Well, that was a doozy.
I felt good going in to this year’s Birkie. I’ve been healthy all winter, I had a bit of an elbow overuse issue after classic races but it had subsided, and I was skiing ahead of results last year. Then I managed to catch cold the week before the Birkie. Nothing bad, but enough stuffiness that I just didn’t feel 100% as I have been some recent weeks. This shouldn’t have been a real issue, just a nuisance, and while I’d thought that I was in shape to improve on my place from last year, I realized that my goals might be set back somewhat by this illness.
Then it snowed, and things got interesting. My flight in (with at least a half dozen Birkie skiers) was on time, although we landed in a full-on blizzard. Everything from then on was delayed, for the whole weekend, it seemed. First, we waited 20 minutes to park for a gate. Then—after stopping for dinner at Subway as the TSA had stolen my Nutella—we had our bags at a different carousel. I made my way to the light rail and towards Saint Paul; I was not about to press friends in to service driving me in the snow, or take a rental car out in a blizzard (and the subsequent parking restrictions). The train was great and the bus came quickly, with the only wrinkle of a power outage where I was staying. Always prepared, I whipped out my headlamp and got to sleep.
The snow had ended by the morning, but in its wake was an apocalyptic scene. Never one to fully clear its roads, Minnesota decided not to use any salt or sand and just let the snow compact on the roads. In to ice. I decided to drive as little as possible which meant getting back on the bus to train with all my gear to the airport to get the rental car. I picked up Ali and we went to fetch Alex in Saint Paul, only getting stuck on one unplowed street. We got lunch and then began the slog up to Hayward.
Once we got off of 35 the roads got better. But 35 was a mess. Two lanes of compacted ice with everyone going 30 or 40; it added most of an hour to our drive. Highway 70 was better in to Wisconsin, mainly because there were fewer cars. We made it to OO—where it was still lightly snowing—before dark and skied a bit (Alex tested skis) and then picked up our bibs (painless) and we went to the Bakkums for dinner with the Van Ettens. I’d expected to be eating by 6, but with the snow delays it was closer to 8. We got to our lodging in Spooner, Alex fluoroed our skis (yay!) and we got to bed before 11. Not bad, but not optimal.
Wake up was at 5. The past two years our 5:45 departure has had us in Hayward by 6:30 and at Telemark by about 7:15. This year we had a slight delay pushing the car out the driveway and a bit more following slow drivers on Highway 63, but made the last of the buses out of Hayward. It was 6:40, so I figured we’d be later, but wasn’t fretting too much. The road to Cable was icy, but we were making progress for a while until traffic ground to a halt. We waited. And waited. Ali and Alex, bursting and close to missing their starts, left the bus to pee on the side of the road. When we finally got past Como Field, their start time looked in jeopardy. I texted the Ben Popp imploring him to delay the start. Traffic was nightmarish.
(We later found out that the parking lot at Telemark Road had filled and all traffic had been shunted to Como Field. Instead of routing traffic around Cable Sunset road, all traffic had to enter from 63. Which meant that half of the time we should have been moving we were waiting for right-turning traffic. This needs to be fixed; I’ll cover that elsewhere.)
As we trundled to the start Ali and Alex threw their gear bags at the rest of us, and we had to practically beg the driver to let them off. They still missed their start—which sucks majorly—but were not alone (many others did as well; we’ll analyze the data to try to get a guess as to how many), and were able to ski off only a couple of minutes late. I readied myself in the bus and was able to jump out the door and run towards the start, skis in one hand, bagged backpack in the other. I got to the second path to the start and urinated non-discretely, multitasking as I started my phone on Strava. Being on the bus for an hour and a half meant that I hadn’t had a chance to pee and then rehydrate, so I was starting the race dehydrated and not warmed up at all. As I stood there, I heard “four minutes to the start.” I threw my bag at a truck and tucked in to the start lanes, with my skis and poles on with 1:19 to spare.
Usually, I’ve had time to anticipate the Birkie, but not this year. Instead of soaking in the Elite Wave, I was in a full-on sprint to get started, and didn’t have time to exchange many hellos, or move up in the start, or really anything other than get my poles set and go. It was surreal; when we started skiing I didn’t really feel like we were starting a race. I’d just shown up and gone.
The race went about as could be expected. The start accordioned pretty quickly, and it seemed like the leaders were going slowly with the soft snow. My skis seemed fast but my get-up-and-go seemed to have got-up-and-went somewhere on the way to the airport in Boston. I held my own on the Power lines and grabbed two cups of feed at the first feed station and fell off one pack in to the woods and in with another. I stayed with them about through the next feed but then fell off, trailing up Firetower Hill and then skiing with a couple of other guys—at times I was actually alone. I slumped up Boedecker Hill (where I was disconcertingly passed by Zach Handler skiing from the first wave) and OO Hill and through the feed there. On the other side of OO I was able to grab a bonus feed and get down some Gatorade (or at least Not HEED), which gave me a bit more oomph, and I caught the little pack I’d been skiing with. We were mostly together in to Mosquito Brook where I found some extra energy up the hills and began to make up a little time. The two feeds I was trying to get at each station helped quite a bit, but I was getting tired and hungry, borderline bonking, although I did manage to pass the high-tempo-V1-on-everything guy who was taking three strokes to my one.
I had some goo at Rosie’s Field; my drink bottle having long since frozen. The field was brutal and I was alone, with an angled headwind and blowing snow. I knew the lake would be hard. I got a good water bottle feed in to the climb after 77, and had a decent climb up, getting passed by one skier but passing several others. On to the lake, I was able to draft in behind two other Elite Wave skiers, which was optimal as we met a wall of wind howling straight up the trail. I attacked them and caught another group, which I proceeded to attack and beat down the Main Street finish.
My face was frozen. I attempted to count first wave and Elite finishers to gauge my place, and pretty quickly repaired to the heated tent. Dry clothes! Soup! Brat with kraut! I sufficiently warmed, found my finish time (3:02, wow, slow!) and that a first waver finishing in 2:59 was in 159th place—meaning I was probably not relegated. I finally got a receipt with a place: 187th. This was not bad, considering illness and a complete lack of warm-up. In health, I think 150th would have been attainable.
Socializing once I was warm, drinking a beer before it froze, standing in the sun where it wasn’t too, too cold, these were all things. We’d planned to go to Rivers for pizza in Cable much earlier in the afternoon, but the longer race times meant we didn’t leave until 3. Still, it was blessedly half-empty when we got there, so we chowed down on some pizza. Then we met the Walkers at the Flat Creek Inn and got quite lost driving to Famous Daves but after a long wait meat was quite good. We finally made it back to Spooner where I collapsed and slept for 10 hours, waking up stuffy with green stuff in my nose. Well, I guess the Birkie didn’t cure my cold this time.
In the morning, I played Chris in Cribbage (I won the first game, him the second) and we departed south. Plans to go north to ski and see ice caves were quashed by the desire to not drive another six hours. The roads were much better, and in the Cities we ate more pizza, skied at Hyland (even at a slow pace, on packed snow it was only slightly slower than our Birkie pace!) and had dinner and saw friends. Good times.
So, next year. Let’s try to have the foot of snow a few days earlier (there was nowhere to plow it with three feet on the ground; and not enough time to compact it fully) and let’s manage the traffic better. But the fact that the race happened despite a blizzard, a blown-down tent, a traffic apocalypse and not having Telemark, it was one heck of a Birkie.