Name: Ted Lystig, Shoreview, Minn.
Event: Birkie Classic—no, wait—Kortie Classic—er, um, yeah, Korte. 1:40. Unofficially.
Words written: 3450
Kilometes skied: 23
Words per km: 150
Words per km Ari wrote (and lordy is he long-winded): 89
For my second shot at the Birkie, I only skied the Kortie, and was very happy with how the race went. Post-race was another story.
While I currently live in the Twin Cities and have lots of relatives in the area, I didn’t start Nordic skiing until my junior year in college. I knew a number of classmates that were racing in the Birkie even then, but my own skiing was so poor in comparison that the concept of finding yet more people to ski behind did not exactly hold a lot of appeal. I kept on skiing (lots) and improving (a little) through graduate school in Seattle, though at that time I still had a strong preference for skate. Probably the best single outcome of skiing was that I met my wife Sandy Schreyer during a 30K skate race. (Note to singles out there: this is a great example of why you should be nice to people passing you, and vice versa. You never know where such chance encounters will lead!) I also had the opportunity to ski with a number of dedicated skiers, including a then-junior named Holly Brooks whose name you may recognize. I did spend some time trying to improve my classic technique through the Kongsberger Ski Club. Per Johnsen (one of the 35 competitors in the first Birkie) was an active member in the club, and happily gave many of us useful pointers.
After Seattle my wife and I ended up moving to Sweden where we worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a number of years. While there we did what any good Swede who likes skiing should do: we skied the Vasaloppet. This is a 90K classic race with a substantially flatter profile than the Birkie that requires a lot of double poling. In fact, back in 1994 a former winner (Staffan Larsson) had injured his knee months before the event and ended up double poling the entire race, leading for most of the first 72 kilometers and eventually finishing 5th. It’s definitely a race worth doing once, but 90K is long. After about 70K you’re pretty sure that you get the entire “this is a long race” vibe, but the course just keeps going, and going, and going. If you think the final trek over Lake Hayward is interminable, you probably shouldn’t sign up for the Vasaloppet. But I digress.
My wife and I skied our first Birkie together in 2012. We had moved to MN from CT in late December of 2010, but the 2011 edition had filled well before we knew we’d be moving. That year was fantastic for skiing, so we decided that the following year we should race the Birkie and signed up. Despite the poor snow year in the Cities prior to the 2012 race, we were reasonably well trained by the time race day rolled around. I had easily the best performing skis I’ve ever had in a race, and finished the Birkie Classic under 3:16 starting from wave 3, which put me into wave 1 for 2013.
In late summer of 2012 I had a number of doctor visits to address some long standing foot issues, and ended up having foot surgery (interpositional arthroplasty) on my right foot in early October, and on my left foot on November 1. Initially I thought that I would lose a bit of the ski season, but still be able to race the Birkie. As time passed, my earlier assessment was looking way too optimistic. While I was able to start double pole skiing by late December, even balancing on a single ski for step turns was a bit of a sketchy proposition. A very slow herringbone was an exercise in pain tolerance, and neither striding nor kick double poling were remotely viable. This did not bode well for the Birkie. Quite quickly, I grew to accept that I would not be racing at all this season, and just kept looking for flat places to double pole to keep some semblance of fitness.
Fast forward to mid-February. Double poling is going well, I can support more of my weight on the balls of my feet instead of just on my heels, and I’m starting to get early signs of Birkie fever (frequent checking of snow reports for Hayward, obsessing over the long-range weather forecast, running through various waxing scenarios, and re-living the race through the material on www.birkieguide.com). [Editor’s note: damn straight!] The full race is still not in cards, not least because I find that even with boot covers and extra tights I can’t last much over two hours without my feet getting perilously close to frostbite. Nonetheless, as we start working out the logistics for dropping off and picking up my wife, and me getting a little skiing done in between, we start realizing that this would be simplified considerably if I started the race with everyone else. We discuss the possibility of having me ski only as far as OO, but I’m not thrilled about doing most of the climbing and not getting to enjoy the subsequent (net) downhill. Also, both getting access to dry clothing and getting a ride back into town seem difficult. During the week before the race, we start discussing whether or not I should just ski the Kortie.
Friday afternoon we arrive at bib pickup, and I’ve decided to ski the Kortie. My biggest concern is that doing so without officially switching my registration will put me on some kind of black list akin to bib-swappers that will keep me from participating in future races. Talking to race staff, that turns out not to be the case. I am advised not to cross the actual Kortie finish line, to use a yellow Kortie bag instead of a white Birkie bag (even though my race number indicates the full Birkie), and to make sure someone knows that I’ve finished so that search and rescue doesn’t think there’s a lost skier out on the trail. All this sounds logical enough. We talk wax with the Swix folks (who claim that kick wax will be very simple with VR40 recommended for our waves, possibly with VR45 underfoot for later waves) and head to our night’s lodging.
Saturday morning we drive to Como via OO, happy to see the road still open. Busing to Telemark is simple, and we start the process of seeing who we recognize. There’s the sibling of a friend from college, a teammate from the cross-country team in college, a fellow member from our orienteering club, a rider from local road bike rides doing his first Birkie, the husband of my sister’s college roommate, a local skier that I usually finish very close to at races, and more. Sort of real-time, real-world Facebook. Soon enough it’s time to head out to the starting area.
I’m a bit more relaxed than usual, since I’m assuming that all the wave 1 folks will be leaving me in the dust as soon as we hit the uphills. In fact, I’m apparently a bit too relaxed, as they’re already starting to call the wave 1 classic skiers to get ready. I look for a truck to drop off my yellow Kortie bag, assuming that the wave 1 Kortie drop off will be near the wave 1 pen. Not so. A race volunteer tells me that “It’s way down there on the end of all the trucks.” As I’m supposed to heading to the front of the race, the idea of heading to the back starts to panic me a bit. (Part of me seems to have forgotten that I will be off the back of my wave.) The volunteer sees the panic in my face, and offers to run my bag down the correct Kortie truck, for which I am exceedingly grateful. I give him my yellow Kortie bag, and then proceed to head for my wave. As it turns out, I end up having to go nearly to the end of the trucks myself just to find an entrance to the starting area. Who knew? But it all works out, I get through the gates and up to the back of wave 1.
When the gun finally goes off I stand back and let everyone else take off. Okay, maybe most everyone, and not actually everyone. There are in fact at least a dozen of us that ski towards the flags where the chip timing starts, then pull up and wait. I give it two minutes from the gun, decide that I don’t want to risk being mown down from behind as I plod up the powerline hills, and start off.
It takes me less than a minute to catch up to the back of the first group in front of me, which seems odd. I mean, these are all wave 1 skiers, right? Shouldn’t they all be out of Dodge by now? Oh well. Since my main objective is just finishing the Kortie, I’m not too stressed about it. Later on I realize part of my mistake. I was sort of assuming that everyone else in wave 1 would be close to my speed from last year, but healthy. However, my time last year was good enough for 98th male, and 109th overall. Since the elite classic wave this year included the top 80 males and top 20 females, only 17 males in wave 1 qualified with a faster time than me. Next year I’ll either start at the front of wave 1 (dangerous and stressful), or wait more on the order of 9 minutes before crossing the first timing mats.
As we move through the first section I realize that this part is flat enough for me to make some time double poling, and I stick with that. However, I quickly realize that I am by no means the slowest in the group when we’re on the flats. There’s enough space, so I move up a bit when it’s convenient. Luckily for me the short hills jam everyone up, so my normal speed walking herringbone is pretty equivalent to the speed everyone else is using in the crowd.
I also realize in this first section that I am dressed a bit too warmly. I ditched my boot covers because I didn’t want them to drag in the tracks, because it was already in the 20’s, and because I was only going to ski 23K. To make up for this I’ve decided to use an extra layer on my core and legs, on the assumption that a warm core should mean that I’ll keep good circulation to my extremities (and feet in particular). I’m wearing wind briefs and socks, then mesh underwear, then wicking underwear with windblock front panels (along the lines of the Craft product with Windstopper), then a lycra two piece ski suit. I’ve got a buff and a thin hat up top, and mid-weight Yoko gloves with Windstopper lining on my hands. I should say a word hear about the mesh underwear. It looks like fishnet, but more specifically “fishing net”, and most definitely not the fishnet of “fishnet stockings”. This stuff is not sexy. Trust me. At any rate, it’s effective stuff since the open spaces trap warm air, while the polypropylene fibers pull away moisture. It’s very good for start/stop activities. I figured it would cope well for exertion on the hills followed by inactivity on the descents. As I’ve said, I was overdressed, but would come to appreciate this clothing choice later.
By about 3K I realize that my glide is also better than most of the people around me, probably in large part because of the very short wax pocket I’m using. (I’m not striding, so I just put on enough wax to make sure I didn’t slip backwards when doing a herringbone.) Now I’m starting to pick my tracks a bit more carefully so I can make the most of my glide on the downhills and not start walking uphill too early. Going into the 4K feed I remember exhorting the guy in front of me to keep poling, so I wouldn’t have to brake to keep from gliding up the back of his skis. I’m always surprised that many people seem to want to come to a full stop at aid stations, particularly one so early in the race. We all get through without further incident, and it’s off into the woods we go.
Somewhere around the 7K mark, I’ve switched from cruising ski mode to tempo ski mode. I’m really working my double poling, passing when I can, and doing a slight trot on the uphills. I’m still not striding or doing a kick double pole, but I’m making good time. This is a bit odd, since I had planned on “just skiing along”. Hand over heart/racing bib, I never planned on competing! Wait, hand over what? Oh yeah, this is a race. Huh. Best make the most of it then.
The Timber Trail feed is uneventful, we make the first left turn as classic skiers, then I also take the second left turn for the Kortie. One person near me asks if I realize I’m on the Kortie course, and I tell him that yes, I planned to ski the Kortie. Back to Telemark it is.
It turns out that the Kortie is actually very good for double poling. I do my walk/trot when it’s too steep, but those are sections where everyone else seems to be jumping out of the tracks as well. No classic skiers are passing me, and I’m pulling in bit by bit on the ones I see in front of me. Somewhere around 11K I’m startled by the first skaters coming by on my left. From this point on it’s a bit like the Autobahn in Germany: *always* look back before going out in the passing lane, and look back once or twice while you’re out there to make sure you don’t get hit from behind. I’m not passing too often, so this isn’t a big deal.
At the 16K feed I come in from the right hand single set of tracks, get some fluids, follow the course as it turns right, and see the tracks on the left. Huh? Yep, there’s a crossover here. Luckily traffic isn’t a problem at the moment, but I suspect this is a bottleneck later in the race. I have one more person ask me if I know I’m on the Kortie course near here, but that’s actually the only other time on the course when someone says anything to me being on the Kortie course with a Birkie bib.
I’m double poling well for a bit, passing striders, but eventually the hills get steep enough that I have to break out my walk/trot again. On one of these hills I’m passed for the first time by a classic skier (there has been an intermittent trickle of skaters coming by for a while now). The classic skier is a female with a CXC race suit and a wave 2 bib, which means she’s made up the 15 minute stagger between waves. In case I needed a reality check of how fast (or slow) I’m really going, this is it. Ah well, nothing for it but to keep going.
The last couple of kilometers are feeling awfully long, but eventually the trail turns downward and the finish area comes into view. I keep pushing right up to the finishing straightaway then step off the course (as instructed the night before) to avoid crossing the timing mat at the finish. Checking my watch and accounting for the two minute wait to cross the mats at the start, it looks like my Kortie time is 1:40. This would have been good for 51st overall in the Kortie Classic and 2nd in my M40-44 age group if I had entered officially. I won’t appear in the list of Kortie finishers, but that’s okay. This was a much better ski than just circling around a likely ungroomed Seeley Ski Trail while waiting for my wife to ski the Birkie without me.
I first try to find someone to inform that I’m done skiing the Birkie course, so the search and rescue squad doesn’t end up looking for me somewhere between the timing mats at Timber Trail and OO. This ends up involving four separate persons, but finally I get it squared away. Next item of business is to get my dry clothes. I go to the bag area, and am informed that they don’t have my bag yet. Trucks are still bringing bags over (after all, it will still be a bit before everyone finishes starting the course), and I am instructed to wait over in the heated tent. This is a bit disappointing, but at least there is someplace reasonably warm to go. I go in, grab a much welcomed cup of soup, and look for a good place to wait.
It turns out that there is an excellent place to wait right by one of the heating vents. These are yellow tubes about 18 inches in diameter that are blowing warm air into the tent. Someone has thoughtfully placed a large wooden board (maybe 6 feet by 6 feet) under the vent to keep the snow and ice underneath from turning to mud. There are also several folding chairs placed on the perimeter of the wooden board. I feel okay for most of my body once I’m in the tent, but my feet are already fairly numb by this point. This was probably my biggest concern prior to the race, so it looks like a good call that I didn’t attempt the full 54K Birkie.
After about 15 minutes I go back to the bag area and try my luck again. No dice, so back to the tent it is. A similar story occurs a few more times (now I’m getting foggy on the details), and I start spending more and more time in the direct path of that glorious heating vent. I’m feeling glad that I used the extra layer of mesh underwear at this point, as it feels like it’s helping me to keep the benefit from the vent, and not to be as damp as usual post-race.
When I ask for my bag an hour after I’ve finished, one of the volunteers finally gets on the radio and determines that my bag has gone to the Birkie finish at Hayward. I’m also told (by a volunteer) that my mistake was in giving my bag to another volunteer. “Never trust a volunteer!” the volunteer says. I probably shouldn’t have used the race bag service at all, given that the finish area is all of a 10-15 minute walk from the start area. At any rate, in order to get my bag I now have to board a bus for Hayward. I stop by the First Aid section to see if they have a mylar blanket that I could use to keep me warm on the trip to Hayward, but none are available. To the bus in my race outfit I go.
The bus is fairly empty, and I grab a seat in the first row to be close to the driver’s heater. The woman in the seat opposite me, Becky Manley, kindly offers to let me wear one of her jackets over my shoulders for the duration of the trip. (Thanks again, Becky!) As it turns out, she also knows Per Johnsen, and had previously been coached by Holly Brooks. Small world.
Our bus makes it to Hayward, and after a bit of a roundabout route (the driver had never been to Hayward previously), we get dropped off by Main Street. I walk over to the Birkie finish area, spot my yellow Kortie bag, and get my dry clothes. It actually took longer to get my clothes (2 hours post finish) than to ski the Kortie (1:40). My feet are still cold, but bearable. I get changed, head back to main street, and wait for my wife to finish the race.
Sandy’s skis were not my wonder-performers of last year, and she finishes the Birkie Classic in just under 4:27. Her finish time was good for 60th female, but only 16th in her F45-49 age group. Tough category. The Swix VR40 didn’t really work for her until about half way through the race. At least she finished with good kick, which probably helps explain how she moved up from 662 overall at Timber Trail to 462 overall by the finish. After she gets her bag (no drama there) and changes clothes we hang around Main Street a bit, grab some more food in the Celebration Tent, and eventually take a bus to Como, grab our car, and head back to the cabin.
Time to start thinking about next year’s race.