2019: American Birkebeiner

140 km base training [for a ~30 km event] seems low … remarked Jan in the aftermath of 2018 Birkie festivities. Consciously work on your downhills and turns … suggested another Jan a month or so later in Washington, DC, during the 2018 Spring Meeting of CASC. How much base training would have been sufficient? … I inquired the encyclopediac minds in and around our community. Deciphering their collective answer, though it led me down an entirely new rabbit hole of time-based training, hinted towards a training plan that included some long/long-ish outings. Coupling that with the sneak peak I got into Jessie Diggins‘ annual training plan, courtesy of Team USA’s Olympic Coach of the Games, I settled on putting in at least 300 km of base training ahead of the 2019 Birkie weekend.

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.

Had I stayed with my original plans for 2018-19 winter, Kortelopet would have been the first of two hard racing days of 2019 calendar year. But those plans changed several times making this just a training activity. I even managed to stick to this claim throughout the 4-week prep work period as well as first two weeks of the training period towards a major event in June 2019. But about a week before the Korte, #BirkieFever hit me. And it hit me hard!

Race Week

Having spent much of the time this winter on flat-ish terrain mindfully practicing the step/skate turns Emily had taught me and learning skate skiing (thanks to Mark, Jan, Shawn, Mike, Kim, Shannon M and more) to symbiotically improve the classic style, I needed to make sure the engine was strong enough to climb approximately 1,500 feet over 30 km. Fortunately, Michigan Tech Trails (not counting the Tolkien Trails sub-system) provide nearly 1,700 feet of climbing over 25 km. The arms felt a little tired by the end suggesting the need for more upper body and core strength. To ensure there was no fatigue-induced soreness and pain for the day after Korte (it was quite bad in 2018), I did another long-ish ski covering all but the Birch loop in Swedetown Trails the next day. Doing these two hard and long sessions on back to back days took me past the 300 km mark for the season, gave me plenty confidence and set me up well for a 4-day taper period.

Although I had taken Mike‘s waxing clinics last winter and made fairly extensive notes, I felt like I had been missing few simple yet profoundly impactful steps (or doing them incorrectly). The recent not so good and sluggish-feeling outings stared me as the proof for this claim. Additionally, I didn’t want to repeat last year’s mistake of mixing two different brands of wax (hadn’t read the manual carefully). Having read Bill McKibben’s book (Long Distance), I knew waxing was a skier’s way of praying. 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. It’d suffice to say, I wanted to pray properly this time around. So, I approached the priest coach, Mike, to watch me as I waxed. He and Christine showed up to make sure I did so correctly. As we were finishing up waxing a few nights ago, coach’s words were … These skis are fast. I hope you have the control. Needless to say, I wrote down the procedure shortly afterwards and practiced it a few more times on other pairs of skis.

Like the year before, Stephen was our weekend coordinator. The plans were started and executed well quite a while ago. As such, the rest of us (Christine, Ellie, Greg, Jim, Kim, Rob, Shannon and myself; Andi and DJ didn’t make the trip this time around) had very little to worry about logistics. I am quite sure my students could feel my excitement for this event. And thanks to them, I didn’t have to stay a minute past the 11 am mark on Thursday and I hit the road. Unlike the Birkie Fever that had hit me, though, I hit it lightly. Punctuated with usual stops in Ashland (Black Cat Coffeehouse and Chequamegon Food Co-op), the drive to Hayward was rather quick and uneventful. Walter Rhein’s book, Beyond Birkie Fever (it’s my 5th or 6th time reading it), kept me company. The bib pickup and walk through the pre-race expo in Hayward High School was a breeze. We cooked together in the cabin and ate well. I didn’t last too long afterwards though and had a full night of good and restful night of sleep.

Race Day

On what became a sartorially resplendent day for skiing and enjoying outdoors, Christine dropped us (Kim, Shannon and myself) at the bussing area. We got to the OO Trailhead well in time for our respective start times. After a group photo with more of the Copper Country contingent for the Kortelopet (Sue, Carrie, Dr. Bob, Betty and Scott), we made our way towards the warm-up tents. I spent some time trying to capture the fresh corduroy in photographs, chatting with volunteers (one of was them, Dave, a teacher from Duluth area; we discussed curriculum design and development; he led me to the book, Norwegian Wood, before we parted) and Liz, watching the start of the elites and two unicorns before it was time to get into the pen.

Based on last year’s experience (starting at the end of the wave and needing the first 5-7 km to weed through to have a little wiggle room), my plan this year was to start from somewhere in the middle of the wave. But with one stroke of the poles, I found myself near the very front. It was very exciting and a bit scary at the same time to have such fast skis. There wasn’t much time to shuffle my way back to where I thought I belonged. So, instead of fussing about it, I decided to stay put where I was and get the butterflies in my stomach in the right formation. I threw up a prayer too – to the trail and wax gods – that I’d have sufficient control to match the speed of the skis … so as not to hurt anyone else on or off the trails. The gun went off on time (11:20 am local time) and I had a smooth and calm start. It was also a faster start – an uncomputed gamble and tactic that had failed me miserably on too many occasions to keep count, the very things I knew well I shouldn’t be doing in a race. But doing so felt normal, and after a km or two, I found myself in the lean pack of wave leaders. There was all the wiggle room I needed and then some … feeling like I had the trail mostly to myself!

The Gravel Pit Aid Station (~9 km from the start) came and went in a hurry. But there was sufficient time to pause and appreciate the first anniversary (in time and at the location) of learning to lean a few degrees forward while going downhill. Conscious practice of doing so over the past year had made it almost a second Nature. I did stop shortly after the 12 km mark and pull myself to a side to consume a gel. The gel, however, was in the pocket of my inner ski pants. I feared that pulling my outer pants could be perceived as mooning the lovely women behind me and in turn, get me disqualified from the event for unsportsmanlike conduct. When I explained to them what I was trying to do, they claimed they had seen far worse elsewhere. Whew (for me) and sad (for them, for what they had seen).

I was nearly done consuming the gel when I saw something flash by. That something turned out to be Shannon, clad head to toe in her home-sewn glittering gold outfit. The blessed sunshine made her blindingly bright and had it not been for the sun glasses I wore to look good in photos, I might have had a seizure or two! She did slow down a little to pick up her fallen mitten. I was able to catch up and ski with her for a kilometer or two … but then she was gone again like a flash … never to be seen again until I crossed the finish line! A skier ahead of me cut into the lane at the bottom of a hill with little room to maneuver. So, I fell and in turn, caused the person behind me to crash. But nothing was broken and I was on my way. In spite of this incident, the perceived effort continued to feel easy with each passing kilometer and the pace didn’t drop much either. The hills that had seemed at times daunting a year before seemed friendly and manageable. It could have been the sunshine, or the groomer’s magic, or the waxing (i.e., prayers) being answered … or a combination of them all. Fearing a little that the trail conditions, especially as I approached Lake Hayward and the finish area, might not hold in light of increasing sunshine, I kept on pushing.

The Mosquito Brook Aid Station (~15 km from the start) came and the volunteer fed me a piece of banana (bless his heart) sending me out just as quickly as I had entered it. Unlike last year, the Prince Haakon event hadn’t yet started and as such, I found plenty wiggle room on the trails. I did stop near the top of Bitch Hill and chat with Father Birkie. True to his word from the night before, he had saved me a #KikkanStrong pin and attached it to my bib. It was a very kind gesture on his part and it made for one of the only times I’d get to ski with Kikkan!

Before I knew it, the Hatchery Park Aid Station (~21 km from the start) had come and gone as well. The volunteer fed me another piece of banana and heed (bless her heart as well). Not too long after that, I found the friendly faces of Jan and Bob Haase cheering me on. I was glad I got to ski a bit in front of her … to show a bit of my gratitude in action for what and how much she had helped me … by nudging me to put in more base training, giving me information about the CXC Academy Training Plans, and then supervising me as I started learning skate/free style technique.

29 km, 2:35:58, 5:22 min/km, 11.17 kmph
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

I paused on my own, about 5 km from the finish line, to consume another gel and ensure I had enough energy to get through the finish line. A few hundred meters before entering Lake Hayward, one ski got stuck in a berm and I fell in front of the cheering Birkie Ambassadors. While on Lake Hayward, I paused once more to have a spectator unzip my pullover. And then I fell once more … only this time, in the most dreaded place: down the International Bridge. Seeing the finish line only 400 meters away, I felt at home and leaned back owing to a momentary lapse in my focus. Next thing I knew, I was on my behind sliding down to the Main Street. Fortunately, owing to a much better pace compared to last year, much of the crowd in front of Never Too Many hadn’t had too many in them yet. So, instead of the usual cheerful boos, all I heard was a note of encouragement from one of them: No one will remember this. Just pick yourself up and finish the race.

Other than the ones with aid station volunteers, Father Birkie and US Ski Patrol volunteers, the number of conversations with fellow skiers were nearly non-existent. Maybe the increased pace had something to do with but a few that I vividly remember were (a) with young girl wearing bib #12345 before Mosquito Brook Aid Station about the uniqueness of her bib as well as our good fortune of being outside and being a part of this event, (b) politely requesting two other young girls (I don’t remember their bib #s but their outfits were similar) to ski one behind the other while caring for others around them instead of two-wide, (c) to check on a physically well-built high school (?) kid struggling to keep pace with this buddy around Lake Hayward, (d) a quick nod to an elderly gentleman, of certifiably Swedish heritage, who claimed he’d stop and salute the flag if he weren’t skiing, and (e) a silent thank you to the crowd in front of Never Too Many.

The Main Street crowd and their cheers (with or without one too many in them) are a panacea for fatigue and crappy form. Their combined electricity makes every skier pick up their head, puff their chest, smile through the grimace and stride/skate the final few hundred meters as if an Olympic gold medal or a World Championship is at stake. I wasn’t an exception to this rule either. I was quite happy with a finish time of 2:35:58 (263/1067 overall, 185/607 in gender, 4/18 in AG, 2/XXX overall in wave #3 and 1/XXX male in wave #3).

It was about 57 minutes better than my time in 2018 (3:33:05, 575/885 overall, 361/492 in gender, 14/16 in AG; not sure about the placement within wave #3). Given that I knew the course profile, improvements in technique (especially downhill and turns), reduction in body mass thanks to my fad diet and being injury-free over the last 7-8 months thanks to HandlerHillRossStarksTempleVertin healthcare enterprise, I expected to and was confident that I’d finish a few ticks before the 3 hour mark. But to finish nearly 25 minutes ahead of proposed time and finish in single digits of certain rankings were the stuff of double secret goals. They would have remained just that without help from Mother Nature, groomers, volunteers, ski patrol, friends who taught me things and spectators.

Not too long after I crossed the finish line and unclasped my skis, one of the volunteers came chasing after me to pin the completion medal to my bib. After a few minutes of chatting with Scott and Dr. Bob, Jim and Stephen came over to help carry my skis and poles to the changing tent. Kim and Shannon had completed their respective events a while before, Greg completed his second Prince Haakon shortly afterwards and we all headed back to the cabin. Much like the night before, we had another lovely home-cooked meal, we ate together and three for three, I succumbed to a full night of good sleep!

The Days After

After dropping Jim, Rob and Stephen off at the bussing area on Saturday morning, Christine and I made our way to downtown Hayward. Shannon and Ellie joined us at the Backroads Coffee, and then walked over to the Birkie main office. Ronda, Birkie’s Director of Volunteer & Participant Services, had helped me purchase a Worldloppet passport (a concept I learned after reading Walter Rhein’s Beyond Birkie Fever in April 2018) two weeks ago and was kind enough to stamp and sign it for me.

Kim and Greg joined us soon in downtown. And we found Sue, Carrie, Dr. Bob, Betty and Scott as well. Much like last year, we stationed ourselves near the bottom of the International Bridge. We all were treated to a spectacular view of the crème de la crème of elite skiers zipping by. I had the privilege of seeing one of my heroes, the Kikkan Randall, in action doing what she does best and receive roaring cheers from the Main Street crowd as she finished her maiden Birkie!

This week marks the anniversary of many things. One of them is that of the very first time I met her, and the word, “met”, is used very lightly. The year was 2016 and the venue was the Hayward High School … a few stone throws away from where we were standing on Main Street. Having only seen her in short documentaries and in tall posters shot from a low angle, it had required a few takes to realize the short woman with pinkish hair posing for photos and signing autographs was actually The Kikkan Randall. Though she wasn’t as tall as the posters had portrayed her, it’d suffice to say she’s every bit as strong as I had imagined. The warm-up to the workout she did while pregnant with her child would be my entire workout on my good day. That good day is yet come and her child is now 3 years old!

In between waiting for and cheering friends (the ones we knew and the ones who are yet to become our friends) on, we walked around Main Street, grabbed some food, and thanks to Ellie, my stock value went up in Hayward! Stephen (skate, ~3:45), Jan (skate, ~3:50), Ruth (classic, ~4:05), Jim (skate, ~4:50), Peter (classic, ~6:15) and Boyd (classic, ~8:10) came through and Rob encountered an unfortunate incident of broken ski shortly after starting.

In light of predicted winter storm, all but me left Hayward and headed back to Houghton. I had a lovely dinner with Liz and Peter in Angry Minnow on Saturday night. On Sunday, I (a) had a yummy breakfast with Liz, Peter, Jan and Bob in Norske Nook, (b) checked out the Birkie Store, New Moon Ski and Bike Shop and Riverbook Bike and Ski, (c) chatted with Maureen in Redbery Books in Cable, (d) tried out Salomon skate skis during the On Snow Demo at the Birkie Trailhead and (e) met a lovely couple from Canada (Sally and Dave) in Coop’s Pizza during dinner … while waiting out the storm. The uneventful return journey home started Monday morning … after a hearty breakfast at the Norske Nook and included the usual stops in Ashland. I am happy to have, in spite of modified plans of not racing this event, raced this event. I hope I can keep up the general fitness, continue learning additional skills and improve my skiing, and participate in the 55 km edition of the Birkie in 2020.

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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