Name: Nicholas Dickey, Cortland Manor, N.Y.
Event: Birkie Classic, 5:24
Weight lost in the past two years: 60 pounds
This is a Birkie report from a totally different perspective: Classical Birkie, a first time, back of the pack starter. The main takeaway here, I hope, is: if I could do it, anyone, given motivation, can do it, no matter what the starting state of physical readiness at the beginning of the project is.
To set things up, let me give you a little background. For starters, a couple of years ago I couldn’t even finish a 3k Flatlander loop in Lake Placid without stopping a couple of times to let my feet and calves recover and to catch some breath! Especially my poor squished feet—they were really burning. I was 265lbs at about 6′ height, a light / social smoker, going up and down with attempts to lose weight and get in shape.
On the positive side, I always considered myself a skier, having grown up in the youth sport school system in Moscow in the seventies, and being a natural and somewhat competitive in the early teen years (three-time individual school district champion in Moscow ages 13-15, albeit not the most competitive school district in the center of Moscow) .The last time I raced, not counting this year (I did a Lake Placid half Loppet in late January), was 34 years ago, mostly 5-10k races on wooden skis (a pair of sweet Visu Extras). Still, I had a relatively decent and fluid classical technique left over from those racing days, developed by the very high quality coaching the soviet “Olympic Reserve” system offered (you can’t drink away the talent, as they say in Russia). And I knew how to train properly over the year to peak at the right time.
So, no matter how massive (a more precise term than just fat or obese in my case—I was never flubby), short-breathed and slow did I get, I always considered myself a ski racer. In my youth, the world was divided into racers and casual skiers, whom “we” used to call with derision “kettles” (huff and puff, get it?). I refused to consider myself a kettle, regardless of the facts on the ground. So I indulged myself in buying good gear, kept an effort to go out and ski, taking yearly vacations to Lake Placid or Mont Tremblant, going up from time to time to a wonderful Lapland Lake Ski Center in Southern Adirondacks. Did I mention that I’ve lived in and around New York City for the last twenty years? Prior to that, I lived, after immigrating from the Soviet Union 25 years ago, north of Boston and in New Hampshire.
Anyway, for the last decade or so I had this thought in the back of my mind – how cool would it be to get in shape and to do a 50k Loppet for my 50th birthday? The Lake Placid Loppet was the only “citizen” race I was aware of at the time.
So about a year and a half ago, something finally clicked in my brain (after watching myself perform at the corporate talent show, bursting out of my size 40 jeans). I went on a diet and successfully lost about 60 pounds over the 6 months, getting down to size 32, same brand of jeans. A lot of related deformities, like flat feet, high blood pressure and even allergies corrected themselves too. This made me feel so springy and sprightly that I started thinking about racing in 2012/2013 season to, at a minimum, give myself some experience to be able to ski 50k in 2013/2014 when I hit 49.
I dusted off my classic, not-really-used-for-the-last-10 years, V2 930 rollerskis and started regular training in early April. It felt so good, in its own right, to be striding effortlessly again!
After some online research I learned about American Birkie, got all fevered up and registered back in August. I even decided to come to race Seeley Hills Classic to learn the lay of the land and to advance to more appropriate starting wave.
After 65 roller-skiing days between April and December, including a several 50k and 54k days, and even some more generic running (I hate running, especially over hard surface) and gym and quitting even occasional social smoking, I felt ready. I came over for the Seeley only to be disappointed upon arriving at the scene (the race was canceled due to thin conditions). At the Saloon, Dennis Cruse pointed me in the direction of Ironwood, MI, Sisu Fest and I drove there late at night, abandoning my hotel reservation in Hayward, just barely making it in time and being able to register. After spending a night sleeping in the car (Ford Escape rental) which I totally loved, by the way, the only regret being that I did not bring my sleeping bag, I was disappointed again—that race was cancelled too.
But not the feast! And I’ve got the hat! Overall, I loved the whole trip, and learned that sleeping in this type of a car was totally awesome, even when it is quite cold (for the second night, which I spent at the rest area between Duluth and Minneapolis, the temperature fell from 37F to -15F).
Anyway, that was a long introduction. Now to the Race itself.
I flew in on Friday.The flight on American Airlines from LGA was two hours late and by the time I got to Hayward it was too late (not really, but I had to prioritize sleeping over testing) to test the two pairs of skis I had with me—the “normal” cold Atomic Pros 210cm that, after I went from 265 lbs to around 205, were able to support me quite nicely, and the newfangled soft Peltonen nanogrips CL racing 207cm (with permanent factory “nanowax”). The Peltonens were, prior to this day, an expensive disappointment—slower than Atomics in all conditions I tried, with nothing to show for it: still mediocre kick and very slow adaptability between the cold and soft parts of the track. I kind of hoped that the skis would not care about things like that and that I would never have to face the sticky snow situations again with those skis. Instead they behaved (from the kick perspective) just like regular skis with regular wax, while taking about 30 mins to adopt to changed conditions ( so you may end up running in cement for 30 mins before the hard wax turns into klister, so to speak).
I bought them hoping for a shortcut around my inexperience with the modern waxing. I used to be an expert with the wooden skis, but quit racing just as the fiber-glass and plastics were becoming relatively affordable even in Russia. All this “saturating the base” stuff is still kind of black magic to me… And a lot of this mambo-jumbo sounds to me like, well, mambo-jumbo, designed to sell expensive waxes. For example, if I saturated the base with LF layers, how can I saturate it again with racing HF and pure Flouro waxes? But I digress.
Not having any time to test the skis, though, and from what I understood, being only able to take one pair of skis to the start area, I made a decision to go with Peltonens, considering I had no idea what the track would look like after a couple thousand skiers went through it and with temperatures around 32F in the second half of the race. I assumed it would be something nasty—mush over ice, which my five layers of Light Violet Swix saturating the base in Atomics would not be able to handle over the course of the race anyway. And how do you test for this stuff? These were precisely the impossible conditions I got the new skis for. Peltonens were guaranteed to be slower on downhills, but would provide reliable (if only so-so) grip in all conditions, providing there were no sunlit, extremely wet stretches out of the woods. It was supposed to be cloudy and even snowing, though, so I made a decision to give nano-magic a chance to redeem itself. So to speak, taking a leap of faith on a low-risk strategy.
After checking out the ambiance at the Intermediate School dormitory and paying 20 bucks to register there just so that I would have access to the facilities (turned out to be a bit unrealistic on the morning of the race), I spent the night in the warm car in comfort, having a sleeping bag and even an air-cell sleeping pad, being lullabied by the excellent, incredibly fantastic Minnesota Public Classical Radio out of Duluth, getting myself around 7 hours of sleep. I got up without help of an alarm clock to catch the 6 o’clock buses to Telemark. I don’t need to tell anyone here how totally awesome the Birkie Bus Clockwork is! As it was, the bus raced over the empty highway and we got to the starting area before 6:30 (hint: forget about Telemark bathrooms, unless you enjoy people standing in line staring at your ankles, waiting for you to exit the stall, there were almost no lines at the portables at this hour!).
After taking the time to take in the incredible scene (I am no longer talking just about the bathrooms!) I went to the warm-up track only to be shocked to discover how slow my skis were comparing to everybody else’s, even folks’ who looked like they were just picking up the sport (never mind the Italians warming up nearby). And that was despite all the fancy HF / Cera F layers saturating the waxable tail of the skis. I had to work really hard to keep people from gliding all around me. I kept the hope up, though, that the skis would get better after some time on the snow.
After watching the elites start, I went for another warm-up session and the skis were indeed faster now but still slower than most of the skiers’ there (I was warming up with waves 7+). Nothing I could do about it now, though, so I put it out of my mind for the moment, focusing solely on not missing the start while timing the last trip to the portables just so.
Anyway, after watching all the waves up to C7 start, I got myself into a pen for the C9 wave, making sure that I was in the first line. The idea was that the people faster than me would pass me, of course, but I would not have to deal with passing anyone from wave 9 myself, since it contained skiers of all strengths, including those who clearly did not bother to train in the summer. I figured I would have enough work cut out for me passing through the waves 8 and 7 (I assumed that I was at about wave 5 level, although after watching waves 3 and 4 start, I was becoming a bit more ambitious. Originally, by the way, my goal was to qualify for the wave 5 for the next year with ideally under 5:30 race, at least based on 2012 results). Additionally, being in the first row increased my chance of being in some sort of a video or photo, right?
After going through the indignity of being passed left and right during the double polling section before the actual start, I tried to settle into my own comfortable pace. Having read the BirkieGuide.com [editor’s note: this is totally unsolicited praise], I thought I knew what to expect and was not planning on running out of juice before 38K hills (at least that’s in terms of skating trail distances). For the next three hours I patiently went through waves 8 and 7, while going back and forth with a couple of wave 9 skiers (mostly back, I would pass them by not lingering at feeds, and they would pass me on downhills). As the race went on, I discovered that I beat almost everyone on uphills, due both to the reliable grip, but also to the superior technique. I noticed that I burn a lot less energy and I am much more relaxed than people I was passing, even from 6th and later 5th waves, when I got to them in the second half.
Running quickly on springy legs, maximizing the bounce out of skis and keeping the momentum through the herring-bone sections, switching at the first opportunity to long, steady gliding strides, lowering the heart rate even whilst still going uphill is really the goal here. Yet on every downhill some people I just passed would be catching back up to me or passing for a short while. I was confident, though, that I was using less energy than most of the skiers around me. I felt quite good through all the climbs to the high point but then had to work too hard for my taste in the relatively flat, rolling sections, though managing staying totally relaxed in the downhills, stepping when possible through the turns in low tuck in those infamous deep chutes, being lucky enough to avoid a couple of people who fell just before me and not hit anyone or fall myself in unsolicited fashion. I also found my technique improving, becoming more confident as the race went along.
Those downhills are nothing scary, really, comparing to what we have in Lake Placid! No flat hairpin turns at the end of the crazy steep and narrow downhills with huge rocks waiting just beyond the turn. Also, I very much appreciated the effort that went into putting the track down in most downhills whenever possible, so that I could ride through them on rails just like I used to in my youth at the training tracks around Moscow. That’s the most annoying part of skiing in New York and New Hampshire: all downhill turns are flat and untracked.
This is the first time in my life I raced with feeds (I considered them unnecessary during the half-loppet in Lake Placid and skipped them). Well, I learned that they make a lot of difference, both for the body and the spirit. Additionally, to everybody supporting racers out there on the trail—either with drums, cow bells, or the pretty Leprechaun at the top of Bitch hill—big, heartfelt Thank You. I did feel mentally refreshed after every encounter.
I’ve got my first second wind around 16k (I had my phone/GPS with RunKeeper talking to me which was annoying, I guess, to everybody else all throughout the race) after the feed, just as expected (I always would get a second wind close to 20k on roller skis). I continued feeling relatively good through all the tough sections, with another second wind after OO feed, the last second wind around 35k. The double hills around 40k (39k-club and the Celtic Hilltop—there was a Welsh flag there around the hallelujah gentleman and the Leprechaun station, unless I was delirious) were really, really tough, but I thought that that was the last really bad hill and there would be a lot of rest afterward. After the quick and fast downhill, I was totally demoralized to see another steep hill before I had any chance to recover. And another hill. And another. Those were much harder than anything before. I was beginning to slow down, although was still able to pass uphill, including most of the skaters that joined us by that time (around wave 7 and 8, with some wave 9ers in a similar situation as me). I was going back and forth with some of those wave 9 skaters that were passing through wave 7 and 8. None of them had much left to be able to skate up those hills, they just stepped through them and were indistinguishable from striders. At that time I was deep within waves 6 and 5 myself, with only one guy from wave 7 keeping up—back and forth again—passing me easily down, and me, passing him easily up. Also, some from wave 4 and some wave 3 stragglers started getting mixed in after B-hill. I was also gratified to see a lot of people trying to put more/different kick wax along the side—a justification for my nano-grip high risk low-risk strategy.
Another observation (confirmed later by splits): toward the last leg of the race, who were mostly passing me from wave 9? Girls, that’s who! I could not believe my eyes. It seems that most men from the waves surrounding me were fading in sync with me, but fit women of all ages just kept on going in a steady pace. I was left wondering, why was it considered in the 70s a self-evident truth that the girls should run shorter races? It certainly looked like whatever they were missing in strength and explosive speed uphills (comparing to similarly fit men), they sure had the stamina! Very very impressive performance wave 9 girls (ladies), you know who you are.
Well, after totally giving up on speed and walking up the highway 77 hill (thanks for all the support provided by the folks there, the most effective for me being the tone of slight disappointment: “c’mon, you can do better than that, this is the last hill”, etc.), I slowly, slowly skied down the soft snow to the lake level. Several people from wave 9 (girls!) passed me during that stretch, one looking like she was 15. When one wave 9 lady, roughly my age, tried to pass me, I summoned my all remaining dignity (and/or vanity) and accelerated enough just to keep her from passing (at least that’s the way I want to remember it, she might have passed me in my dazed state). After getting on the lake, my left thigh got a cramp (despite all the potassium and magnesium I took before the race and energy and banana feeds I took religiously).
I passed up on all the kind offers of Jack from the nice folks on the lake and limped along. The guy from wave 9, who I used to go back and forth with in the first half of the race, and who, I assumed, was far ahead or finished by now, passed me (I guess I passed him at the feed station, as usual), easily gliding around me. Nothing I could do about it. For the last kilometer, the cramp went away and I made an effort to catch up to the guy, but he kept on gliding away beyond reach. At least I was able to stride in style for the last 500 meters of the race instead of limping across the finish line. I also, paradoxically, got some rest while having a cramp, so I had a relatively easy time for the final stretch.
What can I say about coming over to Main Street that was not said before by the others? It was certainly magical. I had a sensation that I am in some kind of a feel-good movie, like Mystery, Alaska, where the whole town comes together to overcome some tough obstacle with the Carols singing Christmasy finale from Funny Farm mixed in, even some Groundhog Day. Turning into Main Street took my breath away—in a good way, despite knowing in theory what to expect. There is no way to describe it. This definitely should be on top of everyone’s bucket list!
I slowed down deliberately to linger a bit in this magical place. I was striding by myself, if I remember correctly. I put on my best striding technique on display, choosing the grace of the diagonal stride over the speed of double polling for the occasion. I did not know at the time, obviously, that they would cut the live web feed and recording 10 minutes before my finish. In any event, I put on the best technique and smiled all the way to the finish. In my memory, that stretch of time has infinite dimension to it, if you know what I mean, and you probably don’t, if you haven’t been there.
Well, all good things must end. I got my first-timer medal and a picture taken, slowly got my bag (don’t know why I put so much stuff there with my car being only two blocks away), used the portable—there were no lines there at that time, and walked to my car to change into dry closes and lay down awhile in the warmth. Putting on very cold dry clothes could be a real problem, if it is closer to 0F, I guess, I would have to think about how to deal with it in the future. In this state, the body is incapable of proper thermal regulation. I started shaking the minute I got out of the car to go back to the tents for the ambiance, soup and beers. That was the best soup and the best beer, ever! I finally got somewhat warmed up in the beer tent, chatting up with a very nice (Minnesota nice) local racer family. A crawled out to use the portable for the last time and catch the sight of the last three racers to finish (a birch-legging mom and son team, and the fellow without a bib). Slowly, slowly walked back to the car in the dusk, crawled into the sleeping bag and slept for 12 hours well into the morning on Sun, not counting few breaks for hydro-maintenance and going through a box of cookies I prepared in advance. My both thighs began to cramp painfully, making sliding into the front seat and out of the car difficult. I took 6 magnesium pills and the cramps went away in about 20 minutes. The school was mostly empty in the morning and the facilities were quite usable. So I finally got my 20 bucks worth.
I was planning to go and try out the Karhus at OO loops Demos, but, honestly, I could not even look at the snow or skis that morning. And, yes, by the way, about 10k from the finish on the previous day, I told myself: no way I am doing this again! So, instead, I spent the time stuffing my ski bag with all the clothes slowly (everything was very slow on Sunday, my brain was totally scrambled and in the worst shape than even my body) and then drove to Saint Paul, stopping for the burger at The Nook as the Guide commanded (meh burger-wise [editors note: this is a lie], yeah, beer-wise), taking a 30 minute nap afterwards before returning the car and taking another nap in the airport. I also had a nice nap on the plane, and a short nap on a train home from the city.
Today is Monday, and I am discovering another interesting fact: my body is recovering quickly, I’ve got the spring back in my step, yet my brain is still scrambled and is still in “the zone”. It lingers in the Birkie-land and this opus is an attempt, I guess, to stretch the magic for another couple of hours. I wonder, will I ever be as I was before the Race?
I was 118th out of 194 in my gender/age group and 974 out of 1799 in the division with the time of 5:24:08. Quite happy with the result, hit all the pre-set targets. And looking at the difference between the last split and the finish – I advanced among men, but lost in the overall standing. Girls! Also, here is the link to my RunKeeper profile of the race:
Birkie 2014, here I come, wave 5, 4 or, maybe, even 3? And I will race up that highway 77 hill in good form the next time, I promise, that’s my challenge for 2014!