Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Brrrrrrrrrkie

One of the good quotes I read about the Birkie came from this year’s men’s winner, a 2010 German Olympian, who noted that you have many lives in a ski marathon.  Multiple races too.  The first race Lisa and I had was getting out of Logan for the flight to Minneapolis.  Thankfully, our plane left almost on time even though there was a raging blizzard winding down in Minneapolis that was dumping a foot of snow.  A nice bumpy landing in wind-whipped snow and a texted question from Alex a few rows back on the plane (how do you stop a plane on an icy runway without sliding off?) and we’d won Race #1.  After an excellent night’s sleep at a hotel near the airport, Lisa and I picked up a nice ride, an all-wheel drive Suburu wagon for race #2, getting to Hayward and Ashland.  As we ventured out on the highway at a nice reasonable post-rush hour time we found it covered with a sheet of ice.  And I mean ice, all shiny and slippery and rutted.  Our max speed heading out of town was…. maybe 40……on straight stretches……going uphill…….with no cars in front of us.   Cars in the median to the right, trucks spun out to the left, tractor trails jack-knifed here and there……white knuckles on the steering wheel.  What, no salt?  No sand?  Really?  I mean I’m used to crappy driving but I think this set the record.  Minnesota and Wisconsin were clearly caught with their collective pants down, butt crack well displayed.  Wow, it was bad.   All the way to Hayward, normally about a 3 hr drive, was just ice glaring back at me challenging me and a fierce wind blowing snow up over the berm on the side of Rte 63 and drifting across the road.  Ha, but patience is a virtue and eventually we pulled into Hayward.  Race #2 down.  Race #3, bib pickup:  with everyone else in the same slippery boat on the roads, we arrived to pick up numbers with a much smaller crowd than last year.  Consider this race totally won!  We zipped in, grabbed our bibs and even had a little time and space to chat with masters stalwarts Alec Smith, Russ Keene, Elmer Ream and Bob Fitzpatrick (the founder of CSU jrs before it was CSU).  George Atkinson, however, had lost his first race……he was stuck in Phoenix until the next day due to his flight cancellation.  Next on the agenda was getting out on the trail for a ski.  Reportedly the Birkie Trail was closed so they could pack down the snow for the race and let it set up, but we headed up to the half way point at the OO road crossing and sure enough there cars in the lot and skiing to be had.  We fired the explosive bolts on our luggage and unpacked the skis in the wind and cold and got going before freezing to death, but once in the woods it was nice trackless skiing on trails that had been groomed earlier in the day.  My Toko blue stick worked just fine and I was able to scope out a couple Ks of trail I missed last year because I had to drop out at OO due to a stomach bug.  In the gathering darkness we headed off for Ashland to meet up with Evan, who was driving up from Madison.  A long day on the road.  In Ashland I laid eyes on Lake Superior for the first time, frozen solid. 

Next morning we got up at the Crack O’ Dawn, grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out toward Cable.  Race #4 was well in hand when we hit the back of the first group of cars driving way too slow, even on the icy road.  With nice long straights, I was able to pass 4 cars at once and proceed at a more reasonable pace.  My patience was ebbing quickly!  The anxiety of making it to the start is always an issue, and these roads didn’t help.  Then came the wait to get into the parking lot, then the wait to get on a bus and then an interminable 2 mile bus ride.  What was going on?  The clock was ticking and I had a bad feeling I might lose the race to the starting line.  We sat on the bus slowly making its way to the Telemark Lodge.  One poor guy was in Wave 1 – his race to the start was now lost.  Most of us had come with the anxiety of simply making it to the start on time.  That and holding (or not) your bladder through these torturous bus rides.  Finally, the bus door opened and we all let the Wave 1 skiers off first.  Lisa, Evan and I said our “good lucks” and I ran for the tent, slipped on my boots, grabbed gloves, muff, number, etc. and headed for the start, running and walking along with hundreds of others.  Tick tock, tick tock.  The porta john lines weren’t as long at the start, so I pulled in quckly, than ran with my bag to the bag truck drop off and then for the starting pens.  I’d made it!  Whoooo hooo, 5 min. to spare.  I’d barely won the race to the start!  Of course, I hadn’t tried my wax (I went with the Toko suggestion) and my warmup was my jog down to the start.  I headed for the front row, Wave 3 skate took off and we ran for the starting line carrying our skis.  Phew, I’d made it.  Now for an interminable 5 min. wait standing in the first row with the temp at about 8F and a whipping wind in our face.  Talk about cold! 

The banners go up and Wave 5 classic was off!  Now the real race began and it wasn’t long before it was just me and two other guys skiing through the blown in tracks heading for the woods.  The first couple K would be my warmup, so I tried not to worry about hanging with those two dudes.  I needn’t have worried as they were dispatched within several Ks.  The powerline came into view where the back of Wave 4 was starting down, somewhat timidly, the first downhills and herringboning up the first uphills.  My skis were rockets compared to those around me and I had good, solid kick, so now the fun could begin.  With hundreds of people in front of you, patience is necessary.  Don’t thrash your way up the hills trying to pass people and blowing the energy budget……better to use your ski speed and do it on the downhills.  It becomes so fun to blow by people on every downhill, especially when you stay in a tuck where others have stood up to start double-poling.    The further into the race we got the more comments I got.  “Hey Wave 5, good race!”, “Wow, Wave 5, you are having a great race”.  When I get behind someone, waiting for a gap to slip over to another track some people told me to hop in ahead of them and pass.  Wow, gotta love these Midwesterners!  Steadily I moved through all of Wave 4, most of Wave 3 and started working on Wave 2.  The feeds become essential and I took lots of fluids and GU whenever I could get one.  I was worried about bonking and at 25k my right tricep was cramping and I had wayyyyy too far to go.  No dropping out this year!  A GU seems to resolve the cramping and on we go, leaving the pandemonium of the feed behind.  Just after OO the skate and classic trails come together and now it seems you are never alone.  The skaters hop in the tracks on some of the downhills, but still I overtake them.  My skis are my friends today!  The skaters struggle up the mashed potato hills while herringbone and striding seem easier.  I’m sooooo happy I’m not skating in all this soft snow!  But I’m starting to suffer at 40km and those short but steep uphills are getting to be a challenge.  I look for long downhills where I can just tuck and fly.  Bitch Hill comes and I plod up as spectators are making a racket on the top (spectators out in the woods, really?  Awesome!)  On toward the lake.  A Craftsbury guy skates by and we chat a bit, classic and skate together.  Some other guy recognizes the CSU Blue and we wish each other luck as he moves on.  Finally we come to the Fish Hatchery and I can feel the gaskets starting to pop in my body.  The wheels are getting a bit wobbly on the last major uphill in the race, but a couple nice long downhills allows some recovery and then we pop down on the lake.  The last few Ks to go!  At a  tent some guy (who???) yells my name and CSU and hands me a small cup of Jagermeister.  I bring it up to drink and think better of that!  The wind on the lake, which I haven’t noticed since I first reached the woods, starts gnawing at the left side of my face.  The lake is misery….blown in tracks and I can hardly move double poling, so I resort to kick DP and actually striding.   The skaters aren’t faring any better.  Someone noted that the lake was the longest uphill in the race.  We gradually bend to the right, but the wind remains gnawing my face.  My eyes are tearing up from the wind and freezing, I can’t feel my cheek and still the tracks suck. Finally after 2k of that nonsense we come to the end and a 1000 m to go sign.  I scramble up the embankment and someone yells encouragement to CSU. The Blue Suit is well known!   I almost fall over looking over to see who it is.  Better focus......  Main St at last and the crowds and the noise are kind of intoxicating!  I try hard to ski through to the finish and not look too wasted. And then its over.  Fatigue but a smile.  I had a good race that was really fun on a beautiful, cold winter day in Wisconsin. Doesn't get much better than that! A woman very kindly helps me by removing my skis, I get my medal for my first Birkie finish and go to retrieve warm, dry clothes and get some hot soup.  My god that was good soup!   A while later Evan finishes the skate race, very tired from skiing in the soft snow, and as I head back to the finish to look for Lisa I hear her name announced as she skis in, finishing her first 50k ski marathon, still standing, with a smile on her face.   

The Doucetts had all made it in pretty good shape.  
Lisa at the end of the Birkie
Alex's story can be found HERE

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