Plans for the 2015 Birkie were not that well-formed until about a week before the race. I was skiing at the Ski Orienteering World Championships in Norway (yes, a real thing, and, yes, a rough life) and didn’t get my act together regarding logistics until the week before the race. The friends I’d been staying with for several years were unavailable (injury) and I emailed others to see if they had space in their travel and lodging plans. They did, and I chose one group (based mainly on the fact that the person I knew, Cary, was on the same outbound flight as I was and we could share a ski bag on the airplane) and set off.
Here was the week before the Birkie for me:
- Monday: wake up in Hamar, Norway. Drive to the Oslo airport. Fly to Newark. Fly to Boston. Arrive to feet more of snow.
- Tuesday: go to work. Brave the T to Weston for a ski race.
- Wednesday: go to work, a meeting, arrive home around 9. Waxing and packing commence.
- Thursday: finish packing in the morning, go to work, then to the airport, fly to MSP.
Note: there was exactly one hour of training in the above four days, and seven hours of jetlag! To the layperson, this would seem like the recipe for being overtired and getting sick. But, incomprehensibly, that didn’t happen. I didn’t completely stay on Europe time, but wasn’t overtired. Somehow, I staved off illness, ate enough food (nearly every meal out, since I never had time for such sundry items as groceries) and made it to Minneapolis.
I stayed at a friend’s house (a former top-50 Birkie skier now in med school and not, for whatever reason, skiing this year) and then got picked up by the Colby van Friday morning. Yes, I was traveling with a bunch of Colby alumni, and a friend of theirs who also happened to be a decent skier herself (and is currently skiing for Far West’s elite program in snowless Truckee). Our merry band drove north from Minneapolis to Spooner, Hayward for bib pick-up, and then to OO for a ski.
Was it snowing? Yes, it was snowing. So much for the stiff flex recommendation. I skied about 10k, slowly, and enjoyed the woods and the snow, and the balmy—nearly 10˚!—temperatures, before we decamped to Hayward for groceries, and for the FIS Marathon Cup eligible skiers to go to their meeting. I wandered up on the Birkie Bridge (verdict: amazing and awesome), chatted with Mr. Birkie, Ben Popp, and then caught the end of the FIS elite elite meeting (verdict: free food, although I’d eaten more than enough at this point). We then piled in the vans for the Van Etten’s pasta feed, and on to our Sarona rental for the evening.
I got to bed later than I would have liked, but had seven solid hours of sleep before the alarms chimed on Saturday morning, although I was actually up before them. It was an on-time departure, and unlike last year, there was no traffic as we drove north to Telemark. Yes. Telemark. Protip: travel with a FIS Marathon Cup skier, and you get a Telemark parking pass. Which is amazing: you park closer to the start than the buses. Just, wow. I am spoiled.
Quick warm-up running up around for a minute (saw Jess, the other stay-with option) and then took a very quick warm up on the trail. It was soft, and light Superior champagne was falling. Skis were fast. Fluoros, ftw. Then I lined up, and the gun went off. Boom.
And we were off to the races. By staying on the right in the classic tracks I mostly stayed out of trouble, and double poling was just as fast as the awkward skate in the lanes. When the course narrowed, I had room to maneuver back in to the pack, and at this point it seemed like I was pretty much mid-pack in the Elite Wave. That’s nice. But then I proceed to have some unlucky lane choices and lose some places, so I figured I was more like two thirds of the way back. That’s okay, but closer to relegation.
Climbing the Power Lines really lends the name “greatest show on snow” to the Birkie. Even in the smaller Elite wave, you still have rows and rows of skier climbing a steep, wide uphill. I felt good on the hills—preferring a long, graceful (I’d like to think) stride to power without technique—but still didn’t have the chance to do any real passing through this section.
I was in a large group through the first wooded section and when it started to break apart I tried to hang on to the back of the front group, but didn’t. Instead, I wound up with a small, three-person middle group, 111, 182 and myself. This started around Timber Trail and we stuck together until about Mosquito Brook. The whole time we traded pulls, and for a while—from Timber Trail to OO—we could see the pack in front of us, but never had the get-up-and-go to go catch them. I once tried to put the hammer down but didn’t have the skis for it, but it was nice to have three guys to ski with during that time.
We caught #83—Erik Hendrickson, who I skied against in college—and he latched on, and 182 skied ahead. After another while, I noticed the pack behind us was catching up. I tried to push the pace but it was futile, so I let our group slack until they’d caught up, and then made sure I was in the front of the group so I didn’t get caught on the wrong end of any accordions. On the way in towards Mosquito Brook, I managed to catch an edge and took a tumble across the now-harder snow (less snow, and no snow falling, down towards Hayward). I popped up quickly and unharmed and jumped right back in to the pack, now towards the end, but I had little issue pushing my way up towards the front. The only casualty was my water bottle, but the nozzle was rather well frozen (I think I need to cut a hole in my drink belt so I can carry the bottle upside-down) and I didn’t stop to retrieve it as it skittered across the trail. My hands and face were also cold enough that I was having some trouble drinking from it, anyway, and I was doing well taking the feeds.
But I missed Mosquito Brook. The volunteers were only on the right (note to whoever writes BirkieGuide.com: this is worth mentioning) and I didn’t have a chance to grab a cup as I rifled through the feed. So I went in to the hills knowing that I was facing a bit of a liquid deficit, and hoping for the best. The big uphill wasn’t bad, and the whole pack it Bitch Hill and took it relatively easy; I didn’t have the gumption—or the hydration—to make a move. I was feeling weak on the ensuing downhill and grabbed and swallowed most of a goo, which helped, but I really needed water. The trail then wound on to the new section through Fish Hatchery, which is nice, but narrow—no more than a skate lane and a classic track. I could see this being a bottleneck later in the race when space is at a premium. We navigated the feed and I took two cups of drink, and felt a lot better as we went back on to the field and towards the road, where I got a bottle of sugary substance. (It would be great if the feeds, instead of having the flavor of the month electrolyte replacement, had something with more calories. Or perhaps I have to get better about drinking from my own bottle.)
I was mostly in the front of my pack up the climb from 77, and a Wave 1 guy—just one—came to visit our pack, but never pulled away. Looking at results, I’d later find out this was none other than Blaise Sopiwnik, but I was nowhere near cogent enough at this point to say hello. He led us down the hill in towards the lake—in to a headwind—and then I made a move to jump on the back of a group of four on the lake. Blaise lead it, and then dropped back a bit, and I made a move, and wound up second or third, and put some time between myself and the folks behind me.
We went around the Marketplace and up the Bridge. A moment about the bridge. It’s fantastic. First of all, from a traffic standpoint, Hayward works much better when everyone doesn’t have to shoehorn themselves on to side roads to get around town all day. A full-width bridge will be even better, as the lane drop still causes some delays. From a skier perspective, it’s also fantastic. It adds a short-but-steep climb, and the descent is fun, giving you a minute of tuck and recovery from the lake and the climb off of it before the sprint on Main Street. The sprint is harder, too, with an extra, and uphill, block of skiing. And for spectators, it’s really great, especially in later waves when you see skiers hesitate at the top, and then take the plunge. And fall, but only very occasionally. There was a lot of concern about how the hill would ski. But after the hills you navigate on the course, a little drop off of a bridge is no issue.
Another note, this one on parking (and I’ve covered this elsewhere): You may have noticed that there was very minimal traffic this year. I am going to publicly take credit for that. The Birkie enlisted the help of a group of students from Georgia Tech to examine the systems of their race and suggest how it could be run better. In addition to providing them all of my data spreadsheets (in a large download) I also made recommendations about traffic management. It was, mainly, to segregate as much as possible traffic coming from the north and traffic coming from the south. My suggestion was to use Cable Sunset Road to route southbound traffic to a separate entrance to Como Field, but the Birkie did one better and used the new Birkie Ridge lot for northbound traffic, meaning that all traffic made right turns and there was no cross traffic. You’re welcome.
I didn’t have a sprint; the skier behind me never made a push and I didn’t have that much left in the tank anyways. I hadn’t felt all that great all race, but figured I probably hadn’t been pushed from the Elite Wave. Still, I waited on Main Street for a few minutes to count First Wavers to try to make sure. After eight minutes I’d only seen about a dozen—and Sam Evans-Brown who you may recognize from his reporting on New Hampshire Public Radio (and, occasionally, NPR), a second waver who finished 40th—I was cold enough to give up and traipse off towards the finishing tent. Cary would finish just a couple minutes later. I beat him, but barely.
The tent was not a tent, but the elementary school. Getting very cold, I ditched my skis and poles on a yard fence and ran to get my bag, and then ran in to the school. It was so much nicer to be inside rather than a damp, poorly-ventilated tent. I spent some time warming up, saw some other acquaintances and then was off to the food tent. Rather, tha Armory, also blissfully indoors. I chatted with Greg from ski orienteering and then Jakob about his race (90th and he seemed happy enough beating me by 10 minutes) and found out my placing as I was having trouble getting the Birkie website to load: 154th. Best finish ever. I was pleased, but would have liked to crack 150th. Per splits, I lost several places on the lake. Such is life.
Then it was off to the bar. And another bar. And to get a brat cup of beer and watch the skiers on Main Street. I saw Van Ettens and was informed that Anja, the ringer in our cabin, had come fourth—well in the money. Many congrats were lauded on her. Then our van showed up having been driven south by a skier who was recovering from illness and only skied 5k, and we piled in and drove south for showers, beers, food, and trip to Seeley for the traditional evening nightcap.
I went for a short stretch-out ski in the morning before we decamped for Saint Paul on the lake we were staying near in snowmobile tracks. It was hard, slow and frigid. -10, and then I turned in to the wind. 12˚ for the start of the race never felt so good. I made my traditional visit to the Nook, blissfully overate, and started the rest of the trip home. As always, a top notch event, the best trail around, and a finish that can’t be beat (and got even better).
In other words, it was a very good Birkie.