch of new snow in the tracks, and reports were that early skiers, once they hit the Birkie Trail, skied outside the tracks, especially on corners they could cut, because it was faster. Some classic skiers had put on klister the day before and were frantically trying to remove it, others had some drag. I’d like to ski the race classic at some point—it’s a great trail for it—but, boy, the waxing would drive me nuts. The skate race, having seen about 250 racers, was in fantastic shape.

I know the trail, at least to about 35k, quite well, and knew most of the hills, so there were no surprise. 17k—here comes Boedecker Hill. 20k—get ready to climb to OO. 29k—an uphill, then a nice downgrade. Gravel Pit—an uphill. Around OO I decided to take a goo I had stapled to my bib. I wasn’t hungry, but decided to do it anyway. It was a good idea, but poorly executed. I took a third of the goo, decided I didn’t need it, and threw it. I’d come to regret that.

I was skiing along with a pack with people jumping in and out until near Mosquito Brook when it started to break. I didn’t have too much energy for Bitch Hill (yes, Bitch Hill) and was dying afterwards, and I grabbed my other goo. Its effect would be mainly psychological, but after I got the staple out of the packet I took the whole thing about a kilometer before Rosie’s Field, which was nice because I then got a drink, crossed Highway 77 and struggled up that one last hill.

By this point we had passed a lot of the Elite women, and about five Elite men. I figured my chances were good to make the Elite Wave. I’d put 15 minutes on five men and was about 30th in the First Wave (it was acually a good guess for my blood-starved brain). I mustered what strength I had to make it on to the lake, and then began what is always a slog across. Well, not always. In 2006, I had gone out too easy, and sprinted across the lake and in to the finish. Same in 2008, actually, since I never got to burn much energy when I was dehydrated. This time, I had skied harder (good!) but didn’t have the pep to school a bunch of people on the lake.

I actually did, however, pass a few people, and got to the end of the lake just behind a few other first wavers, and ahead of a few others. Some spectator told me “no one behind you for 50m,” which was very helpful, I could focus on the guys in front of me. It didn’t help; I almost sprinted up to the guy in front of me, but he held me off. I was hoping he didn’t finish in 200th place.

I saw my time—2:39—and figured that it would probably be Elite, but it would be close. The first order of business was food and warmth. Hayward is designed to handle thousands of skiers, but with less than 300 in it felt pretty quiet. The feed tent had no line and I knew a bunch of people there. I ate soup, bread, bananas, and drank some water; I’d bonked but the goo had kept it from being super hard like Mora. Jakob claimed I probably beat him, I said I probably didn’t. Collin was reasonably pleased with his race, but blamed me for making his skis slow. He came 50-something after a month on snow—not too shabby. And I heard a story that Matt Liebsch had won by so much that he had picked up his one-year-old kid and, in Birkie tradition, carried him across the finish line.

And it proved true, in this fantastic video. Next time hopefully he won’t drop the kid:

That was, in Collin’s words, tight.

In any case, my eyes hurt and my feet were cold, so I went in to the food and press conference tent where the winners talked about the race. Matt Liebsch, my boot brother, had taken it easily, and then we got to hear from Bjorn Daehlie, who is only about the best skier ever. He’d come second in the classic in a sprint. To his credit he is old and retired. To Gus Kaeding’s credit, he beat flippin’ Bjorn Daehlie. In that tent they had results, but placing was about an hour delayed. I had a print-out of my time, but not my place. I was talking to Jesse and looked at his time and said “well, look, you were 10:00.2 ahead of me.” He reminded me of my earlier prescience—I had told him I’d see him in Hayward, ten minutes after he got there. I was off, but by two tenths of a second.

Then the rest of the Mac skiers straggled in and I bought meal tickets and we ate brats (They shouldn’t even have to ask if you want kraut, it should be a given). Finally, I went and found my results: 180 in the mens. You know what that means—Elite Wave next year! Now I have to train harder—I don’t want to fall out. My reach goal is top 100—double-digit bib in 2011.

In any case, Macalester alums are well represented. From what I know, next year will see five Mac alums, students and professors in the Elite Wave; Collin ’10, Jakob ’08, Jesse ’01, me ’06 and a professor, Kathryn Splan.

So it was a successful Birkie. The trail was outstanding (of course), the finish was on Main Street, I finally got myself in to the Elite Wave, and I didn’t bonk too hard. Plus which we managed to get the van back to Saint Paul without falling asleep at the wheel, saw a beautiful sunset, and four or five new inches of snow on the ground. All around, a great race. Next year, however, I am going to go party at the Sawmill on Saturday night.