Monday, February 28, 2011

Pole position in the Birkie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, would it be good enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Can we expect to see another Birkie by the numbers breakdown like last year? Only 354 days until Birkie 2011. Nice race by the way.

  2. Great blog you have posted. Thanks for the great read too.

    Nice race also. :)

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  3. Great post, so excited to read an update from you. thanks!

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