Sunday, February 28, 2010


After an exciting afternoon of Minnesota-themed Olympic television—the 50k (exciting) and the gold medal hockey game (exciting)—I decided I'd had too much sitting. Plus, I wanted to see what the mountain bike trail was looking like at Wirth. So I went and did the snowmaking side trails. Once. Slowly.

The trails are in very good shape with a few notable deficiencies. There were several large ice chunks just past the equipment shed which, after sticking my tip in to one of them, I kicked/pushed off the trail. The main other issue is that going over or around the mound is becoming an issue. Over is thinning out on both the uphill and downhill. Going around to the south is suffering as the slope melts from the high sunshine and undermines the trail. (Of course, last year this happened early in February, not on the last day.) They've groomed around the ice/water, but it's thinning quickly. It might soon be time to groom to the north side of the mound. Otherwise, everything is good and generally powdery, although hills with southern exposure are getting icy. And the bike trail looks superb. I might try that out tomorrow.

The Birkie

[I'm writing this watching the 50k olympics race. This is one heck of a way to blog. We'll see if their time—yeah, it's classic—beats mine.]

I like racing. I may not be that great at it, but if you read my race reports, I generally have a good time and come away with a positive experience. Races are generally well-run and, this year, have been in good shape. There's been little to complain about.

And yet, the Birkie blows every other race away.

The grooming is better. The trail is better. The volunteers aren't better, but considering the task they have to undertake, it's very impressive. The finish is unparalleled. And then there the traditions and aura which surround the race. The governor at the start (this year). Thousands of skiers at Telemark. Some of the best skiers in the world at the front of the pack. Special bibs for twenty and thirty year Birkie skiers—although not that special since there are so many of them.

Wave after wave of skiers climbing up the power lines and in to the woods. The sledders cheering and scoring falls. The, uh, ladies, music and beads on Bitch Hill. The lake, the sun, the wind. The cheering crowds across Highway 63, and then two blocks where you are propelled by thousands up Main Street to the finish.

Is there anything better?

This was my fifth Birkebeiner, and, except for 2007, each has been great. My results, maybe, were not what I would have liked (especially in 2008) but everything else—superb. And this year was the best yet.

I took a half day at work on Friday, put in 30 minutes at Como with Collin and drove north. Macalester had 12 skiers (8 Birkie, 4 Korte) and the plan had been to stay at one of our skier's houses in Spooner and then drive up on race morning. Actually, the plan was to go pick up bibs on Friday, drive back to Spooner for a feed, and then drive up early Saturday. Leaving around 5:30.

Everything was planned out and ready to go until I got an email from Collin that a friend of his dad's lived in Cable. He asked me if I'd be interested. The guy lives near the intersection of Telemark Road and County Road M. "Is that close to the start?" he asked. Uh, yes. Quite. "Would we be interested in staying there?" Uh, yes. Definitely.

So we changed plans. The rest of the team was starting in late waves and could pick their bibs up in the morning. Collin and I were starting at 8:25—and were more than happy to get our bibs the day before. So Collin and I hit Como and then headed north. I was pretty spacey all weekend, especially about myself. I think because I had to try to herd a dozen cats—er, college kids—around, in two separate races (the Birkie and the Korte) and three cars. Not that easy.

So, I forgot to put back on the gas cap on the car (and, more egregiously, forgot to write down the mileage), and that was sort of the start of me leaving things places and forgetting little things all week. Nothing major—and everyone else got where they were going too. I was just a little spazzy.

Anyway, after several pit stops (hyrdation!), including a few where Collin almost exploded, we got to Telemark. The house we were staying in was all of, oh, 500m from the parking lot where we'd have to park. But not the regular lot (Como), the lot for people coming from the east. It's two miles from the start by road, but because you can cut across the Cable airport approach, it's less than half a mile by foot. And since the road gridlocks in the morning, it's worth it to walk if the weather is tolerable.

We parked at Telemark and I saw a mostly e-quaintance, Colin Reuter, who is going to be running a camera in his drink belt during the race. He's done it before for some races, and lots of bike races, and I wanted to see if I could be on his video of the race (and Scott Brown's). I was at least excited to see it. The last time I saw him was the last 10k of the Great Glen to Bretton Woods death march in 2007; I realized I'd skied against him last year and emailed some, following his well-written blog. I realized he was walking by and said "you're Colin. I read your blog." Once I introduced myself, it was slightly less awkward. I saw Bill Dossett, of Bike Share fame, who rode up with Piotr Bednarski, of ski coaching fame. Bill said riding up with Piotr was fun, as he spent the whole time on the phone talking about wax (Collin: "You didn't find out what he waxed?" Me: "We have no iron or wax. Would it matter?") and then trying to get one of his athletes, Laura Spector, from Vancouver to Estonia via Newark and a blizzard. (Supposedly she made it.) That sounds entertaining.

We got bibs. Collin was bib 61, I was bib 180 (based on last year's finish times). Collin's skied in the elite wave before, but had never picked up his bib. I'd never skied in the elite wave. So we marched in to the bib pickup room and over to the elite table. There's never a line, since it's so much smaller. And you just feel—pretty awesome. Yeah, my goal for the race was to not be relegated from the elite wave.

The guy we were staying with worked at another local resort a few miles down County M, and we went to eat there, after picking up the keys from our host (who then went our for "a few barley pops"). It took forever. First, there was a 20 minute wait for the dining room. Which was half-empty. Then it took forever to get our food. More than half an hour. For pasta. So instead of eating at 7:00, we ate at 8:00. No, we were not happy about this. But we kept drinking water.

Ten minutes after the food came (at least it was free) we were done. I stopped by the bar for half a shot of their cheapest whiskey—to keep my water bottle from freezing in the zero-degree weather in the morning. They'd only sell me a full shot—so I left half on the bar. Oh, well, it was still pretty baller. We drove back to our adopted home—it kind of smelled, okay, reeked, of cigarette smoke, but was a price to pay for a later wake up. Collin watched a movie and I read. I'd told him he probably shouldn't watch anything much longer than an hour and a half. About 45 minutes in to "A Knight's Tale" I picked it up and said "you do know that this is more than two hours long, right?" He said it was an hour and a half. "Nope. That's 132 minutes." I laid out my clothes and went to bed. I'm rarely this relaxed before a race (no internet).

I was in bed by 10:30—eight hours before wake-up call—and slept in fits, drinking and peeing all night. Oh, yes, you did need to know that. We were up around 6:00 as the lights of the cars turning on to Telemark Road started shining through the window—there's a lot more traffic than 6:00 a.m. on a normal Saturday. We had a relatively easy morning and I was dressed and ready to go a bit after 7:00. We'd have had to leave Spooner at 5:30 had we stayed there. This was very relaxed. I had my drink belt—I've never raced with one but, no harm, no foul—and was otherwise well dressed for temperatures around 0 which were to rise to 20 during the race.

With traffic on the road and no buses to flag down, we walked to the start. A few hundred meters walking on the road, and then the cut through to the start. Luckily, we were both wearing shoes; those with ski boots were slipping and sliding around a bit. And we had time to hang out at the start. I ran a bit, changed boots, and skied the warm-up circle—about a 800m loop because no one could cross the timing wire 300m from the start. I watched the classic start, and then went to pack my bag for the truck.

We had 15 minute to get in the start pen—enter from the sides, not waiting in the back like other waves—and I got in the mob of people. One of the great things about the elite wave is that, yes, it's an elite wave, but you get to go out exactly the same as the other top skiers. I stood next to the women's winner, and the top men didn't get any special treatment. Everyone stood there with their skis, poles, drink belts and—little else. There was no pushing or shoving—the top 30 get to the start line, everyone else is ready to go behind them.

Skis were marked, and we lined up. I lined up at the back of the pack—no need to kill myself out of the front. My game plan was to ski the 12k nice and easy to high point. I knew the trail, and I knew I didn't want to blow up on the early hills. Take feeds early, have energy gel between high point and OO (or both) and then ski harder on the big hills late in the race.

We lined up, the start gates went up as the gun went off (better than at Mora, the gates went up without issue) and we were off. And my skis were fast. Everyone seemed to be chugging along well, but I was passing people on the downhills, which I rarely do (less weight on longer skis than most). I thought about changing my race plan—going hard early with my speed—but it seemed riskier. I didn't have the training to pull it off on the hills (I need more strength training) and I didn't want to ski differently than I planned.

But, boy, were my skis fast. The whole course was extremely slick. I'd thought, with some snow midweek, it might be slower, but they'd groomed the new snow and the very-slightly transformed snow just enough to make it firm but speedy. Still, I was catching people on downhills. A few people had faster skis than I, but I had faster skis than most. It was fun. I thought about pushing hard—the front didn't seem to be going too hard at first—but didn't want to blow up on the first hill. I've done that before. It's not fun.

This, and the fact that I was probably sitting in 150th place and it was still crowded. I passed a few people but didn't make up much ground before the hill. Yes, the hill. There are a lot of hills on the Birkie, but the power lines don't even have named hills. They're just basically a long set of hills and you don't get eased in to it. Again, the plan was not to die, so I went in to an easy V1—easier when you have fast skis—through the hills.

I started to realize it was fast at the first feed. I came over the top of power lines—by the beating drums—and went to take the first cup of feed. I was going so fast that I didn't even try to take the near cup, but glided through the whole feed and was still bombing along when I grabbed the last cup. (I've gotten really good at taking feeds at speed. I wish there was a race of just taking feeds. I'd kick ass. Apparently in late waves the feeds back up as people stop. In the elite wave, no one stops.)

The hills rose and fell. I was going so fast through Timber Trail at 9k that I didn't even try for the feed—usually I've lost most of my speed by the feed but not this time. My mind wasn't really thinking "oh, boy, it's really fast, we're going to have a fast time" but more "oh, I am going fast at these certain specific times in the race." I didn't realize that everyone was flying. Another of these moments was when we came around Bobblehead/bubblehead Hill. It's the trickiest on the trail, but usually step-turned by all the elites. Not today. I took one step but had so much speed going in to the hill that I—and everyone else—skidded. Collin, nearer the top of the race, said he step turned and almost took a digger.

My skis were still fast, but not as fast (for the record, Start green no fluoro, LF Start green, Rex stuff Ahvo told us to use, Fast Wax green, FC7, on medium flex RCS with a Finn Sisu fine grind). I settled in with a group of about four guys and we picked up the hills and laid them down. There were more rolls than I remembered until we skied up to High Point. Again, I wanted to feel good at the top. I actually skied faster than most of the folks I was around, but with 38k to go I didn't want to attack.

And we skied on. Down the hills, and just before Boedecker Road Hill the first ladies came by. I jumped  behind them—no need to waste a ride, and stayed with the all the way in to the climb to OO. They set a good, but not brutal, pace and I was happy to stick with them. One of these years I'll be ahead of them further, but this wasn't too bad—they made up two minutes in 22k, meaning they'd be five minutes ahead of me overall. This boded rather well for my elite wave hopes.

I took a goo at OO, well, right before. I took it well, but as usual it was kind of gross. I had some water at the feed and was happy, with the top women just ahead. I planned to take it relatively easy through the next, flatter part of the race, and feel out the competition on the 29k hill. I went in to the hill feeling okay, but was ready for some water up top. My skis were slower now, still fast, but not bomber. I skied with a pack, including a fellow who had a birchleggings bib—he'd skied 20+ Birkies—and no technique. He had a short, ab-driven V1 and almost never went to a V2, or even a long V1. He must have been in great shape, as he was working twice as hard as I was on the flats.

In any case, I crested the hill and reached for my water bottle. It was a store-bought bottle—I'd brought my drink belt in to the store and tried several, and was easy to get in and out of the holster. And it came out, easily. It was too easy. I went to take a drink, but realized I was slowing down as the hill wasn't as steep as I'd thought. I went to pole. And the water bottle, which hadn't seen my lips, slipped out if my hands and in to the track.

I cursed. Yes, I did. Oh, well, it was 2k to the next feed and I felt okay. I just had to not miss the feeds. Still, it would have been nice to rehydrate with some nice, real Gatorade feed (not the HEED crap they have) and a little whiskey melted in. Shucks. No one picked it up and I was over it. Everything was just so fast.

I felt fine through Gravel Pit and along the rolling hills in towards Mosquito Brook. Boy, were those hills screaming fast. I took the feed at Mosquito Brook (as with the trail run this fall, the feeders there seemed to be afraid of speed feeding) and got ready for the climb up after OO. Right before the hill, I saw Scott Brown, with his head-camera on. Rolling? I don't know.

But it was impetus to stay ahead of him. When you're not winning the race, you might as well mug for the camera. I turned and smiled, and then showed him how it was done. I was in front of the camera for most of Mosquito Brook Hill—he was slightly faster than me on the downhills. Still, I stayed in front of him (I'm hoping for a role in the upcoming picture) before leading up the steep-but-short Bitch.

Now, in later waves, Bitch Hill is almost a celebration. Beads, music, the bitches running all over handing out beads. There's music and cheering for us faster folks, but not much else. Which is for the better. After the hill are some nice downhills before the sneaky hills near 77 we ran down to the last road crossing. The snow was a bit slower in the warm sun, but I was surprisingly not overheated and happy. And we had 5.5k to go, with 44.5 down. It seemed to me we'd just started.

We were skiing with a couple more women now, but hadn't seen too many. I'd seen a couple fast Wave 1 guys, but, again, figured I was somewhere between 150 and 175th. I didn't want to take any risks and die on the lake, so I took it pretty easy up Duffy's Hill and then had decent skis, although other folks had faster skis, down the hill. I think it was the grind in the warmer snow, and had no real complaints.

The lake was, well, the lake. Sadly, I was just behind camera guy so I didn't get on video across. I was right behind Kristina Owen, who'd won Mora, and had a nice pack to get some help across the lake, meaning that I had something left for the sprint. We dropped a couple folks off the lake and I got ready for the sprint; a gander behind me showed no one catching up. Okay. This is it.

The snow around the Marketplace was rather soft as usual, as was 63, and I readied to sprint Main Street. As always, the crowds were great, and a strong V2 got me by a couple skiers, but, again, just behind Scott Brown, so no video. Too bad. I skied across the finish and tried to find the clock, finally seeing the time of 2:23.

Wait. 2:23? Really? Last year I skied the race in 2:38. The winner wasn't much below 2:23. So I was rather pleased with my result, and probably could have gone faster. I never really got that close to bonking. I found Jakob and Collin and saw some other folks I know (Alex Jospe representing Newton—16th—very well) and we sat in the food tent and ate some soup and I changed. Jakob had been yelled at for changing in the food tent and told me I'd get yelled at. I told them I'd channel my inner Boston and not care/cuss them out. Oh, yeah, do you think I was amped up from the race?

And then we executed our post-race plan. It was warm and sunny outside. Should we sit inside and eat/drink in the feed tent? Or walk to the grocery store, get some fine beverages and Girl Scout Cookies and go out on the lake to cheer people on. It was an easy decision. On the way to the lake, I watched the leader board for results. They started around 60th. Then 70th. Then 80th. Okay, I won't be on here for a while. Then 140th. 150th. A lot of close times. 170th and they were still in the 2:21s. Would I be relegated? When did I come in again? Then 180th. And there I was: 189th. One more guy would qualify out of the second wave. 10 spots below last year. But still in the elite wave. Had I known how close it'd be, however, I'd have gone harder.

Other Macalester skiers did well, including a few sub-3:00 finishes from the 10th wave (not as impressive this year as most, but still fast) and a 32d from Collin. That's impressive, and his 2:04:57 time would not only win the Birkie most years, but was faster than the winning time at the olympics this morning. Considering there were several "ringers" from Norway and Italy, Collin was about the 25th American in the race. Considering he didn't do much of anything ski specific before January, and most of the guys above him are on development teams, it's a very impressive result. Good on you, Collin!

And then we went out on the lake. I've never watched the race much before, but it was a blast. I ran along with Mac skiers as they came in, cheering and taking pictures. I tried to get on Colin Reuter's camera (apparently it was out of "film" and I was drunk) in addition to Scott Brown's. Every time I ran after a skier was an all-out sprint, with a couple beverages in me and 50k, too. It hurt a lot, but it was a blast. Collin and I ate Thin Mints, drank beer, and cheered for everyone. I put on my skis and skied up and down the lake beside the trail (it had been plowed and had an inch on top and was maybe faster than the trail. I cheered all the Mac skiers, skiing (easier than running, and it would only be illegal if I were "pacing" elite wavers who were in an FIS race) with them as they came in. And there was a couple sitting in lawn chairs along the course with a Jim Beam shot. It's probably good that it was an hour back to the car and we weren't going anywhere for a while.

Finally all the Mac skiers came in, and we had some food and got on the buses. A few hops, skips and jumps later we were at the house of one of our skiers—a Swede whose parents live here now—for Swedish meatballs and assorted food. A lovely, long day ended with me parsing finishing data and then going to sleep.

It's the Birkie. Breathe it. Live it. And next year, still in the elite wave. With impetus to go faster.


Como had just been groomed when we hit the trails pre-Birkie. The snow was a little pebble-y, so not perfect, but definitely good for a slow, easy skate.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

City of Lakes

I skied the Bog and Butler (twice) this morning. It warmed up some as I skied but was still pretty hard packed and skied in. I think local trails are getting a lot of use this week (I wonder why—aren't you supposed to get your distance in early in the season and taper now?!) so, with the sun and without frequent grooms they are getting rather packed down. In any case, it's definitely skiable but just pretty hard. The only icy section was on the downhill between the big, curving-to-the-left climb and the little lake behind the school, which, with full southern exposure, has gotten icy. Just ride it through. Still, in the early sun everything was lovely, and it might loosen up if it gets in to the 20s later on.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


This afternoon was better than this morning. It's not great, but what's there now is better. It's not perfect, no, but not as hard packed as it was this morning when it was almost difficult to keep on top of your skis. The issue is probably that it had gone long enough without a groom that the tiller just chopped up the hard pack—it might need a couple grooms to get in better shape.

Ari's unofficial guide to the Birkie

Let me first point out that I am in no way qualified to write a guide to the Birkie. I've only skied it four 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. Since it's a race that a lot of out-of-towners come in for, 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), 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.

Grooming and skiing on Friday. This year, grooming will take place the night before, using five (5) Pisten Bullies. That's right. Five. Usually the course is closed for several days pre-race, but with the base they have this year I'm assuming it's solid enough not to worry about it. However, at 3:00 on Friday, the courses, and that means the Birkie Trail, the classic trail and the Korte trail, close. If you need to ski after that point, the North End Trail, Seeley Trails and Telemark Trails are your best bet, but stay off the Birkie Trail. Drummond Trails, Rock Lake and Mukwanago are a bit further afield. See Skinnyski for more info.

As for the grooming, well, it will be awesome. It always is. Expect a firm but pliable skate deck, which, as long as it is cold enough, should stay solid during the race. 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. Take it easy—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 west 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, 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. 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 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. When a wave leaves, each pen gate opens, allowing the skiers to run up 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 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. 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.
- 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. So, you get to start with several hundred of your best friends and/or potential pole breakers.
- Sixth-Ninth waves: Probably less competitive. But I don't really know.
- 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. 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.


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—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, 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.
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). 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.
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.)
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.
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 skiers, 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. 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. 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. (Oh, and, they're running a full marathon to this point next fall. 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 significant climb of the day. And it's a doozy, especially after 45k. 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.
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. 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.
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.

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


Birkie (fever) on Google Maps

I have too much time on my hands. (But really, I don't.) If you zoom in you can follow the trail pretty well.

View Birkie in a larger map


Red: road closures, detours
Yellow: random landmarks
Green: parking
Purple: maybe parking but don't count on it
Blue: Start and Finish
Skier: Trail landmarks
Food: Feeds

The hills should match up with annotation on the Birkie elevation profile.


Como is very hard-packed and definitely in need of a groom. The skate lane is either barely-edgable or rutted, and appears not to have seen a machine in some time. I talked to a couple other skiers at the start and they agreed. The trail is perfectly skiable—if you don't mind your ski sliding out every few strokes—but just not a lot of fun. The chilly breeze didn't help, although the sun was bright and beginning to get warm.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Battle Creek

Battle Creek is still in good shape, but could use some scratching up. There's definitely decent purchase, but it is, in some places, pretty well hard-packed, almost as if it hasn't snowed in two weeks (because, uh, it hasn't snowed in two weeks). Nothing against the groomers, they've done fine work, and it's perfectly skiable, but could just use a bit more texture. There are a couple of totally avoidable thin spots (especially under the pine trees on the back hills) although nothing is icy. I'm being nitpicky here, it's really perfectly fine.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Skiing is excellent. It's a broken record over at Wirth. Great skate lanes, good-looking solid tracks, and surprisingly untransformed snow. The only issue was where the groomer had dropped some fluid a week or so ago in the woods back by Twin Lakes—that section is kind of slow and sticky on the center-left side of the trail.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Erik Judeen at Korkki

After yesterday's activities, we didn't get back to Duluth until around midnight. In the morning, we ate breakfast and piled in to the car to head up to the Korkki trails for the Erik Judeen Classic race. Korkki is an old-school, classic trail system, and the race is an old-school classic race. It's great. First of all, the trail is just fantastic. You, a four foot wide trail, the woods, the sun and the snow. Simple. Elegant. Like skiing should be. It's not terribly hilly, but definitely rolls, and has some rather fun climbs and descents. We didn't go over the big hill at the end, but in a race, you don't really want to go on trails which are likely to spew skiers in to the woods, which are dense and generally no more than six to twelve inches from you at any time.

It was also a beautiful day. We got there early, because Emily was volunteering for the race, and, well, why not. There were maybe half a dozen folks there, but the sun was out and warm, and we threw on some wax (waxing wasn't that hard) and I hit the trail. I skied the 4k loop and came back, and there was quite a bit of time before the start, and we hung out at the start. The race has a fantastic, small-town feel. No one is trying too hard—it's not like you can pass too easily, although tracking is in effect—and everyone is out to have fun. The best part is the legal release, which is modeled off the ski club release:
Folks of good character have been enjoying the trails at Korkki for over fifty years, and no one has ever sued anyone over anything. I understand that if I ski or hike or hang out at these trails, I might get hurt but probably won't, and won't sue; if I do, because I willfully agreed to participate in these activities. (And if I do sue, I will pay for my own attorney and Korkki Nordic's.) I agree to the above as a right to be part of the Korkki Nordic Ski Center.
Oh, yeah, these trails have history. They were first cut in 1953—making them some of the oldest continuously skied trails in the state. In the early 1980s they were mostly abandoned for the wide skating lanes—the Erik Judeen was moved to skating trails for a decade—but by the early 1990s, people realized that there was something to having narrow, classic-only trails, and they've been well-kept ever since.

It was a very low-key affair: the starter gave us a countdown and we went. We first looped around a field, which should have been easy but, uh, wasn't. There were two tracks in to the field, and everyone was happy to just double-pole around, even if they were in the slightly-longer outside one (mathematics would dictate that a circle with a radius one meter wider than another would have a length of 2π meters—or about six feet—longer than the inside circle. In a 10k race, that doesn't really matter.

Except, it did matter to a guy in a CXC suit (someone jokingly said, before the start, "hey, look at Garrott Kuzzy") that someone had bought him. If you're not on CXC, uh, don't wear their uniform. Oh, and he was in high school. Anyway, he stormed out of the start but found himself in the outside track that was six feet longer than the other track. And he was not going to ski a 10.002k race when he could ski a 10k race. So he jumped in to the other track and right in to a guy, who he tripped up. The tripped-up guy stumbled and pushed his ski in to the snow and—Kapow!—snapped his ski. Right in front of me. I gave CXC-dude a lot of room in front of me on a narrow course.

As I double-poled around the track, my sunglasses kept falling off my nose. I'd thrown off my hat before the race and my sunglasses, apparently, don't have much in the way of springiness left. I need to get a strap before the Birkie. But they fell off on this loop, and I kicked them to the side, and despite the sun, skied off without them. It's only a 10 (or a 10.002) k.

The rest of the race went off without many issues. I skied with a couple other folks until about 8k, which was good, because I'd never seen most of the trail. Thus, I was rather timid on most of the downhills, not wanting to push the envelope since I had no idea if the trail would turn and sling-shot me in to some thick pines. It turned out that at the only point where that was the case there was someone, on the hill before us, yelling "sharp left over the next hill." Which, indeed, was the case. I navigated the turn—barely—and shot down the next hill. The rest of the race, well, one guy passed me and I held off another. I think I was ninth, got an age-class medal, and had fun. And didn't break any skis.

CXC-dude gave us a few more moments at the end. First he bothered Adam Swank, asking him about his training schedule (Adam had won, three seconds off three-time Olympian John Bauer's course record.) First of all, why do high school kids think talking to a good skier is magically going to make them a good skier? When Thomas Alsgaard was in town a couple years ago some kid went up to him and said, instead of just asking for an autograph, "so what should my training plan be? I am training 425 hours a year and …" and you could just see his eyes roll. Anyway, Adam humored him "yeah, 300 to 400 hours a year. An hour a day." That's deep, Adam. A few minutes later, CXC-dude said, in response to a conversation about the Olympics, "Kris Freeman needs to stop having diabetes."

Anyway, that gave us some fodder for the drive back to Duluth, and after a stop at Ski Hut and then at Amazing Grace (hippies and bread pudding) I drove home, my eyes burning from the sun. I made some stops up top the hill, though, as it was a beautiful day. And, I have to get those sun glasses fixed.

After Hours and the Book

I headed up to Duluth for the weekend for the Book Across the Bay. I met Jakob and Emily in Duluth for the ride across Wisconsin and we decided to stop at the After Hours Trail for a ski beforehand. Conditions were excellent—there's a lot of snow in the woods—but, maybe because it was pretty slow, the trails just seem so flat. (Best moment: when a group of skiers asked us how to get to the start (we had no clue) and we found a map maybe ten yards up the trail—in the direction they'd come from! We skied longer than, perhaps, we should have, and headed up to Bayfield to catch the bus to Ashland for the race.

We parked, grabbed our gear and got to the line for the bus, which was, conservatively, 300 people long. Doing some quick math, we decided that it might be faster to ski across to the start, and, if nothing else, more fun than standing in line for half an hour. So we did—we changed clothes and hit the lake. Conditions were very good on the lake, with some variability in smoothness as would be expected, and we made decent time towards Ashland. Callie was grabbing our bibs and it looked like our timing would work out, but there was a minor communication error when Callie couldn't go and find Roscoe—and Jakob and Emily—on the start line (she didn't, it seems, run out in front of the line where she would have had a good view). So she dropped their bags and grabbed their chips; oh well. I guess we should have left more time; we seemed to underestimate an event with several thousand participants.

I, on the other hand, had to pack up the truck bag and then get my skis on. I had just put them on and began frantically double poling through 2000 people when the gun went off. Whoops! I double poled a lot to just get to the start, throwing down a couple turns to find open areas, as my skis and legs are both significantly faster than old folks on fish scales. Once I hit the start I realized that skating was not going to happen for a while, and found that the classic track nearest the luminaries had almost no traffic—and began to double pole furiously.

I passed a lot of people. A whole lot. After about two kilometers of double poling I was able to skate, but it was still crowded—it took me another two k until I was able to just go around people without having to double pole between people. However, having warmed up quite a bit and having some perverse motivation from passing everyone, I was going pretty fast. It probably also helped that I knew it was a 10k and that I knew that there were no uphills—it's on a lake, after all.

I must have lost a lot of time at the start because I was picking skiers off all the way to the finish. It was, however, a perfect training session: all week I'd wanted to do a 20+ minute level three race pace ski, but with hills it's hard to keep your heart rate in check (uphills spike it, downhills have recovery) and I couldn't find the discipline to do so. Today was perfect. I was tasting some race in my mouth by 8k and still passing people, looking for Roscoe each time. I started sprinting with about a k to go—I really did feel good and would have liked to have started on the line, but such is life—and caught and dropped a fellow before the finish. I finished harder than anyone around me and looked up to see Roscoe, two places and 15 seconds in front of me. Of course, he'd been on the front line.

So I didn't place well but I skied well and that's what counts, right? I felt really good—I think I like long warm-ups, so too bad the Birkie is at 8:25 in the morning—hopefully that will carry in to tomorrow. We ate lots of chili after the race, and had some beer, and then drove Emily's brother back to Ashland. We also found out that, had we taken the bus, we would have likely missed the start anyway. We should have just driven to Ashland to the start and then skied, or bummed a ride, back. A quick pit stop (oil and gas for my car, food for us) and we were back to Duluth to ski the Korkki tomorrow morning.

As for the Book—it's a great, unique event. How often do you get to ski across the largest lake in the world? One thing we all agreed is that it might be better in the other direction—ending in Ashland, which would have more to do than just hang out in the huge tent there. It could still benefit the Washburn library, just finish at the other end.
The other thing that everyone agreed on was that there was way too much hay on the floor of the tent. Apparently I have an allergy to hay. Everyone was wheezing and sneezing. And the next morning we all had black stuff (mold, Roscoe says) in our boogers. Ick! If sliding is an issue, sand, or wood chips, would suffice. Hay is bad. I can't imagine what anyone with real allergies did, but I'd assume it involved going straight home. More reason to have it in Ashland: you could pitch the tent on a (plowed) parking lot.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Birkie fever/geekout continues

Recently, we posted a Birkie elevation profile (large file linked here):

Next, we have the total climb and descent (in feet) of the Birkie, kilometer per kilometer. The black line is a five-k moving average. (click to enlarge)


Friday, February 19, 2010

Birkie Weather Speculation: Week 2

For the last week, we've been following along as the models converge on a solution for the Birkie next weekend. It's been looking like a cool, dry race for several model runs (good run-to-run continuity) which means it will be probably be snowing or 80 next week. In any case, the last post was getting a bit long-winded, so we'll start the final countdown here.

Feb 20 00Z: Seasonable, dry. 2-4" of snow Wednesday and Thursday.
Feb 20 06Z: Seasonable (10-15), dry. 2-4" snow Wednesday and Thursday.
Feb 20 12Z: Seasonable, dry.
Feb 20 18Z: Seasonable, dry.
Feb 21 00Z: Seasonable, dry. 1-2" snow Tuesday-Wednesday.
Feb 21 06Z: Seasonable (teens), dry. Inch of snow midweek.
Feb 21 12Z: Seasonable (teens), slight possibility of light snow/flurries during race.
Feb 21 18Z: Seasonable (5-15), 1-3" snow midweek.
Feb 22 00Z: Seasonably cool, 1-3" snow midweek.
Feb 22 06Z: Seasonably coo, 1-3" snow midweek. Light northerly wind.
Feb 22 12Z-18Z: It's coming down to 1-2 inches of snow tomorrow (most likely more as you go north on the trail) and temperatures around 5 for the race start (8:30), rising to 20 during the race for fast folks, 30 for later wavers. No more updates unless there are any major changes.
Feb 23 00Z-06Z: Same as before, but with the slight possibility of light snow during the race.


Como was quite firm but in very nice shape. The trails were much faster this afternoon than at Wirth this morning, and it made for a great ski as the sun set behind the clouds streaking across the horizon.


I was across the river this morning and dropped by Wirth to take a loop—I would have done more but tweaked my quad a bit, and I had to get to work—and the trails are in great shape. The snowmaking course has been tilled up and is nearly the epitome of perfection. The rest of the course has seen snowmobile grooming and is pretty hard, especially for rock skis with no edges left. My well-structured skis were very, very slow, too, on the snow which got rather cold overnight, although the sun was making its presence known in a hurry. There were a couple places where the sun has transformed the snow, but coverage is complete throughout. To think that last year at this time we had rivulets of water streaming through the barely-covered snowmaking section and the rest was grass! There were quite a few other folks out enjoying the skiing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Birkie Elevation Profile

[Updated 2/19 with high quality profile linked, 2/22: more hilly fun here.]

So, at times in the past, I've spent a bit of time looking in to the elevation profile of the Birkie Trail. The Birkie folks have one, but, well, it kind of stinks. So, I decided to do them one better. Google maps got good aerial photos posted on their site this past year, so it is easy to trace the trail from Cable to Hayward. I used gmap-pedometer to do so (it's having trouble loading the whole thing) and then used Gmap to GPX to convert it in to GPS data. That was exportable in to excel, and from there it was a hop, skip and a jump (and some google searching to figure out how to convert latitude and longitude in to distance) to having an excel file with 2300 points each with a distance and an elevation.

Thus, I was able to create a detailed chart of the Birkie trail elevation, kilometer by kilometer, for the whole race course. And, of course, post it here. Click it to enlarge, although the quality is less-than-stellar (thanks, blogger) but for a far better version click this clicky. That's on my personal website which is crash-prone but should work for now. But it is pretty damn sweet.

It's annotated with some major landmarks. And I'm not going to say it's perfect, but I think it shows all the major climbs. The .xls file is up to 2.3 mb, and has things like slope and such, which are poorly defined measurements (the more points you sample, the better they get, but you can never get a perfect measurement, see coastline paradox). In any case, this is enough for now.

A few stats: the race starts at 408m and drops to 366m. However, it has a total climb of more than one kilometer—1041 meters of climb. And in the 10k from McNaught Road to High Point, the trail ascends 400 feet. No wonder its a good, fun (hard) time. High point is 534m (1752 feet; the sign says 1730), and Lake Hayward, the low point, is 359m (1178 feet) amsl.

If you want to geek out a bit more … to calculate distance from changes in latitude and longitude, I get excel cells which look like
=(3958*3.1415926*SQRT((E1938)*(E1938) + COS(A1938/57.29578)*COS(A1937/57.29578)*(F1938)*(F1938))/180)
so that's fun. But it works; the distance comes in at 49.45 km which is within 1% of the advertised distance and not worth trying to adjust to 50k (i.e. multiplying distances by 1.01). Also, the Birkie has about 100 feet of climb per mile, or about a third the climb of the Hut Traverse in the White Mountains. Which probably means very little in these parts, but it's hiking 50 miles with ~15,000 feet of climb. In a day.


Como is in very good shape. Despite the warm weather and sun, the trail is still nearly all powdery (there are a couple portions of the track which are a bit transformed) and it is firm all around. In a couple sections it is a bit lumpy—it could use a groom to smooth things out—but conditions are excellent. They're probably better than Battle Creek although, of course, the terrain is a bit less exciting. The snowboard hill is pretty lumpy but not in bad shape for some hill repeats.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Battle Creek

Battle Creek is still in very good shape, but not exactly perfect any more. There's nothing to complain about, of course, but there are a couple crunchy spots with the sun and warm temperatures, and a couple spots where the edge of the trail is getting a little burned out. The snow is getting a tad thin under the pines on the big back hill, and while the classic track is deep and solid, the places where it has transformed have gotten pretty slick. It's very good, but getting a bit springy—it will be nice to have cooler temperatures, and a tad of snow would perfect it once again.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Birkie Weather Speculation

The long-range models are now reaching to Birkie week. So far it's only the GFS, but it starts to give us an idea of what might be happening two weeks down the road.

I'll make short remarks about each model run between now and then—but don't start waxing quite yet.

Feb 13 00Z: Major warm-up, then light rain, ending, temperatures in the 40s.
Feb 13 06Z: No warm-up, heavy snow (6-12") evening before Birkie.
Feb 13 12Z: Cold (0-10 above), clear.
Feb 13 18Z: Major warm-up, dry.
Feb 14 00Z: Seasonable, dry, no warm-up.
Feb 14 06Z: Seasonable, dry, no warm-up.
Feb 14 12Z: No real warm-up, heavy, wet snowstorm the day before race day.
Feb 14 18Z: Clear and cold (0-10 above).
Feb 15 00Z: Dry or maybe flurries, seasonable.
Feb 15 06Z: Lingering snow, cold (then very cold after race day).
Feb 15 12Z: Possible light snow, cold.
Feb 15 18Z: Clear and chilly.
Feb 16 00Z: Cool, possible flurries.
Feb 16 06Z: Cool, possible warmer storm after Birkie.
Feb 16 12Z: Seasonable, possible snow ending around race time, storm then warm after race.
Feb 16 18Z: Cool, dry, no warmup after race.
Feb 17 00Z: Seasonable, dry.
Feb 17 06Z: Seasonable, dry.
Feb 17 12Z: Cool, dry.
Feb 17 18Z: Cool, dry.
Feb 18 00Z: Seasonable, dry.
Feb 18 06Z: Cool, dry.
Feb 18 12Z: Seasonable, dry.
Feb 18 18Z: Cool, dry.
Feb 19 00Z: Cool, dry.
Feb 19 06Z: Seasonable, probably dry but possible flurries. Possibility of light snow next Wednesday or Thursday to soften conditions for the race.
Feb 19 12Z: Cool, dry. Still a bit of snow showing up between now and race day.

Comments Feb 17: It seems that the model runs are converging on a solution which is for a cool, dry Birkie, probably with a bit of new snow by then, but I bet it will be firm, fast and fun, if a bit nippy. Now, let's see the next model run—if it's anything like normal, it will be completely different than the last few.

I'll continue to update this, hopefully daily, as the race nears—and it will be interesting to see how the model(s) converge on a solution.

Battle Creek

Battle Creek is in terrific shape. There were a couple sections which were slightly crispy from the warm sun today, and a couple points where the sides of the trail look to be thinning a little bit, but other than that it's in very fine shape. The skate lanes were not particularly fast and were firm, and the classic tracks looked to be very solid if somewhat glazed/frozen in places. The groomer was out and had headed across the street, so if you need a respite from hills that may be the place for you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vasaloppet Race Report

I quite like the Mora.

It's sort of a little cousin to the Birkie, and a totally different race, but it feels, just, very Minnesotan. The race itself is unassuming—no big, named climbs, no world-class trail, no elite wave—just a lightly-rolling trail 58k (the longest major race in the country) from Salen, I mean, Warman to Mora. The country is beautiful, and, again, pure Minnesota. Mostly hardwood forest but several fields and prairies, some swamps—basically what you'd see if you drive across the central part of the state. And while the race doesn't seem hard, there are no real downhills—no rests—for thirty-five miles.

It's a lot of fun.

The trail itself is never really perfect, but was, this year, very good. The start was groomed not-that-great, as seems to generally be the case in this race, with a lot of ridges between the tracks. It was groomed quite well most of the way with a few minor issues: scattered dirt (rare and avoidable), a classic track, which wasn't really necessary for the skate race, and road crossings which could have used more snow. Otherwise, it was great. So goes the season.

We headed up 65 to Mora (no, Google Maps, it does not 1:51 and you should not take 35) and got to the gym, Collin cursing me because, apparently, he really did have to use the bathroom and there was nowhere along 65 to stop. We grabbed bibs and camped out in the high school for a while, and then jumped on a school bus up to the start. The Mora is about the only race I can think of where you ride from the finish to the start, and it's a rather long bus ride when you consider that the 35k skiers ski it in a straight line and the 58k is more than half again as long as the bus ride. (The same thing happened this fall when I ran a marathon and, on the bus to the start, thought "I have to race this?") But the start was warm and sunny and I skied out to the trail juncture (about 1k), stripped down, and waited for the national anthem (belting it out with Zach Handler) before the gun went off.

Actually, the gun went off, and then the gates went up. And several of us got tangled in the gates. It was not good. I caught a pole and finally got going, but by this point there were 100 skiers in front of me. Yes, many were doing the 35k, but many were not. I wended and double poled my way back towards the front pack, hoping to keep contact until Liebsch (no-poles skating—"That's not fair!" was my reaction) slowed it down.

Which happened. There was a bottleneck at the first little hill on the 58k, and I could see no one was pushing it. However, there was some concern—last year this pack had had about a dozen and a half skiers in it, this year it was easily triple that size. Race fields have been much deeper this year—which might not bode well for those of us at the bottom of the Birkie elite wave (however, my consolation/rationalization is that everyone who's anyone skis the Birkie). I should do a quick chart of the number of skiers within x% of the winner this year versus last—I'm sure it's significantly higher.

Now seems like a good time to talk about a few truths of Mora. If you are reading this and have skied it, or plan to ski it, please keep these in mind:

  • The race goes out slow. It's a 58k and it's flat. No one is going to win in the first three kilometers. This means a couple of things: a) keep contact with the lead pack as long as possible and b) you didn't need those fluoros—they'll be gone by the time you'd need them to go fast.
  • Once the pack thins, it thins fast. Someone at the front decides to put the hammer down, and it moves. So, try to get in to the pack where you think you'll be, but don't kill yourself. It's a 58k race. (With the bigger fields, yeah, you want to get where you think you should be. But try to do that before the trail narrows down.)
  • Do not do anything stupid—or that you'd do in a 5k—to gain two or three spots. It's a 58k race. If you need to pass, double pole in the tracks, but not on hills. Hills will bottleneck. There are six of them on the whole course. Wait your turn. Don't try to pass on the hill, you are much more likely to fall down than you are to gain any meaningful time. I have a little remorse for the guy whose pole got stepped on and broken, because that sucks. I have no remorse for the guy who tried to pass me on a hill and fell down.
  • If someone is letting gaps form, let them know about it. Don't passive-aggressively try to go around them. But don't let gaps form. Four hard V2s and you'll catch the folks in front of you. If someone tells you to close the gap, especially if they are the third woman in the race, close the gap.
  • Once the big pack breaks up, it's a pack race. You are screwed if you ski the whole way on your own, unless your name is Matt Liebsch. If it is, hi Matt. If not, take it easy. There's no need to attack a pack at 11k unless you do plan to catch the on in front of you.
  • If you want to try to break a group (and this doesn't really apply in the last 10k when the trail is wider), offer to take a pull. If you get in front, you'll be doing more work. If you want to push the tempo and see if you can break it, go for it. But if you can't see anyone ahead of you, you're not likely to get very far.
  • Speaking of which, do not draft the whole way and expect me to let you in or be nice to you. Skiers could learn from cyclists. Everyone takes a pull. It's not cool to sit behind someone the whole way. Pull for two or three k, and then let someone else. With a pack of seven following me at one point, after I'd pulled for three k, I asked someone to take a pull. More than one guy—the only other guy to do the work—should have volunteered. I like setting the pace, but not the whole race.
  • And finally, here's how to behave around the top women (I skied most of the race with women 1, 2 and 3). First of all, if they ask you to do something simple, like let them ski together, or not let gaps form, or let them pass on a flat (you can jump right behind them—and they like to take pulls), do it. They are the ones who are borderline olympians (Carolyn, 5th in this race, probably would be in Vancouver for biathlon—she went to Torino 2006—had her gun not malfunctioned). Not you. And—and take note number 299; yes I am calling you out here (the results don't have bib numbers; er, now they do, and I know who you are, and you are younger than me, and you have a lot to learn)—if I get to the side to double pole, I am doing so in order to let Anna and/or Jojo pass me. Not you. When the guy behind you has to say "hey he's letting the girls pass, not you" take a hint. Had you taken a single pull, I might let you by. You had not.
Anyway, there's a lot in there about my race. I fell in to a sort of chase pack and, with a guy in a UNH suit, led a lot of the way. The elite women caught us around 20k but skied in the pack—which me and UNH were leading—until the halfway point. Being in a pack was very important. While the winds were generally a tail wind, the course winds around a lot, and there were a lot of points where the headwind was rather strong. We hit one section on a frozen lake/river and had a perfect tail wind, I exclaimed "this is what I'm talking about" and had a smile from ear to ear. Then there was a hill. I broke it some, UNH did some, we let the girls hang out in back, and it would have been nice for others to take a pull. We did catch a few guys, and were moving at a good, but not brutal, pace.

At 29k—or maybe a bit later; it was right after a feed—the girls took off. A few of us jumped on their tails—we'd done work for them after all. Kristina Owen jumped out to a lead and the pack didn't really follow. I skied with JoJo Winters for a while, and Anna McLoon was nearby most of the time. Kristina was gone, and for a while it was a pack of four or five of us, me, UNH, JoJo and Anna. JoJo later jumped behind a relay skier (the lead one) who was going a slightly shorter distance (oh, say, 10k) and rode him, and the pack was down to me, UNH (okay, his name is Philip) and Anna. The boys did most of the work, but Anna helped out, so, thanks.

Last year, I bonked at 52k, but this year I had goos and ate one on a long, gradual downhill (and the flats afterwards) and it went down pretty well. I'd had very minor dehydration cramps near the start, but they worked out—I felt good most of the way. There was one nasty section after a road crossing which required some double poling and fancy footwork; but with a couple experienced skiers we all took it easy—no one tried to jump anything in there.

We had to dodge some 35k skiers. Most were fine—we were going considerably faster having skied 48k in the time it took them to ski 25 (twice as fast) but a few needed a few yells of "on your left. On Your Left. ON YOUR LEFT!" before they got it. We headed through the last feed and there was a woman standing in the middle of the trail—back to the trail—taking pictures of … something. I lost it. "Get off the trail you're standing in the middle of the race!" I yelled in a very not-Minnesotan way. I was skiing with someone who, presumably, spent some time at UNH, and a woman who's in a Ph.D. program at Harvard (she went there undergrad) and my New England popped out. Come to think of it, instead of saying down the trail "I'm not an arsehole, I just get amped up sometimes" I should have said "I'm from Boston—sometimes it pops out like that." Then we told stories about stupid spectators and people who won't get out of the way.

Anyway, we caught another fellow who kind of messed with the little group. He was going slower but jumped on (nothing wrong there) but a) didn't really take pulls and b) was a chronic pole stepper-on-er. Now, everyone steps on poles. It happens, and it's not the end of the world. You take a stronger step than someone, you get to close, you nick their pole, you apologize, or if you have had your pole nicked, you say "no worries." It happens, especially in pack skiing.

I have nothing against this guy, but he stepped on my poles a couple of times. At one point he got enough of it to actually rip it off my hand (but not break it, although I may need a new grip—this will be assessed soon). He apologized, and everyone waited for me, but, come on. Nicking a pole is one thing. That's inexcusable. And a k later it happened again. There was no wind—he was too close. And I'd tired out from circling back and sprinting back to the group, so both guys beat me in the sprint up the hill (we had to circumnavigate some 35kers coming off the lake, too). Anna was back a bit. I came down Main Street (or whatever street it is) with no one to catch, and no one catching me, and didn't have to kill myself.

I grabbed snacks and gabbed some, and then got my clothes and waited for Hans, who was grabbing the van (thanks, Hans). A guy walked by (not a skier) and said "oh, so did you do the 52k?" I looked up and said, "yeah, and then tacked on an extra 6k for good measure—and so I'd get to the finish line." In any case, it was a good time. Collin and I blasted down 65, grabbed lunch at Culvers, and, while it was sunny during the whole race (thank goodness for sunglasses) it was snowing in Saint Paul.

And how did I do? Last year, I finished in 2:38, 20 minutes off of Matt Liebsch. This year, I finished in 2:35, 19 minutes off of Liebsch. So, just about the same. I was eight places back of last year, but the fields are deeper. In any case, I felt good and had fun, so what more can I ask for?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Over to Como to do a bit of teaching and just enjoy time outside. General consensus was that the trail is in fine shape, but could use a groom, especially in the skate lane. It's firm but has some ridges from a lot of skiers and doesn't appear to have been groomed very recently.


Wirth is very excellent.

The Back 9 is in great shape: firm and fast, and the classic track looks like it is solid as well. Tele skiing in the powder is great, until you catch an edge under eight inches of powder and take a dive. Great coverage all around (one dirty spot up the mound) and great skiing. The only issue was that the groomer had some issues with what I can only imagine is some sort of hydraulic fluid and dumped a pink stripe along about a k of trail through the woods. It also meant that there was not full new grooming all around. Hopefully this isn't a major issue for the snow or skis—it does look interesting, though.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Battle Creek

Battle Creek is stellar. It has firmed up and is in truly excellent shape all around. There are couple washboarded sections and a couple places where the track has washed out, but these are extremely minor and more than made up by the orange setting sun shining through the oaks. Gorgeous!

Oh, and is there anything more baller than doing pull-ups on the tree overhanging the trail in the field after the hill off the lighted loop? Hanging from a branch, with my skis dangling above the snow, I'd say, no, no there is not.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Perfect. Como was perfect. It was very well groomed—it's nice to have a machine to pack things down—and the tracks were solid. The skate lane was firm and relatively fast, and the tracks were mostly free of glaze and kicked well. I can't take Como day in and day out, but for a good ski close to home it's tough to beat.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

That was the winter that was—mid-season report

I'd say this is the TW3 report, but the tenses would be wrong, since we're really only about half way through. So, maybe I'll call it TITWTI (this is the winter that is), or something. In any case, it's about time to examine where we stand compared to recent winters, look at some condition reports, and prognosticate where we might wind up, as well as spill some fun weather data. And, yes, there's a darned good reason I did the season recaps after the snow had melted last March: time! So this may be rather short and periodically updated.

Now, we know that ski conditions are, uh, pretty awesome. It got a late start, but since then there has been continuous skiing, with only a couple days without at least good conditions. (Ski conditions were discussed at length last year here.)

So, where do we stand? Well, first of all, we're at, as of February 10, 65 days of skiing, of which 61 have been good or excellent. We have not had to contend with the "oh no will it melt" syndrome which has plagued some past ski seasons, and the base is now up to 15 inches, the highest in nine years, with no meltdowns in sight. The City of Lakes went off without a hitch, Mora will as well, and Birkie has two feet of base two weeks before the race. As long as we can make March 15, we'll have 100 days of skiing, and an "excellent" snow year.

What's interesting is that despite the great skiing since early December (even after a couple of minor meltdowns the trails have, for the most part, been resurrected) it has not been a particularly cold or snowy winter. December was about a degree below normal, January, despite a cold start, finished just a tenth below. Snowfall through the end of January was 26.8 inches, of which 20.9 fell in December (2.8 in October, 0 in November, just 3.1 in January). With 11.3 inches so far in February, we're up to around normal. So it's been a very normal winter.

Despite some variability and unusual storms, there have been no real extremes. We've had no brutal cold snaps (no day has stayed below 0) but also no major warm-ups. The latter is, I think, the reason that we've kept our base so well. If you look back at the past few years, every one has a pretty devastating warm-up. Last January 31 it skied to 45 degrees, a week later it was 47. January '08 hit 40 twice (December '07 had as well), 2007 was, well, let's not talk about it, and other years were similar. It got me to thinking: we haven't been above 40 for more than 70 days. What are the records days under x degrees? I delved in to the data to find out.

Longest Second longest Third longest
Temperature Days Ending: Days Ending: Days Ending:
0 7 Jan 7 1912 6 Jan 28 1904 5 Four times
5 12 Jan 12 1912 10 Jan 27 1963 9 Jan 27 1936
10 21 Feb 7 1936 15 Jan 1912/1974 13 Feb 21 1936
15 36 Feb 21 1936 16 Jan 1912/1977 15 Jan 12 1974
20 39 Feb 22 1936 25 Feb 15 1905 24 Feb 12 1904
25 41 Feb 22 1936 32 Feb 8 1978 27 Three times
27 52 Feb 19 1979 47 Feb 9 1912 41 Feb 22 1936
29 52 Feb 19 1979 50 Feb 12 1912 47 Feb 22 1978
30 58 Feb 19 1979 52 Feb 12 1912 48 Feb 25 1939
31 66 Feb 22 1978 58 Feb 19 1979 52 Feb 13 1912
32 66 Feb 22 1978 58 Feb 19 1979 52 Feb 13 1912
33 67 Feb 23 1978 58 Feb 19 1979 53 Feb 13 1912
34 67 Feb 23 1978 60 Feb 21 1979 54 Feb 13 1912
35 71 Feb 21 1969 70 Feb 22 1936 69 Feb 15 1971
36 79 Mar 7 1940 77 Feb 22 1936 75 Mar 15 1975
37 106 Mar 6 1972 84 Feb 13 1943 81 March 9 1978
38 116 Mar 12 1979 106 Mar 4 1972 105 Mar 1904/1955
39 122 Mar 22 1904 116 Mar 12 1979 114 Mar 2 2001
40 122 Mar 22 1904 116 Mar 12 1979 114 Mar 2 2001
42 126 Mar 13 2001 125 Mar 24 2006 122 Three times
45 141 Apr 3 1979 140 Apr 12 1975 135 Mar 24 1956
50 152 Apr 11 1979 149 Three times 148 Several times

Some of these data are pretty amazing. 66 days at or below freezing in 1977-8 is probably the best known. But go a couple degrees warmer, and you get 106 days at or below 37 degrees in 1972, which is, perhaps, just as impressive: it was below 37 from November 21 to March 6! And our last big snow year—the last time Minneapolis banned parking outright on one side of the street. Right now, we have a good chance of overtaking third place for the 37 degree mark, as we are just ten days away (and two weeks out of second). But there have been some impressively long cold streaks in the past. This current streak is long, and cold, but not really historic. Yet.
Firmer, better, wonderful-er.

Battle Creek was in top form today. Track set all around, and the skate lanes were slow and still pretty soft but firmer than yesterday. Just a pleasure to ski. If you go down the hill off the lighted loop (the start of the 5k and 7.5k) and see a divot in the snow off to the right side of the trail, my apologies. At least I had the manners to fall off the side of the trail and plow out a bunch of ungroomed snow.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Battle Creek

Just fantastic.

The skaters said the skate lane was soft, which I believe. The classic track, however, was surprisingly firm. The new snow is setting up pretty well—it's rather dense—and I assume a couple cold nights (it's clear, now let it be calm and cold) and Battle Creek should be in tip-top shape. Okay, it pretty much already is the best I've ever seen it, but tip-top shape and firm. Coverage is perfect throughout, of course (except the usual spot on the Lighted Loop Back Down on to the Prairie, which is merely thin) and everything is groomed and tracked (except no track on the LLBDOTTP). Just a pleasure to ski—your worries just melt away! Which this snow won't be doing any time soon, we hope!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Loppet Report

Not too much of a report (I think). The Loppet, as a trail and event, was fantastic. Great organization, a perfectly groomed trail (good snow to thank for that) and a deep field. The start was a bit chaotic, and I definitely didn't get a good position; I'd missed the timing on the first double pole and everyone was off.

And it didn't get much better. The first couple turns were all double poling, and we then headed down in front of the quarter pipe on the snowboard hill, which, on my warm-up, I'd realized was a jump. Not realizing it was a race I tried to catch air. And did so perfectly. I sailed about ten feet and then stuck the landing. Barely. Another skier said "good save" and I said, "that was stupid."

And then for about 10k I felt slow. I think part of it was not having had enough to drink. I really need to remember to drink more. Lots and lots. Three trips to the bathroom the night before. I was cramped up through the hills and flats and across Wirth Lake, and only salvaged some piece of decency by having a couple cups of water at the feeds.

I felt slightly better in the hills in Bryn Mawr, although not good enough to jump on when the first girls passed us. Before we got out of the Flower Gardens, however, the fourth and fifth women (Carolyn Bramante and Lindsey Dehlin—both olympians, which is some consolation for getting girled) passed two of us guys and we jumped on. At this point, Ben Pedersen had been catching up with me and was only a few seconds behind, and I wanted to be ahead of him. The girls set a good pace—not hurried, but solid—the pace I wish I could set for myself at the start of a race, and we steamed through the woods, catching Freddy Kueffer on the last hill and through the feed and on to the lakes. The girls didn't seem to mind leading; they knew they were far behind the top three and would hold off those behind him, and a couple of us guys didn't mind the help. Although on one hill, a guy cheering yelled "let's go ladies—" and added, as an afterthought, "and guys."

That was fine. I was feeling slightly better on the lakes. We went on to the Cedar Lake Trails and after the U-turn Carolyn caught an edge and ate some snow, but there was no reason to try to drop her. She jumped back in. We were headed for the canal when a second waver stormed past. Carolyn jumped on his tail (a draft!). I did too. Lindsey did not. This guy was moving, though, and I didn't quite keep the draft. So I went through the canal on my own, and then around Isles.

Isles was rather well groomed and was very wide, so we were able to cut a couple corners. A couple small groups came and went, and at the end we headed up the ramp and in to the sprint. I was neck-and-neck with a guy going in to the finishes but outsprinted him (always makes things better) and finished, feeling pretty okay.

I grabbed a cookie and talked with Jakob and Emily and John and others, and then went to cheer Macalester skiers on the lakes. Fun times. Then it was time to eat soup, get a brat (so good) and go home. No, it wasn't the Surly festival after the Trail Loppet (when they gave free beer—one per person—until they had more beer than people) but it was good. Then I went home and went to sleep.

My results? 92d place—the lowest I've ever scored in the race—and 120% of the winning time. This is a drop from last year, but it's actually a bad comparison. Matt Liebsch skied this year, and took the title by quite a bit. In last year's race, I finished 17% behind the top three guys. Compared to the third place guy, Andre Watt, who skis about the same pace, I was 16%. I'm rationalizing here, obviously.

Anyway, drink more before races and ski fast. Right? Right. Still best Loppet ever!