Thursday, March 24, 2011


Wondering where this year's statistics are? Wonder no more. They've moved to, the new portal for all things Birkie!

(I am a huge Birkie Fanboy)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Pole position in the Birkie

***Do note: this site will be morphing in to more of a Birkie guide and Birkie blog from the #1 Birkie fanboy, yours truly, so go there now:

Ah, the Birkie. I love the Birkie, enough to write a whole guide to it and publicize it through Skinnyski and Fasterskier. Johnny Klister—who makes fun of everyone—called what I wrote about the Birkie "remarkably good." Do I get "the fever?" Yeah, just a little bit. I was excited as ever for Birkie. And this Birkie was shaping up to be different than past ones, and pretty awesome.

I flew out from Boston on Wednesday (to mitigate snowstorm-related issues, of course, there was no snow), got a car at the airport on Thursday (less than $100 for four days; the folks at Enterprise said a lot of people were renting cars to head up for the race), and made my way up to Birkieland via Finn Sisu. I got my bib at the expo in Hayward where, as usual, I saw several people I knew (in this case, Mimi Crandall and the Swains).

From there I went up to my sweet digs up at Telemark. Basically, I found out that someone was sick and not using a Telemark condo, and needed to try to recoup some income. I called up Jakob, and he found some other folks, and we had a sweet hookup. Where was the condo? The nearest one to Telemark, five minutes from the start by foot. Not bad. Not bad at all.

I went off to ski in the evening—once it was dark, although even after 6 there was some light in the sky—out on the Birkie Trail. There were a couple thin spots and it was kind of icy, but, gosh, the Birkie Trail is so nice. I had felt a bit sick and I swear my cold went away. I went swooping through the hills in the dark with just a headlamp illuminating the way to the Korte split and skied back to Telemark. So good. Dinner was bean burritos with cheese and assorted fixins, and I watched 30 Rock on the fuzzy teevee before taking a hot shower and retiring.

I awoke and took in the view from the deck of the start line of the Junior Birkie. Had I slept in much longer I would have been awoken by the announcers—the finish line (which is also the Korteloppet finish) was 100 feet from the condo's bedroom. Lucky Korte skiers.

Everyone else sharing the condo wasn't coming in early, so I set about going for a morning ski. A coating of snow had fallen and I headed out to the power lines to, uh, remember the power lines. The Double Birkie hadn't hit the power line hills, so I hadn't skied them since last year. I skied a bit on the World Cup trail, which hadn't been groomed (so sad to see those trails in this sort of disarray) but it was crust-with-powder so it was in great shape for skating. And then I was on the race course. I skied to the top of the power lines, looked down, and dropped a knee for some sweet turns to the bottom. When it's as wide as a downhill ski slope it's skiable, even with icy corduroy (it was cooler than Thursday, which climbed towards freezing) before I turned around and slowly skied up.

The power lines were not all that daunting and I skied a few more kilometers before I headed back, via the World Cup Trail and almost head on in to the high school relays, to the condo for lunch (more bean burritos, bread and cheese and whatever else). I then set off to Mosquito Brook to pick up my very own copy of A Day in February by the illustrious Scott Brown (no, not the junior senator from Massachusetts). I was very excited and got a full-on tour of Scott's house (very nice, view of the Birkie Trail) before deciding not to take a ski on the trail down there and heading back to Cable.

Jakob, Emily and Chris arrived and we decided to go for a short classic ski, backwards on the World Cup Trail, to warm up. At one point, people asked me for directions to Telemark, and I pointed right, left, ahead and backwards—all went to Telemark. It seemed like another dimension. We went down the Wall and back to the condo for a lovely dinner made by Emily and the arrival of guests numbers 5 and 6, Andrea and Dan, who arrived after dark. As Korte skiers, it was hard to point out how close they were to the finish.

We finished waxing—mix of HF blue and moly, then Start Green, then HF blue—and my skis looked fast, even without the appropriate fluoro cover. Chris and I went to Telemark via the tunnel to get staples for our goos, and I laid out my clothes. The temperature was dropping quite quickly and the forecasts were showing it going down well below zero for the race start. And everyone was talking about how slow the snow was going to be but I wasn't buying it—they'd till it all night and it would be firm but soft (does that make sense) and fast. We all got in to bed and lights were out by about 10:30, although I was up several times overnight to stay hydrated.

Yeah, it was that cold.
And we slept in! 6:30! Well, 6:20 for the all-important PRS. Everyone was slowly milling around, but there were no buses to catch, no traffic to sit in, no start times to fret about. Oatmeal was made, clothes were put on (so many layers), and temperatures were checked. -11 in Hayward at the airport. Maybe a tad warmer in Cable, but probably still double digits below 0. (The only colder Birkie was in 1974: 98 people skied the race.) I had four layers on my bottom and four on top, my Canada hat with flaps to cover my ears, and lobster gloves (it turns out that my circulation hasn't been getting worse in recent years, but my glove lining thinner; a trip to Finn Sisu corrected that).

I felt pretty good, and it was an unchaotic start, or as unchaotic as the Birkie start can be. A little running, a little skiing, in to the pens, skis marked, take a pee, um, on the side of the pen, jump in to skis, put on poles, say hi to a couple guys (the aforementioned Scott Brown right next to me in a bib two numbers lower, he beat me by seconds last year) and get ready to go. There were fewer butterflies this year, possibly because it wasn't my first year in the elite wave (all you see ahead of you are virgin tracks and corduroy) or possibly because the butterflies were frozen solid. I was comfortable, happy, and ready to race.

10, 9, 8 and so forth, and the gates went up (unevenly for the Birkie, but no one got caught) and we were off. The snow was nice and fast, and everyone was relaxed. I heard "50k, fellas, 50k" several times and no one was being aggressive or trying to make a break or pushing for position. My skis felt fast, I was in the middle of the pack, I felt good, and I was ready to hit the hills.

And then—and all good stories have to have an "and then"—someone on my left clipped my pole. I lost my balance and was unable to stay up. I fell on the light snow and got up, but not after several people had skied over my pole. I didn't lose much time, though, and it's a 50k race; I was just a little further back in the pack—perhaps I had gotten ahead of myself. So I went to ski off, and discovered my right pole was in two pieces.

I was on the verge of tears, but some colorful language turned sorrow to anger. I quickly found a replacement pole (thank you to Jay Wenner!) and, although it was short, it let me keep skiing, with #154 who'd had a similar mishap. I figured I was in good company—154 is a number close to mine, so maybe we could ski together and try to catch back up. My skis were fast, and on the long stretches of the starting flats I could see the skier train disappearing around the curves. I wasn't too far back.

But, who was I kidding? There was no way I'd be able to catch more than a few stragglers. Definitely not enough to fend off the charge of first wavers coming to relegate me from the elite wave, right? Being "old and slow" or "in coaching shape" (and, yes, I did coach high school this winter and was wearing my Newton North tights with pride) means that my singular goal, aside from having "fun" at Weston on Tuesdays, is to not get dropped from the elite wave. But skiing the whole way on my own? With a 172 and a 160 cm pole? This was not a good scenario.

So, I had a lot to think about from 1k to 2k—where all I should have been doing was an easy V2 to get ready to go up the hills with 200 of my closest friends. But I was alone. 154 was behind me, probably thinking similar things, and my mind crawled with thoughts like "well, I can always ski out of the first wave of the classic race" and "I really don't want to have to fight 700 guys to get on the front of the wave 1 start line next year." Not pleasant thoughts.

I turned the corner, and saw a pole station. Off with the 160 with the decent grip, on with the 170 with the old school single loop grip. Well, now I was back in high school. Poles don't matter that much, but they're noticeable. But the proper length was good—I've skied a race with a 170 and a 157 and it's not a lot of fun—so I made the trade and continued up the hill. As I started up the power lines, I saw the elite wave disappearing over the top. This was not good.

This is as good a time as any to give thanks to the volunteers. The pole exchanges are so helpful, and these people are standing in subzero temperatures just watching people be cold. The feeds this year were great—I got a feed at each one and never had to slow down—and the number of people who give their time to this event so crazy people like me can ski in it is staggering. Hats off to all of them (although, with the conditions this year, few hats were doffed).

I thought I might have someone to ski with, but 154 was not going to help. He got a new pole, too, and took off. It turns out he finished top-40 (!) and skis for Maine Winter Sports Center. Fred Bailey. I actually met him, I think, when I worked in Farmington in 2007—he went to Colby. And man did he recover well.

I, on the other hand, decided to ski, to have fun, and to see what happened. I started having positive thoughts. "Maybe I'll catch some guys." Maybe enough to make the elite wave. I wasn't so much skiing to finish, as skiing to see what happened. The first wave isn't so bad. Poles are part of the luck of skiing. It wasn't really my fault, or anyone's—no one was trying to move places or be aggressive. But bad luck. And it was my job to make the best of it. The night before I had said of my wax job: "My skis are fast. Now I have to make them fast." And a little broken pole shouldn't get in my way.

With this new outlook, I crested the power lines—feeling okay—and skied on them utterly alone. Every so often I'd catch a glimpse of Fred, or even the pack, ahead of me, but otherwise it could have been Tuesday morning out there. It did make the feed easier to navigate, and I turned in to the woods feeling not-too-bad. It wasn't too long before I picked off my first couple elite wave guys (Considering I'd made up a minute or two on them over just a couple kilometers, they must not have had much training over the summer) and around 7k heard the women coming up behind me.

Before the race, I'd thought that I could gauge my race based on where I was caught by the women. Last year I'd skied with the leaders from 18k to OO. Earlier that that, worse; later  better. But I didn't expect them this quickly—until I broke my pole. As it was, I decided to try to ski with them. I gave them space and tried to take the outside of corners (not easy on the serpentine Birkie Trail), and made sure not to cut anyone off or mess up their race. There's a lot of money on the line for these girls. But I tried to draft them, and figured if I could stay with them for a while I'd actually have a really good race. And I did—my skis were fast and their pace wasn't absurd—until the downhill in to Timber Trail. My glasses were fogged/iced up and I couldn't see the snow well (following the 30-foot-wide Birkie Trail was fine, however, and I assumed it was in good shape) and caught an edge, going down hard. By the time I got up, the women, who I'd slipped right behind, were far off. At least I didn't tangle with any of them.

For about 30 seconds, I was pissed. No more broken equipment, but it didn't seem like my day. I grabbed a feed and skied off, not really to prove anything, but just, you know, to ski. (Does that make sense?) I would have liked to stay with the fast ladies a bit longer, but didn't get the chance. So, again, I was on my own.

Going down Bobblehead Hill on your own is not a bad thing, actually. No one to worry about falling except yourself. I said hello to the sledders and worked the uphill on the other side, and got in to Firetower Hill. Oh, the climb to High Point. No, 250m of vertical climb at the Balsams it's not. Nor is it the Hall Trail at Jackson. No, it's not even the Open Slope at Windblown. But after 13k of mostly uphill, it does look daunting.

But it didn't feel bad. I felt, actually, pretty good. I could see the back of the elite wave at the top, so I wasn't too, too far back, and skied up nice and easy, cresting it and taking the ride in to the feed. My skis were fast, my pole strap wasn't too bad (but taking feeds would get it wound up and I'd have to take a second to untangle it before I could pole again—there's a reason we spend money on pole grips) and I was getting more and more into a happy place. I'd picked off a couple more guys, and was thinking I had a shot—a very outside shot—at not getting relegated.

It was somewhere in this vicinity—and I can't actually remember if it was before or after High Point—that the chase pack of women caught me (there had been about a dozen in the lead pack). There were six of them, and I recognized a couple: Jan Guenther of Gear West fame, and Jojo Winters who, apparently, I'd attacked a keg of Furious with after the Trail Loppet a couple years ago (and another Minneapolitan woman). Both are fast women, but both are about my speed. This pack looked like one I could ski with.

So I tucked in. Usually it kind of feels silly to be skiing with people who already have put two minutes on you, but with my pole machinations, I felt absolved of invading their train. Plus which they are all good skiers, and I fancy myself a slightly better technical skier than some of the rest of the elite wave (like the Guy Who Doesn't V2, who we passed pretty early), and my skis were running fast, so I stayed in their pack. I started thinking: if I can finish with the top 15 women, I have a shot.

Coming in to the Boedecker Road feed (and, on the good side, this is about where I lost track counting the people I'd passed) Jan got excited. "Hey guys, it's my feed. Yeah Gear West!" It took me a second until I realized there was a Gear West banner hung across the feed. Feeds in the elite wave are split-second affairs: two fingers in the cup, one motion—grab, drink, throw. In later waves they back up, people get cookies and bananas, and having a big sign is probably worth it for advertisers. But as we flew through, Jan kept yelling "Yeah Gear West." It's nice to know these women aren't taking themselves too seriously. And because everyone knows Jan, she got a lot of cheers, too.

Oh, one thing about Jan. Jan is in the 50-54 age category. Yes, she's twice my age. The next woman back in her age class was 20 minutes behind her. This is extremely impressive. If I can be in nearly the shape I am in now when I am in my 50s, I'll be very glad. Jan is an example for all of us young kids having a good time. And she's beat me before, and she'll beat me again.

So after Jan's feed we skied on, and started seeing more and more elite wave skiers. Where before we'd pass one guy at a time, coming up in to OO we saw groups of two and three. I was ensconced with the ladies (how rarely I get to say that) and none of the guys seemed to want a ride. Their loss. We crested the hill through the feed, I grabbed a cup of drink, and crossed the road.

On the other side, I was skiing with Jan right in front of me and looked behind to make sure I wasn't impeding forward progress for any of the other women. And no one was there. Maybe they'd lost some time taking feeds, but Jan had put a good 10 meters on everyone. I said "hey, Jan, you have a gap" and she pushed the pace a little bit and we opened the gap quite a bit. By the time we got to the picnic table downhill and the classic trail came back in, we'd gapped the other women quite well. I was surprised that none of them—there are some strong skiers—tried to attack. But they didn't.

My skis were matching skis with Jan's on the downhills—and this is impressive because Jan owns Gear West and probably gets whatever wax, grind and flex ski she needs—and she said to me "want to take turns?" I was more than happy to oblige, and we both were happy to have someone to ski with. If you don't and you've made up time on people, it gets quite difficult to pace yourself. I'm sure I would have fallen in with mens packs, even though I had made up a lot of time (since I spent so much time getting a pole) and Jan would have been all alone. So we skied. I'd pull a k, she'd pull a k; sometimes we'd take a bit side-by-side, but we were always passing people. This was good.

We chatted a bit. The last time I'd raced with Jan was the 2009 Trail Loppet on this same stretch of trail; she'd beat me at the end but I ran several enjoyable miles with her and Bill Dossett. The pace was good, the other women were out of sight and we were picking off more and more elite wave men. The surprising thing was that not a single guy jumped on to us for more than a minute or two. No one had a little extra energy and tried to get a ride. A lot of people said hi to Jan and let us ski off. While a little help would have been nice, I was happy not to have to be skiing in a big pack of overly-aggressive elite men.

Our little pack, generally of two, was quite nice. I generally took the flats, and Jan generally took the hills. At 29k I went for my water bottle, which was properly frozen (despite a generous amount of whiskey in with the gatorade). Oh, well, it was so cold I wasn't sweating anything out. I saw Scott Brown—sans camera this year—around 29k, and he looked pretty good for having a nine-week-old at home. We skied on. The snow was quite fast considering it wasn't warming up appreciably—it was overcast—but our skis seemed faster than most. Or maybe we were faster than most.

We crossed Mosquito Brook Road and I was feeling good going in to the hills, despite having taken no goos. I said to Jan with a bit of a smirk, "now the fun starts." From 22k to 38k there is one real climb. From 38k to 45k there are three. She led on to the climb—the first section is not-too-steep but long—and gave a clinic in tempo. I matched her V1 and while it didn't seem fast—it was quite relaxed—we passed several men. Technique and glide, that's how to make the climb. It's fun to ski with people who know how to ski.

Bitch Hill was as steep as ever, but it's nice to know it's short and has a nice downhill afterwards. There was no one out cheering section; it was 5 degrees and just starting to snow. We pounded up it—I think I may have led but I can't remember—and I felt a bit pre-bonk on the top but it didn't hit hard. I didn't go for a goo on the ensuing (and fast) downhill, not wanting to disturb my balance, and we came in to the field before Highway 77 looking good and feeling fine. Well, at least feeling fine.

I'd also seen my first wave 1 skiers—Jan tried to jump on to them but they had eight minutes on us and she wasn't about to ski as fast as Caitlin Compton (no offense, Jan!). Nor was I. Every year there are some good, fast guys who wind up in wave 1 and make the top 100, because they don't have to pass too many folks and can ski fast and easy. This was about when I'd seen wave 1ers last year, and I had passed a lot of guys, and put my chances of making the elite wave at about 50-50. Had you told me that at the power lines I'd have thought you crazy. But, despite my mishaps, I was having a good race. I wasn't too cold (Were my ears and nose frostnipped? Probably.) and I wasn't bonking. It was time to dial it in to the finish.

I stayed with Jan up the hill after 77 and at the top caught a glimpse of another woman for her. I felt she'd been helping me a lot, so I powered along and we passed this lady, and I felt good so I kept going. I led a pack of men—elite and wave 1 mixed—on to the lake and ducked in right behind a wave 1 guy who was setting a pretty good pace across the lake. There wasn't much wind and I wasn't bonking and I think I put a few seconds on Jan, although I wasn't looking back. The meters slid away, and before long I was up on to Main Street. I felt pretty good and outsprinted everyone and caught a view of the time when I crossed: 2:27. Considering the pole, the fall, and the fact that 2010 was a record speed year, four minutes slower wasn't too bad.

But, would it be good enough?

I wouldn't know for a while. Frankly, at that point, I didn't care. I'd had a lot of fun, and I was freezing cold. I had a cup of soup and was warm enough to go change, and did in the tent. Wearing four insulating layers—t-shirt, fleece, down jacket, fleece—on top (my top race clothes were wet) and slipping jeans over my bottom layers (which stayed dry all race) I went on to the lake to cheer with Lindsay Bourgoine, whose boyfriend Peter was skiing his first Birkie. It was cold, and my hands were numb for a while—much too numb to take many pictures (I had my camera) or drink any beer (which would have frozen solid anyway; my feed bottle was an ice cube), but the company was good, and Jakob and Chris came and joined me later. It was snowing but not windy, and we stayed out for quite some time to see Emily cross the line, her first Birkie, classic, and something for which she maybe wasn't in shape.

We migrated towards the (heated) Birkie office before cheering her up Main Street, and then split up—I had to go get my broken pole. They had it in the lost and found amongst dozens of others, and I carried it out as a badge of honor. Anyone who asked how my race was got me waving my broken pole at them, and they immediately were consoling. I took their pity in stride, but told them that I got a replacement, felt good and had fun, so what more could I ask for? Lindsay and Peter were leaving the Angry Minnow to go south, and I missed them mostly (too bad), so I walked down Main Street. I hadn't seen results and wasn't really looking for them—I was happy with feeling good—when I stumbled on the results board. I figured I might as well have a look.

So I did. And I couldn't find myself. I scanned from 150 to 250 and I wasn't there. I kept going down. Surely I wasn't below 250. I figured if I finished just outside the top 200 (like, say, 204) I might be able to tell my pole sob story and get in. But this was worse: I wasn't anywhere. Did my chip not register? No, I'd had it on. Was Jan on there? I'd be two minutes slower, right? I looked for a while, and didn't see her. Finally I pulled back a flap of paper where another had been stapled over it. "Ari Ofsevit … 180 … 2:27:06."

I was ecstatic. Last year, I'd been subdued after almost missing the elite wave. But this year, having overcome adversity, having gone hard and felt good, I was happy. I had a bunch of excuses and I didn't have to use them. I'd gone from DFL in the elite wave to qualifying. I was still in the club. I'd survived to ski another Birkie.

Changing rankings would put me to 190th, the same place as last year. But, very conservatively, I lost 1 minute with my poles—1 minute faster and I would have been in 180th, equaling my best-ever finish. More likely, I lost 2-3 minutes getting a new pole, skiing a lot on my own, and having a poor excuse for a strap, sapping some energy each time I pole planted. 2-3 minutes would have put me in 160th to 170th place. That was about where I'd expected to finish, or maybe a bit better. Looking at the results, there was a big pack which came in between 2:22 and 2:23. I'd like to think I could have skied with those folks had I not broken a pole, finishing in the 130-150th slot. I did lose to Colin Reuter (result) by 10 seconds, the fifth time in a row I've lost to him in a close race (2007 GG2BW, Sugarloaf April Fools 2007, and two Weston Races) but at least I have an excuse. And I'm Facebook friends with the top two Wave 2 skiers (him and Scott Kyser), random.

Looking at the splits, I did quite well. At Timber Trail, I was in 310th place (of course, I was still pretty much DFL in the elite wave at that point). By OO, I had skied up to 258th place. My Mosquito Brook, I was up to 213rd. I probably only "made" my way in to the top 200 around Highway 77, and finished at 190th. I made up 120 places over 40k. At that rate, I would have won the race if it was 114 km long (we all would have died, of course). Taking women in to account, I made up 134 places (340 to 206). I passed 39 elite men and 1 elite woman from the bottom of the power lines on, which accounts for nearly 1/4 of the the elite wave. Again, all things considered, I was happy with it all. I would have liked to see how well I could have skied, but that, apparently, was not in the cards.

Anyhow, I was kind of bubbly (when asked how my race went my answer was now to wave the broken pole and yell "still made the elite wave!") and got on a warm bus to Cable where I sat next to Anna McLoon's dad (a Boston-based cyclist who shows up on Tuesdays every so often) and Steve Clark who works in the same building that I worked in in Saint Paul. Again, the Birkie rule of two people you'll know everywhere. We alighted in Cable and I took the short walk to the condo for some R and R. The hot water was maxed out, sigh, so showers were short, but after a while we decamped for the Rivers eatery in Cable which has very good pizza, and we happily ate.

Then I decided to take a quick ski, which, with the new snow, was slow. My eyes hurt from the cold and light didn't help, so I went to ski in the dark to let them rest. I wanted to see the Birkie Trail trashed after 8000 skiers, but it was so cold it had stayed pretty solid, and I didn't want to ski all the way to Bobblehead Hill to see the luge tracks there (let me rephrase that: there was no way in hell I was skiing all the way to Bobblehead Hill to see the luge tracks there). I came back, showered (not freezing, but still not warm), and we left for Seeley.

I've heard a lot about the party at Seeley Birkie night, but I've never been. So it goes coaching a collegiate team. But this year we all piled in to Jakob's car (with a DD, hooray) and made our way in. After some iciness in the parking lot, we went in to the madness that is Seeley. Basically, anyone who is anyone—and this means the entire elite wave, all the dev teams, all the gear reps, everyone—goes to Seeley for the party. The beer flows (everyone is a Wisconsinite for the night with New Glarus on tap, indeed) and there's music and carousing and an all-around good time.

Okay, for Chris and Andrea, who probably knew a total of zero people there, it might not have been as fun. But I grabbed a couple of beverages and went to see who I knew. Apparently getting on Fasterskier when you're standing in a room with a good portion of Fasterskier's readership is an icebreaker. That, or "Johnny Klister called me 'Remarkably Good.'" John Swain talked about some of his illustrious Johnny Klister postings. I got to thank Jan for giving me a ride and she thanked me and I think we both were just happy to have someone to pace and ski with.

And I saw Caitlin Compton and gave her a hearty congratulations since, oh, she won the race. Caitlin is pretty awesome and super-nice and lives in Minneapolis and trains at Wirth and is all around super (and she went to the olympics, too). Oh, and she said she'd read my piece on Fasterskier and, having not skied the Birkie in several years, said she was able to really visualize the course. Oh, how I felt so special. (Uh, do I have a crush on Caitlin? A little bit. Is she engaged? Yeah. Apparently the men's winner was there, too, but a) I don't know him and b) he doesn't speak English, so, yeah; also I don't necessarily have man crushes on second-tier Norwegians even if they are wicked fast.)

I was a few beers in (maybe 4, but also kind of dehydrated from the race so they hit kind of hard) when the rest of the cohort tired of the scene and we left, which was probably for the better as I passed out when I got home. Not from the beer, really (although it helped) but from the 60k of skiing, the below-zero temperatures, the frostnipped eyes, and the tiring day of all things Birkie.

But I'd like to think I passed out with a smile on my face.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ari's Birkie Guide v 2.011

I first wrote this in 2010 before the big race. I may be on the East Coast, but here it is, updated for 2011. View all previous posts on this blog with tags of Birkebeiner or Birkie Trail (trail reports, mostly). I'll list them all a the bottom.

Update with trail closure info 2/21.

Let me first point out that I am in no way qualified to write a guide to the Birkie. I've only skied it five times (hundreds have 20 under their belts, er, special-colored bibs), I'm not from Northwest Wisconsin, heck, I don't even cheer for the Packers (but I do drink beer). Still, it seems no one has posted any type of Birkie guide that I know of. Since it's a race that a lot of out-of-towners come in for [including me, this year], it seems prudent to have one. So with apologies to people who know more than I do, here goes, in bullet-list form:


• Be early. This goes for pretty much every step of the race. The Birkie is incredibly well organized, a testament to its staff and the huge volunteer corps which itself is as large as the town of Hayward. Still, with 8000+ skiers involved, everything takes a bit longer than it might at a pick-up race in March. Or any other ski race in the western hemisphere. Be patient, and give yourself a bit of extra time every step of the way.

• Get there. There are many ways to get to Hayward. Whatever you choose, make sure you are on Highway 63. Unless you really know what you are doing, taking back roads is very unlikely to save you any time.

• Listen to WOJB. The official race station is 88.9 WOJB. It's a community station broadcasting off the local reservation. It has eclectic and quirky programming. Starting on Friday, they broadcast wax tips and Birkie-themed music (it's very corny). It will either get you in the mood for the race or drive you batty.

• Bib pick-up. Get your materials before the race, if possible. If you're in the tenth wave, you'll probably be okay navigating Telemark the morning of the race. If you're in the second wave, do you really want to deal with an extra half hour in the morning before your 8:45 start? If you pick up your bib on Friday, you can ski the trail (before 3:00, at least in 2010), get some freebies at the expo, and find all sorts of other skiers. Plus, if anything is amiss, there's a lot more time to fix it. Friday bib pickup is, this year, in Hayward at the middle school, as is the expo, so it's not right at the start. Saturday will be as normal at the recently (and temporarily) reopened Telemark.

• Grooming and skiing on Friday.

UPDATE 2/21: The schedule for trail closures is as follows:
  • Always (except race day): start to McNaught Road (private property)
  • 9 a.m. Friday: Entire classic trail (N.B. this trail interconnects with a lot of Telemark and North End trails, so keep off anything that has 3-4 sets of tracks set on it)
  • 3 p.m. Friday: Skate trail north of OO
  • 5 p.m. Friday: Everything else (Korte Trail, trails from OO to Hayward)
Okay, so what does this mean? Well, it means that they probably are going to be running something on the order of five (5) Pisten Bullies again. That's right. Five. Last year they ran them through the night to "slow the course down" and it was still the fastest ever; unless it snows overnight (a possibility) I'll be the mixture of powder and ice will be rather slick. Once the trail is closed, please stay off of it. It is going down to near 0 on Friday night, which is great, so that once the trail is set it will freeze pretty solid. However, if you ski on it right behind the groomer, it will have ugly, frozen tracks in it. And from what I hear, Matt Liebsch does not like ugly, frozen tracks. (Oh, also, they'll get chopped up even earlier in the race.)

Here's the good part: that's two more hours you have to warm up than last year. If you get your bib in Hayward at 4:00 you can still head up to Fish Hatchery and ski for 45 minutes. They used to close the trail on the Wednesday before the race—meaning everyone had to go elsewhere for their skiing. The Birkie does a great job grooming, if you've never skied it before and could see the course the elites see, it's astonishing—30 feet of flat corduroy. 

Expect a firm but pliable skate deck, which, as long as it is cold enough, should stay solid during the race. The race may be icier and more abrasive at the north end with more powdery conditions further south, depending on snowfall. Will some hills get mashed potato-ey (up) and icy (down) by the eighth wave? Probably. But where else do 8000 skiers ski a single trail in a day? The groomers know what they are doing. Tracks will be solid and set on downhills. There will be no groomer ridges. These guys groom the trail all season long. They're pros. (Exception: road crossings. We'll get to that.)


• Busing. On the last Saturday in February, the Birkie operates the second or third largest bus system in the state of Wisconsin. It's efficient and they have a lot of experience doing it. Still, things take a while. Normally, you can drive from Hayward to Telemark in under half an hour. On Birkie morning, leave an hour and a half, minimum. If you park at Como, remember: everything looks long, but everything moves. Buses comes in threes. The traffic in to the lot creeps along, but it creeps. Get your spot, get your skis and get on a bus. Unless you have an elite wave bib, people won't let you cut in line. If you do, well, people might let you cut in line. The best advice is to plan ahead and leave extra time. And if you are going out early, use the buses out of Hayward. It's very convenient to be able to walk to you car post-race. However: this doesn't mean you have to leave three hours. Unless you want to see people rushing around way before the start, there's no need to be on a bus at 6:30 if you are in wave 5. Calm down—it's cold at the start and warm in your bed.

Oh, and don't try to bend the rules. There are times when you can bend the rules (example: you're a top-level skier from another region who has never skied the Birkie and would like to be in wave 1 rather than wave 4, in this case you can ask/plead your case) but this is not one of them. Unless you have a pass, you will not get in to Telemark. Unless you are coming from the east on Highway M, you will not get in to the Telemark parking area. Go to Como with everyone else. It would be nice if they gave car-pooling elite wavers a pass to park at Telemark, but they don't. It would be nice if they chartered planes to fly elite wavers in to Telemark, but they don't. Park in designated parking. Take the bus with everyone else.

• Before the start. Telemark is a big place, but it's not really made to handle 10,000 people. So the start is somewhat chaotic. There's a big tent near the start, and all sorts of stuff in Telemark. Still, you don't want to do anything extra at Telemark. There are lines for things like bathrooms. (Gentlemen often relieve themselves on the far side of the start area.) Restrooms in the lodge also have lines (N.B. I'm not sure if all of the lodge's restrooms will be open), but some of the more far-flung ones aren't necessarily very long. If you want to warm up, go down the trail as far as you see fit. If you want to see the first big hill, well, it's about 2k down. If you want to ski it before the race, you're a masochist.

• Drop your bag. Make sure it's in the right truck. The Birkie is proud of never having lost a bag (they're much better than the airlines), but there are thousands. Leave a bit of time. And don't worry about a few minutes in the cold without a jacket—a thousand other people will help to break the wind. Apparently you can bring your own bag this year if you'd like; otherwise the Birkie folks give you a big plastic bag. Hint: you don't have to drop your bag, necessarily, before you hit the pens. But it might be a good idea. Oh, and put your shoes in your bag. The last thing you want to do is walk around Hayward in your wet, sweaty ski boots.

• Your wave. This advice depends a lot on your wave and a lot on how seriously you will be taking the race. Before specifics, here's how the pens work. There are three or four successive "pens", each of which is separated by a gate. (By gate, I mean a series of barriers which can be raised and lowered by a team of volunteers. Here's a picture; they use the same system for the start.) When a wave leaves, each pen gate opens, allowing the skiers to run up (generally running, not skiing) asfastastheycan to the next gate. With Elite men and elite women, and classic skiers, there is a lot of running involved if you're not in the Elite Wave. If you want to be in the front of your wave, you have to get in your pen early (and wait in the cold.) And since people take things way too seriously, it means that you have to beat out a lot of master blasters for a spot.

Let's go wave by wave:
- Elite Wave: I think the top bib numbers get seeded in the first row. Otherwise, it's pretty quiet—it's wide enough that no one gets too far back (you know, since the wave is 200 people, not 900). For women, there's pretty much just one row.
- First Wave: This is probably the most "competitive" of the waves, at least in the running up through the pens portion of the event. A lot (okay, all) of this wave thinks they belong in the elite wave. Maybe 30 guys will actually make the jump. Out of 900. Still, everyone wants to be on the front line. If you actually think you'll be skiing a 2:30, by all means get on the front line. This, however, entails lining up half an hour before the race, making a run for the successive pens each time a new wave goes out, and getting your skis down in front. And it will be crowded. If you think you're going to be skiing a 2:55 or 3:00, it's probably not worth the extra time. There's a 15 minute gap between the wave 2 classic skiers (8:10) and elite men (8:25), which should be ample time to leave your skis, take off your clothes, stuff them in your bag, and throw your bag at the correct truck, and get back to your skis. Especially if you are the front line and can duck under the gate. Be prepared for a few scoffs from other skiers—and don't do this if you don't plan to ski fast out of the start.
- Second Wave: Everyone thinks they belong in the first wave. There's a bit more crossover here, though. And more waves to have to "pen jump" before the start. Everyone in this wave has a similar seeding time, so unless you're better than everyone, you're probably not.
- Third-fifth waves: These waves are all quite big. "Birkie Wave Creep" means that everyone tries to qualify up as far as they can, and waves 1-5 are much larger than 6-10 (see charts). So, you get to start with several hundred of your best friends and/or potential pole breakers.
- Sixth-Ninth waves: Probably less competitive. Fewer skiers, especially skiing the full Birkie.
- Tenth wave: Since this is the new skier wave, there are all levels of athlete. Every year a couple guys go out and pass the whole race to make the elite wave. More power to them. (Although not in 2011, when the race course was considerably slower at 10 versus 8:25.) Again, I don't know what it's like, I got myself in to wave 2 my first Birkie.

One more thing: if you are unhappy with your wave assignment, tell Birkie as early as possible. They have 8000 people to assign, and make mistakes. In addition to your's truly, who was put in the wrong wave but got that corrected, some guy called Matt Liebsch (who only won the race last year) wound up in the 6th wave. Before the first of the year is a good idea. Email them, call them, they're real nice if you explain yourself and give them a lot of time. They may say no to your request, but it's worth a try. Just don't expect a lot of sympathy the day before the race.

• Cell phones. Bring em'. Put them in your bag. It makes finding people at the finish a lot easier, especially if some of the people you are going to try to find are skiing the race in more than 3:00. I think there's reception at Telemark, but if you battery is low, it might be a good idea to shut it off.

• Delays. Sometimes, the start is delayed. This happens, generally, if there is a problem with busing or weather makes driving difficult. It's usually 10 or maybe 20 minutes, if it happens. They'll announce it at the start and probably on WOJB. Yup, more time to stand in the cold.


This is probably where I'm most qualified to give advice. I've run and skied the Birkie Trail dozens of times (including the Double Birkie twice—yes, 85k in a day; I put a 100k day in on the Birkie Trail a few years back to boot), I've mapped the Birkie Trail (stupid Gmap-pedometer doesn't seem to like more than 1500 points or so), I've made elevation profiles of the Birkie Trail (and made a couple frenemies with the Birkie folks, although Ned himself liked them), I've thrown together a Google Map of Birkie landmarks, and I've talked up the Birkie on Skinnyski. It's the best.

Also, the whole trail has kilometer markers. Even on the lake (they are on posts which are put in to the ice). If you're not familiar with the course, they're a good way to figure out where you are. They are rather conspicuous, but I'm usually focused/tired enough that I only see every third or fourth one (plus I know the trail well enough that I can identify most of it by landmarks).

One other thing before we start: the feed volunteers generally do a very good job. I've found feeds to be warm-but-not-piping-hot and found volunteers to know what they are doing (to not yank back feeds when you come through at 12 mph, and to not walk in amongst skiers to give you a feed). They do a hell of a job giving out thousands of feeds over the course of several hours. I think they're experienced. You don't really need a drink belt if you don't want one, but it's not a bad idea.

So, here we go:

0k: The trail starts at the Cable Union Airport. It follows a grass runway for the start. It's flat. It's wide. It's fun. Don't get lulled in to complacency. There are a a couple of small, rolling hills, but most of the first 2k are flat. And, yes, it's that wide. It will be at least 30 feet wide until after the powerlines. And, no, the little wooden telephone poles you follow are not the power lines. Oh, and be nice. It's a 50k race. There's no need to break anyone's poles if you don't have to.
2k: Ha! The easy part is over. You'll take a left and see the first power line hill. It's hard, but it's probably amongst the three worst hills of the race. Still, the trail gains 400 feet in the next 10k. Don't blow up here.
3k:At the top of this hill the trail rolls along the power lines. The Birkie Trail generally follows topography, except when it goes in a straight line along the power lines. There is a lot of up and down; there are also some choices as to where to ski—the general advice is to follow the pack. The classic trail joins from the left at the right turn and leaves just after the feed. Mind the tracks. There's enough room to avoid them and folks will yell at you if  you ski in to them. With the classic skiers going out earlier this year, even the elites should see some striders in the tracks.
4k: One last hill brings you to the first feed (4.5). In 2010 it was fast enough that you had to slow down to get this feed (the 9k one too) but 2010 was a record pace year. From there, the trail ducks in to the woods with a sweeping left turn. There are no big hills for the next three k, but there are no big downhills. No rest. Get ready to climb. This is also a good place to blow up. You don't want to. And, yes, the trail is still 30 feet wide. It is this wide the rest of the way. Seriously. Tracking rules are not in effect—if you want to pass, go around.
7k: You finally get some rest between 7k and 9k with a couple of downhills.
9k: After a feed (9), the Korte trail diverges to the left. Make sure you keep right (for the Birkie). It's well signed with volunteers yelling at you, but still, pay attention. Oh, and get ready to climb.
10k: Here lies the infamous Bobblehead Hill. The trail makes a sweeping left turn on a downhill, which is probably the trickiest hill of the course. To top it off, it's 100 yards from a snowmobile trail, and a couple dozen sledders have a bonfire going while they drink beer (yes, at 9:00 a.m.; they're snowmachiners after all) and cheer you on. Actually, they want to see falls. Stay up (unless you want a score) and try not to breathe in too much cigarette smoke. According to late-wavers, this hill might become three parallel luge courses by late waves. If you don't snowplow, it won't. STEP TURN! (Why "Bobblehead"? Because of the sledder's heads in their oversized helments bobbing up and down.) It was so fast in 2010 that even the elites were sliding this corner, so it will wash out or later waves. The recent WaPo article about the Birkie has quite a long segment about this hill.
11k: Now you start climbing. There are a couple of more-gradual climbs before you come down a short hill and lay eyes on Firetower Hill, the climb to the high point of the race. Yes, it looks long. Yes, it is long. Yes, it has a downhill on the other side. You really want to feel good here, because this is where the race begins. It's still 38k to Hayward, but it's down 600 feet. Don't blow up on the long hill, but it's definitely a good place to go hard if you feel like it.
12k: High point is marked. You then have more than two rolling kilometers downhill. A feed (13.7) is during this downhill. Recover a bit. The trail then rolls for a while.
17k: There's a tricky uphill before the Boedecker Road feed (18.5). Most of the Birkie Trail is very level (perpendicularly speaking, if that makes any sense), but this hill is quite off-camber. The trail widens out with some pines on the left, and as you climb you'll feel the trail leaning to the left. You sort of have to use a right-side V1 on this hill as you climb it if you want to stay efficient. After the trail turns, the hill continues but is not off-camber. Fun. After the feed, the trail is rolling but mostly downhill.
20k: After some fun, fast downhills there's a slog up to the road crossing at OO. You'll see quite a few people on this hill cheering for racers. The top of the hill is a good place to eat a gel if you want one before the feed (21.8).
21k:  Cross OO, which will be narrow and thin. Surprisingly so, considering how well the rest of the trail is groomed. I think Birkie could have more snow on road crossings, and in the long term invest in three bridges or underpasses to bring them in to better shape. Anyway, double-poling the crossing is a good bet; it's really loose otherwise. They will shovel snow all day. And no cars will drive across.
22k: The trail climbs gradually away from OO. After about a k, there's a picnic table on the right. After that, you get a nice descent, and then the trail is rather gradual for the next several kilometers.
23k: The classic trail joins from the left. You now have a bit less room with two classic tracks. Mind the tracks and the striding skiers. (The skate lane is still 20 feet wide so there's no excuse for skiing in the classic track. In the peak of the race, it will often have two parallel trains of skaters, with striders on either side.)
29k: There's a significant hill at 29k. It's not particularly steep, but it's long, and climbs more than 100 feet, longer than any hill since OO (22k) and until Mosquito Brook (38k). The 29k marker is about halfway up the hill. Jesse says it's a good place to go hard and put a minute on the field. I agree. If you want to make a move, make it here. You get a nice rest after it (I always like that downhill for some reason), though, leading in to the next feed (31.8k) at Gravel Pit. Yes, it's 9k between feeds, but there is only that one major climb. After Gravel Pit, the trail rolls, with some nice downhills to Mosquito Brook. The one at about 33k has full southern exposure, so it might get sticky in the sun later in the race.
38k: You get a feed (38.1) at Mosquito Brook Road, after the crossing (similar strategy crossing the road as OO). You have about 500m of flat skiing across the stream before the trail begins to climb. 17k with one big hill may have lulled you in to complacency—but there are now three big climbs in the next 7k. This is the last really big climb of the trail, and it's split in to two parts. The first, Mosquito Brook Hill, isn't particularly steep, but it's pretty long, gaining nearly 150 feet with one small respite. The trail then levels out, before climbing again up "Bitch Hill." Yes, Bitch Hill. This one is half the elevation, but it's very steep, and at 40k, it's not a whole lot of fun. You'll know it when you see it. The ladies (bitches) will cheer you up it and hand out mardi gras beds. Take beads if you wish. This is a frequent place to bonk, though, so you might not be having too much fun.
41k: After Bitch Hill, two downhills lose the elevation you just gained. Don't worry, you won't climb that much again. You skirt the field to Fish Hatchery and go back in to the woods, before returning to the field's edge. There are a couple of hills there that I remember being really nasty little climbs, but the last two times I've been on them were at the end of the Double Birkie (after 83k of skiing) and at the end of a half marathon. So my judgment may be clouded. (They run a full marathon north from here to Telemark. Running.) You take a right and ski along Highway 77, through the final feed (44.3), and across the road.
44k: And guess what? You climb again. The climb after Highway 77 is the last climb of any consequence of the day. And it's a doozy, especially after 45k. Not as steep as the Bitch, and not as long as Mosquito Brook, but still a nice piece of uphill. The only consolation is that after you go up more than 100 feet, you have a long, sweeping downhill towards Lake Hayward. The view are great and you can see the town and water tower across the lake (if it's not snowing), pulling you towards the finish line.
46k: After crossing two small roads (generally okay snow cover) and a flat section where the race ends if there is open water on the lake, you ski on to the lake. It should be easy to ski across two flat kilometers. However a) you are 47k in to the race and b) there is usually a head wind. Find a pack and ski with them; if you do you can often pick off some skiers in front of you who blow up on the lake. If you feel good, pound it out. And it might be faster to ski off the side of the trail where they've plowed snow off the ice, but it might be really icy. And it might be illegal. Ski there at your own peril.
49k: The lake is generally lined with people, so there's impetus to go fast. There are k markers on the lake, and a 1000m to go near the end. You come up off the lake behind the Marketplace foods, and take a left around the grocery store. (Oh, and there are often interesting feeds on the lake.) The snow here is often a bit soft, which really does a number on your legs. You then make a right turn on to Main Street and can see the finish; there's a flower pot to go around (generally right) and you cross Highway 63, which is snowed in well but always quite soft (they don't put snow down until about 9:00). Your legs will be angry but then Main Street has had snow on it since Wednesday, so it's solid and fast. Pick your lane, soak in the cheers as you fly up the street and power home. It's slightly uphill, and a V2 is often the technique of choice for the sprint. SPRINT IT OUT, DUDE!
50k: Finish! If you win, do whatever it is when you win. Otherwise, get your bag, and put your skis somewhere conspicuous where you can remember them. If you finish early, the town will seem totally overbuilt with a tent city and infrastructure for thousands. It feels like a ghost town. It fills up. If you've recovered, go and cheer people on as they finish. If you are interviewed at the finish on WOJB, be ready to answer "what's your name? where ya from?" and "how was the race/trail." Using a broad Midwest accent and giving short answers like "yah, good" is the norm. But if you are from out of town, anything goes. Except, since it's live, keep it clean.


• Get a feed. The feed tent has soup, bread, bananas, cookies, and all sorts of things you may want.

• Get a feed. The celebration tent has food for sale, like brats. You are in Wisconsin, so you really should have a brat. Plus, you just burned 2000-4000 calories, so you really should have a brat.

• Get a beer. You're in a small town in Northern Wisconsin. There are probably ten bars to choose from. Skiers are welcome at any of them. For packaged liquor, find a liquor store/gas station. The Marketplace has a good selection. It's Wisconsin, after all. If you are under 21 and have a Birkie bib, well, you can probably take your chances. If you are under 21 and are with a parent or guardian, drink up! It's legal in Wisconsin.

• Get on a bus. Buses to parking lots at Telemark and Como leave often about a block up past the finish line.

• Get ready to wait. Since Main Street is closed, Hayward devolves in to gridlock. Expect it to take 20 minutes to get through town after the race. It might be worth driving across on Highway 77 to miss the congestion.

• Cheer on everyone else. People will finish all day long. Ski or walk out across the lake and let people know they are doing awesome (even if they look differently). Main Street fills up with more and more skiers as the day progresses, both finishing and cheering. It's a good time. We accomplished this with alacrity last year, getting a couple of six packs and making our way out on to Lake Hayward. It was amazing, especially since we weren't driving for a few hours.

• Go to the Sawmill Saloon. In Seeley. 10 miles north of Hayward. A big party. With New Glarus on tap.

• A quick addendum (2/24/11, at Telemark!): I don't always agree with Johnny Klister, but they did call this blog post "remarkably good" and in that same linked post describe more about what to do after the race. It's a bit raunchy, but it's Johnny Klister, what do you expect. This is my first year not coaching at the race, and I intend to partake. Oh, and I'll be out on the lake after the race having a beverage or three if you want to come join. Unless the weather just blows.


Previous posts / more info:

The Birkie Movie
The Birkie, by the numbers (finishing stats by wave)
The Birkie on Google Maps (various Birkie-related information)
Birkie race report, 2010
Birkie elevation profile, more here
Birkie race report, 2009

Friday, December 10, 2010

If you think I'm not jealous …

… you'd be wrong. Plan for tomorrow is to head to Eldora (I'm in Boulder for the weekend) for some fresh snow. But if the 00Z NAM model verifies and 28" of snow hits the Twin Cities, I will be missing out on the street skiing festival of a lifetime. If I were there I believe the plan would consist of several cans of Surly, my rock skis and every non-limited access road I could find (Imagine skiing down the High Bridge—I'm imagining it). Have fun. I figured after three good snow years in a row, there was little chance of a fourth (haven't been four good snow years in a row since the early '80s). Well, I'll eat my words now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Out east

Yes, I know there's been skiing in Duluth. And the UP. I'm in Boston this winter, waiting for snow.

Friday, May 7, 2010

It's snowing in Duluth

That's the report from Jakob and the airport. If it continues, the top of the hill should see 5-6 inches by later this evening. If it can firm up or crust up at all tonight, it could be some darn good (for May) skiing tomorrow morning. I'll take pictures.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Weather speculation: snow in May?

There are only two months I've not skied in (I think I skied in July in Australia; I can't really remember): May and September. I knocked off October last year. And, perhaps, May will soon be in the books.

Why? Because it might snow in May. Yes. May! Not a few flakes in May (that's happened before) but real, actual accumulating snow falling south of Duluth. The weather models have been hinting at this for a few days now, but I wasn't getting excited. Now? I'm getting excited.

There are quite a few variables which need to come together for May skiing. First, you need enough snow. With the ground quite warm, you need several inches to freeze up as a slushy layer on the ground and provide a base. Second, you really would like someone to roll or groom it. It counts if it's not, but it's less fun. If you can't find grooming, you would very much like the temperatures to fall below freezing for an evening and freeze up the crust, as crust skiing on untrod trails can be fantastic. You'd prefer the snow to fall at night when the solar radiation of the sun doesn't warm the ground so it won't stick. Finally, you need just the right combination and timing so that the snow doesn't disappear before you have a chance to ski.

With all that said, what can be expected? Well, first we have to pinpoint the jackpot for the snow. The latest models from Earl Barker's great page have pretty disparate maxima. According to the GFS, there will be two bullseyes with enough (~6") snow to make skiing feasible:

with the highest totals around 6" just north of Brainerd and another swath of decent snow over near Rhinelander. Unless it goes significantly further west, only some of the near-Brainerd trails (Northland, Grand View) would be in the running. And maybe something way east in Wisconsin.

The NAM, however, paints a prettier picture:
Not only does this bring the snow further south—with the Cities getting in on the action and more than three inches falling just north, but it gives a real dump—more than six inches!—across a nice swath of Wisconsin. In this scenario, the best skiing would be between Wausau, Eau Clare and Hayward, so various trails in Northwest Wisconsin would be in the running, although there's not really anything in the 8"+ section.

However, if we speculate that both models are off and the solution lies in between, it might put the most snow somewhere in the heart of Birkieland. Would I scoff at 8" of snow on Saturday on the Birkie Trail? No. No I would not.