Sunday, March 2, 2014

Birkie 2014 – Survival of the Fitless

In case any of you missed my previous few write ups, I’ll summarize the McNatt family plan for school vacation week.  We fly out to Minneapolis Friday, visit with Sue’s sister Marsha, drive to Madison Saturday (5+hrs), visit with my parents in nearby Middleton, drive up to Hayward Wednesday (5+hrs), Kyler skis the Barnebirkie 3K Thursday, we ski the Haakon/Korte/Birkie Saturday, drive to Minneapolis (3 hrs) Sunday and fly home to Boston.  What could go wrong?

The Thursday winter storm in the Northeast was winding down just in time for us to get out on our Friday flight to Minneapolis.  Unlike most people heading out for February winter vacation week, we were heading off to where it was even colder and snowier than Boston.  We arrived in town with plenty of time to get in a sunset ski as the temps dropped into the single digits.  A great meal with Sue’s sister Marsha, hubby Leif and cousin Lars along with some homebrew octoberfest on tap while checking out the Olympic events of the eve made for a relaxed beginning.  We were enjoying another brisk barely above 0F am ski when Leif suddenly lurched to stop behind us, garrhgh!  He was skiing classic and had cranked/pulled his groin, which left him to double pole the last 3-4K back home.  While Leif began to rest/rehab his groin, we packed up and headed out for Middleton Wisconsin with light snow falling.  You would think these Minnesotans would know how to drive in the snow by now considering the winter thus far, but nooooo.  We had barely been on the road 10 minutes when we saw the first gumby stuck crunched sideways and backwards into the left guard rail.  By the time we escaped the traffic glommage of Minneapolis, I had counted 10 plus cars in the ditch.  The snow followed us all the way to Middleton and there was one last yahoo off the road right before our last exit, but we completed the drive with no personal off-roading.
            Released from the car, we enjoyed one of many nice dinners at my parents, along with the obligatory Olympic evening viewing.  Sunday was church, brunch and a trip into Mad City to see the winterfest xc sprints around the Capitol.  We basked in sun as the temp broke 20F and boned up on our cheesehead facts at the Historical Society Museum.  Trek, Kohler, Miller and of course Harley Davidson were all born in Wisconsin ya noh!  Unfortunately for me, I was hit with my first real cold of the season and spent my time sneezing and nose blowing around the exhibits.
Skiing around the Capital
            A Monday ski with the kids turned a bit epic as light snow turned into a raging white out and Lucy went missing for just long enough to spark concern.  We did some real bowling (not candlepin) then hunkered down for the rest of the day/night with some cards and of course more Olympics.  Tuesday broke clear and breezy, but the trails were groomed and ready, even if they were soft as skiing on pillows.  I wish I had a bit more zing in the legs, but my lingering head cold seems to have sucked the life out of my continued attempt to taper.  Wednesday am we pack up and bid goodbye to my parents heading for the wilds of Hayward.  The weather cooperates today and we zoom North, stopping only long enough to grab and slam a couple bags of locally produced cheese curds, yummy!  (even better deep fried!).
            We arrived at our destination on the Western edge of Spider lake Northeast of Hayward smoothly without getting lost on the snowy back roads and greet Sue’s parents there.  We take a sunset hike out onto the lake, enjoy some fresh air and dodge a pack of snow mobiles.  Marsha, Leif and Lars arrive later, and we enjoy another relaxing evening of food, drink and you got it, Olympic viewing.  The only concern is the continued escalating winter storm warnings predicted to hit us mid-day tomorrow.  The kids Barnebirkie starts at 12:30, so hopefully the 1,000 or so munchkins including our own Kyler won’t be forging off the line into a blizzard. 
            Thursday am had that gray balmy calm pre-storm feeling.  Sue, Leif, Marsha and I get ourselves out to OO, which is the midway point of the Birkie and enjoy an easy ski on the main trail.  The track is so wide and open it feels cavernous without the 10,000 skiers poised to converge here in 2 days.  Finally, my nose isn’t running, a semblance of normal energy level is returning to my legs, and I actually feel like I want to ski more for a change, a good sign.  We converge on Hayward before the Barnie along with 1,000 other families and manage to get Kyler geared up and positioned in the second row.  We are lucky that the real snow seems to be holding off, with only stray snow showers flying through.  The stampede commences as the mini Bjornes all aim for the hole shot road crossing they hit a mere 100M into the race.  Mayhem ensues and Kyler is caught in one of the early pile-ups, but he pops out and manages to squeeze across the road out to the golf course loop and freer skiing.  Kyler finishes well, maybe top 25, and we all toast a job well done at the local Angry Minnow Pub with pitchers of Bitch Hill Belgian Ale accompanied by piles of excellent grub.  We hit the expo for our bibs, grab some local java and roll back to our Spider Lake haunt.  Still the weather is merely flurries, could we be spared snowmaggedon?
The Barnebirke is off!

            NO!  The flakes didn’t fly until we were safe and sound back at our spider lake pad, but Sue’s nieces Anika and Moe were slowly and painfully making their way North in the storm.  We were getting updates periodically, until they finally hit Hayward yeah!, then turned onto the last little road to our cabin woo hoo!, then radio silence…  After a tense wait Leif leaps into action, “They’re in the ditch somewhere, we have to go find   them!”  Leif, Lars and I shovel out the trusty Subaru, and we gun it down the unplowed road through the dark and now driving snow scanning for blinkers in the ditch.  After a mile, we spy one stopped car, then Moe and Anika, not in the ditch, but stuck and tucked away at the foot of a driveway.  The other car had just pulled over to offer help, and they were on their way.  The group piled into the Suby, and we managed to slip-slide our way back to the cabin to the relieved welcome of all.  Eventually we all settled in and were catching the end of the Olympic coverage, when flicker, flicker, darkness, out went the lights.  The power did surge back on, re-booting our tv/satellite/receiver stack, causing a scramble to find any kind of flashlight in case of a repeat.  It was a long day, but at least we could sleep late one last day as the snow piled up outside.
            Bump, thump aaaah!  This commotion in the wee hours of the night was followed by Carson popping into our bedroom clearly upset and holding his right arm gingerly.  He had somehow taken a header off of the top of the bunk bed in his sleep.  His right wrist is already swollen and painful as Sue rushes him upstairs to ice it.  I follow and we try to assess the damage and keep Carson comfortable.  Eventually, the ice seems to be helping and he settles in on a lounge chair, while Sue camps out on a nearby couch.  I try to get back to sleep, but worries about Carson and the periodic flickering of the lights threatening to leave us in total darkness are anything but comforting.
            Friday morning breaks cold, windy and snowy.  The storm has molded arcing drifts all around, and the wind is singing off the lake around the house.  By the time I emerge, Sue is already calling our doctor to figure out a diagnosis and plan of action for Carson.  The word back is not good, we should try to get him in today.  An orthopedic appointment in Hayward is booked and off we go right?  Not.  Our driveway is not plowed, but the “main” road is, which only added an extra berm to the end of our driveway.  No problem, Leif will crank the Suby out the driveway, and we’ll follow in our rental.  Problem.  The Suby gets stuck.  Plan B, shovel out Moe’s car a mile down the road and take it.  Sue, Moe and Carson head out while I help extricate the Suby.  I jog out to Moe’s VW and we manage to dig it out and fire it up, yeah!, next stop Hayward orthopedics.  Xrays identified a fractured right distal radius, and so into a split and out of the Prince Haakon 12K is Carson.  We arrive back at spider lake around 4:00PM and STILL the beepin driveway isn’t plowed!  We schlep back home through the deep snow, and I quickly get down to the business of waxing 3 pairs of skis for tomorrow, Lucy’s, Sue’s and my own.  Waxing, waxing followed by a pasta load dinner and more waxing, followed by the organizing of a multi-layer outfit fit for windy single digit racing.  Another longer day with no time for skiing, but shoveling is core work and jogging through snow is cross-training right?  I don’t think I even took a shower, Uff Da!  Thankfully, sleep comes quickly tonight… Beep Beep Beep Beep!!!
Snow piled and drifted on our Cabin.

            As usual at 5:00 AM Birkie morning, I feel like my head just hit the pillow and the alarm goes off about 10 seconds later.  I slam the usual bagel, oatmeal, coffee and juice pre-race meal.  Sue, Marsha, Leif and I pack into the Suby, next stop Como parking for the shuttle bus.  The temp is -4F, but supposed to warm up into the single digits by race time, not quite frostbite weather, but darn close.  We’re stuck behind a snowplow for a bit, but park and get on a shuttle bus to the start with little drama.  Getting off the bus at Telemark, the wind seems to be humming a bit more, yah!  Since the pre-race warming tent near the start reportedly collapsed under the new snowpack, the top tent by the bus drop off is starting to look like a Tokyo subway car.  Leif, Sue and I opt to head down to the start regardless, while Marsha braves the masses up top.  Luckily, Sue discovers that a few intrepid skiers forged a back way into the still standing section of the collapsed tent near the start.  I duck in behind her and we hang out with a gang of 4 from Northern Minnesota, all wearing big tan ear flap bomber hats.  Apparently, they were the first in, occupied the corner of the tent and re-directed the single working heater to their zone.  As more and more random skiers popped into the “closed” tent we were sure the authorities would show up and clear the place out, but no.  After chatting about the sno,the cohld, the howlin wind and how slo the skiing may be, it was nearing time fer me ta warm up doncha kno!  With the clock ticking, I jog a few laps around the staging area versus trying to climb over snowbanks and through deep snow to actually ski a warmup.  I pack into my wave 1 staging corral, make the usual mad flailing sprint to the actual starting line corral and settle in in around the second row waiting for the gun as the fierce headwind keeps everyone dancing to stay warm.
            5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Go!  Arrgh!  Literally 2 double poles after starting, the speed racer in the first row in front of me totally face plants!  Doh Homer!  I immediately assume the poles up, knees bent and elbows out defensive position, while Mr. Clumsy sorts himself out.  Eventually the train gets rolling and after a few quick double poles I get enough space to put some power into it, except after reaching up to pole hard I feel my bottle carrier lurch up and hear the plunk of my bottle in snow behind me.  Double Arrgh!  I roll with the pack avoiding the occasional road hazards, another face plant on the first tiny uphill off the start field, one spin out butt slam on the first tiny downhill, two guys tangled up on the next uphill, jeez I thought this was wave 1 already!  The exciting start settles into the scrunch, scrunch of hundreds of skiers trying to get some glide up the first set of hills on single digit styrofoam snow.  At this point I’ve settled in, feel fine and just concentrate on keeping decent form and not letting the skis stall out.  I check my 10K split and see whaaa?  I double check, 44+ minutes for 10K?  Damn this is going to be one long slog of a race if things don’t speed up.  Things don’t.
            At 13K the Birkie tops out, and we start the sawtooth elevation map meat of the Birkie between here and half-way.  I’m finding myself breathing like a freight train and near redlining on uphills of any substance.  This despite my best efforts to go out in control and save some juice for later.  Last year was a quad cramp-fest, and I was not looking for a repeat performance.  The next 20K was 42 something minutes, still slow but steady sailing, if you can call 4:12 per K “sailing”.  I slammed a power gel and 2 drinks at the almost halfway OO feed, desperately trying to avoid a hard bonk on this extended play, slow as sandpaper Birkie. I hit a 43 something split at 30K, but I was feeling the plus 2 hours of skiing and struggling on every uphill to get any smidgen of glide out of my V1.  I was also starting to get that hollow pre-bonk feeling and downed another power gel plus drinks before 40K.  At this point I felt like my bottle carrier was sagging down restricting by breathing, so I was reaching around to adjust it and waaaah?  I stared at the 20oz Gatorade brick in my hand amazed as if I had just pulled a frozen road-kill squirrel out of my bottle carrier.  What the?  I felt my bottle launch, heard my bottle land spish in the snow, how could?  I disgustedly wing the now useless frozen ballast, and vow never to trust race-brain thoughts again. 
            The split at 40K was over 46 minutes on some of the easier skiing the course has to offer.  I am now hollow man, but I will see the finish line in Hayward.  Skiers nearby are encouraging each other, “It’s in the bag now!”  “Let’s work these hills, almost done!” the shared mutual suffering of this epic grind of a Birkie brings us together.  As we cross through some open fields nearing the last few K the wind is howling at us.  The guy to my right is sporting a major chin icicle, and I wonder what I look like.  I also worry how this wind will feel on the lake we cross before finishing in Hayward. 
            If you ask anyone who skied the Birkie “How was the wind on the lake?” be prepared to cover any tender ears in the vicinity, because a stream of profanity will likely ensue.  Gafeelamarkin!  I’m inventing a new word to describe the Hayward Lake smackdown, head butt and yes kick to the nubbins.  Polar vortex implies some swirling or twisting wind, but this was a straight on, unrelenting arctic laser head wind all the way across the 2 plus K of lake skiing.  The next time you’re driving and it’s 8-10F outside and you hit 40mph or so, stick your head out the window, feel the bite and imagine your whole self strapped to the roof rack standing up like a wing walker.  This was the cruel and unusual exclamation point to the slowest Birkie in recent history.  The brain numbing cryongenic crossing was finally over and the cheering crowds on Main St were never more welcome.  I managed a weak V2 to the finish and Birkie 19 was mercifully put to rest in 3 hours and 43 minutes, over 30  minutes slower than last year.
Leif with a sweat stalagmite sprouting from his neck!
            I change up, warm up some, meet the family and watch Leif and Marsha make it to the blessed finish line also.  Leif’s groin gave out with many K to go, but he managed to kick double pole one-sidedly to the finish, dragging his ailing leg up the final herringbone hills.  The Birkie is indeed a cruel mistress.  We enjoy a celebratory Surley Ale and all roll back to Spider Lake to unwind and re-live the “glories” and agonies of this years racing.  Sue had by far the best race of the day taking her age group in the Korte.  The next morning the Birkie 2014 adventure ends as we all pack, share goodbyes.  We meet Alex and Tom at the airport and share stories.  Alex ended up skiing the whole race in no-woman’s land after missing her start by 8 minutes.  Tom’s bag of warm dry post-race clothes were swiped and misplaced at the start and never made it to Hayward.  I don’t feel quite so bad after hearing their woes.  We all board the plane and dream of next year when we’ll be ready.  Next year we’ll be ready to grab the Birkie by it’s Viking horns and conquer it, next year…

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