Previous Birkies: 2
Previous elite wave starts: 0
Finishing time: 2:49
Finishing place: 112th overall
In the week leading up to the race, I watched with glee as the weather models began converging on a prodigious snowstorm followed by wind and cold. I figured that slow conditions would favor people who had been able to get out on snow consistently this winter. I live within walking distance of French Park in Plymouth (Minnesota), and have Elm Creek Park as a five minute detour from my commute to work. So I had been skiing a lot this winter. The first race fitness checkpoint for me was the Sisu Ski Fest 42k in early January. The race went well—I lined up too far back, but was able to catch up to groups of guys that had always beat me in the past. The Noquemanon 50k and City of Lakes Loppet 42k races also went well and I had better finishing places in both. The races were notably in tough conditions, usually cold, snowy, and windy. The races in Upper Michigan (Sisu & Noque) are really good preparation for the Birkie. The hills are steeper and the conditions are slower—for example, it took me 27 minutes longer to finish the Noque than the Birkie for the same distance. So I was hoping for challenging conditions.
Anyways, the weather models nailed it—almost too well. The race organizers exerted a heroic effort to get the course and infrastructure in order enough for the race to go on. As an example of typical logistic issues, I had to park about a quarter mile away from 11368’s (Rick Budde’s) cabin where I stayed the night, as the road hadn’t been plowed all the way. We pulled my clothes and sleeping bag in on a sled!
The weekend started Friday morning. I left home at about 10:30, and slowly drove northeast. The roads were consistently snow covered all the way. I went to the Hayward middle school, milled around, picked up my packet, and then went to the OO trailhead for testing my skis. I’ve got two potential race skis—Atomic World Cup Hard Tracks and Fischer RCS Race Plus. I waxed both with LF cold stuff—Swix on the Fischers, Start on the Atomics, each with a coating of expensive stuff on top. After helping out Rick with ski testing over the past few years (http://skitestguys.com), I know that if you are in the ballpark there’s really not much difference from one wax to the next. I also know that the expensive stuff doesn’t make as much difference in cold weather … but when it’s only a day or two before the race and you can’t train any more, there’s nothing left to do but wax. The Atomics are a bit longer and definitely more stiff. But they track real nice through soft piles of snow, and I’ve used them in more races than not. I brought both pairs out on the trails and took turns skiing with them. The Fischers felt a little more slippery, but also weren’t as stable through the soft and chopped up base. In a glide-out test, they also weren’t different than the Atomics, even though they felt different. So I decided to go with the Atomics, choosing stability over a more lively feeling. Reminds me of a saying along the lines of “a man with one watch always knows what time it is … a man with two watches never knows what time it is”.
After skiing for about an hour and notably not getting my car stuck in the OO trailhead parking lot, I headed to the cabin. I’ve stayed at the Budde/Brinkema/Dossett cabin for the past three years. Nordic skiing runs strong in all of the families, and there are always people dropping by for purposes related to skiing. Definitely a great place to sleep before a ski race. One of the guests was 5002 (Bruce Brinkema), winner of the 75-79 age group last year and this year!
What to wear? A perk of skiing quite a bit throughout the cold winter is that I already knew what race outfit would work for me. From bottom to top: boots with wool socks, no overboots, two layers on the legs, wind briefs + undies, a t-shirt under a long sleeve undershirt and my race shirt. This year the bibs probably counted for some warmth. A buff loose around my neck and one pulled up over my ears and head, and a hat. The second buff probably should be a balaclava, but buffs are easier to pull down if you have to. I took four gels (powergels—they stay semi-liquid at zero degree), and an insulated water bottle with diluted maple syrup in an insulated holder. Maple syrup? I got the idea from this very site. Turns out that a quarter cup of syrup per 24 oz. water gives you the same carbohydrate concentration as Gatorade. And tastes great too! After laying out my race gear, double checking for presence of wind briefs, and making sure there was coffee ready to go in the morning, I fell asleep to the sound of wax scraping and brushing.
My alarm was set for 5:15, based on an 8:20 race start, wanting to get to the start area by 7:20, the parking lot by 7:00, leave the cabin by 6:30, wanting to have an hour to eat breakfast, get dressed, bathroom time, etc. I woke up on my own a little before 5, and knew I wasn’t getting back to sleep. I had slept well, but it was race morning! Rick was up too and told me about the email at midnight from the Birkie organizers—the start area tent had collapsed from snow! That made things a little interesting for the departure time. On the side of leave earlier, the roads were going to be bad, potentially really slow. On the side of leave later, it was just above zero degrees with some wind, and no place to go after leaving the bus except Hayward. So we left at the originally planned 6:30. Parked at Como, waited in line for 10 minutes or so, and had an uneventful bus ride to the start. With the email that the start tent was down, there seemed to be more people milling around than usual. The hospitality tent at the bus drop-off was bursting at the seams. So I decided to hike down to the start and stay warm by skiing around.
This was my first time in the elite wave, so I had a new pre-race routine to work out. First thing was to find a porta-potty. Not a problem, there were plenty. And then the start area tent turned out to only be partially collapsed. So I went inside, in order to get out of my walking boots, heavy jacket, and overpants and get warmed up. It wasn’t heated, but it was out of the wind, so I took my time getting down to race clothing. Bag drop was easy to find, then I jogged with my skis to the windy and crowded warm-up loop. After one lap I figured that was enough. I wasn’t really getting warm, and there seemed to be a good chance of a tangle. So I jogged with my skis over to the start area and loaded into the elite wave pen. It was much, much less aggressive than the wave one pen. Helps to have 200 guys numbered in order of demonstrated results. And a start area 30 tracks wide with the first row reserved for the real elite skiers. I lined up my skis in the fifth row, figuring that with bib number 148, I could expect to be about the 150th best skier there. In hindsight, I could have self-seeded higher. But that’s for next year.
There was plenty of room to jog around with poles in the back of the start pen. It still probably ended up being the least warming up I’ve done for a race in years. With about five minutes before the start, I went to my skis and snapped in. It was pretty cold, and in the exposed field that the Birkie starts in, the wind was really whistling. I was glad to be five guys back.
The countdown finished, the gun went off and the race was on! In previous races, I’ve had a lot of contact with my poles—as in people stepping on my baskets. I got a good tip from 1344 (Corey Brinkema) the night before to not extend so far back when there’s a lot of traffic. Hmm. Sometimes you need to be told the obvious. I kept a tight double pole, not wanting to get involved in a tumble. I saw two tangles and subsequent crashes in the first 30 seconds and kept double poling even after people around me were starting to skate.
The pace at the front was obviously torrid—even before making the turn by the powerlines, the front of the wave was stretched way out. Or maybe I just wasn’t used to a dozen world-class guys at the front of a race. Probably that. Conditions were definitely on the softer side, but the groomers had really done a nice job with the 12+ inches of snow that had come down. The headwind was a factor too—blowing snow onto the course and adding notable resistance when you were in front of a group. I focused on staying with the main pack as we turned on to the powerlines. Even though the pace was fast, it was relaxed—very few people scrambling for spots, trying to squeeze through tight spaces, etc. I always have felt comfortable going uphill, and would look for the lines that seemed to be moving best. If you are reading this and haven’t skied this race, the course is still probably 50 feet wide through the first few kilometers.
I was happy to find that my skis were running well on the downhills. Could be due to getting a strong push at the top, could be from getting into a nice deep tuck. Or they could be nice skis! I worked on staying tucked for a skate-off or two longer than the guy in front of me.
The first aid station came up quick. I took a nice drink from the bottle of warm maple syrup-water. Going into the woods, there were still quite a few guys around me and like on the powerlines, people were skiing quite orderly. I was feeling relatively relaxed and still just worked on staying with the group. After the Timber Trail aid station, things were more spread out and the dynamic shifted to more distinct packs as opposed to a large mass.
Through the high point hill, all the way up to OO went by pretty quickly. A couple good checkpoints were on the uphills before OO where I could comfortably use a right-handed V1, and on the downhills where I could comfortably get into a deep tuck. Both are good signs that my energy is good and I’m in a comfortable place. Looking at prior year race results, it seems like a good way for an elite wave guy to stay in the elite wave is to stay with a group of other elite wave guys that aren’t slowing down. So I kept my eyes peeled for people that were in groups and skiing well. I ended up skiing a lot of the race with 90 (Rhett Bonner), 92 (Drew Holbrook), 107 (Rod Raymond), 206 (Steve Kuhl), 104 (Jay Eidem), and 141 (Chris Harvey). There were a few other guys who were in and out of the group (73, 170). Somewhere around that time was a spectator counting out numbers. I heard 104, 105, 106 … I assumed that meant place in the men elite wave. Cool! I wanted to place better than my number, but I really wanted to finish in the top 200 again (and earn a place in the wave for next year).
At the start of one of the bigger uphills, I think the one before OO, we skied into a fairly large train and slowed down. Someone behind me said “break time!”, which was true—it was nice to keep a measured pace going up the hill. For the first half of the race, the uphills were probably more relaxing than the flatter sections because the pace would slow so much. Knowing that I was skiing with people of similar ability, I wasn’t going to try to move up 20 spots on an uphill.
From OO to about the gravel pit (32k) aid station, things felt pretty good. We found mostly firm trail, certainly some loose snow, but really not bad. Then I started to notice that the hills were a little more tiring, and the feeling of weariness started to set in a little. I could tell that I wasn’t alone though—the body language and form of the group was definitely degrading, especially over the crest of the hills. I made sure to not drill myself into a deep hole on any uphill and really paid attention to keeping my effort level capped. Somewhere in there we passed 519 (the legendary Jan Guenther)—she was hooting and cheering the whole time. Pretty cool. The hills at 39 and 42k came and went okay—I think people were ready for them and we just climbed them in a workmanlike fashion. The three hills after Bitch hill were tougher—maybe because I feel like I should be done climbing by then.
There’s a feed right around 77 with water bottles full of something orange and sugary. I didn’t think I was going to get one until a guy ran up to me and I took 4-5 real quality gulps. Then I got a drink of water at the official race feed right after that, and I felt fortified for the home stretch. It’s amazing how a mere swallow of water creates the feeling of energy. Metabolically I know it isn’t doing anything, but mentally it can be wonderful. After the 77 … wait, I forgot to mention the awesome road crossings! I don’t know how the course crew did it, but these were the best road crossing I have ever skied across in a race—very firm. Thanks! … Anyways, after the highway 77 aid station, I had lost 107 and 90. Too bad, because they finished a minute and ten places ahead of me. Of course, at the time I had declined the option to speed up and go find them.
Heading down the hill to the lake, I was with some new people. I didn’t know if they were people I had caught, or people that caught me. I recognized 73 (Matt Weier) from earlier in the race when he came past my group with a real head of steam. By the time we went through the trees before the lake, he was in the lead of a pack of five (me at the back). And we were really going slow. I even looked behind, feeling like we were certain to get passed by all of wave 1. We headed onto the lake, still really slow. I would find out why in a few minutes. The lead position rotated, and soon it was my turn. As soon as the guy in front of me peeled off, I knew why we were going so slow. My, oh my, that was a stiff wind. And all of a sudden the snow really seemed slow. I tried one side, then the other, kind of a toss-up between windblown and icy and windblown and soft. I picked icy. Not feeling really energetic, I thought I’d pull for a solid minute, then rotate back. So I put my head down for sixty strong V2 pushes. Then I stood up, went to the side, and looked back, ready to take my spot in the group. But the group was back about fifty feet. Funny thing is that I almost would rather have seen them right behind me so I could take a rest. But the last bit of competitiveness in me was enough motivation to keep going. Just before getting off the lake, a lady yelled “GOOD JOB 148 !!!! THERE’S A GROUP RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!”. That was helpful. Coming off the lake, the trail gets a little narrow and mushy until main street, where it was in great shape. The crowds always help, but the finish line banner really helps. Out of the corner of my eye there seemed to be a couple people coming, so I picked a lane and mounted a feeble not-quite-sprint for the finish. I think there was one woman and one guy. The woman (529?) pulled ahead and did a nice lunge over the finish line. I, on the other hand, was content to let my momentum carry me across. I’ll have to wait for the finish line video to see if there actually was a guy around me.
After getting some food and into some dry clothes, I went into the hospitality tent to find out my finishing position … 2:49, 95th guy, 7th in 40-44 age group. That was nice. I knew there would be a few people from later waves skiing up, but 95th is certainly a safe position. Top 100 would be cool. It turned out that quite a few (higher than normal?) skiers from later waves skied into the top 200, including nine more in front of me. So next year, bib 104. It’s amazing that the winners were 35 minutes faster on a day like this. And even more amazing that the 50k guys in Sochi went 1:46!!! Shows how much difference there can be due to ability and conditions. I milled around some more, ran into my good friend 1414 (Jeremiah Schubitzke), who had a pretty tough race. He still had ice in his beard and the glazed-eye look of a guy who was staring into the abyss for a while on the course. I was starting to get cold and ready to rest, so I found a bus, went back to the parking lot and headed for home.
I’ve been entering ski races for about ten years, but this was the first time I really, really focused on just skiing for multiple months. After the Twin Cities 10 mile in October, any running that I did was purely social or due to business travel. I found that having a structured plan makes certain things much easier—much less deciding on the spot whether it was going to be an easy or hard day. My hard days were harder and my easy days were easier. Ironically, as the training season went on, I found it much easier to actually rest on the rest days—makes me realize that my previous conception of a hard day was a little mild. Since the race, it’s been satisfying to reflect on the past 8 months of training. I don’t think I would change a thing. Now … on to next year!