John Kramer Race Report

Name: John Kramer, Milwaukee, Wis.

Event: Birkie Skate, 4:31

Found out the Birkie existed: 2011.

Raced first Birkie: 2012.

I was born and raised in St. Louis, MO. There wasn’t much snow then (even less in winters these days) and so xc skiing was never really an option growing up.

Although I moved to Wisconsin in 2001 for work, I had never heard of the Birkebeiner until the spring of 2011. I had a student who one day over lunch told me all about it. I was intrigued. Despite being an athlete all my life, I had never really participated in marathon activities. In two months, I would be running my first half marathon. In February 2013, I drove up to Hayward with my wife, two good friends, and their 2 year old daughter with a running marathon and two ski marathons under my belt. I was ready for my second Birkie. Or so I thought.

For those who have raced the Birkie even once, everyone knows that the logistics of lodging are key. Last year, we stayed in Cable at Lakewoods resort. If you want to go against traffic the morning of the race, stay in Cable. It’s a breeze to get to the buses. Better yet, stay at Telemark resort. Just be ready to shell out $834 THE DAY YOU LEAVE for next year’s Birkie. Did I mention the resort has had financial difficulties in the past?

Anyway, we rented a cabin 9 miles southeast of Hayward. It took us one hour and twenty minutes to drop me off at the predetermined bus pickup area. I made it to the pre-race tent with 40 minutes to spare. After downing three Imodium pills back at the cabin, I was darn sure I wouldn’t have to go number 2. But I knew number 1 was a guarantee. Do yourself a favor: Don’t stand in line for the bathroom. Why? Because there are plenty of areas behind the portable toilets that allow you to relieve yourself. Just as I was pulling up my ski pants, an older woman in her 60s walked right past me. After mumbling “sorry” for practically exposing myself to her (I’m 38) I watched her walk by. Next thing I know, SHE is relieving herself. [Editor’s note: this proves the old adage: “skiers have no shame.”]

I truly believe the Birkie is all about the experience and having experience on the trail. “Don’t go anaerobic on the power lines.” “Kill the hill and the hill kills you.” Tidbits like these go a long way in helping prepare mentally for the race. In addition, before this year’s race, I learned from a veteran how to tape Endurolytes with Saran Wrap around them to my ski pole with electrical tape in between the Endurolytes to keep them in place. During the race, you bite through one layer of plastic and then swallow the pills. The pills don’t get wet and you’re not fumbling through your pocket/drink belt for pills.

I had done so well in last year’s Birkie in Wave 7 that I moved all the way up to—drum roll please—Wave 6. Ok, first Birkie, moved up a wave with little experience in xc skiing … I’ll take it. This year was going to be different. I had purchased new poles (Madshus nano carbon race 100 HS) which was an upgrade from my starter Salomon poles. Plus, I had purchased new “soft” Fischer race skis in anticipation of warmer weather. This was a good call also as last years stiff skis would have sentenced me to a 6 hour Birkie. Standing at the starting line, I was thinking of a sub four hour Birkie. Mind you, this is no tremendous pace, but I also didn’t have whiskey in my drink bottle like, ahem, some managers of Birkie websites did. [And other posters, too. It works great!] I will petition the Birkie powers that be to have whiskey labeled as a PED.

A quick word on waxing. Over two years of experience doing this (meaning I still don’t really get it) and I will tell you this is something that for a big race like this is best left to the pros. Without naming names, there are multiple companies on site for Birkie race waxing. It makes sense to contact them a month or so in advance so that you can get your skis Friday night and get to bed. Yes, it costs $75, but you don’t even have to think twice about whether or not you put the right wax on. Don’t we all have enough going through our head on race day?

At 9:20, the temperature was 22 degrees. Decided to go with wicking T shirt and Craft base layer. That’s all I needed. The hat and buff came off at 2.5 K on the power lines as I was already starting to heat up. The soft skis were running well but I quickly realized that the climbs were going to be more difficult this year. For those of you in the Elite Wave or Wave 1, you see there is a tremendous amount of snow that one has to climb through.

This is not a complaint. The Birkie is (and should be!) a meritocracy. Don’t like the snow? Ski faster and move up a few waves. Add in the fact that most people in the midwaves are snow plowing down hills are you have a combination of harder hill climbs and scarier downhills. I remember three downhills in particular at 8, 11, and 21k. By 21k, I was starting to feel a little tired and I knew I had to hold it together to avoid falling in front of a crowd. It was my game plan before the race to take the interior path on these toboggan runs and hope that no one in front of me falls so as to avoid hitting a snow drift. This policy worked until 21k.

Ahh, 21k—Heckler’s Hill. I had been trailing a wobbly Wave 5 skier for some time. He engaged Heckler’s Hill and a quarter of the way down promptly fell forward and took out another skier. The crowd, drinks in hand at 11 am, roared loudly as if someone just hit a triple. I had no time to react and after grunted out a few four letter expletives, was able to plow around them and travel safely down the hill. Relief.

I was able to cross OO at 2 hours. The rest of the trail was technically downhill and I thought I was in good shape. But the hills do keep coming and the snow was becoming increasingly thick and heavy. I felt dehydrated at one point and downed my water bottle with a GU. Felt better. By 35k, it was becoming clear to me that breaking four hours was not going to be in the cards. In fact, I began to think this race would be good punishment for Al Qaeda terrorists. Seriously. Could not get that thought out of my head.

When I hit Bitch Hill, there was no one in front of me and 30 people behind me. The usual “priest” was there and when asked to give a “Hallelujah!” and an “Amen!” I gladly obliged despite my recovering Catholic status. I actually increased the distance between myself and the other skiers on Bitch Hill. My only strong skiing of the day.

Winding down toward the lake, I was chasing a strong Wave 9 skier. It is hard to imagine how much the wind blows RIGHT IN YOUR FACE travelling south towards Main Street, especially when the forecast for the day said northwest winds at 10 mph. How is that possible? The lake had the best snow of the day and because it is really flat, it was fun to let it rip a little bit. The Wave 9 skier pulled me over the lake and then broke away.

As I got closer to Main Street, I started getting quite emotional. Small tears of joy/frustration/pure exhaustion all balled up into one. My wife was there along Main Street and I stopped for a quick embrace.  “I’m f**king exhausted!” I remember saying before trudging towards the finish line. Final time: 4 hours, 30 minutes.