2016: American Birkebeiner

Until about two years or so ago, Birkie was something I couldn’t care less about. So much so that I thought and truly believed that Birkie was a real physical town somewhere in Wisconsin. And I even tried looking for a sign to this town on my way to Red Wing, Minnesota, to participate in the 2014 Ragnar Relay Great River, and I don’t remember being disappointed at my inability to find it.

By its 2015 edition, my awareness had grown a little: Birkie had transformed from being a mythical town to an event — in the areas surrounding the real townships Cable and Hayward — that a pantheon of my skier friends trained for (some throughout the year) and proudly participated in. I had even learned that Birkie was short for Birkebeiner although I made no effort to learn what it was about or what it meant. My personal skill set though wasn’t anywhere near being good enough to participate but sufficient to be a part of it as a spectator and a member of the support team — or so I thought. But an unexpected series of events ensured that I would have to wait at least one more year to experience it all.

Having gone back and forth a few times in Summer/Fall 2015 on whether or not I should sign up for the Prince Haakon 12k, I finally dropped the idea following the friendly advice/warning in the Birkie website: Attracts first-time racers and other skiers looking for a shorter event. Please note that the 13K course does include several challenging uphills, downhills and turns and is not suited for beginning skiers. Beginning skiers should consider the 5/10K Family Fun Event. My lack of experience in dealing with downhills and mass starts made it relatively easier to be content with the decision.

2016 ski season got off to a friendlier start: the first 40 miles (or 64+k) was pain free with barely any falls or wipeouts — made possible by the careful choice of flatter terrain. In hindsight, it (i.e., the choice of flatter terrain) meant living comfortably within my comfort zone — an utterly poor decision on my part that quite certainly hindered progress. A 12k outing in Noquemanon Ski Marathon about a month ago exposed this lack of progress. My first attempt at getting out of this comfort zone was to confess things I needed help with [(a) rounding curves/corners (b) doing a at the bottom of a descent (c) doing b when there are no set tracks for classic XC] to Doug Oppliger, the technique coach of Michigan Tech Nordic Ski Club, and seek a fix via the skate skiing lessons.

Summary of training activities since the last race
# Date and time Activity details
Device, Distance, Time, Pace, Speed, Heart Rate, kCal, and Weather Notes (when applicable)
01 2016-01-25 6:20 am Strength Training 2016 #06
0:30:00, 176
02 2016-01-25 5:32 pm Houghton Quick Ski XC Skate
0.81 mi, 0:46:25, 57:18 min/mile, 1.05 mph, 25
28 F, 4 mph W, felt like 28 F, 86% humidity; cloudy but very comfortable
03 2016-01-27 6:45 am Strength Training 2016 #07
1:00:00, 352
04 2016-01-27 6:02 pm KRG Weekly Run 2016 #04/52
4.50 mi, 0:47:16, 10:30 min/mile, 5.71 mph, 161 bpm, 532
25 F, 10 mph S, felt like 15 F, 86% humidity; cloudy, snowy but manageable
05 2016-01-28 12:01 pm Houghton Short Ride
17.00 mi, 0:45:41, 2:41 min/mile, 22.36 mph, 642
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
06 2016-01-28 4:50 pm Quick Swim: Michigan Tech Indoor Pool
0.34 mi, 0:30:00, 88:14 min/mile, 0.68 mph, 352
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
07 2016-01-29 12:05 pm Short Swim: Michigan Tech Indoor Pool
0.57 mi, 0:30:00, 52:38 min/mile, 1.14 mph, 352
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
08 2016-01-30 7:00 am Houghton Short Ski XC Classic
6.23 mi, 1:32:34, 14:51 min/mile, 4.04 mph, 509
30 F, 18 mph W, felt like 18 F, 86% humidity; cloudy but comfortable
09 2016-01-30 4:55 pm Houghton Quick Run
3.58 mi, 0:33:07, 9:15 min/mile, 6.49 mph, 160 bpm, 377
41 F, 17 mph W, felt like 33 F, 61% humidity; partially cloudy but beautiful
10 2016-01-31 7:36 am Houghton Short Run
8.10 mi, 1:22:08, 10:08 min/mile, 5.92 mph, 158 bpm, 879
34 F, 8 mph WNW, felt like 27 F, 86% humidity; partly cloudy but beautiful
11 2016-01-31 4:00 pm Short Swim: Michigan Tech Indoor Pool
0.71 mi, 0:35:00, 49:18 min/mile, 1.22 mph, 410
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
12 2016-02-01 6:50 am Strength Training 2016 #08
0:45:00, 264
13 2016-02-01 5:29 pm Houghton Quick Ski XC Skate
1.63 mi, 1:08:05, 41:46 min/mile, 1.44 mph, 98
28 F, 0 mph, felt like 28 F, 75% humidity; cloudy but very comfortable
14 2016-02-02 6:20 am Speed Workout 2016 #02
3.42 mi, 0:47:00, 13:45 min/mile, 4.36 mph, 151 bpm, 422
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
15 2016-02-02 11:59 am Houghton Short Ride
17.00 mi, 0:48:18, 2:50 min/mile, 21.18 mph, 136 bpm, 457
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
16 2016-02-02 6:00 pm Short Swim: Michigan Tech Indoor Pool
0.57 mi, 0:40:00, 70:11 min/mile, 0.85 mph, 460
60 F, 0 mph, felt like 60 F, 60% humidity
17 2016-02-03 6:02 pm KRG Weekly Run 2016 #05/52
4.22 mi, 0:47:05, 11:09 min/mile, 5.38 mph, 514
19 F, 17 mph NNW, felt like 5 F, 79% humidity; cloudy, snowy but very pretty
18 2016-02-04 5:45 pm Houghton Short Ski XC Classic
4.27 mi, 1:07:38, 15:50 min/mile, 3.79 mph, 405
21 F, 3 mph SSW, felt like 21 F, 76% humidity; cloudy but very comfortable
19 2016-02-05 1:47 pm Calumet Short Ski XC Classic
5.79 mi, 1:27:19, 15:05 min/mile, 3.98 mph, 599
21 F, 8 mph WNW, felt like 12 F, 62% humidity; sunny and beautiful
20 2016-02-06 11:41 am Marquette Short Ski XC Classic
7.27 mi, 1:48:39, 14:57 min/mile, 4.01 mph, 965
25 F, 6 mph WSW, felt like 18 F, 74% humidity; sunny and beautiful
21 2016-02-07 11:11 am Houghton Quick Ski XC Classic
5.30 mi, 1:32:20, 17:25 min/mile, 3.44 mph, 965
30 F, 7 mph SSE, felt like 23 F, 93% humidity; cloudy but comfortable and beautiful
22 2016-02-08 5:30 pm Houghton Quick Ski XC Skate
1.25 mi, 0:45:05, 36:04 min/mile, 1.66 mph, 422
14 F, 2 mph N, felt like 11 F, 90% humidity; cloudy and cold but comfortable
23 2016-02-10 6:01 pm KRG Weekly Run 2016 #06/52
3.26 mi, 0:37:21, 11:27 min/mile, 5.24 mph, 390
7 F, 12 mph NW, felt like -9 F, 72% humidity; cloudy, snowy, cold and slippery
24 2016-02-11 5:50 pm Houghton Quick Ski XC Classic
2.85 mi, 0:42:48, 15:01 min/mile, 4.00 mph, 295
12 F, 10 mph WSW, felt like -1 F, 78% humidity; cloudy but comfortable
25 2016-02-12 6:50 pm Strength Training 2016 #08
1:00:00, 352
26 2016-02-13 10:00 am Houghton Short Ski XC Classic
5.90 mi, 1:13:38, 12:29 min/mile, 4.81 mph, 589
1 F, 13 mph NNW, felt like -16 F, 71% humidity; cloudy but comfortable
27 2016-02-14 1:42 pm Houghton Short Ski XC Classic
6.21 mi, 1:22:06, 13:13 min/mile, 4.54 mph, 146 bpm, 694
12 F, 10 mph S, felt like -1 F, 52% humidity; clear blue skies, warm and beautiful
28 2016-02-15 4:52 pm Houghton Short Ski XC Classic
6.22 mi, 1:07:11, 10:48 min/mile, 5.56 mph, 161 bpm, 698
23 F, 9 mph SSW, felt like 13 F, 68% humidity; mostly clear skies, warm and comfortable
29 2016-02-17 4:43 pm Houghton Quick Ski XC Classic
3.76 mi, 0:59:16, 15:46 min/mile, 3.81 mph, 367
18 F, 5 mph NW, felt like 10 F, 52% humidity; clear skies and comfortable
30 2016-02-17 6:01 pm KRG Weekly Run 2016 #07/52
3.54 mi, 0:35:04, 9:54 min/mile, 6.06 mph, 435
18 F, 0 mph, felt like 18 F, 57% humidity; clear skies and comfortable

The aforementioned skate ski lessons were wonderful and built successively on previous week’s material (#2, #13 and #22 in the above list of training activities). Though I showed less than satisfactory progress over a three week period, these lessons did help me learn double polling technique as well as picking up my foot when it goes astray (from the tracks or otherwise) and regain balance — to minimize the number of falls. Greg Green was kind enough to take me (and my brand new classic skis from Down Wind Sports; #19 in the above list) through the 10k course in Swedetown trails as part of my preparations for upcoming Great Bear Chase. The Handlers — Christine, Rob, Shannon and Stephen — took me out to explore the pristine and serene trails north of Forestville trailhead in the Noquemanon Trail Network on a glorious sunny day with blue skies (#20 in the above list).

Having fallen numerous times during #19 and #20, signing up for Prince Haakon was still a very distant thought, if that, at this point. Though I had quite the detailed hour by hour plan to accompany a friend to the same event as a day trip, it remained as such — just a plan. But the process led me to learn that the poster for 2016 Birkie was designed by my dear friend, Christopher Schmidt, and sowed the seeds of hanging an autographed copy of it in my apartment.

Just purchasing the poster, however, made me feel guilty (don’t ask me why for I don’t know the answer) and the need to earn it made those distant thoughts not so distant once again. And as if on cue, Kim and Greg Green not only took me out to test the course for Chili Chase for Charity that involved some new and challenging (to my current skill set) trails but also taught me the ever important snowplough technique (#21 in the above list). The distant thought was no longer distant but I felt the need to sign up for the Prince Haakon before the thought became distant again, and more importantly, before the event sold out. And I did.

Next couple weeks leading up to the event saw me practice the snowplough and double polling techniques a fair number of times: banking corners became a bit easier with each passing attempt, and the number of falls became less and less frequent. The travel plan changed from being an exhaustive and ill-conceived day trip to one that included an overnight stay in Ashland, Wisconsin (thanks to Chris Schmidt for inquiring the availability of rooms in AmericInn). Christine offered to school me on waxing and gave a handful of pro-tips to prepare for the event — including leaving early, parking, bussing to start, getting to the start line with plenty to spare, course structure and terrain, and carrying a backpack that’d go into the giant Birkie bag to keep the dry clothes and shoes a bit warmer to change into afterwards.

It was rather surprising, however, to not find a single GPX file detailing the course and its elevation profile for the Prince Haakon 12k. This, in turn, kept me from mimicking the course as part of the training. Several important one-off tasks at work and a complete whiff during a double polling attempt (activity #22) that had me fall face first into snow during a training session also forced me into resting more than I would have liked. Knowing my inability to taper well prior to an event, this was probably a blessing in disguise. Activity #29, with Anna and Leah, through the Balsam loop in Michigan Tech Trails and Recreational Forest gave a glimpse of things to come in Birkie: not only providing adult supervision for a previously unexplored trail and adding it to my regular course in the future but also gave yet another opportunity to learn to fall or learn to stand up after each fall on a previously unexplored trail. The tapering period also provided enough time to completely read through The Race of the Birkebeiners, an illustrated storybook detailing the genesis of this event that Christine had lent me many a moons ago. Summarizing it for my own reference:

Once upon a time in Norway

Around the year 1200, two rival groups shared the identical but opposite goal of controlling the entire country. King Sverre's death in 1202 meant some decrease in the power of the Birkebeins (named as such by the Baglers and originally intended to be offensive - referring to their leggings of birch bark, indicating that they were poor and incapable). His successor (King Håkon Sverresson) died only two years later, leaving his son Håkon Håkonsson as the ultimate target for the Baglers to get rid of as the contender to the throne.

In 1206, the Birkebeiners set off on a dangerous voyage through treacherous mountains and forests, taking the then two-year-old Håkon Håkonsson to safety in Trondheim. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners' bravery with preserving the life of the boy who later became King Håkon Håkonsson IV, ended the civil wars in 1240 and forever changed Northern Europe's history through his reign.

The name, Birkebeiner, carries a sense of pride, strength and endurance - something thousands of people, participating in the historical race every year (in Norway's Rena/Lillehammer during mid-March as well as in United States' Cable/Hayward during mid-February), and keep striving for.

With unseasonably warmer temperatures throughout the region of interest (i.e., an area within 60 miles south of Lake Superior shoreline), the drive to Hayward amidst rain to find my inner (potentially stubborn and wannabe stoic) Norwegian was rather uneventful, at least on the main highways. The icy backroads and sleet didn’t cause any havoc or considerable delay either. Picking up my bib at the pre-race expo in Hayward High School was a breeze as well.

After spending about an hour or so with Handlers (Christine and Stephen) and Vendlinskis (Andi and Jim) exploring the expo, seeing the legendary Kikkan Randall and acquiring more materialistic memorabilia, I headed back to Ashland for an overnight stay. A hearty meal at the Black Cat Coffeehouse, check in at the AmericInn, a pint of Inland Sea Pilsener at the South Shore Brewing and laying out the race day gear including the bib (thanks to Shannon for sharing her last year’s experience about it) soon made way to calling it a night at 8 pm (Wisconsin time).

The race day morning came quite early around 4:45 am but after a full and good night of sleep. Temperature had remained above freezing overnight and the roads weren’t icy at all (although it took a few miles of slow and careful driving to watch out for the dreaded black ice). About 45 minutes of uneventful driving saw me reach Cable, WI. Instead of heading straight to the Como parking area, I stopped in the Cable Cafe on Hwy 63 for some food to fuel my morning and learn more about the event (and its impact on the township/area) from the locals. I reached the Como parking area around 7:30 am and to say that it was an ice rink is an understatement. Chatting with fellow skiers, Heidi and Don from Madison area, made the line (to the bus) go by rather quickly and the bus ride in itself to the starting area didn’t take long either.

Weaving my way through a sea of skiers and spectators — from about every conceivable skiing country/culture around the world — made it seem as if it was some sort of a ski pilgrimage: a description probably not too far from reality given that this is the biggest ski event in the US. Getting used to the magnitude of it all, and enjoying the proceedings amidst being overwhelmed took some effort but being with friends who had been there more than once helped.

Exchange of pleasantries, friendly chatter and checking out fellow skiers’ outfits (some were really funny and outrageous in a good way while some others were really scary) soon made way for start of my dear friends’ starts one by one. With about 30 minutes left to the start of my own event, I dropped my Birkie bag (enclosed within it was a backpack that would keep my dry clothes and shoes a bit warmer when I got done) and headed into warming tent. A few minutes chatter about politics and % of voting in elections across the globe being a socio-democratic-statistical experiment with an elderly gentleman still left with me enough time to get into my wave rather comfortably.

The event, Prince Haakon 12k, started like any other of the day so far with us skiers moving up one wave block at a time (and included singing happy birthday to a fellow participant) before the gun went off and the banners went up (check out the video for a visual of the gun going off and the banners going up to mark the start of a wave).

Zero training with regards to the (multiple) wave blocks and mass start of this magnitude meant that I had to rely very heavily on the combined wisdom bestowed upon by my dear friends and well wishes from random strangers sandwiched carefully between two friendly (and very timely) pieces of advice: Just don’t be yourself (thanks to Christopher and Anika) and Just don’t die (thanks to Andi). Shin splints, something I hadn’t experienced in over a year now, made their untimely appearance within the first kilometer. As the course made its way to the power line climb, more and more of the bestowed upon wisdom started becoming my own (somewhat painful) experience: having to stop mid stride uphill because someone ahead of me was either going slow or had stopped (thanks to Stephen), and in turn, made it quite impossible to use the momentum gained during downhill portion for the subsequent uphill.

7.45 mi, 1:43:58, 13:57 min/mile, 4.30 mph, 167 bpm
Splits: (1) 13:27, (2) 12:35, (3) 15:40, (4) 20:36, (5) 13:57, (6) 15:11, (7) 12:22, (8) 4:55
Garmin Forerunner 620 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

A mindful repetition of my favorite chant (one may even consider this a hymn of sorts or a much shorter version of the Serenity Prayer) — not my circus, not my monkey — to the soothing tune of beating drums about halfway up the power line (thanks to Karen Myhre, a friend of my dear friend Amy, and group) became a good segue for the jugglery between Just don’t be yourself and Just don’t die over the next few kilometers. The course was challenging as advertised — I even had to take the skis off to get down two descents and I wasn’t alone in doing so. And yet, not dying was an easier task compared to not being myself.

Having fallen more than the intended number well before the midway point, falling face first once more owing to the skis getting stuck in softened snow shouldn’t have been all that painful if only it wasn’t accompanied by a rather unpleasant pop in my left shoulder. Since this expedition was mostly about finding the stubborn and stoic Norwegian in me, I didn’t scream (yay for being stoic) and I continued skiing after a successful self-healing effort (yay for being stubborn). And I’d be lying if I said watching the kids with special needs play a spirited game of basketball in Dollar Bay a few moons ago with friends wasn’t a motivation to keep my mouth shut, suck it up and keep on going.

Personal goals for the event (in order of importance; order revised after the don’t be yourself suggestion)
## Goal Result
01 Keep the number of falls under 12 No; estimated to be between 20 and 25
02 Don’t be the last one to finish Yes and Yes (230/362 overall; 105/146 division)
03 Improve current PR for 12k: 1:44:23 (14:01 min/mile, 4.28 mph) Yes, 1:43:58 (13:57 min/mile, 4.30 mph)

Having accomplished the unwritten yet primary goal for the event, the mental jugglery switched topics: Learning to want what I have (e.g., limited skill set and experience, growing pain, etc.) vs Wanting what I cannot have, at least not yet (e.g., better skill set, more experience, less falling, more fun, etc.), and the usuals of paying the right price, making necessary sacrifices, and earning the stripes as the bridge between the two. The debate, however, was punctuated twice to check on a couple of fallen skiers and being with them until either the necessary medical attention arrived or they had regrouped enough to continue their pursuit. If not for somehow managing to not be myself, I would have certainly missed out on the opportunity to be of use in these occasions (so, thank you Christopher and Anika!).

In light of the numerous volunteers and fellow skiers letting me take my time getting back onto my feet after each fall and checking on my well-being before moving on, the jugglery switched topics one last time for the home stretch: Does one get everything she/he deserves? vs Does one deserve everything she/he gets? Does one deserve to keep something she/he undeservedly receives now in spite of not getting something that was perceived to be deserved in the past? And it’s not often (at least not in my experience) that there’s exactly one last turn left when the crowd/volunteers cheer one more turn to the finish line but it was indeed the case here — to my pleasant surprise. I crossed the finish line under watchful and cheering eyes of Dr. Bob, and my Garmin indicating 1:48:44 — missing a PR by about four minutes.

As I stood in line with others to get my Prince Haakon pin stapled came a really good (and practical) test of the last mental juggling act: the misty eyed volunteer mistakenly tried to hang a medal — designed specifically for the first time finishers of Kortelopet (24k) — around my neck. Declining it with a polite I don’t deserve this just yet. Maybe next year, and walking off the finish chute was a no brainer, and I was probably more proud of it than all of the actions combined over the previous 1:45:00 or so.

Post-race activities included changing into warmer clothes (the lone concern and a suggestion for improvement for subsequent years: keep the women’s and men’s changing areas in opposite corners of the warming tent; any tall athlete on one side could see everything on the other side quite easily), catching a bus to return to the Como parking lot with Dean Woodbeck, driving down to Hayward to be with Andi and Kathy (Christine’s mom) as Christine, Stephen, Jim and Boyd (Christine’s dad) finished their respective races, and hang out with them as well as several other of my friends for a while before embarking on an uneventful drive back to Houghton — with a pit stop each at the Ashland Baking Company and the Black Cat Coffeehouse. A pleasant surprise awaited as I got home and checked the results online: in spite of not giving it all I had on the course and in spite of falling and stopping on numerous occasions, I had somehow managed to earn a PR for this distance albeit it by less than 30 seconds.

There are big races and then there are BIG races. There are wave starts and then there are WAVE starts: Birkie easily fits into the latter description of both categories. 10,000+ participants and 25,000+ spectators descending upon a bunch of sleepy little towns in this part of Wisconsin definitely added a few layers of logistical and logical complexity. Needing to be in one’s wave while at least two other waves are packed and ready to start ahead was a unique and first time experience. In retrospect, at least one half the total falls were caused by my anticipation falling down (need a change in mindset here), half of the other half were legitimate (course beyond my skill set), and the rest were just a result of the Nature of the event: mass start, narrower trails, varying skill set of fellow skiers, and so on. Sharing (at least a part of) the course with the crème de la crème of skiers (a handful of whom are my dear friends), re-learning that downhills are still the primary cause of my downfall, surviving it all in spite of no apriori knowledge of the course thanks mainly to the collective wisdom of my friends and lessons therefrom, and caring, sharing volunteers and fellow skiers … were some of the memorable incidents from the weekend.

Although the King or the Queen of Norway won’t question my loyalty, I don’t expect a call from them to rescue their child anytime soon. Maybe I’ll be picked as an aid station volunteer or a temporary guardian somewhere along the way but certainly not as the carrier/transporter. Be that as it may, the sum of all experiences from the weekend of Birkie festivities was definitely greater than some of the experiences. And with a bit more training than I have in the bank right now, I’d definitely look forward to adding to this sum in 2017.

Carpe skiem!

Thanks be to

the rejections and opportunities life has brought my way, event folks (organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timers, law enforcement officials, photographers, fellow participants and spectators), and the family of good friends in and outside of my community for all the unexpected, undeserved and unrewarded acts of constant encouragement as well as offerings of constructive criticism to improve myself as an athlete and a person. I am eternally grateful to all those who let me train with them, who shared their invaluable tips with me, who helped keep my mind, body and soul in good health, who helped me stay the course during the training cycle, who continued to teach me the value of work-life balance, and who cheered me on from home or along the course.

14 Replies to “2016: American Birkebeiner”

    1. Thank you for reffing that basketball I mentioned in this post. I learned a lot from that game — from athletes and you too!

  1. Found your post on the Prince Haakon 12k quite by accident. This year was my first as well. I have similar training goals before next years race (get better at downhill corners!) I was probably one of those skiers also walking down some of those sloppy later descents. Congrats on finishing! It was fun to read your recap and relive the experience.

    1. Hearty congratulations on completing the event! I have a huge HUGE support system of friends who help me achieve things I didn’t think possible.

  2. Congratulations on your first Birkie experience! No matter which event you do, it is always an awesome accomplishment. I am always amazed at the logistical coordination that always seems to work on race day. The camaraderie of other skiers is so encouraging along the way. Hope to see you there next year. Come up to Swedetown and ski with us sometime! See you at the Bear Chase!

    1. Thank you! And, yes to skiing in Swedetown. I plan to ski there at least once more before the Bear Chase. I will keep you in the loop OR I could just follow your lead when you go there. I am classic stride and I am slow though.

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