2018: American Birkebeiner

Even after a year, it still feels very unfair that Mother Nature chose to reward my utter unpreparedness and punish thousands more that had very diligently trained for nearly a year with unseasonably warmer temperatures (and even rain) in days/weeks leading up to the 2017 Birkie weekend. In hindsight, we (the collective phrase to represent all of us and not just the Royal plural) are quite fortunate that this lack of snow thing happened in 2017 and not in 1206 in Scandinavia. Should that have been the case, as one unknown racer put it in 2017, the Prince couldn’t have been saved, and we wouldn’t have the event in 2017 … or in any other year.

When the winter of 2017-18 started, however, I was fully was aware that the probability of Mother Nature rewarding my unpreparedness for the second year in a row was about as close to zero as one can get. So, as I did in 2016, I signed up for the 2018 edition as soon as the registration opened up in May 2017. And as I did in 2016, I made plans to train. But unlike during 2016-17 winter, execution of the said plan was considerably different:

  1. skied a total of ~140 km on trails via 20 activities purposefully starting some of them late in the day to get approximately the same race day conditions – 15 in the 0-10k range, 4 in the 10-20k range and 1 in the 20-30k range – leading up to this event
  2. participated in Tech Trails Citizen’s Night Series to mimic the wave starts and Marquette’s Noquemanon 24k to get a baseline estimate for time and effort for long distance skiing
  3. picked up a few important tips to improve the technique (and in turn, improve the skiing efficiency) – thanks to Mike Young as part of waxing clinics for the community, Emily Oppliger as part of Nordorks, Greg Green and Andi Vendlinski while skiing in Swedetown Trails, Joyce Ziegler in Noque, Stephen Handler in a post-KRG weekly run discussion, and a few hours of YouTubing
Once upon a time in Norway

Around the year 1200, two rival groups - the Baglers and the Birkebeiners - shared the identical goal of controlling the entire country. King Sverre's death in 1202 meant some decrease in the power of the Birkebeiners. The Birkebeiners were named as such by the Baglers and was originally intended to be offensive (or a slur) - referring to their leggings of birch bark, indicating that they were poor and incapable. King Sverre's 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. He united Norway, after thousand years of civil war in 1240, led the country into its golden age during the Middle Ages and, forever changed Northern Europe's history through his reign.

The name, Birkebeiner, carries a sense of pride, strength and endurance. It's something thousands of people, participating in the historical races every year - Birkebeinerrennet since 1932, American Birkebeiner since 1973 and Canadian Birkie since 1987 - keep striving for.

Race week

The race week got off on the right foot, quite literally. I had completed what was going to be the last long ski on Saturday in Swedetown Trails and I had fallen only once. It (i.e., the falling) wasn’t anything I hadn’t done countably infinite times before and nothing hurt that day or for the next 16-18 hours. But when I woke up on Sunday morning, there was a noticeable pain in my right ankle growing upwards on the outer side towards the knee and gradually increasing in intensity as the day grew. Pain, by Sunday night and through Monday morning, was sharp enough that I couldn’t mimic the pull up/stride motion on a flat terrain … let alone for 29 km up and down some hills. This wasn’t something I expected or thought had sufficient time to fix before heading out of town on Thursday. Had it worsened and kept me from doing the Korte, I’d have chalked it up as

This is just life getting back at me. Last year, I didn’t train and was miraculously bailed out by lack of snow. This year, I train and there’s plenty snow but a mystical injury keeps me from doing it.

Fortunately, instead of having to live with the above rational explanation, I had the ankle tape within reach and remembered much of what Shannon had taught me a short while ago when I had rolled/sprained the left ankle. Some icing, resting and eating well (with friends) miraculously cured the pain by Wednesday afternoon! For the first time ever in my life, I eagerly awaited the wax recommendation for a ski event. I did some search of my own and found one from Swix before settling on one from Toko (thanks, Mark!). Personally, I have come to find the process of waxing skis to be a very methodical and soothing experience … one that enforces discipline while leaving plenty room for experimentation. As Bill McKibben writes in his book, Long Distance,

It (Waxing) acquires a religious ritual aspect – applying mysterious ointments in semi-mystical sequences, then scraping them all away leaving … nothing. Nothing visible anyway. It’s a kind of prayer.

I explored the waxing cabinets in couple of our local area sports shops (Cross Country Sports in Calumet, MI; Down Wind Sports in Houghton, MI) to get an estimate of what it’d cost to follow every word of Swix or Toko wax recommendation. And guess what, it’d suffice to say I’d need to tap into my retirement account! Even the best skis and best wax job money could buy today wouldn’t compensate for my current skill set or justify the (limited) training hours, and the gains thereof, if any, would be very minimal. And I am no Jessie Diggins, Caitlin Gregg or Kikkan Randall for that minimal gain in time to make a difference. Instead, I decided to use wax supplies I had acquired during an end of winter sale but added a Toko Skin Cleaner – to ensure the skins under my skis could keep water off if the trails turned soft.

A layer of Black, two layers of Blue and one layer of Red (all from Toko and all NF) was the initial plan. While I did channel Mr. Miyagi (you know, to Wax on, Wax off), something changed somewhere along the way, and I ended up doing a layer of Black (Toko, NF), a layer of Blue (Toko, NF), a layer of Blue (Swix, CH6) and a layer of Red (Swix, CH8). I applied generous amounts of Skin Cleaner and some other transparent liquid also from Toko, and threw in a prayer for good measure at the end: please make the weather conditions on race day match my waxing make my skis hold up during the race.

With Stephen being the weekend coordinator and the plans having started and executed well quite a while ago, we (Christine, Stephen, Andi, Jim, DJ and I) had very little to worry about logistics as the event got closer. After wrapping up the teaching responsibility on Thursday (and thanks to my students for being very cooperative after the in-class discussion time), DJ and I completed packing. We grabbed a quick bite to eat in Subway and hit the road towards Wisconsin shortly after 12:30 pm. For the first time ever in my life, I packed a toolbox filled with waxing gear! Handlers and Vendlinskis weren’t too far behind, and after an uneventful drive while re-listening to Bill McKibben’s Long Distance (a book that dear friend, Alice, had recommended many moons ago), we all met up during the crazy busy pre-race expo in Hayward High School.

It was DJ and my turn to cook on Thursday night for the gang – we did well with help from Handlers and Vendlinskis. The soup I made turned out better than I expected – especially so since I forgot a whole bag of spices and other vegetables (frozen spinach, butternut squash, carrots and peas) in Houghton. It wasn’t too longer after dinner that we called it a night but not before we re-watched Kikkan and Jessie pull off that inspirational Gold medal win in the team sprint event beating out Sweden by 0.19 seconds!

Summary of training activities since the last event (or the beginning of current year)
[01] 2018-01-30 18:02
Tech Trails CNS #2
0:19:49, 160 bpm
2.75 km, 6.82 min/km
[02] 2018-01-31 18:03
KRG Run 2018 #05/52
0:29:22, 155 bpm
2.47 mi, 11:53 min/mi
[03] 2018-02-03 09:18
Houghton XCC Ski L1
0:44:02, 161 bpm
5.36 km, 8.06 min/km
[04] 2018-02-07 18:00
KRG Run 2018 #06/52
0:03:00, 155 bpm
0.25 mi, 12:00 min/mi
[05] 2018-02-09 09:51
Houghton Run L1
0:29:54, 152 bpm
2.58 mi, 11:35 min/mi
[06] 2018-02-09 15:05
Houghton XCC Ski L1
0:40:24, 152 bpm
4.97 km, 8.06 min/km
[07] 2018-02-11 13:26
Calumet XCC Ski L2
2:05:38, 165 bpm
16.81 km, 7.44 min/km
[08] 2018-02-12 17:35
Houghton XCC Ski L1
0:35:15, 154 bpm
5.23 km, 6.2 min/km
[09] 2018-02-13 18:01
Tech Trails CNS #3
0:17:14, 166 bpm
2.75 km, 6.2 min/km
[10] 2018-02-14 17:42
KRG Run 2018 #07/52
0:55:51, 152 bpm
5.06 mi, 11:02 min/mi
[11] 2018-02-16 13:46
Houghton XCC Ski L1
0:34:48, 155 bpm
5.07 km, 6.82 min/km
[12] 2018-02-17 10:46
Calumet XCC Ski L1
1:09:36, 163 bpm
10.04 km, 6.82 min/km
[13] 2018-02-18 08:42
Houghton iRide L1
0:23:54, 150 bpm
5.04 mi, 4:44 min/mi
[14] 2018-02-21 17:46
KRG Run 2018 #08/52
0:20:27, 152 bpm
2.02 mi, 10:07 min/mi

Race day

The race day morning came at a reasonable pace. When I woke up the third time to use the bathroom, I kinda had a hunch that it was going to be a good race. After all, I had listened to Bill McKibben’s Long Distance a few hours ago and his rule of thumb had been you didn’t hydrate well if you didn’t wake up three times to pee the night before a race. Plus, 29 is a beautiful prime number – the official distance in kilometers I’d ski to complete my first Kortelopet. Furthermore, the area received the expected/predicted amount of snow overnight and gave me additional hope of skiing on a non-icy trail. My butt has a tendency of falling down a lot and it certainly would prefer a softer landing! After some discussion, reviewing the race guide and Mathematics, we figured it’d be wise to leave the cabin around no later than 9:15 am. Jim made me a fantastic breakfast – two eggs and a bagel. The whole group set out to drop DJ and me off at the Birkie Ridge parking lot.

The line was long but was moving fairly quickly and it wasn’t without friendly faces. Kim Green, who was many faces ahead in the line, handed me a hand-made buff but warned that it might be too warm to wear it for the race. Any perceived delay in the timely arrival of empty buses to the parking lot was caused by (a) having just one parking lot, and (b) the buses having to use the same route as the cars coming to park or drop off the skiers. I am sure the event organizers will figure out a way to improve and implement a different solution within a year or two.

What in the world is a loppet? I had the same question and some Googling around led me to some useful information from our friendly northern neighbors: It is a great gathering of skiers who ski on a specifically groomed trail either classic (diagonal stride) or free (skating technique) of various distances. Enormous amounts of food and drink are consumed during the event. After there’s a party and celebratory banquet with awards and prizes and usually a time (dance). The Loppet means different things to participants. For some it’s intense competition, for others it’s a relaxing way to spend a day outside, taking in the pristine beauty of the country side or wilderness, and enjoying the home grown entertainment and great food and drink at the rest stops along the trail.

It was only natural to then search what Korte meant. Ancestry.com came to my rescue: Dutch and North German: nickname for a short person, from Middle Dutch, Middle Low German kort ‘short’.

So, put the two together, and we have Kortelopet (or just Korte for cool kids): a short great gathering of skiers, geared more towards recreation, who ski on a specifically groomed trail.


DJ and I got on a bus fairly quickly and made it the start with plenty time to spare – even for DJ’s Wave 2 start time. The imagination and impression I had of Birkie being a ski pilgrimage were playing out in real life as I made my way towards the start area. With snow-clad trees around, fresh powder underneath my feat and in the company of hundreds of (some cheerful and some stoic) skiers, I felt like I was walking into a picture postcard. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d have such a feeling that day either! The start area was very expansive and equally well laid out – trucks (one per wave) to bring the gear bags back to Hayward, plethora of porta-Johns and a very big warming tent. I had the opportunity to chat with several fellow skiers, some volunteers and staff (one of them being the crew chief) before it was time to get into the pen.

As advertised, the pen started moving towards the start line and not wanting to be in anyone’s way, I made sure I stayed near the very end. Being where I was, it took a while to weed through and find the group of skiers that had a similar pace. Within a few hundred feet past the start line, I saw Inga, Torstein and Skervald and thought about skiing off towards them for a photo opportunity. The adult in me suggested I should just focus on the task at hand and so I did … kept on skiing. All the good feeling I had about this day going well (i.e., waking up three times overnight to pee, fluffy fresh snow converting trails from icy and hard to something I was way more comfortable with, ….) vanished very shortly. I had fallen 5 times within the first 4 km, and the hopes and plans of keeping the number of falls to 3 (approximately once every 10 km) had evaporated. I was averaging 13:30+ min/mile through the first 6 km and it seemed like the Korte had the makings of … any other race so far and a very very long day.

But something changed over the next 8-10 km – every downhill I thought I’d fall came and went, and I was still upright through them all. And the new plan/goal of keeping the number of falls to less than 29 (approximately 1 fall per km) felt within reach. Apart from a minor accident, when I couldn’t slow down in spite of snow ploughing and almost took the feet off of #16358 (Allison, I had been skiing with her for several km by then), I didn’t cause any harm to anyone else. I had fallen once more through the second aid station at Mosquito Brook and had picked up the pace to be averaging around 12:30 min/mile. And then I saw Inga, Torstein, and Skervald again … at the merger of Prince Håkon course. This time though, I didn’t listen to the adult in me and skied off to chat with the warriors and take some photos with them … to make my first Korte a bit more memorable!

Few more km had passed and Dr. Bob had passed me along the way, and then came one of the steepest hills I had ever encountered on a ski trail. Many skiers were taking a breather (and probably saying a prayer or two) before embarking on their ascent. From the bottom, it seemed like an army of skiers marching up in unison – left ski, right ski, left ski, right ski. Of all the landmarks I had seen from the race guide, there was one name that had left an indelible mark in my mind. And soon enough, it’d leave an indelible mark on my legs too! It was unmistakably the Bitch Hill, and it did live every bit up to its name.

I had few tens of strides to remember the message from Christine for the Priest atop the said Bitch Hill. According to Andi, The (Olympics) announcers were saying during the first ski race that there was a hill near the end of the course that racers were already dubbing Klaebo Bakken because they knew that he would crush it and probably blow past the entire field while on it. It turned out they were right. So we decided that Bitch Hill should be renamed now that we know the term for “hill.” Plus it has a nice ring to it. Bitcha Bakken!! Good teachers that they are, they made me practice my Norwegian pronunciation of Bitcha Bakken a few times.

17.81 mi, 3:33:05, 11:57 min/mile, 5.02 mph
Garmin Forerunner 935 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

Usage: php wp_extract-race-analytics-lap-by-lap.php event_unit DISTANCE GOAL_TIME EVENT_TIME CSV

The Priest, Father Birkie, had the skiers chant Hallelujah, Amen and few other holy words as we climbed the hill. Once near the very top, I gave the Father Birkie a big hug and chatted with him for a few minutes passing on Christine’s message. He was kind, a good conversationalist and as I was about to continue my journey, gave me this lovely little pin … the last one he had saved. Even if some supposedly very religious skiers believe their God wouldn’t approve of this “Priest”‘s alleged antics (e.g., cheering people on, getting them to say a few holy words, and put up a sign called Holy Hill), I doubt the God would have taken any issue with his actions – especially if He/She was skiing up this Bitch Hill!

The final 9 km taught me a couple of important lessons: (a) need for upper body and core workouts [as buddy Stephen mentioned later, skiing is a year-round sport], and (b) need to pay better attention to the course profile. I believed someone’s claim that Bitch Hill was the last hill until the finish and let my mind relax a bit. My mind (and my body) were in for quite a bit of surprise when the hills kept coming for quite a while more. But I was in good company of lighthearted skiers that took turns in sharing a joke to lighten the mood and make climbing up those hills a rather joyous experience. Apart from the usual supply of energy liquid in Hatchery Park aid station, I needed help getting ibuprofens stacked in my pant’s back pocket (thanks, Lianna, for this idea!). The lady volunteer was so kind and graceful in getting them out and nearly fed me as I was fumbling to pick them up using my glove hands.

As I made my way down the final hill and entered Lake Hayward, I felt the need to make up a goal for the final stretch: not get passed by any classic skier while paying attention to the form/posture and technique. I did pass a few skiers along the way whenever the trail etiquette and opportunity permitted although it was neither fair nor rational to compare someone else’s performance to mine (or vice versa): I found, just as I did or was doing, skiers doing this pilgrimage for a variety of personal reasons – some that I passed had been having a bad day, some others had intentionally slowed down to ski along a friend or a family member (or in their loving memory), some others yet had been carrying an extra weight of an artificial baby mimicking Prince Håkon. But since the Birkie Gods were listening to and answering all my prayers (i.e., ankle pain had disappeared well in time for the race, I had hydrated well enough to wake up three times the night before to pee, number of falls was 9 as I approached the 26 km mark, the wax on my skis was still holding up, and no classic skier had passed me since entering Lake Hayward), I prayed once more atop the International Bridge: please don’t let me fall.

The Birkie Gods were kind again and didn’t let me fall in front of an energetic, vociferous and energizing crowd on Main Street. As I came down the International Bridge, I heard cheers and thought I must have been very smooth but turned out they were cheering for another skier who was standing up after having fallen down (and deservingly so). With finish line less than 300 meters away and with friends and family cheering on from both sides of the Main Street while ringing cowbells, it was relatively easier to dig a little deeper, channel my inner Jessie Diggins and finish on a strong-ish note. When I finished, my GPS showed I had taken about 3 minutes over my primary goal for time. And for one of the fewest times, it didn’t seem to matter.

Goals for the event
Alternate goals in #2 and #3 as well as entirety of #4 and #5 were made up on the course
01 Do not cause injury to fellow skiers Yes (only because #16358 acknowledged she was OK,
and she did complete the event)
02 Complete between 3:00 - 3:30
Complete between 3:30 - 4:00
No, took 3:33:05
Yes, 3:33:05
03 Limit the number of falls to 3
Limit the number of falls to 29
No, fell 9 times
Yes, fell 9 times
04 Average pace below 12:00 min/mile Yes, 11:57 min/mile
05 Don't get passed by classic skiers over the last 3-4 k Yes

One elderly volunteer helped me take off the skies, another helped put them in ski-ties, and yet another fed me energy drinks and chocolate milk. As I was about to make my way out of the finish chute, I heard the name of a dear friend, Kelly, crossing the finish line. We chatted for a while before I headed off to retrieve the gear bag and to a nearby school gym designated for changing into warmer clothes. Shortly thereafter, I found myself in South of the Border on Main Street to meet Andi, Christine, DJ, Jim, Kathy and Boyd, Stephen and a Brett Favre doppelgänger. We didn’t stay too long in town and headed back to the cabin … to prepare yet another hearty and yummy meal (by Handlers and Vendlinskis), eat and rest well for a bigger day for Jim and Stephen.

The days after

Another full night of sleep (no, I didn’t wake up once to use the bathroom) and the day after came with no fresh snow but quite chilly temperatures and bright blue skies. A comparatively quick drive saw Christine and I drop off Jim and Stephen at the Birkie Ridge parking lot for their journey towards the start line.

After a short break at the cabin, Andi, Christine and I headed downtown to catch a glimpse of elite skiers come through the Main Street. We were able to find a parking spot not too far away and had plenty of time to find a good spot (at the very bottom of the International Bridge) to watch. Kim and Greg Green joined us as well. It wasn’t long before we got to watch the first 100 or so elite skiers zip through the Main Street to the finish line.

After having watched the elites and several of our beloved skiers go down the Main Street, we (Andi, Christine and I) headed off to Angry Minnow Brewing Company to grab a brew (Bitch Hill Amber Ale) and quick lunch with Rob and Shannon. But halfway through our meal, Christine and Andi had to rush back to the Main Street as Stephen was about to come through. Christine’s self-fulfilling prophecy partially came through as Stephen finished well below the 4 hour mark, and Jim wasn’t too far behind. Just like yesterday, we headed back to the cabin soon thereafter to rest up a little and head out for dinner.

Much to my disappointment, I wasn’t a very good sport during dinner or while we were out on the town – the additional supplement of ibuprofen I had taken a day ago had worn off. The soreness was starting to not only set in but set in hard enough that it was rather painful and made me very sleepy (and appear sickly). Amidst all this and the what seemed like a heavy snowfall, it was quite impressive to see the event staff work to restore Main Street to its normal state of affairs. I dozed off on our way back to cabin and slept through the night pretty well. I am sure just about everyone in our cabin did too.

We packed up our belongings on Sunday morning, had a lovely breakfast at the Rowleys (friends of Christine‘s parents), and stopped at Redbery Books in Cable (WI) and JW’s BBQ & Brew in Bergland (MI) on our way home while listening to the rest of Long Distance.

In summary

While I have had one or two breakthrough events in running, this one most certainly is the first of its kind in skiing. This weekend of festivities is nothing short of a skiing pilgrimage and the event – 29 km of Kortelopet – was transformational in more ways than one. I went into the weekend being a freak show on downhill portions (yes, quite literally I’d freak out, get my heart rate pretty high, fall a few times and lose a lot of energy unnecessarily) instead of relaxing with good body posture and letting Newtonian and Quantum Mechanics do the work. Once at the bottom of a hill, I’d push through the subsequent uphill climb spending even more energy. Repeat this cycle a few times in a race and I’d have little gas left in the tank to make a final push to the finish over the last one third (or sometimes half) the distance.

Transformation happened somewhere along the first one third of the final 25 km of the Kortelopet course. I didn’t necessarily fall where I thought I’d usually fall, actually enjoyed going downhill at reasonably high speeds, used that momentum to climb up a portion of the subsequent hill with little to no effort, used much less energy going climbing rest of the hill with improved technique, and had energy left in me for a hard push during later portions of the course. I believe I came out a much more confident skier, especially on downhill portions, and I might have even improved my skiing technique over the final push to the finish line.

The beauty of this transformation … in a sporting event deep in the woods of Northern Wisconsin; fresh snow dancing down from tall pines in tiny little sparkles; skiing alongside numerous like-minded humans aided by kind and graceful volunteers and staff; learning to place a higher priority on the effort, the journey and the stories (e.g., photo opportunity with the Birkebeiners, chatting with Father Birkie) than just the finish time; learning to be content and happy with the result, … is pretty hard to describe or sum up with my limited command over the English language. Hopefully I can keep up the newly found semi-triumph of sensibility and discipline over raw desire and this 29 km of Kortelopet will serve as a rite of passage to a sub-3 hour Korte finish in 2019 and subsequently to finishing a full Birkie in 2020. It may even lead to a transformation from just a week (or weekend) of Birkie Fever to a year-round Birkie lifestyle. I can hardly wait to see how much more transformation a 55 km wormhole will bring in two years from now!

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 kindness and constant encouragement as well as offerings of constructive criticism to improve myself as a human and an athlete. I am eternally grateful to all those who let me train with them, who shared their invaluable experiences 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.

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