Rob O’Brien Race Report

Name: Rob O’Brien, Charlestown, Mass.

Event: Birkie Skate, 4:10

Skis broken in the first 10k of the race: 1

This was my virginal Birkie experience. I will be back for more.

I skied for a couple of years in high school [with the editor for Newton North High School], but then promptly forgot about the sport. Despite being very enthusiastic about acquiring nordic gear in the last two years, I probably only skied about nine times between 2000 and February 23, 2013 (“B-Day”).

So with that solid block of experience behind me, in the summer of 2012, I signed up to ski 50 kilometers in northern Wisconsin in February. Through some backroom negotiations, I managed to talk my brother Charlie, my cousin Sam, and my friend John Lamb into skiing with me. In July, I received my confirmation: Skate wave 9 at the American Birkebeiner.

December rolled around, with its snow and cold weather, and our thoughts turned to the Birkie. “Where are we going to stay?” It turns out that was an excellent, but long overdue, question. My first few inquiries into lodging availability were met with scoffs or outright laughs. In one of my early calls, the hotel said they had a single queen room available due to a last minute cancellation, but I said “no thanks, we’ve got four people.” Little did I realize that any place to lay your head within 300 miles of Hayward should never be taken for granted on Birkie weekend. After a few more calls, we were looking at staying in Ashland or Duluth – hours in the wrong direction, considering we had to get back to the Twin Cities to fly out. So I called back up the hotel that had the last minute cancellation on the queen bedroom. I called three different times. Each time I was told that the particular person that handled Birkie weekend reservations (a special person?) was unavailable. On my fourth call, I finally got through and practically begged for the room that I had turned my nose up at days before. Success! Not only did we have a place to sleep, it was in Hayward and within walking distance of the finish line.

Over the next few months, Sam, Charlie, John and I did some training. For me, this consisted of three trips to Weston Ski Track, one trip to Great Brook Farm—both local venues near Boston—and one trip just after Christmas to some place in Park City, Utah. I put in 1.5 to 3 hours whenever I went and I was sure that I was ready for the Birkie.

Sam, John and I flew out to Minneapolis on Friday morning, lucky to dodge a winter storm and got in around 2 PM. Charlie met us at the airport, having insisted on flying United for the frequent flyer miles. Luckily for us, he was able to check all of our skis for free (one of the perks of his insistence on always flying United).

We set off together in our rental mobile for the plains of northern Wisconsin. We commented on the flat terrain and comforted ourselves by telling each other that Midwesterners didn’t know what hilly was—the Birkie was going to be flat! After a brief stop in St. Croix Falls to grab chips and beer (30 pack of Hamm’s for $13!), we set northeast again. Sam drove us quite safely, but his lack of direction (or ability to read road signs) meant that the other three of us were full-time navigators (we almost ended up in Duluth).

We stopped for a quick meal at “Bistro 63” south of Spooner. We were initially eyeballed by the other Birkie competitors eating at the bar, but when they saw us sit down and order a round of beer, they let their guard down.

We finally arrived in Hayward at bib pickup around 8 PM, just as all the exhibitors were pulling their booths down. Sam, John and Charlie all got cool Birkie stickers in their swag-bags that showed the distances they were skiing (50K for Charlie and John and 54K for Sam). I got a cool Korte sticker showing the 23K I was going to ski. What? I hoped I wasn’t going to be racing against children the next day.

We checked in at the hotel and were pleasantly surprised to find that we had a room with two queen beds! (Now that we’re grandfathered into this room and never giving it up!) After a quick goodnight Hamm’s (carbs), we were off to bed.

We had agreed to get up at 5:25 AM in order to catch the 6 AM shuttle bus from the hotel to the start at Telemark in Cable. However, as game theory could have predicted, Sam set his alarm for 5 AM so he could be the first one into the bathroom. So we all got up at 5.

We got on the school bus with our gear at 6 AM sharp, and had a pleasant ride north to Cable. One of our neighbors on the bus told us about the Canadian Ski Marathon—a two day ski affair in which you ski 120 miles and camp out overnight on a bale of hay with whatever equipment you brought on your back. I need to do that.

We arrived at Telemark and set out to find a place to rest for the 2 to 3 hours before our waves went off. We found a back hallway on the third floor to lie in, but there were so many racers running around, yelling for each other and slamming their doors, that sleep was a dream. Sam was set to go off in the classic wave 9 at 9:35 AM, so we ambled out around 9 and set off for the start. After a few minutes of spectating, we saw how they were staging the waves. John, Charlie and I dropped our bags, said our goodbyes to Sam, and got ready to enter the corrals.

At 9:50 AM, the flags dropped and we were off in the skate wave 9. (Having never raced this before or qualified, we were put in the last wave. It was a real mixed bag.) I went out with all the other guys in the first couple of rows. That is to say, too fast for me. I was wearing my GPS watch and heart rate monitor and saw that I was around 175 BPM. Yeah, I could hold that for 60 minutes. I was not so sure about 180 to 240 minutes.

I came around the first substantial turn and saw Powerline Hill. So they do have hills in northern Wisconsin. Why didn’t we see things like this on our drive?! There were hundreds, if not thousands of colorful skiers stretched across the hill and all the way to the top. I wish I had taken a photo. Because we were in wave 9, there were wave 7 and wave 8 skaters just standing at the top of each little rise catching their breath (and blocking traffic). I’ve done enough long distance racing to know the importance of pacing and of not “burning your matches” with stupid sprints. But apparently I don’t know enough to prevent myself from charging up Powerline Hill and darting into any opening between the masses of terrible skiers in front of me. By the time I was at the top, my heart rate was around 180, but there were still lots of slow people in front of me.

I tried to settle into a rhythm, and actually found an older guy who was a very good skier. I followed him up and down the rises (the endless ups and downs) and through the traffic. I thought of him as my fullback. He had a killer spandex suit with electric bolts on it. (Note to self: get cool spandex suit for next year). Although he was quite tactical, we were definitely slowed by the traffic. We would have decent momentum coming down a small hillock, but we’d almost have to put the brakes on at the slightest uphill because traffic came to a near stand-still. It was frustrating. I knew Charlie and John were slightly behind me and hoped that we could all ski together for at least a bit.

At about mile 4.2, I encountered my first real downhill of the course. I guess that it was a 25 to 35 foot vertical drop, but it was quite “skied off.” Thousands of skiers who had come before me had snowplowed their way down. They’d left vertical alternating ribbons of ice and fresh powder. The conditions left many people timid and pussyfooting their way down the slope. I saw some people sprawled out at the bottom, recovering from their falls, but I figured I’d ski around them. I was tired of being behind all these slow people!

I pointed my skis downhill and went for it. I was nearly at the bottom when my right ski tip got caught in one of the powder ribbons. It immediately slowed dramatically. My beefy body did not slow. I was unceremoniously flung down onto my face and chest, knocking the wind out of me. The next thing I remember was telling myself to breathe. I had needed air! My skis were all tangled and I couldn’t stand up as people continued to barrel down the hill towards me. My first priority was standing up. Then I checked myself and realized that I was okay. I put my sunglasses up on my head (as they were full of snow) and headed out again.

Except … the first 12 to 18 inches of my right ski was flopping around like a fish. It had snapped when it got caught in the snow and my body (and the rest of the ski) was flung forward. I skied just like that for 50 yards and then pulled over to pull the tip off the ski entirely and fling it into the woods. Unfortunately (but eventually fortunately), the tip was still attached via the top laminate, and I limped on with it dangling. Every time I moved my right leg, I had to give a little toe flick so the broken tip didn’t get caught under the remainder of the ski. Some guy skied by and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Then some guy came up and said that I should tape and splint it at the next rest area. So I carried on and got to rest area 2. There I went to the pole replacement station (a lot of people suffer broken poles) and asked if he could tape my ski and if he had a splint. He told me to put my foot up and proceeded to wrap duct tape around my ski, creating a lump on the bottom, but preventing the tip from flapping around. I asked him for a splint, but he said he didn’t have any and couldn’t give me other people’s broken poles.
It was better not to have the tip flopping around, but the tape was creating a terrible braking force on the ski. On top of that, it made the right ski so unstable that I had better control trying to balance on one leg rather than on two. That was interesting. I thought about Jens Voight and how he always continued biking even after he’d broken his face. He was my inspiration. I gave up my dreams of a 3:15 Birkie, but was determined to finish. I knew that I needed to fix this shoddy tape job, so I pulled into rest area 3 and took off my ski.

At rest area 3, I did the taping myself. I guess there wasn’t enough blood in my head because my tape job was terrible. It wasn’t lumpy like the first one, but I started at the top of the ski and taped down, creating a reverse fish-scale effect. I saw Charlie skiing by, looking strong as I was coming out of “duct tape area 3,” and I skied with him for a while. The drag was terrible and I was well under 1/3 of the way done. Charlie and I skied together, but agreed that I should go ahead because it would take a while for me to re-tape.

I pulled into rest area 4 and went to the pole replacement center for more duct tape. This time I taped from the bottom up. Even better, the guy manning the station offered me a 3/4 x 3/4 piece of wood to use as a splint. This guy didn’t know a thing about skiing, but I was so glad he had decided to volunteer and had noticed that someone else used a similar splint. (I saw two other people with broken skis. One was missing an arm!) I also put my broken ski on my left leg because I was experiencing problematic muscle imbalance since I was putting in more effort on the side that wasn’t gliding well.

The splint improved matters, but I still had terrible problems with the tape getting caught in the snow. At station 5, I decided that the glide properties of the waxed ski were less important than the need to avoid tape-drag issues. I finally taped the entire underside of the ski from the break all the way to the tip. Now I’d be skiing on a lot of duct tape, but at least the snow wouldn’t be working its way under the tape. This worked brilliantly! After what I’d been skiing on, I felt as if I were skiing on glass.

Soon I caught up to John Lamb, who I’d never seen pass me. I proudly showed him my good-as-new ski and charged ahead.

Ironically, there are two significant downhills on the course at which snowmobilers (‘chiners) congregate and cheer for wipeouts. I survived both of them without incident by step-turning, even before I’d hit upon my eventual duct tape solution. I am confident that I will make it next year with no more breaks.

I tried to settle in to a comfortable rhythm, which was more than necessary given that I had more than half of the course ahead of me. Eventually I spied Charlie on a hill ahead of me. I caught up to him and we decided to ski together.

As you’ve surmised, I know next to nothing about cross country skiing, but I thought the course was pretty chopped up and slow. I’m sure that all the fresh snow had been groomed, but by the time us wave 9’ers got there, we were skiing in mashed potatoes. Even so, by this time, the course was trending downhill and my ski was acting pretty normally. So naturally, my thoughts turned back to winning the race.

Every time I saw a new person ahead of me, I thought: “there is no way this jabronie is starting ahead of me next year.” By about mile 20, I was exhausted and very thirsty. I knew from an Ironman in Couer d’Alene that you can radically change the way you feel if you radically change what you’re eating and drinking (hopefully the change is for the better). I threw down some Gu’s and “energy” drink and kept going. At the rest areas, they were offering “water” or “energy.” The “energy” was HEED, a sports drink, but with that type of marketing, how is water supposed to hold its own?

Charlie and I crested the last hill together and I started to really pick up the pace. It turned out it was too early for that, because I was still roughly 3K from the finish, but I was pushing it across the lake as hard as I could go. I passed a slew of people on the lake and then finally got into town, where they had thrown snow down on the roads for the skiers. This snow was really chopped up and difficult to ski in. But with the finish line in sight, it was easy to plow ahead. I finished at 2 PM, about 4 hours and 10 minutes after I started.

According to my watch, I spent 45 minutes standing still (probably taping my skis), and I have additional time to gain but not being stuck behind the slowpokes in waves 8 and 9. I think there’s a lot of time to be gained by conserving momentum over the rises and dips. I’m hoping for a 3:15 in 2014. This is all assuming I don’t break my ski again, of course.

Charlie finished a minute behind me, and after a quick hug (he was so salty), we went to change into warm clothes and get some soup.

We should have stayed in town and started drinking immediately. But being rookies, we walked back to the hotel for showers. JL met us there soon afterwards and Sam joined us a bit later. By the time we’d showered and walked back to town, the skiers were emptying out of the bars and the townies were coming out. At the Moccasin Bar, Sam ended up in a conversation with two guys about the relative merits of east coast vs. Midwest hunting and bow vs. gun hunting. One of the guys told us to be on the lookout for cops as he already had four DUIs.

We then went over to the Angler for dinner. At that bar, after enjoying some $8 pitchers, a drunk patron spied our medals (only first timers get medals, everyone else gets a pin to correspond with their year). He got us up on chairs and announced our names to the bar and that this was our first Birkie. As they say: there’s no time like your first time.

We got back to the hotel around 8 or 9 and went down to the hot tub where we met some ski patrollers skipping their team meeting. By 9 or 10, we were safely back in our room and watching Old School (the movie). I managed to stay awake for at least 15 minutes before Sam, Charlie and John started taking pictures of me asleep. They told me that I was skiing in my sleep.

That’s a sure sign that I’ll be back for Birkie 2014. When does registration open?