Name: Neil Belscamper, Woodbury, Minn.
Event: Birkie Skate, 3:50
Place at timing wire: Last
Minutes behind penultimate Birkie skier: 4:42
I’m a 50-year-old recreational skier and first-time Birkie participant from Woodbury, Minnesota, and I’ve been skiing since 2005, when I bought my first pair of cross country skis, some RSC “Skatecut” Fischers from Joe’s in St. Paul. Eight years later the bases are in pretty rough shape and they’ve sadly been reduced to rock skis.
Although I didn’t start skiing until my 40s, I’ve kept active. In the 1980s, after graduating from high school, it was road cycling. I competed in some USCF races but wasn’t very good. I lacked the confidence for mass start races and switched to time trialing, even though my natural ability leaned more toward sprinting. In 1987 I trained pretty hard in an attempt to break an hour for a 40k time trial. At the Minnesota State Championship in Santiago, on a pancake flat road with no wind, I got my chance. 1:00.09. No dice. I think Dan Casebeer won that year in around 52 minutes. After that near miss, and not wanting to waste my pre-25-year-old fitness, I dragged my friend Jim with to that same course on two separate occasions to keep me company (along with his wife Liz on the last one) while I tried to find that extra ten seconds. But a broken spoke ended the first attempt (never build a rear wheel with bladed radial-laced spokes, even if they’re only on the non-freewheel side and look really cool). 1:00.20-something on the second attempt also fell short. Liz, who brought her bike and rode the course as well, finished and we drove home. I’ve never been back to Santiago.
Beginning in 2000, in my late 30s, it was rock climbing. Lots of trips to Taylor’s Falls, the climbing gym, some trips to Colorado and Wyoming. But I lacked the confidence for lead climbing, in case that sounds familiar. Mostly I seconded or toproped routes, or stuck to easy leads. At my best, somewhere around 2007, I eked out a couple of the Taylors Falls 5.11s (Cobra 5.11a and Fancy Dancer 5.11b) after working the crux sequences to death.
So I fell into skiing in my 40s in a reasonably fit state. And like my approach to other things, skiing quickly became a kind of do-it-yourself endeavor. Really, how hard could it be? That 10-minute group lesson on borrowed waxless classics several years ago would be a good foundation. Not surprisingly, my first attempt on the Fischers in 2005 was a series of falls and jammed poles to avoid falls. I bought extra baskets from Finn Sisu to replace the ones I broke. Once I could stay upright, I ventured onto a nearby lake to avoid both onlookers and hills, and developed a narrow mincing technique for the snowmobile tracks. A year later I moved from the lake to the flat groomed course at Phalen Park, doing a sort of V1 most of the way round, every so often willing myself into a mind-numbing V2 for a hundred yards or so until I just couldn’t hold the concentration anymore. I always tensed up when I heard, or thought I heard, other skiers approaching from behind.
From 2007 through 2009 the Fischers sat in the basement a lot while I made frequent trips to the climbing gym with my friends Dean and Tyler, but then in 2010 I started skiing again. At this point I became a regular at Battle Creek, a wonderful, hilly ski area about a mile from my house. At first I was terrified of the downhills and resorted to snowplowing, and on the climbs I was a tangle of equipment. But I got better. My balance improved. I paid attention to good skiers and learned by watching them. And while the 2010/2011 season in the Twin Cities was as good as the 2011/2012 season was bad, I skied throughout, most of the latter season on manmade snow. Between winters I rollerskied and bought a couple better pairs of skate skis from Gear West.
Last summer, my second summer of rollersking, I was going out about 5 times a week, mostly because I liked rollerskiing, but partly with the Birkie in mind. Then in August I finally entered. My training structure was pretty loose. When I felt good I went hard, otherwise I did steady distance and tried to be mindful of technique. By now I was mostly doing V2 (or what I think of as V2) on the flats and some easy climbs, V1 on steeper climbs (I hate diagonal skating and can’t do it to save my life), and on rarer occasions V2 Alternate or Free Skating. On a warm Thanksgiving day in the Twin Cities I rollerskied 50K in my first attempt to get used to the distance. There are probably a couple things wrong with that statement.
When November rolled through without any snow it seemed like 2011/2012 all over again, but on December 9th we got a foot of snow and there was finally skiing in the Twin Cities. I was off an running, skiing as much as a could at Battle Creek. On weeknights after work I’d be on the lit loop and on weekends I’d do laps of the full circuit, hitting the climbs and fast twisting descents on the outer loop. I remember feeling pretty worked by those climbs a couple years ago, fading the whole way up, but now I was pacing up them and pushing over the tops.
Then in the middle of January it rained, a huge disappointment, destroying the snow and turning Battle Creek into an ice rink. As a result I bought a season pass at Green Acres in Lake Elmo, a summertime farm/wintertime recreation center that operates a couple big tubing hills and has developed some nice cross country ski trails. Most importantly, they make snow! And there are hills. For the next couple weeks I skied there, doing lots of laps on a series of flat and hilly loops, braving a couple single-digit cold snaps and some headlamp sessions during the week. On two separate occasions I did 50K on the 3.5K course, climbing Per’s Plunge, a steep hill between the two tubing hills, 14 times each session. Eventually it started to snow again, several Alberta Clippers in a row putting out an inch or two of snow each time. Battle Creek was back.
Most of February I resumed my laps at Battle Creek, throwing in some night sessions with climbing intervals past the Snow Frog (or Snow Dragon?) on the steep uphills leading out of the prairie. On weekends it was back to the full course, usually doing 4 or 5 laps, or about half a Birkie each time. I experimented eating GUs on the move (stapled to a cord around by neck – worked great) and messed around with my rollerskiing hydration pack (the hose and mouthpiece froze almost every time so I decided to rely solely on the feed stations at the Birkie). A couple weeks out I reduced my distances but always tried to climb hard.
Birkie week finally arrived. That Monday was my 50th birthday and I had the day off – something about old Presidents. Like usual, I did my laps at Battle Creek. And watched the forecast. Snow on Thursday night and Friday morning. My friends Jim and Liz (yup, the same ones I dragged to my cycling adventures 25 years ago) were interested in driving up to Hayward on race morning so I decided to stay with them in Scandia and get my bib at Telemark before the 9th wave start.
After talking to an elite wave classic skier at Battle Creek I’d already decided to hang back from my start time a little in order avoid the melee.
Saturday morning, Jim, Liz and I got up and headed out before 6:00 a.m. After a couple stops along the way, it was 9:00 when we got to Cable and drove in to the parking area off Telemark road. We walked to the start, which was farther than I thought. The mass of people making their way down from the lodge was amazing and walking against traffic pushed home the thought that I was late. I got my bib at the lodge and we made it to the start area right after the 9th wave left at 9:50. I decided to wait as long as possible (the cutoff was 10:15) since my official time wouldn’t begin until I crossed the wire. After the Prince Haakon 12K left at 10:00, I pulled on my boots and picked a pair of skis. I’d brought my two good pairs of Fischers that were prepped identically (green LF layers topped with warmer HF layers), picking the finer-structured, cold base version. Jim and Liz carried my warm grind skis and coat back with them, so no gear bag for me.
It’s amazing how cleared out everything becomes after 10:00. The announcer called for volunteers to help dismantle the start area. There were a couple late starters for the Prince Haakon, and then me. I took off around 10:10, ducking under the now unmanned starting banners. The snow was pretty deep and churned up before the start wire and had me wondering if it was going to be a 31-mile slog fest. After the start wire, the trail along the flat was beautiful, the tree branches holding a light dusting of snow from the day before. Some spectators watched from the backyard of an A-frame cabin abutting the trail, beside a cozy looking fire. Up ahead were a few stragglers from the Prince Haakon – some skiing alone, a pair or two side-by-side. When the trail turned left at the Powerlines I immediately crossed to the far right side as there were Prince Haakon skiers as far as the eye could see on the left. It became pretty clear right then that I’d be passing a lot of people. On the 100-foot-wide Powerlines hills this wasn’t a problem. The climbing felt good, similar to my endless laps at Battle Creek and Green Acres, and I was able to get up these hills unimpeded. The temperature was just about perfect – mid twenties with little or no wind. I wore light long underwear under a race suit.
At the top of the Powerlines I passed the Drummers Circle—a large group of people rhythmically pounding drums and cheering skiers. After the feed, when the trail finally dived into the woods, it narrowed and passing became much more difficult. Rather than being strung out along the course, as I’d hoped, every hill climb was clogged with skiers. In hindsight, starting after the Prince Haakon meant there were another 500 people on the trail in front of me. I steadily passed when there was room on the uphills, going back and forth across the trail as traffic allowed, timing people’s pole plants to squirm through, hugging the edge of the trail, etc. One thing I discovered pretty quickly is a ton of people diagonal skate up these hills, which is pretty hard to follow and I had to be careful not to run up on anyone’s poles. I said “sorry” more than once. One advantage of the narrower trail, however, was that the new snow wasn’t quite as loose as before, at least not on the flats and most of the downhills, having been packed a little tighter by the thousands of skiers before me. Sure, it was a little on the slow side, but my skis were gliding about as well as anyone’s. There was a lot of rolling terrain here mixed with some bigger climbs. On the flats I don’t recall seeing anyone other than me V2 skating.
In the whole 50K there were two real sketchy downhills. Indeed, by late morning they were ice-bottomed chutes with berms of loose snow on the sides. At the first one I saw a few people basically waiting to take turns on either side of the trail. I went between them and kept going. Battle Creek has a couple similar downhills that get scraped down to ice around tight bends and when they’re in this condition I usually run my outside ski along the berm. This one had a lot more churned up snow threatening to catch a ski but I made it down on my feet. Somewhere around here the Korte trail split off and a lot of skiers disappeared, spurring hopes that the climbs might be less crowded. But by now there were a ton of wave 9 skiers and ever increasing numbers from earlier waves. The easiest place to pass was near the tops of climbs, when the gaps opened up a little. The last sketchy downhill for me was Bobblehead Hill. I could see the snowmobilers (snow machiners if you’re not from around here; sledders if you’ve got one out in the garage) waiting around the bend, so I shamelessly went into a big snowplow to lose some speed before hitting the lefthander in fairly good style and avoiding a score. Someone yelled “get that man a beer!”
After that there were lots of moderate ups and downs until the big climb up the Seeley fire tower hill. Then came the road crossing at OO, the unofficial halfway point. On a short but steep climb I got yelled at by a classic skier for skating into completely herringboned-out tracks to pass. All along the way I made sure I was eating GUs from my GU necklace, and grabbing water or HEED at every feed station. I’ll have to say the volunteers handing out the stuff were great, always smiling. The feed stations were hives of activity. You could hear the din of cowbells and cheers coming out of the woods before you saw them, triggering a sort of Pavlovian response. Then you would come around a bend or over a rise and there were volunteers with trays full of cups (“water” “energy”) and a glut of skiers clogging the trail. There was no getting through on the fly, at least not where I was. I’d come to a stop, slowly walk or push my way through with one pole drinking my water or HEED, wondering what all that discolored snow was doing to my ski bases. Eventually I’d make it through and disappear into the woods again.
The rolling hills continued. Up and down. Down and up. Then we arrived at the bigger climbs and Bitch Hill. It was steep, about the same as Per’s Plunge from what I could tell, maybe longer. There were lots of spectators along the sides and at the top cheering. From the bottom it seemed like any one of a number of hills, but the commotion quickly cued me in. I stuck to my place in the long double trains climbing slower than I wanted, the upside being I was quite comfortable and could enjoy the chaos. The Reverend off to the left dressed in purple with white crosses. The cute Leprechaun lady dancing around the top, who I had one of those awkward left-right-left standoffs with (it turned out to be left) before getting a high-five. Probably lots of shenanigans that I completely missed. A few skiers were standing off to the side recovering after this hill and the longer hill later on (with the false summit).
More rolling hills. By now my skis were starting to grab a little, most noticeably on the more gradual downhills. Somewhere in here I ended up leapfrogging back and forth with three different skiers, the only ones I recall passing me the whole way. I think one of them ultimately ended up ahead of me. I was a little faster on the climbs and he was a little faster on the descents. I think the second guy fell back, and I ended up ahead of the third guy until the lake. By now we were past 40K and each marker made the finish feel that much closer. I was still feeling really good, probably from drinking at every feed, eating my GUs, and climbing at an impeded pace most of the way. Most of the climbs were still clogged up and passing people was tough. I occasionally got a little twinge in my left triceps putting on short bursts to get around people and I became more content to stay in the lines and just enjoy the trail until it was easier to pass. Any hope of challenging three hours had evaporated entering the woods some 25 miles ago.
And now the woods were thinning. A large open field on the right. The trail started going down. After crossing another road and slogging through some loose snow we were on Hayward Lake. A slight 3/4 crosswind kept me from thinking I could really wind it up so I plugged along in an abbreviated V2, slowly passing a few shady-looking feed zones and some spread out skaters and classic skiers in front of me. About a third of the way across I heard the sound of someone coming up from behind and worked my way over to the left side of the trail to let them by. My old leapfrogging friend from back in the woods. He was moving faster now, but not so fast I couldn’t tuck in behind and get a little break from the breeze. He did a sort of combination V1/V2 Alternate and I kept to my shortened V2 behind him. Every so often he stumbled a little and had to catch himself. Not sure if it was a technique thing or if he was running on fumes. But he pushed himself across the lake with me in tow, never looking back, while the water tower got closer and closer. Unfortunately, in the narrow chute exiting the lake, another stumble in the soft snow sent him down face first. I narrowly avoided him and made my way up to main street. The snow was so deep and sloppy here I thought I might be wading by the time I reached the finish line, but shortly after the turn it got better and I went back into a V2, double poling across a couple funky-looking pedestrian crossing zones. And then I was done. Someone gave me a first-timer medal and I started looking around for Jim and Liz. I asked a spectator for the time. 2:00 p.m. Well, at least I was under 4 hours. I spotted Jim and we met Liz up by the bank.
The drive home was pleasant. We took a different way through Grantsburg, going under the “Spooner Blows” railroad bridge. Next day I skated a lap around the flat loop at Phalen Park on heavy arms and legs in the warm sun and new snow.
And that was the 2013 American Birkebeiner for me – a great experience. Perfect temperature, wonderful atmosphere, beautiful trail, friendly volunteers along the way, a chance to spend time with my friends Jim and Liz, and a goal to work for and get excited about at the end of my 40s.