With this race report, I won’t beat around the bush. As Cary tweeted, I “pulled off the ultimate result.” The top 200 men make the Elite Wave. I finished 200th. By less than two seconds. (Update: it looked like I might have dropped to 201st, but it’s doubtful that change will stand. Update update: 199th!)
I flew out to Minneapolis on Thursday. Having a job means I can’t take a week off for Birkie this year like I did last year. I saw fellow Westoners Colin, Cary and Lauren at the airport; they’d booked a flight for the wrong day and they were paying a lot of money to get to Minneapolis. Last time I did that, prices dropped. Lucky me. The flight was only delayed an hour, and I got a bulkhead seat, and managed to sleep an hour on the plane.
I got to the Twin Cities, picked up the rental car, and had a long conversation about the race at Enterprise. There are a lot of people who ski the Birkie. It’s always fun to pick up the car and realize that amongst certain crowds (people who work at the airport, for one), the race is kind of a big deal. They don’t usually see dozens of people show up with ski bags. I got in the Aveo, a real shoddy car (with a plastic gas cap!) and set off for Minneapolis.
There was not much snow in the Twin Cities. There was a crusty inch or two, and a dusting overnight. I picked up Jakob—he’d flown in from Oklahoma and was guaranteed to win his state with a finish—and set off for the northland. There was no snow in Grantsburg. Or Siren. Or Spooner. Even at the Hayward school for bib pick-up, snow was marginal. We got our bibs, and I got a replacement cuff from my boot from Gear West (major shout out to Gear West for their help with this broken equipment) and we set off for a ski on the trail.
There was snow on the Birkie Trail. Really good snow, too. I was on the skis I’d been skiing on all winter—with no good snow in Boston I had yet to don my race skis—and they were slow. Jakob’s borrowed, 15-year-old “last waxed before the wall fell” Kneissls were faster. I had had no way to gauge my fitness this winter, since the only races I’d skied were the Tuesday Night time trials at the Weston Ski Track, and realized that my lackluster finishes there actually could be due to slow skis, since I consistently lost the pack on the flats and downhills. This was a good sign. (Of course, they also could be due to being slow.) The snow was perfect and the woods were beautiful; I am definitely more of the opinion that a hut-to-hut system along the trail, like Maine Huts and Trails, would do quite well.
We skied from Fish Hatchery to Mosquito Brook and back, taking it nice and easy up the hills and deciding they were “no big deal.” Then it was off to Spooner to stay with at a friend of Jakob’s (Chris) girlfriend’s cabin, a great spot half an hour south of Hayward. We waxed (straight Toko rec), ate, I made up my patented freeze-free Jameson-gatorate-water drink bottle, and went to bed.
In addition to faster skis, my other advantage was having a job in the eastern time zone. Every morning my alarm goes off at 6:50, which is 5:50 central. So the 5 a.m. wake up was not that out of the ordinary. I visited the restroom, ate some oatmeal, and herded four of us, Chris doing the classic race and Ben, a fellow Macalester grad, skiing his first-ever ski race, in to the Aveo. Somehow we fit, with the skis. We set off for Hayward and encountered a line of slow-moving vehicles on Highway 77. I floored the Aveo and we passed no fewer than a dozen cars in one move, leading to wild male pattern whooping and hollering throughout the car and me to exclaim that I’d already won the day. I love flat, straight midwestern roads at 6 a.m. on weekends. We set off a trend for the cars behind us. You can’t drive slow to the Birkie.
In no time at all, we got to the very convenient parking area south of town, got on a bus, and set north. The ride was uneventful until Jakob announced, coming in to Telemark, that the combination of bumpy roads and coffee had unsettled his stomach. He ran to the front of the bus, jumped off, and, well, had some Birkie Fever. We grabbed his skis and bag, and he was good to go.
I was feeling pretty good at the start. Temperatures were 11 above, not 11 below, which meant I was one layer down from last year with old-school Swix gloves and Patagonia liners on my hands instead of lobster gloves, which seemed about right. The classic race went off, and I warmed up, got some pictures of the racers, and set off for the pens. I situated myself in the back of the elite wave—I did not want to break a pole again—and got a few butterflies, as usual, as the countdown began. Then, with gates and skiers in front of me, I was off.
The start of the Birkie is always surreal. I’ve skied seven, and it always gets to me. I can imagine that even for the guys who’ve skied twenty or thirty, there’s something about standing at the start of the biggest ski race in the country with six thousand of your favorite friends getting ready to ski the best ski trail in the country. And when you’re two rows back of several Olympians (with some women Olympians ready to start two minutes behind you and catch right up) and a bunch of ringers from abroad, well, it makes it so much better.
The start was uneventful as we skied along the flats to the power lines. I started very conservatively behind Colin, who was running a Go Pro camera (hopefully I got on it) and was near the back of the pack. I felt pretty good up the power lines—it’s amazing how the hills are five skate skiers wide!—and started moving up a bit. Soon I was past Colin and catching up with Jakob, who should be in better shape than me (he ran a 2:39 marathon last month) but lives in Oklahoma and hadn’t exactly been doing a lot ski-specific training. I skied with him in a large train for about 10 kilometers, but it broke up around High Point and I fell off the back, which was too bad, as I had some time to ski on my own.
The lead women passed me right around 18k, which was where they passed me two years ago when I finished 190th. This would have been fine as my plan was to go harder after that point, but I had stomach cramps and was skiing conservatively, which was really too bad, as I would have liked to make a move. There were still a lot of guys around—a far cry from last year—and I settled in to a couple of packs. I was taking feeds decently, and my water bottle wasn’t completely frozen (but mostly, and the whiskey burned a little doing down) and I was feeling okay. I should have taken a goo, but didn’t.
After OO, I was feeling slightly better and found myself again on my own. There was another skier ahead of me, bib 170, and a pack too far ahead of him to catch. I found myself getting caught by a small pack going in to the 29k hill and was happy to have some company, and we slowly reeled in 170. I was mostly skiing above my number, i.e. I saw more 160s and 170s than 180s and 190s, but apprehensive because a) I sensed the Elite Wave was pretty big this year and b) someone had yelled out “you’re 172nd” at one point. I didn’t quite trust them, but most years 172nd doesn’t get you back in the Elite Wave. Still, there were only 180 elites last year, and there were definitely a few dozen behind me, so I was feeling sort of okay.
The trails were fabulous. No ice, no dirt, just nice, soft, fast powder tilled with some transformed snow with a little hardpack the whole way. I don’t know if it’s luck of skill, but the Birkie folks did a hell of a job as usual, especially considering the brownness everywhere else. We came through Mosquito Brook and the hills which yesterday had felt easy and last year felt fast were slogs. I was not fully bonking, but I was definitely feeling my lack of super fitness and lack of eating a goo. And the energy at the feed stations was HEED which was a little too warm, and HEED really sucks. Can we please stop having that at races? Gatorade is much better. I don’t want a drink that tastes faintly of my gym socks. I want something sweet and good. I made it up the five hills: Mosquito Brook, Bitch, and the Bump, Lump and Hump* before descending in to Highway 77. I was still with a small pack, and we were gaining on a couple skiers, but I didn’t have the oomph to take control up the hill and just hung on.
(* This was originally coined by my friend Andrew Riely to describe the three annoying hills between Galehead Hut and the Franconia Brook Trail on the Garfield Ridge Trail/Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. Basically, three hills which should be insignificant but are, for whatever reason, bears.)
My skis were of about average speed down the hill and on to the lake, and our group took turns leading and caught a couple of skiers. We still hadn’t been passed by any Wave 1 skiers (who’d passed me at Highway 77 last year) or the chase women. 170 opened a gap off the lake and I tried to stay on his skis but I was pretty cooked, although I did put a little space on a bit of the rest of the pack. I wanted to sprint off the lake, but the snow was very soft and I had to do my best to stay upright. I got on to Main Street and somehow mustered a poor excuse for a sprint in to the finish, feeling okay about the race and figuring I had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of avoiding relegation. It would turn out that this was a pretty good guess.
I went to visit the changing tent and warmed up slightly, while changing in to dry clothes (yeah, flannel boxers) and taking a few nips of the Jameson I stashed in a sock in my gear bag. Oh, yes, that was a wonderful idea which might become a tradition. Jakob came in after a while; he’d hit a wall at 38k and I’d passed him and not noticed him yelling, and we set off to the event tent, which had pipes blowing in warm air, where I saw some more friends, and then to stash our gear in the car. Did I mention how nice it is to have a car in town after the race?
We then went to the finish line where Macalester skier and recent Peace Corps Kazakhstan evacuee Sarah Van Etten was sporting a cowboy suit and interviewing skiers coming off the lake. We gave her an interview (apparently few Elite skiers want to talk to WOJB, which is a shame), saw a couple of current Mac skiers finish, and then sauntered off to buy some New Glarus and head for the lake. As I learned a couple years ago, when it was warm enough to stand on the lake, beer hits you really hard after you ski 50k. One beer, and a bit of Jameson, was enough to knock me out pretty well, or at least remove my inhibitions as I screamed myself hoarse as skiers came in. It was sunny, 25˚ and calm—perfect weather—and with a fleece, down “sweater” and ski jacket I was not cold at all.
I’d run in to some other compatriots, including Ollie Garrison, a St. Olaf grad and son of my high school ski coach in Boston (yes, Hayward on Birkie day is a very small world, as I pointed out to Jakob, I knew half the people there, and he knew the other half), and I told him I’d heard that I was 150th or so. Why? Because Jakob’s girlfriend had said so looking at results and extrapolating based on where I was on the page. So I felt pretty good.
Our cadre assembled on the lake and we decided to go buy one of the rotisserie chickens we’d smelled in the Marketplace. Good idea. We tore in to the bird and drank some beer and were better for it. About this time some guys came on the lake and started handing out Surly to finishing skiers. “Surly feed!” echoed across the lake. One was a Mac skier who I knew from years before, and he said Omar had given them 240 slightly-undersealed cans of furious to hand out. I took part, offering “opened or closed” Surlys to hundreds of skiers, many of whom took the wonderful, hoppy bait. I can’t say I abstained.
The best was the guy who said “take my water bottle, I don’t need it” and put a can in his drink belt, but there were many others. It was about this time that I checked my results on my phone, and saw that I was in 200th place, exactly. Now, last year I read on Colin’s blog about how Cary had slowly slipped from 190th to below 200th as chip results came in, and I began obsessively checking results every six minutes all day, and in to the evening, to see if I’d budge. If I were to lose one spot, I’d be starting out of the first wave. But every time I checked, I was in lucky number 200. In other words, I better train more.
The lake was lovely and we stayed for a while, running in to many acquaintances, from old coachees from Macalester to podium power couples (Caitlin and Brian Gregg, who came second and third in their respective races and got some free Furious to boot). We left around 3:00—I’d sobered up by this point—and drove south to Spooner where we packed up and then met Sarah for dinner. I was tired enough that when I got to Jakob’s parents’ house in Richfield I crashed on the floor, not wanting to drive another inch.
Sunday was a recovery day. I ran some early data in the morning to confirm that the Elite Wave was, indeed, more competitive than usual. The predicted snow materialized only as a few spits of drizzle and sleet, and I went about visiting friends, going to the Nook, downing a Nookie Supreme with Bacon (I’d earned it), checking my result from time to time, and hitting up a sale at Patagonia. I was pretty spent by the time I got to MSP and checked in for my flight. The rental car next to me was a skier. I saw more skiers walking back and forth through the gate area at MSP. And Jakob snapped a picture of a car of oversized luggage: all ski bags. The Birkie: it’s kind of a big deal.
My flight was overbooked and I was offered $600 to take a flight the next day. I would have, but for a work meeting that I didn’t really want to blow off on Monday, a shame, because I certainly don’t make $600 a day and it would have covered the costs of my trip. Oh, well, I guess there are some downsides to a steady income. But the jet stream steaming snow across Birkie Land is giving the flight a tail wind of over 100 mph the whole way—the same wind delayed our flight on the way out—and I’ll get home plenty early to crash straight in to bed. Three day Birkie trip, success.
And for next year? I plan to train more this summer. More strength (I always say this, but this year I mean it), more long distance, and more ski specific training. I’m looking at running a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim on the weekend of the Boston Marathon, on the Sunday. If you’re a masochistic skier who wants to run 42 miles across the Grand Canyon and back in a day, let me know. It’s a lot of fun. And next year, hopefully we’ll have more snow for training, just as good snow for racing, a shot of Jameson at the end, and a finish that puts me further in to the Elite Wave. But that’s up to me.