Now that Evan is living in Madison, he had the idea that Lisa, he and I should all do the Birkie. Great idea! Then the Burnhams decided it was time to do the Birkie too, so last Thursday we started our long trip to Hayward, but Lisa, who never gets sick, came down with a nasty stomach bug and really suffered on the flight out and then felt so bad she couldn’t even go to dinner with Evan and I in Madison. My only, admittedly selfish thought was “This is not going to turn out well.”
On Friday we got up early, met Evan at his apartment and started the long drive to Hayward as snow started to fall. I enjoyed the scenery of snowy, rolling Wisconsin farms by the hundreds. What a difference from the east! We met up with the Burnhams (Bob, Anne and Jim) at a grocery store in Spooner to stock up on supplies and then a while later found the house that we were staying in, about 10 miles from the finish of the race. We got out for a nice hour ski at Fish Hatchery Rd, and got our first look at the Birkie course. It was a highway through the forest! With rolling hills and sweeping downhills, very nice. I tested a couple kick waxes, as did Bob and after an hour of pretty pleasant skiing sans track, time for dinner, waxing up Evan’s race skis and getting to bed early. With light snow falling it looked promising for tomorrow. Lisa was feeling better too after getting fresh air and a ski!
Now, the Birkie is a logistical nightmare. Do you drive to the start and then catch a bus back after the race or do you drive to the finish and catch a bus to the start? Lisa was doing the Korte (1/2 marathon), which starts and finishes at the Telemark Lodge while the rest of us finish on Main St in Hayward. Did she want to drive a car to Hayward after, or take a bus? What about parking? To catch the bus you need to get cracking at 0 dark 30. Will there be enough parking? What about dry clothes? Wax, since I was doing classic? Evan was decidedly not excited about getting up before 5 am!
Finally, we opted to drive to the finish and bus to the start and Lisa would take a bus down after her finish. I think all these mental gymnastics put me over the edge and as I’d predicated, I started feeling really lousy and couldn’t eat a whole lot and I had to drink gallons to get it down. I slept poorly and 4:45 came mighty early (well, 4:45 IS early!). After 3 bites of oatmeal I bolted out of the house, sure I was about to lose it, but fortunately I guess, I didn’t. What to do?? I was now feeling pretty terrible and felt like I had a bowling ball in my stomach. However, time to soldier on, so we loaded up the cars and headed in to Hayward through the light snow.
We caught the bus and the trip to the Telemark Lodge in Cable went as smoothly as a school bus ride can go on bumpy roads with a queasy stomach. Fortunately, I had no need for facilities since school buses are not so equipped. These bus rides with loads of skiers and skis are always somewhat interesting, listening in on the snippets of conversation about waxing, training, how to pace, do you take GUs, this hill here, Bitch hill there, Snowmobile Corner over there, how many Birkies people had raced, etc. Lousy as I felt, I was enjoying the instant connection to all these other nut cases who have gotten up well before the crack of dawn to do what? Ski 50 or more km across some far northern Wisconsin glacial hills and eskers? In the winter? In the cold? On snow? Beautiful! My kind of people, by the thousands!
Telemark Lodge, when we arrived, resembled a refugee camp and was stuffed with skiers lying all over the place trying to relax before it was time to make the ½ mile walk down to the start when it was time for their wave. What a mass of humanity! But, all skiers, how cool is that! I finally decided that since I came all the way to Wisconsin, lousy as I felt I was going to start the race and go easy and just see what would happen. It was time to experience the Birkie! What is the worst that could happen? I’d just get sicker I suppose.
I made the long walk to the craziness at the start with hundreds of skiers milling about, some in a huge tent trying to stay warm, others cuing up for the start. I tested my skis and kick wax on a large oval warm up track that had one track for classic and I had to admit, my skis were feeling good! Fast and solid kick! Ok, now that right there made me feel somewhat better and encouraged! Miraculously I ran into Sue McNatt who was headed for the start pen. She was clearly hyped up and ready to roll to Hayward! I also ran into
Finally, I shed my warm ups, handed off my bag of clothes to the truck and slipped into the holding pen and carrying my skis and poles lined up next to Bob and Jim for the race before the race. The wave on the line took off skating furiously and moments later our wave ran with skis in hand to the starting line. Jim, Bob and I were on the front line and put on our equipment for the start a few minutes later. When the banners lifted we were off and after about 50 yds of hard double poling I looked up and it was Jim, Bob, me, some Russian guy and a guy from Alaska all alone off the front! Ok, I thought, that was WAY easier than a Tuesday night race at Weston. So, with Wave 5 easily dispatched, off we headed into the woods to hunt down Wave 4. We passed a couple stragglers from Wave 4 who were doing the Korte and I was getting pretty comfortable, although I had to let Bob and Jimmy and the Russian go, there was no way I was going to try and keep up with them today. I skied with the Alaskan guy (John Wood, 4th place in 65-69) for a while and then we popped out onto the powerline and there they were…..masses of humanity skating on the right and classic on the left. Hundreds of skiers from Wave 4 stacked up at the top of the rolling hills, herringboning all the uphills. This was going to be interesting! Mentally I was prepared for this, and I come over the top of the first hill, popped in the track, tucked and shot by about 10 people who were herringboning, sliding right between them. Then I got in line and trudged up the rest of the hill. On flatter sections I went from track to track, passing slower skiers at will. My skis were running so well and were so fast compared to everyone else that this started to get fun. I forgot about the bowling ball in my stomach for a while and worked to pass as many people as possible on downhills or to shoot by them as they started herringboning up the next hill. It is really fun to shoot down a hill in a tuck, go up and over the next bump still in a tuck while everyone around you is working so hard! I was feeling rather smug, I must say. I have no idea how many people I passed, but it was almost dizzying. On the nice kick and glide sections, of which there were many, I tried to ski as smoothly and effortlessly as possible since there was no way I could hammer this day. I was having fun though! Ski smooth, use the downhills and flats and trudge up the hills. Not a race winning plan, but not a bad one for my situation. At the 9km cutoff I was actually not so bad off, 38th in my age group and 325 overall in the classic race.
On the bigger, faster downhills lots of people would snowplow. But the downhills were not difficult! The course is so wide and the curves so nice and gradual that it just wasn’t difficult. I took great pleasure in popping into the track, tucking and seeing how far I could go in a tuck. On some of the longer, faster downhills 3 troughs would form, one for each track as people snowplowed up a nice berm. Parallel bobsled runs! Weird. This all went on kilometer after kilometer as I worked through Wave 4, then Wave 3 and I started catching Wave 2 skiers by about 20 km.
And then……the wheels started coming off, one by one. At 20km I started feeling really tired and I could feel that bowling ball in my gut again. While I’d been essentially walking the uphills, now I started trudging. I started looking for the kilometer markers 21….22…..23. Oh, man, they are going by so slowly now. I was now aiming for the feed station at Highway OO (what is with the county road numbering system anyway??) . OO is the half way point, 27km for the classic race. People I’d just passed now started passing me on the uphills. I moved over so I wasn’t in the way. Where is km 24? 25?, 26? 1 km to go to OO. There goes another wheel….really wobbling now. Finally there it was, another giant feed station where classic and skate trails come together and there is a mass of humanity flinging cups, and GUs and trying not to step on GUs because they wreck your glide…..and I pulled over and reluctantly took off my skis and in a daze wobbled over to the medical tent. I had played my hand and had had to fold. (Know when to hold em, know when to fold em) I was kind of in a daze and grabbed 2 blankets and lay down on a cot for about 20 min. My day was done.
I got up finally, feeling a little less trashed, and started chatting with a young guy. Turns out he was the McNatt’s cousin Lars. He said he’d tried to keep up with Sue and her relently V1 (we both laughed about her lack of V2 and V2 alt). Lars learned that Sue may only have one technique, but she’s a darned fast practitioner of it! Every little while another waylaid skier would enter the tent and gather around the propane heater with the rest of us trying to keep warm. A guy from New Mexico, a young woman who’d gone to BU, a woman from Madison, another woman who had on the back of her jacket “You’ve just been chicked”. By the time a bus finally arrived to get us back to Hayward we had a cheerful little group.
We got back to Hayward in time to see Evan ski up Main St, which was pretty cool. He’d survived his first Birkie on about 50km of ski training for the winter and riding his bike indoors. Lisa had skied well in the Korte, finishing 8th in her age group. As for the Burnhams, Bob had survived running over a GU and stopping to rewax, while Jim had had an excellent race, finishing 118 overall! And Anne, skiing from Wave 9 finished 2nd in her age group. Not a bad day for the group. We headed off for a shower and an early dinner in a restaurant on Main St, complete with people still wearing their numbers proudly, good Wisconsin food and a very tasty beer. All things considered, while personally disappointed, it was a really fun day! Next year? A distinct possibility….I have unfinished business on the trail from Cable to Hayward.