[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.