Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Norway Birken Adventure - Rena to Lillehammer

Birken Norway
Rena to Lillehammer
54 KM – Elevation gain approx 3500 feet
Up to 17,000 registrations
March 21, 2015

Ann and I had planned to ski the Birkebeinerrennet (translation Birkebeiner race) for over 25 years, but we were delayed with our family and careers.  Chris Bean, Robert & Lisa Nadler are all long term ski friends from college, so when they called to finally make our trip a reality we jumped at the chance.  Some might argue that the Vasaloppet is the most historic race as it too stems from historic events in 1505 and is a huge race, however to Ann and I, the legend and incredible Birken race was always the original and the big one.   Imagine that the Boston Marathon with all its history were actually run on the plains of Marathon to commemorate Pheidippides announcing victory in Athens.  As long time skiers it was time to go. 

Legend of the Birkebeiner Race

The race has been skied since 1932 with huge numbers of Norwegians participating each year.  The race honors the 1206 rescue of and 18 month old prince Hakon from an opposing army.  Two of their best skiers are given the task of skiing the baby king to safety over the mountains in a brutal storm.  It is legend and desperate times so the exact story is probably not perfect, but it is clear that Hakon as a grown king later unites all of Norway ending 1000 years of civil war and this ushers in Norway’s medieval golden age.  The famous drawing of the skiers with shield, spear and baby child is
appropriate as they did in fact ski with one long pole which could often be used not only to ski, but also as a spear or other implement (we saw poles with ladles and many other innovations in the museum). The race now regularly draws over 10,000 with up to 17,000 start numbers.  A lot of Norwegians have now carried the baby king to safety.
You have to plan early for these big marathons.  The Vasa sold out in 83 seconds last week and we were uncertain we could get into the Birken race last spring.  However, we found a package that was a terrific location near Sjusjoen called Nordsetter with a nice lodge some logistics, 3 meals and the all important entry, so the 5 of us signed up and booked inexpensive flights.  It always seems easy when you say yes, but we knew it was going to take some planning.  It pays to be a CSU coach if you have to figure out a race of this magnitude as we know how easy it is to mess up logistics, training, health and ski racing.

We decided to stay the first day in Oslo but we should have gone earlier to watch the Holmenkollen as the world cup was in town.  Also, you can ski right from the subway with skis on the train. We did go to see the jump, ski course, museum and more as it’s unique to see a famous venue on some hills just outside of Oslo.  It is an easy subway ride from the center of town as long as you don’t mind sitting next to folks taking their skis and poles out mid day ski.  Business people yes, tourists yes, shopper of course and yes I see the wax is purple klister from the guy next to me.  The first advertisements I see as we get on to the train are about ski racing.  We are at the home of Nordic skiing.   That sort of helps as we lug huge duffle bags, ski bags and Birken packs through the various train stations.
 I have two great friends from school that I had not seen for some years.  Kjell Sobak and Don Skantze.  Kjell was a silver medalist (and 4th) in Biathlon in the Olympics and he won the Vasaloppet.  He also taught me a ton about skiing long ago when it was all a mystery. He knows exactly how to deal with young Americans who could run fast in fall XC, but were still not quite there in XC skiing.  Kjell, what do we wax?  His stock answer.  Read the tube.  We all had a terrific dinner right near the parliament and Kjell gave the 5 of us a private tour of the city which was just fun. You can see Robert and Lisa showing that these sculptures had nothing on US skiers.  From there we went by train and bus to Lillehammer, which had its own challenges even though the trains are superb.
We skied for 4 days before the race.  I realized long before the race that while we were all skiing pretty well in classic, it was not going to be my focus to shave off the last minutes in this race.  Just too many moving
parts and especially this trip was our chance to see so much  skiing and ski history in Norway.  So we skied a ton.  You can ski across these long gradual classic striding hills on perfect tracks with views and beautiful scenery literally forever.  50K, 100K, I am not sure, but I imagine there ware `1000s of Ks so ski if you’re really just kept linking up loops.  There is a GPS on every piston bully in Norway and the app shows you very efficiently what tracks were set in the last hours or days.  While you ski there are signs at each intersection that point to the next town and tell you whether there is food and they had huge maps for those of us without a clue. 
One day we skied to a town called Hornsjo and a neighboring hotel 12 km away for some hot soup and a return ski back.  We were dropped off 2 days prior to the race at the 29K mark and skied to the big ski town Sjusjoen, which sits at about 3000 feet, then up over a small windswept Mt Lunkefjell where Ann found evidence of Ski O, then back home to Nordsetter.  The day before the race we were driven back up to Sjusjoen and skied the final 13km all downhill to the Birkebeiner Stadium- the main venue for the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.  Like the uphills, the downhills are long and gradual, so it is much different from anything we ski on at home.  You must carry the baby king!  Birken requires an 8 pound pack with shirt, windbreaker, pants, hat, mittens and buff, plus whatever else makes up the weight.  Top racers get them pretty skinny, but we wanted to change clothes and carry wax and food, so our packs were a bit larger and we adorned them with various patches, while two of the packs featured dolls of the baby king. 

The big day starts with a bus pickup at about 4.30 AM as it is 2.5 hours to get around the mountains, past Lillehammer, down the Fjord (more of an inlet from the ocean vs. the huge cliffs along the coast)  in a huge line of silent early morning buses and over to the next Fjord heading to Rena.   Now we have to ski back.  The race organization is phenomenal.  We arrive in front of at least 50 swix benches, irons, waxes next to warm drinks and porridge at the venue and of course a lovely tent with a raised wooden floor.  Such luxury.  Of course we argued for days about the changing wax as it was frozen slush down low and powder over hard pack up high.  Then it snowed the night before the race, but not at the start where there is an immediate 14KM (you
reading that correctly) uphill.  Not wanting to be short of kick, we put on the lightest coat of klister possible and covered with blue and violet range stick wax.  Our mistake was both in the klister and warmer wax.  You can actually double pole in the fast frozen tracks and live pretty well for a few Ks with less kick, then go with great skis for the rest of the race which were in the highlands.  Toko green stick base binder and blue or extra blue (viola) would have been a bit better as we were a little slow on the double poling in the high dry powder, but hey with 3 giant hills (14K, 6K, 8K aka low mountains) I was happy to have kick.

Starting long after the Elite waves, we skied up the track the first K and watched the race start.  Therese Johaug (aka number 2 in the world only to Marit) immediately skis off the front and by herself sets a record. But in the men’s race Sunby admits that a non world cup skier cup skier blows his doors off double poling the entire race and leaving him by 10 seconds with 2 KM to go.  "It must have been your skis” says the announcer.  No he says, despite my kick wax, my skis were flying and I caught him on the downhills, he was just much stronger in double poling.  There are just a lot of great skiers in Norway.  We started in waves 2, 11, 13, 14 and 18.  Alas, I was stuck in 14 with Ann in wave 13 as I had skated the American Birkie last year and they discounted my 2 year old time.  At least I could ski up to Ann and say hello to someone in the race.   A quick calculation shows that the beginning of the snake was finishing before the last wave had started, so this spectacular wave of skiers was over 54 km long.  Wow.  I also calculated that if I included my wave 14, I skied past 1850 skiers and had 3 beat me from my wave and one from wave 15 so I certainly exceeded my seed if nothing else.  The rest of our team was actually placed almost perfectly which is the case for most Norwegians.  The race is 6-10 tracks wide, most of the racers are skiing technically well and all the skiers go at the same pace due to their superb seeding.  (I was the renegade
fast skier stuck back as I had not followed their seeding rules, but I just wanted to try the American Birkie skate last year).  Robin Anderson was on our plane & she was the top non elite women’s wave as they have a second top women’s start soon after the men begin.

What I most remember about the race is this vivid image of thousands of skiers winding far up these long hills in a huge snake across the open country side with bright white low mountains and unusual terrain.  It is unique site in a breathless terrain. However, it was a deceptive and exhausting race.  Maybe because I had to change tracks so much, or went a bit too hard, I had nobody to draft at my speed or it was just the long super skiable hills?  You did get some really nice long downhill rest sections and long double poles, so I was a little surprised how tired we all were going up the final climbs.  My short stops for food and drink to sneak past another 50 turned much longer munch fests at the feeds and after 35K as I was just shuffling, but my energy returned after a long flat double pole and at the end it was much easier as the last 13 K are mostly downhill sections to the finish.  I know I could have skied the race a bit faster, but it was just such an epic event with perfect weather, skiers and tracks.  My only minor complaint is that with 8755 mostly
good, aka serious racers who carry goo, they can drop a lot of goo.  I mean 10,000 goos that are mostly in the tracks!  Ouch, you get good at picking up a foot here, there and everywhere.  They have an environmental campaign to reduce litter, but it needs work. 
While endless analysis with my friends suggests a more perfected race could well have been much faster, it is not realistic to think even with my top race and the absolutely perfect luck, I could have taken more than say 10 – 20 minutes off my time.  (wax, less pre-race ski, travel, more training – less work, no drafting in the wind, endless passing, goo packs, bonking for 20 minutes, slowing down on the downhill, forgo my inhaler, did I spill jelly on my skis and maybe the sun was in my eyes).  Regardless, we all skied well, but my 2nd place in master’s nationals at Craftsbury was replaced by 268th place in my age in the Birken and even 20 minutes faster is still a ways back.  We mostly did make the 25% age group, yippee.  Wow do they have depth.   Ann was 39th and got a mini
trophy.  I was very happy to see her finish as the final downhill was really fast, a bit icy with some ruts and you ski downhill about 4 abreast.  Ann had a partial tear of her medial collateral ligament on Jan 7, so her recovery is astounding. She was just thrilled to ski into Olympic stadium after such an epic journey and was very emotional at the finish.  You could not have asked for a nicer day and better scenery and yes I did look around a lot.  Then a bus ride took us to the famous Hakon hall Olympic hockey venue seating 11,000, showers, ski vendors and the like.  Note I
found electric braking roller skis with a trigger on you pole handle and a fold up 3 pound wax bench that would fit in a ski pole tube.   

Sunday featured another pre- 4 am wake up to make the 5:10 AM Lillehammer - Oslo airport train, but our group was still chatting about the race so the travel, though so the trip was not so bad.   I could go on with stories and details, but it is a terrific place to ski and race and I would highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.  If you are going to the Birken feel free to ask other details.

Coach Bob

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Race Too Far

The last of the NENSA Marathon series was the Sugarloaf Marathon.  I was totally psyched about going up again this year after I had such a good time skiing it last year in really good, and unexpected, conditions.  With more snow and colder temps heading into it I figured the skiing might be even better. 

On Friday a stalwart group of CSUers piled into Tom Simon’s car (Mark Daughty, Robert Faltus, Andy Milne and myself) for the trek to Pat’s Pizza in Auburn for an excellent pre-race dinner (and cheap too!) and then  the Wilson Lake Inn and then the morning schlep up to Sugarloaf from there.  Robert, being the shortest, got relegated to the cheap seats in the back from whence a zinger would be hurled into the conversation every now and then, lobbed like a grenade of ridicule.  That kept the conversation going non-stop for 3 hours as we entered the land of no cell phone service.  I was trying to find out the results of the EHS races in Rumfaaad and its tough up there even though we were driving right past the road to Rumford!

After a reasonably restful night, more so than usual the night before a big race, we headed off to Sugarloaf in the early dawn light.  There was much less snow in Farmington than in my back yard, but as usual driving up the road to Sugarloaf, it started piling up those last few miles before the touring center and it was clearly powder snow upon our arrival.  Now, one of the best features of the Sugarloaf Marathon is the very low schlep factor.  On a scale of 1 – 10 this race is a 2.  Not bad.  Lodge is right there, the stadium is right there.  No muss, no fuss, walk up, drop the skis, go register.  No logistics planning needed whatsoever.  Clinton was already there, having just done the surgical strike by arising at 3:45 for the long drive up from Boston for the race!  Other CSUers were trickling in such as Drew Messinger and Cici Cruz-Uribe up from that hotbed of Nordic skiing, Falmouth, MA, Jody Newton and Gray Holmes and Ari Ofsevit.  CSU made up a significant portion of the field, once again!

I hustled out the door to test my skis, but perhaps more importantly, to test myself.  A week ago, while taking photos at the Westonloppet I tweaked my piriformis or something in there somewhere and was having trouble skiing all week.  Yup, it wasn’t feeling any better and so I went in and Tracey Cote, the Colby coach, switched me to the short race.  I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get a chance to chase Nirmegh (NWVT) or Tom or Mark or Robert.  Last year had been so much fun, but sometimes when you get older you get smarter, at least about some things……  This gave me a chance to get up on the bridge into the stadium and watch the start of the long race with Sugarloaf in all its glory arising behind the stadium.  (See photos posted a week ago.) Fabulous mountain for sure!  Everyone took off, some faster than others and as they disappeared into the woods for lap 1 I went down to get ready for my race.  We took off as some of the faster marathoners were already lapping through.  At the start I was presented with a couple right turns and my butt was not happy going in that direction.  This might be a long short race!  I wasn’t effective at V2 or alt V2 either.  Well, there is always double pole, so I threw that in where necessary and on we went.  V1 was good and going around left turns was good so at least I could go up hill ok.  I settled in.

I’m happy to say that the skiing was truly fabulous with firm powder snow.  Plus, no wind, it was in the mid-20s and so not freezing either.  Hey, we deserved this after the conditions we’ve skied in all winter!  My first no buff race in a long time!    Basically, the story of my race was that I couldn’t hang with anyone so I just cruised along trying to wake up from lack of sufficiently strong coffee.  At this point I thought how happy I was to have moved to the 2 lapper as I was systemically tired.  Andy went by on the long uphill towing a whole group along, including Ari.  They were looking strong and I just moved over to get out of the way and they were gone before long.  The high speed descent was a bit interesting given my injury with its sweeping right bends that normally you step turn around, but that set off alarm bells in my gluteal area and I ended up just steering around it, which in the perfect snow was just fine.  At this point I noticed that Raul Siren was lurking behind me.  Raul and I have had some great races together going back 20-25 years and so now I had a reason to step it up and try to stay ahead of him. 

The Sugarloaf course they now use is really fun and the 2nd half of it has lots up smaller ups and downs, many corners to try to maintain speed on and nothing that will kill you aerobically or otherwise.   It wasn’t long and then we were off on lap 2.  On the long uphill Elisa Bradley and Izzy Caldwell caught up.  I was able to hop in behind and hang with them most of the way up the hill before they too disappeared, gapping me where I couldn’t effectively V2.  Once again, on the long fast downhill alarm bells clanged from my butt muscles and then onto the fun part of the course.  I was not moving very fast, but just fast enough to stay ahead of Raul.  When marathon skiers went by I’d hop in for as long as I could to gain, if not a draft, at least some motivation.  I felt and skied better on lap 2 and before long tackled that final nasty little climb into the stadium and I was done.  Not a very inspiring race, but it was great skiing.  I watched Gray and Jody come in and then grabbed my warmups and camera and headed out onto the course to watch the rest of the gang on their 4th lap.  Andy came by still towing Ari and a few others.  Looks like Andy did all the work, but then Ari sprinted around him at the end.  Greg Harkay came up the hill having an excellent race, then Mark came by looking very relaxed and smooth and clearly having an excellent race with Drew right on his heels.  Mark managed to stay ahead at the finish.  A bit later Brett came up the hill and I told him Robert was right behind.  He had thought Robert was further back and so that motivated him to pick it up to the finish.  Robert was chasing but was unable to close the gap by the finish.  Steve Moreau was having a fabulous race in what I believe he said was his first marathon!  Nice!  Cici then came up the hill looking pretty strong.  And then I waited for Tom.  Where was he?  I waited some more but decided maybe I should ski back.  As soon as I got back Clinton was coming around the corner for his finish looking pretty good for a guy who got up early and drove from Boston to start his day!  And then more waiting.  Did Tom drop out?  No, finally, he came over the bridge and around the corner into the stadium, totally wasted.  Tom had visited Bonk City and dragged himself over the line, barely. 

Inside several CSUers scored prizes for placing in their respective age groups and several scored a Swix hat for being endurance warriers, having completed at least 4 marathons in the NENSA marathon series.  And like that, the season was essentially done.  We piled back into Tom’s car as the sun popped out for a while, feeling very spring-like, and headed for Boston.  Andy graded papers, Mark drove, Robert lobbed one-liners from the back of the bus until he fell asleep from a days hard efforts, I resumed trying to download results of the EHS relays and reading out the awesome CSU results and Tom and Mark bantered in the front.  For a couple of us it had been one race too many.  For others an excellent day.  For all it was one of the best days of skiing of the year in a year with a lot of good ski conditions.

Long day.....

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Weston Pursuit 2

It was fun watching the pursuit on Tuesday evening.  First of all, it wasn't cold.  Second, it was sunset.  Photos (more at http://jamiedoucett.smugmug.com/Ski-Photos/Weston-Pursuit/

Monday, March 23, 2015

Birkie fever 2015

Terry told the pre-race story with such humor and eloquence, that I will just add a little bit of my own personal Birkie race experience.

  This year had to be a building year for me. I kept telling myself that. After a year plus of two arthroscopic medial knee meniscectomies and rehab (really quite minor but surgeries nonetheless), I needed to begin training slowly and cautiously and TRY to be patient.  I also set for myself very modest race goals: #1) ski steady and even effort the entire way and then if feeling good #2) a strong finish including hammering up the new 10%+ grade hill/mountain bridge in the last 500m of the race and # 3) don't step on anyone's skis or poles this year!!! (Not so easy when you are skiing with 400 similarly paced skiers)

  So, I went into the race with less than the usual longest training ski at just over 2 hours, and only two Tuesday night lung burners under my belt.  Still, I felt really good and had dreams of a strong ski the entire way(my fortunate experience for the last few Birkies). I started in my usual position, right hand side about 4 rows back. I lost a place with the super competitive run up #1 ( this year they enforced the no skis on rule) and then tied with a guy in SC run up #2. Let the racing begin! We were sharing a track at the moment, but we worked it out through a heartfelt discussion. First, he asked me if I was a strong double poler. Based upon my big Weston Vasaloppet experience this year, I told him I actually was pretty good. Then, he told me in all honesty he ALMOST made wave 1 last year if it wasn't for a fall late in the race....blah, blah, blah. In the meantime, someone poked my shoulder and pointed out that I was now getting yelled at by an official Birke start line dude because I wasn't in my own track.  All this occurred in about 40 seconds! And the race was starting in just 20 seconds. Geez..we were solving this little dilemma on our own. Of course, I believed his story and relinquished my uni track for him and snuck in behind, wishing him luck and vowing to note his number and where he ended up finishing. I WAS hoping he reached his wave 1 goal this year after all that. Of course, my memory failed me after about 25K of looking at 4 digit wave 2 numbers and I will never know the outcome. At least it provided some distraction. Another distraction was the hot pink tights dude who lined up in the first row! nice outfit, was he really serious. I kept a lookout for him but didn't see him again until I spied him pulled over at about 35K!

  Nothing much to report early on except for slow Ks through power line hills due to the soft snow conditions, but I was keeping up with the skiers around me so I wasn't too concerned. I noted to self that I appreciated the brief slowdowns and single sticking that one had to do on the steep little hills due to traffic. Hmm, normally I am biting at the bit to push through the skiers. But it was early and I was still warming up, right?

  Again, not much to report until OO at about 24K. My brother in law, Leif was skiing the 54K Classic Birkie and we had calculated the possibility that I might see him at OO where the trails merge for a bit.  This thought perked me up, so I kept a lookout for tall, classic skiing men with wave 2 bibs and wearing red vests, as we paralleled the classic trail. Not too many of those out there!! The skiers around me must have thought I was certifiably nuts because suddenly I started yelling LEIF!!LEIF!!! LEIF!!! because I thought  I had spied him. People looked at me strangely and gave me a wide berth, there were no LEAVES on the trail?!! Later on we looked at splits and I must have seen a Leif look alike, we were not even close to intersecting at that point!!

  All my energy must have been used up with that incident because right after, I started seeing spots on the trail and I couldn't read my watch when I checked my 25K spilt.  Was I bonking? Were my aging eyes suddenly failing me? Did I even take energy drink at the OO aid station? I couldn't remember. Fortunately, there are several downhills until the next aid station so I coasted along and made sure I didn't wipe anybody out.  At the next station, I really stopped and almost got rear ended by another skier, and drank two full cups of energy drink. In retrospect, I should have taken the GU offered but I don't really like that stuff. The drink kicked in, but I decided not to push starting at 35K as was my usual plan. B hill was coming up and the mountain bridge still lurked near the finish.  At the 39K hill, in my opinion more difficult than B hill, I noticed a woman offering what looked like a very large box of Whitmans chocolates. I could recognize that golden box anywhere! My lucky day, I needed the sugar and slight caffeine it would provide. I bolted over there, nearly jeopardizing goal #3 and almost stepping on a fellow racer's poles to find out it was shots of "some kind of strong liqueur" woah, that would have been fun. Instead I took the small chunk of energy bar offered to me by the next spectator. I couldn't even get that down and spit it out on the trail, lovely!!

  On I went, holding my own but not powering up the hills as was my norm at this stage in the race. I lost sight of the small, quick tempo woman skier(yes, maybe even faster than my tempo!)  She scampered up all the final hills pulling far ahead of me. Still, the lake awaited.  I came down onto the lake and passed a man dressed all in Orange. For some reason he had to share with me that he was " taking it easy because he might have broken his wrist" I wasn't sure what to say except the PT in me answered, "you might want to have that looked at and make sure you ice it". Still he tucked in behind me and drafted me for a K or so. Anyway, another woman came up on me and pulled ahead. I was able to keep her pace and so we skied into the slight headwind towards the finish. She slowed a bit so I took the pull until we came off the lake, hmm, I felt pretty good and maybe I could push strong to the finish with her and possibly sprint in?

  Then, she booked around me in the soft snow as we tried to navigate around two men skate skiers. The bridge lay ahead, looking ominous.  I was still just behind her at the bottom, but I barely made the summit(mind you this is not a long bridge) I might have even come close to swearing at the top of that thing. I wooshed down the other side in a skittery tuck and my finish was not pretty at all, arms flailing, forget any attempt at V anything and I was done. My lake partner girl had put 20 plus seconds on me in 500 m!!! I found her after and thanked her for help across the lake.  I must have looked bad because a Birkie medical dude asked if I was ok. I was limping from a nasty blood blister on my left arch and I was completely done but I did not bonk!!! (not quite)

  The long gimping solo walk to the school to change, trying to balance skis with that awkward white bag full of my warm clothes, was torture. I kept my eye out for Terry but didn't see him yet. Anyway, on to the changing zone. The funny part was when a man perhaps more spaced than I, tried to start changing in the ladies space!!! Didn't the post-race nursing mother give you a clue!!

  I found Terry and we shared our positive race experiences and he downed a beer or 2. He had a great race this year!  Best finish in a few years and Birkie number 20!!I had no idea where I would place this year as my finishing strength had waned a bit. Goal #2 of a strong finish up the bridge didn't quite work out.  I knew I reached my 3rd goal, barely, and didn't step on anyone's poles or skis. We picked up our results receipt and I was happy with what I saw.  Same age group place as two years ago(12th) and still in the top 100 for women(94th). Two items to change before next year's race: train more and learn to like GU!

  We watched for my sister and my brother in law. We missed Leif's best classic finish ever but then spotted our family, Carson, Lucy, Kyler, nephew Lars and Grandma and Grandpa Keeney, my parents. Carson and Lucy had terrific races, both placing and skiing faster than ever in the Prince Haakon 13K. (Distance confirmed to be longer due to new finish line.)

  Everyone was happy and we waited for Marcia, my sister, who also had a terrific race. And she LOVED the bridge and it's awesome finish line view (which I didn't even notice) Ironically, the Minnesotans were at a distinct disadvantage this year as they had to train on manmade conditions in little loops all season. Welcome to our usual world!

  Lots of food and stories back at the cabin. We played board games and drank post-race beverages of all kinds. I always reflect on the race and then cannot wait until next year. It keeps drawing me back, our fun visit back home to see the family, the Birkie trail, the town of Hayward, WI, the cheese curds! It is truly a special place and event. Thank you to our families for another great visit and for making it happen. To sum it up, my sister gave me a sweatshirt this year that I love with this written on it:


Birkie 2016, here we come!

Sue McNatt

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Terry's Balmy Post-Snowmageddon Birkie 2015

The trip begins with the pre-trip planning and packing for a family of 5 heading to the sub-zero tundra land of cheeseheads to ski the Birkie 51K, Junior Birkie 3K and Prince Haakon 12K races.  The ski bag is the special challenge with 7 pairs of skis, 6 pairs of poles, 5 fleece for padding… everything but the partridge in a pear tree.  “And it all weighs just under 50 pounds!”  You can guess who get to schlep that jousting ram around the airport along with my overstuffed backpack and another 50lb bag.  We manage to get out of dodge on Friday before the President’s Day storm and land in balmy 24F Minneapolis.  The temperature of course drops immediately, and Saturday’s am ski with my brother in law Leif is -4F with a blasting wind, brrrr, and we were happy to return with all appendages frost free.  After the ski is a full on family baby shower for our Niece Maureen for the ladies and a trip to the Surly Brew Pub for the gents.  We round out the day with a leisurely 4 and half hour drive to my parent’s in Middleton Wisconsin with a healthy dose of Culvers fried cheese curds en route.  Are we tapering yet?
Sunday with my parents is an am run (-2F), followed by church, followed by brunch, followed by an evening at the Zor Shrine Circus in Madison.  Day 2 of the Birkie taper in the books with more fried cheese curds topped off with a cotton candy chaser.  Monday is actually relaxing with a single digit ski (8F) at a golf course in Middleton and time to hang out with my parents.  Sue and I even sneak out for dinner in the big city of Madison.   Tuesday the temp hits double digits (10F) on our am ski after which we go out to lunch for my Mom’s birthday.  Yes, more fried cheese curds, and we burn them off with some big ball bowling.  Wednesday  arrives before we know it, and it’s time to re-pack and head 5 hours North to Hayward Wisconsin, home of the Birkie and Muskie fishing capital of the world.  No where else will you find a 2 story Muskie  monument that you can climb up into and get a view out of open toothy mouth.
We had all settled in for the ride and were making excellent time when Kyler announced he needed a stop.  This is nothing surprising since he seems to have to pee every other exit ,until Carson remarks, he looks like he might throw up!  Now this adds a layer of urgency, and I immediately scan ahead for the next…, blaaarcck, comes from back seat where all 3 kids are.  Carson does a pro job of helping Kyler puke mostly in a plastic bag.  We get off in the highway, find a place to deposit our “goodie bag” and work on detailing our ride.  Thankfully, Kyler seems to have rallied after the yiff and grabs some snacks for the road.   We roll on undaunted until Spooner just minutes away from destination, when Kyler’s rally cap falls off.  I get to mop up the bright orange nacho cheese doritos and sprite regurgitated on the floor of the bathroom in the Spooner McDonalds.  Ah the joys of parenthood!  At long last we pull into our Birkie cabin du jour just South of Hayward, which is a lovely modern and roomy house on Sand Lake.  Sue’s parents and her sister Marcia are already here to greet us, another taper day in the books fer sure.
            Thursday starts off REALLY cold, -25F, and after much debate we decide to do a late morning ski (only -10F), before our traditional lunch at the Angry Minnow brew pub after which we head to the Birkie expo.  Kyler and I ski a preview of the Junior Birkie course in Hayward to round out the afternoon.  This was more entertaining than expected as we passed the stragglers in the Barkie Birkie dog ski race.  That evening Leif and cousin Lars arrive, and our merry group is complete.
            Friday breaks sub-zero again, and after another nippy (-8F) but short ski we head into Hayward for race number 1, Kyler’s Junior Birkie.  This isn’t your happy go lucky Barnebirkie crowd of 1,000 munchkins just looking to get to the finish line cookies and cocoa.  These kids are mini Bjorns, decked out in team lycra and ready to drop the hammer.  At the gun someone stamps on Kyler’s pole pulling it and his glove off.  He retrieves his gear and forges on to have a pretty decent race, passing more than a few kids.  And I thought Weston was a tough crowd.  The rest of the day is pretty much spent tag team waxing with Leif for the big day tomorrow.  The forecast is temps 10-15F with a chance of light snow and light winds, the balmiest Birkie in recent memory.  It’s no banana belt, but I’ll gladly take it.  We pig out, hang out and hit the pillows early dreaming of gliding effortlessly over hill after rolling hill on the Birkie trail, frictionless plane, as we used to say back in the day.
            My alarm beeps, and I start coffee and a bagel in the pre-race, pre-dawn darkness.  I shovel down a bagel with cream cheese, orange juice and oatmeal with maples syrup knowing 51 cold K’s will take all the calories I can stuff in.   The full Birkie crew, Leif, Marcia, Sue and I pile into the Subaru, click on the radio to the official Birkie station WJOB (Doubleyah Jay Ohh Bee) and point North to Hayward.  It’s always relaxing and homey to hear the nice, super-perky lady radio announcer on WJOB at five O whatever am in the dark morning.  “It’s gonna be a nice and toasty 10 above zeroh at the start taday with just a chance a sum snoh flurries when things are getting goin.”   Birkie Fever, the Birkie Rag and other hit singles get us to Hayward.  The next leg of the journey is the still pitch dark, bumpy, nausea inducing, claustrophobic bus ride to the start at Cable, some 45 minutes away.  Sue and I manage to get the rear wheel seat, which only adds to the butt jarring.   The fresh air, sunlight and booming announcements as we exit the bus are a welcome relief.  Sue and I stake out some space in a warming tent, knock down some GU chomps and gear up.  15 minutes to race time I enter staging corral number 1, 10 minutes to race time all 7-800 us run into staging corral number 2 and 5 minutes to race time the mad dash sprint into the start corral happens and we can finally put our skis on.   !0,9,8,…1 Go!  Finally the wait is over and it’s time to race!
            My plan was to TRY and ski smarter and relaxed at the start this year, so I lined up in about row 4 instead of the more pumped up rows 2 or 3.  It was snowing pretty good at the start, definitely more than flurries, so the skiing was pretty easy and not too fast.  We hit the first power line hills and I was pleasantly surprised at the sound, whoosh, whoosh, instead of the skreeeaak, skreeaak, fingernail on dashboard sound of skis on sub-zero Styrofoam snow.  I concentrated on my skiing and just holding my space instead of trying to race or pass anyone and hit the 10K mark in 40:28.  This was not fast, but the hills seemed pretty soft and the fresh snow wasn’t helping.  I crested fire tower hill, the top of the course at 13K or so feeling like I didn’t red-line, so hopefully I banked something for later.  On the very first faster downhill 2 guys go down in front of me in the soft snow, amateur hour already!  I manage to snake by both, the second guy sliding backwards and upside down, totally turtled.
            I hit my 20K split in 37:47, much faster thanks to the post-peak down hills, so far so good but a lot can happen in 30K.  My skis were as good or better than my company, and I started passing skiers who left it all on the first few climbs.  At snowmobile hill, (the last high speed downhill just before halfway where the sledders line up behind a cooler or two to watch us “forest fairies” crash on tired legs), one UW Badger suited kid spins around and I watch him fly off the corner backwards, bad idea, but it generates a huge cheer from the sled heads.  The conditions were virtually perfect, and I was glad to have something in the tank to enjoy the trail, passing OO road at roughly halfway and continuing to occasionally pick off a skier or two.  31K came so fast I missed my 30K split. (11K in 38:35).  Now I was feeling like all systems were go after slamming Powergel number 2.  I was so in the race zone, I hardly heard the “Hey Terry!” from off to my left, when Jamie Doucett gave me a shout out from the classic trail which had merged back with the skate trail.  (Jamie as you know from his story smoked the classic Birkie for an age group podium.)  I starting leaning on the gas and pushed over each roller at just under red-line, recovering on the backside.  41K (36:58) came quickly and I could smell the smoking bonfires of the partiers at the foot of pre-Bitch Hill hill.  I was offered a shot-ski (3, probably Yagermeister, shots mounted on a classic wooden ski), but I was in full on hunting mode and couldn’t be convinced.  Once over Bitch Hill, every skier I saw had a target on their back, and it was game on approaching the last few Ks on the lake.  I hit the lake with a full head of steam and tucked in behind a pair of skiers as we turned into the wind heading for home.  Then we all get passed by a barrel chested dude sporting a full beard and bare forearms (not kidding) going full bore.  I jump on for a ride and really need to bury it to stay on this guy, even in the draft.  We (he with me in tow) click past skier after skier across the lake, then thank goodness just squeeze by 2 Founders (slooowww) at the pinch exit off the lake onto the trucked in sugar snow.  We hit the last “hill” (bridge over Highway 66) passing one last group (including Brett Rutledge) with 500 meters to go.  Barrel beard bare arm dude powers ahead seeing the finish line, but I’m not too far back and thank him for the pull after the race (last 10K 32:50!).  He told me he was making up for time lost in a collision at the last aid station and it was ok especially since I was a Birchlegger (ie. Oldster who wouldn’t out sprint him).  That kind of hit me, I had just finished Birkie number 20 and actually earned the Birchleggings bib on my back (purple with a gold number), cool.
            I collected my 20 year pin, changed, located my kids and Lars with Sue’s parents, then Sue (top 100 women finish post-knee surgery!), then Leif, Leif’s brother and Marcia.  In line for a post-race beverage in the celebration tent just steps away from the finish, the guy ahead of me says “This’ll be the best tastin beer ya have all year!”.  Doncha kno he’s right on dah money!  We all rendezvous back at the cabin. After much refreshment, stories and poring over results, the early morning catches up and carries us off to sleep.  One more Birkie notch in the belt and in the books.
            The next morning is always bittersweet filled with packing, cleaning sketchy plans for next year and finally goodbyes.  As we land back in snowy Boston, the whole Birkie experience seems like some arctic dream, but this year’s solid finish did teach me some lessons. 

Pre-Birkie Don’ts:
-          Don’t do any sub-zero skis longer than 60 minutes.
-          Don’t worry about sleeping enough the night before the race, it never happens.
-          Don’t make any trips to the ER
-          Don’t have too many pitchers at the Angry Minnow
-          Don’t catch a taper erasing cold
-          Don’t bonk with 20K left to ski
-          Don’t hammer the first and most uphill 13K of the race
Pre-Birkie Do’s:
-          See as many family members as possible
-          Drive at least 500 miles
-          Eat fried cheese curds at will
-          Enjoy the skiing during the race, it only comes once a year

See yah next year!


McNatt Race Stats

25th      U12     Kyler McNatt   Needham, MA USA    17:56.9            3.5K Junior Birkie

Bib #
 City, State, County
33 M 0-99
 Needham, MA USA
12k Prince Haakon
11 F 0-99
 Needham, MA USA
12k Prince Haakon
12 F 45-49
 Needham, MA USA
51k Birkebeiner Skate
41 M 50-54
 Needham, MA USA
51k Birkebeiner Skate
(Compare this to 2014 - 3:43.1 - 686 Overall – 611 Men – ouch!)