After a bust Birkie 2017 cancellation, this year was looking good with decent snow and arctic temps in Northern Wisconsin for most of the winter. The journey to Cheeseland begins Friday just over a week before Birkie race day. With Carson and Lucy in college now, the ski bag was relatively lightly packed with 5 pairs of skis and poles and Kyler’s boots plus ample fleece padding, no sweat. The 3 hour flight to Minneapolis was smooth as was our 4 hour drive to stop number one at Sue’s sister Marcia and husband Leif’s house in Richland Center, including of course a quick stop for fresh cheese curds.
Sunday morning is another crust ski around the local fairways followed by a stack of fresh pancakes. Then it’s time to pack up and head over to my parents in Middleton, which is a quick hour plus hop away. We re-stock on cheese curds and arrive just in time to go out for a nice Mexican dinner celebrating my Mom’s birthday, followed by more Olympic viewing. Monday the temps are now warming above freezing and we ski on the remains of the local man-made loop in Madison. The tiny loops on transformed snow make us feel right at home. We visit Sue’s parents at the new home they are moving into and also stop in to see our friends the Barfords who now live in Madison. Add in the obligatory Olympic viewing for a full day. Tuesday we hit the lanes for some regular big ball bowling, not the odd New England candlepin nonsense. I will brag a bit that I rolled a 195 on our second game including a competition crushing 5 strikes in a row. Unfortunately from a cross training perspective, bowling doesn’t exactly translate to 50K’s of xc skiing. Maybe the IOC will add the Bowlathlon, big balls transitioning to skinny skis, to the next Winter Olympics. Wednesday arrives quickly and it’s time to pack up and head North to stop number three on our Midwest tour.
A scenic 5 hour drive to the North including another cheese curd re-fueling, and we arrive at the “Fox Den” house on Teal Lake in Hayward Wisconsin. The snowpack rises as we travel, a comforting sight compared to last year’s brown dearth of snow. Sue’s parents are already settled in and we enjoy one chill evening before Birkie fever rises. Thursday am Sue and I finally put our skis onto Birkie trail snow, the temperature just rising out of the single digits. We are nearly alone on the snowy highway of a trail, and it’s hard to image it full of skiers stacked 3 by 3 as far as you can see. We meet Sue’s parents at the Angry Minnow Brew Pub where Birkie fever runs hot. Nordic styles from around the country are on display and the taps flow as steady as the stories. Next stop is the Birkie Expo to get our numbers and check out the expo, which is a complete logjam. After waiting in the traffic to park and waiting in line to get our numbers we finally escape with our schwag and just enough time to grab coffee, transfer Kyler to Sue’s parents and turn the car back South to pick up Carson in Eau Claire. Another 4 hour drive complete, we arrive with Carson back at the Fox Den where Leif, daughter Maureen and her daughter TIlia have also settled in. Next to arrive is Lars, then Marcia, Anika and her baby Layla. The Fox Den is full up and it’s time to wax up Kyler and Carson for the Korte 29K tomorrow morning. A few Sam’s and a few layers of Swix VR40/VR45 later our day is complete, whew.
We are greeted by around 5 inches of fresh snow Friday morning, so some quick shoveling work is needed to send Sue on her way with our Korte skiers Marcia, Carson and Kyler. Leif and I continue the shoveling, push out one stuck car, shovel more, push the same car out once more and finally get some breakfast. I guess this will be my Birkie pre-race tune up with a full day lined up. Sue arrives back at Fox Den and we book back out to the Korte course to catch Kyler at around 19K at Mosquito Brook. We park, jog to the course, cheer from the snowy sideline along with many other cowbell wielding spectators as Kyler skis by. Then it’s a dash back to the car drive to the finish line parking and jog to the finish stuffing in a lunch sandwich en route. The finish is in full celebration mode with people and cowbells everywhere. Kyler slows in the last K’s, but finishes with a flourish followed by Carson and Marcia who started in later waves. We all pack up and return to the Fox Den where the pre-Birkie wax marathon. (Layers of Toko LF Moly, HF Red, HF Blue/Red mixed and pure flour ironed in) I wrap up the waxing just in time to watch the sun slowly setting over Teal Lake followed by pasta, pre-race packing and finally bed.
Race morning arrives pre-dawn after a fitful night for all with munchkin noises and pre-race restlessness. The only thing I loathe more than crowds are too early mornings, which the Birkie always brings along with my third peeve, uncomfortable bus rides. Some among us are perky morning people, not me, but the greatest sho on sno awaits us. Leif, Sue and I drive out with the temp hovering around 0F and ghostly bands of hoar frost fog floating in the valleys. The way too chipper doubya oh jay be (WOJB 88.9 FM) morning gal greets us with “plenty a sno and just the best day fer thohs Birkie skiers!”. We park in the shuttle bus lot, bundle into the nearest school bus and emerge in Cable at the start line of the Birkie. We check out the “warming” tent and building for any space, but the masses are descending wave by bus wave. We manage to find some hot chocolate, a slot near a table to lean on and down our final energy foods. After a quick picture, race time is fast approaching and we part ways. I strip down to race gear really hoping that the temp rises out of the single digits and throw my race bag into the wave 1 truck. I’m behind schedule and race over to my wave 1 corral 3 late, jog directly into corral 2, join the mad sprint into the final start corral and somehow get myself into the 4-6th row of around 700 rabid skiers. I think my experience in Boston traffic helped here. The announcer counts down 10,9,8… and FINALLY it’s
time to ski!
Immediately after double poling out of our single tracked lanes and out onto the course, people start trying to skate with no space and the gumby piles begin. I get stuck navigating around one that’s too close for comfort, but I can see at least 2 other mini globs of tangled skiers a safe enough distance away. Trying to win the Birkie in the first K of 50 from wave 1 is just not an Einstein move. Gradually we climb the rolling powerline hills and the skis feel good, not cheater rocket skis like our local Toko rep, but Lake Wobegon skis, as in above average. The trail narrows as we glide deeper into the woods, and I fall in line with the flow of skiers snaking South to Hayward. We top out after 13K on fire tower hill, the highest point on the trail, if only it were a smooth gradual slope to the finish.
After a couple short roller downhills, we hit snowmobiler curve, a fast fall away left hander lined by the locals on their machines to witness the carnage. The new snow has been “groomed” into inside and outside lanes. I start with the inside, but carry too much speed and switch outside which throws my skis around a bit and leads to a bit of flailing. The sled heads start whooping with excitement, but groan when I manage to pull it all back together. No worries, 5 seconds after I navigate the corner a huge cheer goes up behind me as another one bites the dust or powder in this case. The course constantly undulates up and down until the big aid station at highway OO, which hits at 28K or so. I’m feeling the effort of the opening hills and slam my first gel hoping I didn’t wait too long.
The K’s after OO are truly mostly downhill without all the rolling and body willing it is a great time to roll out some faster splits. Luckily the gel hits the spot along with the remnants of my Gatorade, and I have some energy. I can feel my toes and fingers, I have plenty of space on the trail, there is fuel in the tank and the sun is shining on the sparkling new snow. Wow, my new happy place, but the bliss is short lived with 14K to go or so when the final set of hills hits. I get another gel down the hatch before hitting the late climbs.
Hill #1 dubbed pre-bitch hill is also the home of the next sled head gathering. The music is blaring, the sled heads are partying hard and I’m offered a beer, a turn at the shot ski and even a bite of a sandwich. I opt to abstain, so I can get over the next 3 hills without yakking. Hill #2 is bitch hill, which used to be staffed by large Wisconsin men in drag (scary!), but now has a preacher and nuns handing out the obligatory bhill beads and pins. As he forgives us for our swearing he asks for an amen, “AMEN” and hallelujah “HALLELUJAH” I chime in. Anything to get the heck over this beepin steep incline. I approach the 3rd hill, son of a bitch, and actually feel like I can push it, not. I put the “hammer” down for about one third of the hill and the tank is suddenly empty. The last cheese curd flames out in the engine, and I have to quickly switch to auxiliary power. Luckily, the last hill, Duffy hill, is the baby of the 4, and I hold my own knowing that the finish is less than 5K away.
Coming down Duffy hill onto Hayward Lake is a Birkie homecoming with only 3K to go. I work hard to stay with my small group, but the quads are now spent and pre-crampy. Pushing hard feels like a giant 9 volt battery is bumping on my legs, so again I bring it down a notch with the finish almost in sight. I manage to scale the last Birkie bridge mini-hill over the highway and V2 (not pretty) to the finish of Birkie number 22, whew! Even though I didn’t suffer the bonk this year, the tank was empty.
After the race I change up, meet the crew including Kyler and Sue’s parents and cheer Sue and Leif to the finish line. Sue had a decidedly better race than me, and Leif had a less fun race with limited training this year. Regardless, the deed is done and we can kick back to our home for the moment at the Fox Den for a full celebration and re-cap. Morning arrives and it’s already time to pack up once again. Before I can fully process this adventure, we are sitting comfortably on a plane jetting back to Boston with yet another Birkie in the books.