2019: Vasaloppet USA

If not for friends in high places (or as in this case, the highest of places), there was little chance that I’d even know about this event – let alone be a participant. Dear friend Alice had not only won the 58 km freestyle edition in 2017 Vasaloppet USA in Mora, MN, but had gone on to be the first US female to complete the 90 km edition in 2018 Vasaloppet in Mora, Sweden. She believed that I was good enough to complete the 42 km Classic. So, I believed in her belief and signed up for the 2019 edition.

Once upon a time in Sweden

Sweden, in 1520, was in a union with Denmark. The young 24 year old nobleman - Gustav Ericsson Vasa - managed to escape from the prison and was fleeing from the troops of Christian II - King of Denmark, Sweden and Norway (the Kalmar Union). Much of the Swedish nobility was in opposition to the King, and had nicknamed him Christian the Tyrant. In a move to silence the opposition, Christian invited the Swedish aristocracy to a reconciliation party in Stockholm, only to have them, including Gustav's father and brother, massacred in what came to be known as the Stockholm Bloodbath.

After landing south of Kalmar in the Spring of 1520, Gustav began a long and dangerous march North. Along the way, he urged villagers to revolt against the Danish authorities but to no avail. He fled through Dalarna, fearing for his life if he were discovered by the King's troops, and got the shelter and protection from the locals. Gustav spoke to the men of Mora at a gathering and tried to convince them to raise a levy and start a rebellion against King Christian. The men refused to join the rebellion without consulting the neighboring villages. Gustav was forced to continue his westward flight, toward Norway to seek refuge.

However, the men in Mora changed their minds a few days later after hearing about King Christian's brutal ravages. Regretting that they hadn't immediately supported Gustav, they now wanted to join the rebellion with Gustav as their leader. They sent out the two best skiers in the county, two brothers from Mora - Lars and Engelbrekt, to search for him and they caught up with him at Sälen. Gustav was persuaded to return with them to Mora to lead the fight against King Christian.

A 2.5-year long battle with the men from Dalarna at the head led to the defeat of the Danish King Christian and dissolution of the Kalmar Union. Gustav Vasa was crowned the King of free Sweden on 6th June 1523. Since that day, Sweden has been an independent nation. Since 1922, Gustav Vasa has been the symbol of Vasaloppet. At approximately 90 km, it is the world's longest ski competition and runs from Sälen to Mora. Sälen is not only the starting point for the Vasaloppet but also the starting point for the history of Sweden!

Once upon a time in April 2018

A few days before I signed up for the Vasaloppet USA 42 km classic event, the snow kept coming down in Mora, MN. So, the Vasaloppet Nordic Center announced that they were doing The Best Last Chance Event. I had missed out on The Last Chance Event a week or so before and at that time, there was minimal guarantee that I’d actually be able to participate in 2019 Vasaloppet. But I wanted to explore their trail system at least once. So, on a whim, I made an unannounced weekend trip to Mora, MN, to partake in the 20 km event.

The drive to Mora did more than just provide a weekend getaway. I had heard a chapter or so of the book, Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein, some time ago and decided to pick it up again. Imagine, the hard slightly uninviting exterior of an Eclairs chocolate that takes a good and deliberate bite to crack but shielding behind it is a gooey and yummy interior. And the feeling of its stickiness – to the tongue, teeth and inner folds of mouth – with a lingering taste reminding of good times well after the chocolate has disappeared. This book, in a nutshell, is a lot like, an Eclairs chocolate! The miles just rolled on and so did the hours. Next thing I knew, I was greeted by a Welcome To Mora sign by the roadside!

Mora seemed like a quaint little town with vivid and visible hints of Swedish heritage sprinkled all around. Rest of my time on Friday was spent checking out the sights and sounds, exploring family-owned businesses, acquiring a few pieces of memorabilia, getting a bite to eat and calling it an early night.

Less than desired quantity and quality of sleep (couldn’t fall asleep due to pain till about 1 am) made me switch from (almost) 20k to (almost) 10k. Blue skies and pleasant temperatures (+15 F) made for fast conditions on narrower trails. They had gentle rolling plains and snaked through the woods around the Vasaloppet Nordic Center. I fell once while attempting to snow plow. Had it not been for Alice’s parents (henceforth referred to as the Flanders) sharing their course knowledge, I would have fallen a few more times. I had to stop a couple times to let legs and back (lower left side) recover from some pain and yet came away with an almost PR. I headed back to Houghton shortly afterwards – going back and forth on whether or not I had what it, endurance- and technique-wise, took to complete 42 km event 10 months down the road.

Back to February 2019

Having trained reasonably well throughout this winter, or at least maintained the base fitness level, I was confident that I could handle the distance. Based on Mark‘s recommendation, I had invested in a Swedish-themed nordic ski suite from Borah Teamwear. The quality of their products is matched only by the courteous customer service, and I highly recommend them. The Flanders had graciously offered to host me in Mora. Expecting a not so cold outing, I had even waxed my skis a few days ahead of time … well before Toko released the recommendation. Everything seemed set … I just needed to get myself to Mora in time.

The predicted blizzard and near-whiteout conditions the day before (i.e., the travel day) nearly derailed the entire trip. Leaving early from Houghton and driving safely turned out to be a good idea. Thanks to the timely intel from Christine‘s parents, I knew the parts of I-35 south of Duluth were a sheet of ice. After the customary stops in Ashland business establishments, I made another long-ish stop in Hayward: checking out Birkie Main Office (to acquire a new Worldloppet Passport) and local eateries and bike/ski shops. New Moon Ski and Bike Shop folks even offered to quickly wax my skis for the North End Classic on Sunday if I managed to show up before they closed on Saturday! The detour turned out to be a safer bet and I made it to Mora shortly before 6 pm. After a quick stop at the Vasaloppet main office in downtown to pick up the race packet, I was in the cozy confines of the Flanders.

An amazing home-cooked dinner (courtesy of the Flanders) the night before, a full night of sleep, an hour delay (to let the mercury move up a bit closer to zero) and more yummy home-cooked breakfast made for a very relaxed morning on Saturday. Christine had suggested carrying a lighter backpack – a hydration pack sans the hydration – with a spare set of gloves, buff and hat for the second half of the race. However, the course for this event ran less than 15 feet from the Flanders’ house. They offered to let me store the said second pair of gloves, buff and hat as well as gel packets (and a pair of scissors to cut them open easily) in their warm and cozy basement! We made it to the start just in time and the event started on revised time.

I opted to keep it easy during lap #1 (~21 km) and followed anyone that seemed to have good technique as long as I could. I met Kathryn, someone I only knew via a friendly support group on Facebook and someone I would have never known had it not been for her posting one of her Mora Runs, at aid-station #1. I resumed skiing after a brief chat with her and stopped again at aid-station #2. It’s an understatement to say that it was a life-altering stop: I tasted my first ever soul-warming cup of Blueberry Soup (or Blåbärssoppa in Swedish, as Lena taught me afterwards). It was so good that I had another cup and a slice of banana before moving on. Volunteers, the feed they graciously fed and the well-crafted material of the nordic ski suite made the temperatures feel very balmy and comfortable.

After completing lap #1 in 2:09:35, I felt like I had sufficient enough energy as well as course knowledge to make a stronger push during lap #2 and hopefully complete the event in under 4 hours. My skis had different plans though. I hadn’t made time to re-do waxing after Toko had released their recommendation for the event before leaving town on Friday. And it showed. The glide wax combination had nearly worn off. The extra effort I put into skiing didn’t necessarily translate to speed or time … so much so that I needed to double-pole the downhills as well. It didn’t stop me from enjoying a slice of banana and two servings of the blueberry soup at every station though! And probably as a result, there never came a need to change the gloves, buff and hat. After a long tango of passing back and forth with fellow skiers that had lost their kick wax, I was happy to have finished officially in 4:27:07 as my buddy, Sammy., cheered me on. It was good enough for 160/187 overall, 122/140 in gender and 26/28 in AG.

42 km, 4:27:07, 6:20 min/km, 9.43 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

This was by far the longest I had ever skied (training or otherwise) and very likely in the coldest temperature as well. I fell only once (maybe 1.5 times, if I count that one time near the halfway point when I nearly knelt as one ski got stuck in snow) and that was after I crossed the finish line: I didn’t realize how tired my feet were and in turn, couldn’t really pick the ski up to snow plow to a stop before a lovely volunteer could hang a medal around my neck. I figured it was a wise thing to fall instead of crashing into her. After a brief chat with Sammy, I headed straight to the group of volunteers serving water, blueberry soup, cookies and more. I had several servings of the warm blueberry soup – if I looked blue, trust me, it wasn’t from the cold!

By dressing head to toe in Swedish colors, I had figured I’d fit in well with the Swedes and Swedish descendants. As likely the only skier dressed head to toe in Swedish colors, I probably stuck out as a sore thumb. But the ski suite did its job – it kept me warm and colorful for nearly 5 hours on a frigid day. Mother of Matt Liebsch (a 10-time winner of the 58 km freestyle edition of this event, including 2019) helped me find my bag and I soon changed into warmer clothes. Frigidity made way for warmth as I started enjoying the yummy food the event provided by the organizers with the Flanders. After catching up some more with Sammy and Sam Sr. in the main office of Vasaloppet, I headed back to Flanders’ residence. A quick but very relaxing shower helped me thaw well and I hit the road towards Hayward, WI.

The drive to Hayward was uneventful and it wasn’t hard to be grateful: for a lot of things that did go well, and more so for the increased level of fitness that’d actually let me drive 2 hours with no noticeable fatigue after skiing for 5 hours. After having had a long day or two of their own, New Moon Ski and Bike Shop folks had long gone home by the time I arrived in Hayward. And after a hearty meal at Coop’s Pizza, I called it a night.

North End Classic

My original plan was to ski the American Birkebeiner Trails starting from the OO Trailhead as a recovery ski and to break up the journey home. I hoped it’d increase my course awareness for the upcoming Kortelopet in two week’s time. While researching the trails and how to get there, I stumbled upon North End Classic – a classic-style only event. Kelly and Mark provided not only raving reviews of this event but also shared all they knew about the course: the turns, the descents, the flow and more! It was hard not to get excited about it. So, I had signed up for it before I even left Houghton on Friday!

12.50 km, 1:16:30, 6:07 min/km, 9.80 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 was pleasantly surprised to wake up well ahead of the two alarms on Sunday and with no fatigue or aches. After a stop at the Backroads Coffee, I headed to Cable and picked up my race packet. Even the road leading up to the North End Trailhead seemed like something carved out of a fairy tale. Having misread the instructions, I arrived at the trailhead 90 minutes before the scheduled start. But the cabin was warm and soon got filled with many like-minded skiers and kind volunteers.

The event was small-ish – compared to the Vasaloppet or the Pre-Birkie – and started on time. 12.5 km of glorious trails winded through the tall snow clad trees and canopies. Snow flakes danced down doing frequent twirls to the tunes of barely noticeable winds. And the only sound I heard was the susurrous of skis, poles and occasional labored breathing – of my own or that of a fellow skier. The official finish time was 1:16:30 … good enough for 42/61 overall, 27/38 in gender and 1/2* in AG.

If I had more time and if my skis had any glide wax at all, I’d have explored those gentle rolling hills all day. This was by far the best, classic-only event that I have ever participated in. It was small in terms of participation numbers but there was nothing small about the organization of the event itself – pre-/post-event guidelines, volunteers, trail conditions, aid, food and more! Rest of the journey home was punctuated in the same old favorite spots in Hayward and Ashland, and although uneventful, involved driving many many miles through blowing snow as a book-end.

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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