Thursday, March 24, 2016

Birkebeiner 2016 – The Slush Puppy

As usual this Birkie trip starts off with the battle of packing 7 pairs of skis/poles/boots into 2 ski bags, hoping that everything comes in under the 50lb flight limit.  We fly to Minneapolis and start our vacation with an invigorating -7F run (me) and lake ski (Sue) exactly one week before the 2016 Slumberland American Birkebeiner 52K ski race.  We immediately pack up and hit the road in our beast-mode V8/leather/nav Tahoe rental heading 4 hours Southwest to Richland Center Wisconsin.  I must not be used to the cold temps, because we stopped at a Kwik-Stop for much needed coffee and I had a total brain freeze.  There were all these cappuccino/Frappuccino/slushy machines, and I wandered confused for way too long before finding the coffee.  Then I actually couldn’t find the cream machine and had to ask the nice counter lady for directions, next aisle over doh!

Our first stop is to see Sue’s sister Marcia and her husband Leif at their new house near   The new 130 acre farm they help their daughter Mo, husband Peter and NEW granddaughter Tilia.  The new parents and 10 month old arrive shortly, greeted by Leif’s homebrew and of course fresh cheese curds.  We all enjoy dinner and the Tilia show late into the evening and finally crash after a full day. 
The morning brings nicer temps and SNOW, which we haven’t enough of this winter.  We visit the farm, ski up to the “road” to Mo, Peter and Tilia’s (plus a couple dogs) very cozy cabin dodging the free range cows and enjoy some hot cocoa and another episode of the Tilia show.  The fresh snow over old crust makes for a sketchy ski back down the “road”, but some of us make it back sans wipeout.  We enjoy a relaxing ski with Leif and Marcia along the Kickapoo River  passing cool ice covered mini-bluffs, then it’s back to pack up beast-mode and continue our journey. 
The next stop is a slow snowy hour to Middleton to visit with my parents Myna and Dobbin, brother Steve and his daughter Sidney.  We unload at my parents condo and head out for Sunday dinner including, yes, superb fried cheese curds.  After another night of catching up we crash back at my parents admiring the new sparkling snow on the drive home.
Monday morning the promise of fresh snow gets us out to the local skiing at Pleasant View golf course.  Unlike Weston there is plenty of rolling terrain on this 10K course, and the skiing is dreamy on the new snow with temps in the 20’s.  In the afternoon we switch gears to big ball bowling.  Finally we get to sleep in the same place for more than one night.  We enjoy another sweet powder ski on Tuesday morning, followed by a visit to some friends in Madison, followed by another dinner out to celebrate Mom’s birthday.  Wednesday morning comes quickly and once again it’s time to fill up beast-mode and hit the road.  Today we’re going to our final destination, Stone Lake, just South of the Birkie zone,  Hayward Wisconsin home of the American Birkebeiner and Muskie capital of the world.

We find our cabin on the lake where Sue’s parents, Dennis and Betty are waiting and catch up over a few cold ones before taking the kids out on the lake for a sunset ski.  Marcia and Leif arrive later that evening adding to the party.  Thursday am we heed the Birkie HQ warning to avoid skiing on the course and use Birkie Ridge trails instead.  Another great ski today, plus we get to see the Alaskan  APU team including David Norris (2016 Birkie winner!) skiing on the trail, plus get passed by Brian Gregg like we were standing still.  We hit our favorite brewpub the Angry Minnow for lunch plus a pitcher or two of River Pig Ale and then get our bibs at the always hoppin Birkie expo.  Here the topic is the impending weather and what effect that will have on the trail.  The forecast calls for rain on Friday followed by a high in the 40’s on race day, yuck!  I probably did wish for a warmer Birkie this year, but this may be a mess.  The rest of the gang, Lars, Anika, Mo and the baby arrive later Thursday, and we get episode 3 of the Tilia show relaxing around the fireplace.  

Friday Kyler gets to kick off the racing with the 3K Junior Birkie, which starts in the shadow of the 3 story Muskie replica near the fishing museum, crosses the lake and finishes on Main St in downtown Hayward.  This is a lot more serious than the 1,000 munchkin mass start Barnebirkie free for all.  The top kids in the cxc northern lights race series have gold starts on their bib and get to line up in the front row.  Kyler says “Give me a break, that’s so lame.”, and lines up behind the goldies decked out like mini-Northugs.  The horn sounds and 50+ middle schoolers zoom off across the lake, Kyler  dodges one of the inevitable crashes and gets off cleanly, whew!  (last year someone stomped on his pole and it pulled clean off)  I watch the racers string out across the lake skiing furiously for Hayward then head over to meet everyone at the finish line.  Kyler is happy with his skis and race, and we celebrate with excellent coffee and baked goods at the Backroads coffee shop.  Sue, Lucy and I enjoy a light pre-Birkie ski on the golf course, which is becoming quite soft with the warm (38F) temps and occasional drizzle, not a good harbinger for race day. 

(Summertime photo of the BIG musky statue at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame near Kyler’s start on the lake)

After lunch back at the cabin the inevitable wax-fest of my skis plus, Sue’s, Lucy’s and Carson’s, begins.  The splattering rain outside adds an ominous tone to the basement/wax room.  (For the wax nerds in the crowd, I used Toko HF Black, then Toko HF Red/Yellow mix, then Toko Yellow, 2x course, 2x medium structure w/Toko structurite tool, then Swix pure flour FC10 ironed in, for kick green spray on klister binder under red klister.)  Whew!  Getting ready for a running marathon is never this much work.  As we’re nearing the waxing finish line Leif remarks, “Wow this is the most relaxing pre-Birkie prep ever!”  Soon after that as the wet winds sings outside, bzzuuuaa… and the basement goes dark. Everyone upstairs assumes Leif and I have blown a fuse with all the waxing power tools, except that we had nothing plugged in and were just scraping / brushing.  With only an hour left of daylight we scramble to finish our skis before night falls contemplating a cold leftovers pre-Birkie dinner.  bruuammm… all the worrying is for naught as the power kicks in just in time to fire up the heat gun on Carson’s red klister.  We finish out the evening with some friendly games of Hearts, multiple servings of hot pasta and lastly the meticulous packing of the morning race bag.

The usual fitful sleep comes and goes in a blink as the 4:30 alarm goes off in the pitch dark.  Sue, Leif, Marcia and I stuff bagels, oatmeal and coffee down before the sun creeps up and we pile into car 1 heading for the early buses at Donnelly field Hayward.  Car 2 will be Lars, Carson and Lucy heading up to the larger Como lot near Cable, Car 3 will be Mo Anika and Tilia going to spectate at the halfway point, OO, and final car 4 with Dennis, Betty and Kyler will be at the finish line to greet us.  Operation Birkie Fever 2016 is underway.  The nice WJOB Birkie radio lady (doubleya jahy ohhh bee) spin us some wake up music on the way to Hayward.  “Good thing we got a lotta snoh on dah trail, since we’re gonna be warmin waay up taday doncha knoh.”  We make good time, cram on a school bus to Cable and make the slippery/slushy walk down to start line tents with along with 10,000+ other skiers.  You would think that 35F would feel warm, but with slush puddles everywhere the damp breeze still packs a chill if not the usual  bite.  After some last minute fueling and a few pre-race pictures we gear up and get down to business. 

I load into holding pen 1 a bit late and have to use my track legs to surge up a few rows as we all (~700) skiers make the mad cap 50m dash through shin high churned up snow to holding pen 2.  The mushy snow makes this real work, and I feel my feet get sucked down a couple potholes, but I stay upright.  One final dash into the actual start pen and we all can finally put the skis on and line up.  The snow is soft and slick at the same time, plus if you really lean on the poles they sometimes punch in deep, so this could be a tricky start.  Finally, finally the countdown to go! And we’re off heading South to the finish line on Main St in Hayward.
As usual there are a few skiers spinning out and augering into the soft wet snow while the field slowly thins out, but not as bad as expected.  I remember counting only 3 or 4 face plants and maybe 10 or so snapped pole basket/shafts.  The power line hills come and go without the usual squeaky styrofoam snow sounds.  The track feels firmer and faster now that we’re in the woods, so this doesn’t look to be a slog day despite the warm temps.  I’m settled in the field skiing 3 abreast as usual at around 8K into the race and I hear someone yell “Comin Through!”  Huh, coming through where?  Bam! Pow! Crash!  Holy bat crap brained skier Batman!  I get slammed in the right shoulder and I’m sure the skier to the right of me got it as well since we’re skiing elbow to elbow.  I’m flailing with my right arm to stay up and/or bring down the bozo trying to win the Birkie from wave 1.  “Uff Da!”  (or something like that) I yell tumbling and rolling desperately trying not break anything.  I see one pole flex precipitously, but thankfully it springs back unharmed.  I manage to un-turtle myself, lift my snow-packed shades to see and vent at bat-brain in the snow to my right, “Uff Da, coming through, Uff Da!”.  The venting seemed to help throttle my adrenaline fueled heart-rate spike, and I jump back into the long line of skiers.  I journey on rattled, but thankful my body and equipment come out un-damaged.

The 10K post comes along at around 35min and before long I’m on the long straight climb to the top of the Birkie trail at Fire Tower Hill.  My skis are running just fine over the top and before long 20K clicks by in just under another 35min.  The rolling climbs back to halfway at OO are not easy, but I grab GU 1 and push on.  Going through OO I’m surprised to actually see Mo, Anika and Tilia in the crowd!  I must not be too over-cooked, yet.  The middle 10K is around 34min and my fastest so far, but I’m working to stay with people on every uphill.  I take GU 2 looking to stave off the bonk and start to feel like I’m red-lining every incline, pushing way too hard and starting to lose ground on skiers.  I hit 40K with a slightly slower over 35min split, but I’m spending energy with abandon and Bitch Hill awaits.  I flail up Bitch Hill, not losing too much ground, but feeling more ragged with every stroke.  Then it’s on to the new hill near the trout hatchery after mosquito brook.  I’m naming it Fishhead Hill, because it’s ugly and stinks, at least for me right now.  The legs are going tin-man on me with no push left, ragged or not.  The last 10K are dragging as the snow is getting softer and dirtier, plus now a light mist is falling, blech!  I drag myself up Duffy Hill, the last climb of note and finally drop down to the lake and the final few miles. 

My legs are toast, but how hard can a flat lake be right?  Ugh, grinding out to the lake I get passed by a small group with some dressed up hooligans, first a hot dog then a cow.  The cow even grabs a Jager shot after hitting the lake and still drops me, double ugh!  The mist feels  heavier now as I thankfully hold off any more cartoon characters and push across the slush puddled lake into the damp headwind.  I even look forward to the last “hill”, the steep wooden bridge over the highway, up, over and down to the always welcome main street finish line.  My V2 returns for the last 50 meters, and I cross the finish line with an empty tank.  The last 10K ended up an ugly 46+min, but the end of the Birkie is always a sweet feeling regardless of how you get there. 
(yes, the cow and the hot dog guys beat me, argh)

Kyler, Betty and Dennis meet me at the finish line, and it’s great to see some friendly faces.  I change up and the OO gang of Mo, Anika and Tilia arrive while we’re waiting for Sue, Leif and Marcia to finish from waves 2 and 4.  I enjoy a Surly tall boy as they stream up Main street one by one into Hayward looking tired, but happy to make it in in one piece.  Finally, Lars, Carson and Lucy navigate the busing route and arrive from Cable.  We snap a few group photos before heading back to our cozy cabin.  The celebration at the cabin includes race stories, snacks, more Surlys, results checking, more food, and the final episode of the Tilia show.  The post-race buzz turns drowsy as the hours fly by. The early wakeup call plus 52 kilometers of skiing catch up, and we pack it in toasting another successful Birkie race day. 


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Photos from Jr Nationals

Ann Kitch sent along a few nice photos from Jr Nationals out in Cable, WI.  Looks like they barely held on to enough snow.  Given the lack of snow they did not hold the relay and instead held a hill climb race in teams of 3.

James cranking up the hill

Francesca, James and Rob

Will and team pressing hard

The hill climb!

New England wins the Alaska Cup

Getting in some skiing on the Birkie Trail

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Gatineau Ski Marathon, or We Found Winter At Last!

The last 3 years I’ve headed out to the Birkie, which has been a lot of fun and I think I’d finally dialed in all the logistics and had had a couple good races.  Having gotten that figured out I decided to forego the Birkie for a new challenge, the Gatineau marathon at Gatineau Parc in Gatineau, Quebec.  As an added bonus, the World Cup was coming to Canada for the Ski Tour of Canada and so I could stay for the sprints.  Awesome!  With the snow disappearing rapidly in New England, it wasn’t hard to convince Rob to join me in between Feb. vacation ski camp and JNs and so he signed up for the 27 km skate race. 

At the time it seemed like a good idea to stop at Craftsbury for a ski on the drive, but we arrived after driving through some pretty warm and torrential rains to find sheets of ice with standing water, so went to Plan B and did a little speedhike down Lost Nation Road instead.  The next morning a fresh coating of snow made everything look a bit more like winter and after a good Craftsbury breakfast we made the longish drive to Gatineau Parc to find…..wait for it…..mounds of snow!  White, cold, sparkling snow with no grass, no rocks, no dirt, no gravel!!!!  It was like heaven!  After getting some advice at the Parc visitors center we got in a nice ski and some wax testing on the hardest part of the classic marathon course in brilliant sunshine.  The trip was already worth it.  The only dilemma was whether to go with straight hard wax or klister covered given that a bit of rain had fallen the day before and left behind a light glaze.  So, I waxed up two pair of skis in the warm and dry parking garage that evening just before bed and then stewed about it all night during sleepless bouts.

Given that I was doing the point-to-point 51 km classic race on Sat. and Rob was doing the half marathon skate race on Sunday he helped me get my skis finally prepped and tested.  The overnight grooming was good and I felt that straight hard wax would do just fine, hopped on the bus to the start while Rob went for a ski and lunch.  At the start there was little but the start area, a nice warmup track and some fluids and porta-johns.  It was pretty chilly, but no wind.  I got in a good warmup, dumped my bag on the truck and lined up on the start.  Steve Wright from NWVE was right behind me, Joanne Hanowski off to one side, Damian Bolduc (NWVE) was in Wave 2, and a few other familiar faces in Wave 1 of 4.  At the gun we took off and wrapped around the field a couple times to spread things out and then narrowed to 2 tracks into the woods.  I have to say that the snow was perfect, the grooming was excellent, the weather just fine (Toko Red covered by Toko Blue was great) and the course a delight for the first rolling 27 km.  In that stretch there was 10 m of herringbone and everything else strideable and really nice skiing on rolling hills on park roads with lakes, sun and white, white, clean snow.  Delightful!!!!  I was dangling off the back of a good group of about 6, realizing that I was going to have to pace myself carefully as I didn’t have a lot of pop.  At about 27 km we turned off onto Trail 36, a narrower double tracked trail and this is where the real work would happen for the next 8 km where we climbed several long herringbone hills with some pretty tricky but fun decents past some more lakes.  At 30 km we came down the last tricky downhill to P11 parking lot where Rob and Jim Fredricks were waiting to cheer us on.  Up ahead Joanne Hanowski was having a great race, having passed me about 11 km in and Damian Bolduc had also passed me early starting from Wave 2, also having an excellent race.  I had a good group of masters skiers to chase all through the hills but I just wasn’t closing the distance much and now was getting really tired.  After 30 km we climbed up a tough little section with off-camber herringbone sections until we got back up on park roads.  Now it clouded over and the wind came up and I struggled to keep it moving effectively into the wind.  Now we faced long, gradual uphills, very strideable, but I was shuffling a lot of it.  It helped at one point when I was able to tuck into the draft of a young woman for a couple km and recover a bit, but eventually she dusted me as we headed onto Trail 1 for the last tough climbs of the race to the height of the course at 35 km.  Just for perspective, the Gatineau has 3500 feet of elevation, compared to 2800 for Craftsbury, just to give you a comparison.  A lot of it is nice rolling hills, but this middle stretch took the starch our of me and I was very happy to turn back onto the wide park roads and start heading downhill for a change, allowing some recovery.  I started chasing a group in front in earnest as we hit the longest downhill in the race, about 1 km long or more.  In an endless tuck at about 23 mph my back was seizing up and I stood up in the squirrelly tracks and decided it was better to tuck as much as possible.  I was not comfortable!  Now the wind was tough in places and I was really starting to fade…..but the ks started to click by reasonably quickly…..48 km, 49 km, and finally 50 km at the end of the last long downhill where I passed one last skier.  Only a km to go!!! Uffffff, my elation blew away with the wind, now in my face when I realized on the flats that I had nothing left.  Ok, I can get through one lousy km and I noodled along with limp arms waiting to turn off the road on the final trail to the school…… except that it seemed to go on and on and on.  Past the race photographers (why don’t they take race photos somewhere besides the end of the race!  They are terrible!) and finally we turned off at about 51 km.  Almost there…up a hill and around a corner and……a 1000 m to go sign!  Wait, what???  A total fake-out and now for real the last km.  No one to chase, no one passing me I settled in and finally limped in to the finish line happy to just stand still for a few moments.  Not a bad race, but not a great one either.  However, it was a great course with great snow and grooming, so nice to bang out 51 km in such nice conditions on a point to point course through the beautiful Gatineau Parc. 

I conked out as soon as I hit my bed for a well-deserved nap.

The next morning it was Rob’s turn to race, but things could be a bit more relaxed because no bus ride was required.  The skate race took off with snow falling fairly heavily, which made for slower skiing than many wanted.  I skied out on the course and  found a good spot for photos and got well chilled watching Rob, Robert, Dave, Jim Fredricks and some other New England compatriots (Damian was doing a double, having signed up for the 27 km skate) ski by a couple times before they headed out on some serious climbs up a narrow trail that was quite difficult.  I skied around and then positioned myself to catch Rob in the last km as he skied in, quite tired and happy that he had not signed up for the longer race.  Damian looked fresh as a daisy in his second race and Robert had the best race of the season and was very happy with his result.

The next couple days we got in some delightful, sunny, powder skis on some of the really nice Gatineau trails.  This really is a very nice place to ski and we only skied a fraction of what is available, and all within a short drive of downtown Ottawa.  One afternoon we got a very nice tour of Parliament that was just Rob and I and a very knowledgeable tour guide and so we got to pepper her with questions.  The next afternoon after our 2 hr morning ski we took in the National Gallery and then the official opening of the Tour of Canada World Cup.  Tuesday we skied early and then headed to the sprint venue dressed very warmly a bit too late to watch the qualifying races, but in plenty of time to snag an excellent viewing spot for the heats!  It was great fun watching the US contingent of Sophie, Andy, Jessie, Simi, Ida and Sadie ski the heats with Simi and Jessie thrilling us all with their historic double podium.  The next day we started the drive home, stopping off in Montreal long enough to watch the women’s classic distance race in Mont Royale Parc on a twisty, turny course laid out just for the Tour in fresh snow that appeared to cause waxing problems for many.  Lots of herringbone going on, something you don’t see a lot on some of the world cup courses.  Theresa Johaug destroyed the field as the cold wind swirled around blowing snow everywhere.  It was great to see so many Americans racing in the field and for some like Katherine Ogden, getting their first World Cup experience right after some good performances at Jr. Worlds.  Then, sadly, it was time for the rest of the long drive home through an almost snowless, brown Vermont landscape….very strange after a week of perfect skiing conditions. 


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tuesday Night Worlds Finals

Sadly this year, we were reduced to one dirty fairway of snow, but it was snow nonetheless and so the costume ski and banquet dinner was held.  Why only last year we were still skiing on a 2 km loop!  Last night the snow was melting beneath our collective skis as we did 3 lap sprints in a somewhat disorganized but fun fashion.  The costumes were to be of your favorite??? politician.  Ghandi almost made me forget the infamous and searingly etched-in-my-brain-forever Russian weightlifter of several years back.  It was fortunate for Mohatma that it was a warm evening!  After the sprints we retired inside for a good dinner and awards for all the winners, age group winners, most improved and costume winners and had to put up with several stump speeches from the politicians.  The younger Bernie speech was quite excellent, something about all the high flouros going to the 1% and the need for more equitable distribution of such flouro wealth.  Sarah Palin, as always, was a crowd pleaser and of course had the best Minnesotan accent, coming by it naturally.  

A fun night with skiing friends as we ring out the frustrating winter of 2015-2016.  May the weather be better next year!  

John Adams taking it all in and wondering just how his constitution has been so misinterpreted

You can't see it, but W. on the left has a monkey on his back

Dave Currie being forced to listen to The Donald drone on

Our faithful timer!!!

It took 3 MCs to fill in for the absent Andy Milne

Ghandi feeling the Bern....

Robert, happy to collect his prize and not have to vote in the USA

The young Bern and John Adams having to listen to the cranky, gray Bern hold forth

What a trio!  Ghandi shaking his head at Sarah Palin and The Donald

Ghandi being thoughtful

Sarah Palin whining about stuff.  I think she agreed that Global Warming is a problem....

Who knew that Ghandi skied!

Alex laughing at the absurdity of it all

The Bern just can't shut up!

Race face

Another Russian pondering the craziness of American Politics

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Ski Tour Canada Day 2

Rob and I stopped by Montreal on our way home from Ottawa so we could watch the women's mass start classic race.  With the fresh snow overnight and the cold and howling wind, this might be one of the few world cup races held this year on actual, real snow!  The course was in Mont Royal park adjacent to McGill University.  Theresa Johaug went to the front quickly and then pretty much crushed the field.  Lots of fun to see so many Americans in the race.  Clearly it was tricky kick as many of the women struggled with slipping skis.  With the tight course everyone was running back and forth as the women looped around us.  Lots of ski friends in the crowd with Craftsbury Green, Ford Sayre, CSU, Mt. Mansfield and a host of others.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The dwindling snow patch

Our snow patch is getting pretty thin, but there's just enough snow to keep playing. The tune of the night was 3-lap intervals, done as a sprint race simulation. I wanted heats of 6, but there's a bottleneck at the top of the hill that's just about one skier wide, so we pared the heats down to 3. That didn't make life any easier for my crack timing team of Sarah, Lucian, and Alex, but they did admirably given the conditions (wind, darkness, and skiers speeding past). 

[Approximate] results after the photos

Kevin, too fast for my iphone

Connor, taking the smart line into the corner

Flying ponytails!

Violet, Kate, and Flora about to start under the watchful eye of Sara, Lucian, Alex and Pat.

Devon, Dwight, and Henry

Spirits were higher than our snowpack.

Chantal, Emily, and Leah starting out

Nice starting position, ladies!

Talia and Laura rounding the corner

About to start

Times are somewhat approximate, and in some case missing. Don't read too much into this... but nice work, all!

Name interval 1 2 3 4 Total time
Sam 434 436 440 447 18.6
Connor 445 455 515 508 20.1
Oliver 413 405 405 411 16.6
Tyler 431 434 454 437 18.6
Gabby 0 0 453 448 9.7
Hannah 502 500 459 450 19.9
Mad 502 459 458 450 19.8
Laura 454 458 457 452 19.7
Talia 453 455 451 448 19.5
Kevin 503 513 511 514 20.7
Adam 502 540 500 458 20.7
Alex 523 542 522 528 21.9
Brady 434 450 436 440 18.7
Devin 505 0 504 506 15.3
Henry 519 0 511 501 15.5
Dwight 507 0 505 515 15.5
Chantal 539 543 540 531 22.6
Emily 546 548 547 532 22.9
Leah 550 555 550 547 23.4
Violet 521 528 527 526 21.7
Kate 605 520 511 505 21.7
Flora 628 630 0 618 19.3