2020: American Birkebeiner

Currently in week #11 of a 20-week training plan towards 2020 Spring Marathon, this was never an event I planned on skipping. If anything, I had ambitions of skiing the full one – 55 km Classic – and powered by the CXC Academy training plan, I had even signed up for it. Only after designing the aforementioned marathon training plan and analyzing the timing of Birkie did I realize that my current skill/fitness level would not yet permit the Birkie … at least not without jeopardizing the activities in weeks #10 through #12. So, a hard-ish decision was made to forego the named bib for the 55 km and switch down to the 29 km Kortelopet before the deadline.

Race Week

Forerunning the 5 kilometer course for the 2020 CCSA Regional Championship and GLD CXC Cup at Michigan Tech,  skate skiing a few kilometers in Swedetown Recreational Area albeit on classic skis and serving as an assistant to the jury stationed along the stride/technique zone at the aforementioned Championships marked the last of skiing activities before Birkie … and notched the associated fever up a few degrees. Since the marathon training plan had been designed with Birkie as a guaranteed event, the week involved mostly recovery and easy runs as well as couple rest days to afford a reasonable taper.

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.

As has been my tradition since 2016 (thanks to Christine for letting me borrow a copy of her book), the week dutifully began with the reading of The Race Of The Birkebeiners, and frequently refreshing the weather app and Toko website until they published their forecast and wax recommendation respectively for the weekend festivities. The regal story, not necessarily of the reign of Prince Håkon Håkonsson but of his rescue, never seems to get old and provides a top-down access to Birkie. And I’d be lying if I said I don’t get a little goosebumpy every single time I read it. While at it, I read through Walter Rhein’s Beyond Birkie Fever as well – though not regal, this one is just as worthy of a read and serves as a bottom-up connection. Early part of the week also provided sufficient time to create a hand-written checklist of things not to forget – particularly useful (or critical) in light of my snafu last week. And my new racing suite – picked by Shannon and designed/crafted by Borah Teamwear – showed up with enough time to finalize the race day outfit!

Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, offers a lovely little analogy between waxing and 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. Thanks to Toko, neither the ointments were mysterious nor was the sequence of their application semi-mystical. I just had to be religious (some would describe it with a less glamorous word that begins with an a and end with an l) about the process. Thanks to Mike‘s guidance from last year (and conversations with him a few days ago), the religious ceremony was short and effective. I won’t be offended at all if you raised your eyebrow or crinkled your nose at the number of traditional wax layers as well as top finish layers that went into my skis. I believe that my technique has improved to an extent that I can appreciate what these additional layers are capable of doing and that I am capable of controlling the body amidst the speed gain they bring. So, I went for it.

Salomon S/Race Skin 201 Medium Blue Classic preparation (source)
Glide Zone
Base cleaner Toko Racing Wax Remover + Toko Copper Brush
Base layer Toko LF Black
Wax Toko LF Blue
Toko HF Blue
Structure Toko Blue 1x
Top finish Toko JetStream Bloc 2.0 Blue polished with a dedicated Toko Nylon Brush
Toko HelX Liquid 2.0 Blue polished with Toko Thermo Pad
Grip Zone
Base cleaner -
Base layer Start Skin Grip

Like the years before, Stephen was our weekend coordinator. So the rest of us (Andi, Christine, DJ, Greg, Jim, Kim, Rob, Shannon and myself as well as three little Birkebeiners – Ayden, Ellie and Simon) had very little to worry about housing logistics. Unlike previous years, I didn’t have the opportunity to share the fever with my students though – as I am taking a break to re-design the course material (to account for the ongoing technological trends in computing) and to work through the new assignment problems (to get a time estimate) before handing them out to students. As result and a courtesy of my bossman, I had the luxury of taking Wednesday and Thursday off from work to wrap up the race preparations at an unhurried pace.

Leaving rather early on Thursday morning (7:30 am Houghton Time), the drive to Hayward, in the audible company of Bill McKibben’s Long Distance (thanks be to Alice for the recommendation) felt quick and uneventful. After a brief stop in New Moon Ski and Bike Shop to pick up some necessary supplies (they had been graciously saving them for me since the day before), I arrived at the cabin – to take a tour of its features as well as our responsibilities with DJ. Shortly after moving our stuff into the cabin and re-arranging a few things, DJ and I made our way to the pre-race expo in Hayward High School. Personally, I liked the new open-ish layout and it was neat to meet several folks that I had long been meaning to meet. The rest of the day was filled with a stop at the Main Street Tacos, watching little Birkebeiners ski up and down the Main Street, a couple more visits to the Expo to pick up additional race packets, strategizing the race day departure time logistics and a healthy home-cooked meal before calling it a night around 9:30 pm (Wisconsin Time).

Race Day

A full and restful night of sleep led to a rather relaxed race day morning. Per our collective strategy the night before, we got ready and left the cabin at 8:30 am. Jim and Andi drove us (Christine, DJ, Kim, Shannon and myself) to the Birkie Ridge parking lot and finding a bus to the OO Trailhead was a breeze. All in all, we were in the neighborhood of the start line with plenty time to spare. Running into and chatting with Gary Larson (I got to know him during the recently concluded 2020 L. L. Bean US Cross Country National Ski Championships) and knowing his role for this event …. kinda put me at ease and gave a level of mental comfort that I can’t easily explain. We spent a good amount of time in the warming tent, checked out the start of elite waves and then it was time to get into our respective pens to start our races.

Based on last year’s experience, my plan was to start near the front the wave and on the left side of the pack where the classic tracks continue to exist. The detailed wax job showed signs of paying off well from the moment I got into the pen – a single double pole was all it took to move, when it was time to do so, from pen to pen. I won’t lie, the waiting moments spent standing still in the shaded areas of the pen felt very cold and made me wonder if my clothing choices were appropriate. Maybe it was a good thing to be worried about something else, I didn’t realize the passage of 10+ minutes … until I heard the final count down from 10.

My wave, #2, got its timely start at 10:55 am and glide wasn’t in any shortage … a continued sign that many layers of prayers that were methodically sent into the base of my trusty skis were being answered very generously. I bet the handiwork of stupendously talented groomers of American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation had a lot to do with it as well! The initial rush made way for sufficient wiggle room within the first 2-3 kilometers. With so many people on and along the trail, I never felt alone at any point of this event. Yet, there seemed to be opportunity-galore to see, appreciate and absorb the beauty surrounding serpentine trails as the kilometers whizzed by. I stopped briefly at both aid stations – Gravel Pit (~9 km) and Mosquito Brook (~16 km) – to consume a gel and some heed to stay hydrated.

Things were going really well and I was keeping pace to finish in the 2:00 – 2:15 time frame. A few hundred meters before the final Hatchery Park aid station, I lost control on a moderate downhill portion of the course and took a tumble. After ensuring that the body parts and skis were intact, I stood up to continue my journey … only to realize that the left pole had snapped. It was rather a disappointing thing to experience but the silver lining was the proximity to the aid station. Skiing a few meters in the company of Christine and Shannon, I made my way into Hatchery Park with a plea for replacement poles. My disappointment and frustration hit a further low when I heard one of the aid station volunteers proclaim We don’t have any poles here. Fortunately, a young boy working the same aid station knew where the poles were and he persuaded other volunteers to help me find a usable replacement.

29 km, 2:18:59, 7:43 min/mile (4:47 min/km), 7.78 mph (12.52 kmph)
Garmin Forerunner 945 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

It took a couple more kilometers after leaving the aid station to get adjusted to the skate poles (they were a bit taller), adjust my mechanics and get back in the groove of things. Once I got out of my own head, the kilometers started whizzing by again. Finding Andi and Jim on Lake Hayward was a big energy boost, and so was being cheered on by a special Copper Country contingent just before the Bridge! I stopped on top of the International Bridge momentarily to gather myself (I didn’t want to fall) and take in the visual of Main Street. Thanks to the cheers from vociferous Main Street crowd, the final 400 meters too were a blur and the official finish time was 2:18:59 – good for 218/1182 overall, 149/655 in gender and 6/32 in AG. Though it was a 17-minute improvement over last year’s performance under similar trail conditions (2:35:58, 263/1067 overall, 185/607 in gender and 4/18 in AG), it took some time and effort (and finding a complete listing of AG finisher times) to be content with it. I knew the ~5 minutes I had lost (in falling down, skiing with a broken pole, finding replacement poles, etc.) had kept me out of my 2:15 goal but I wondered if it had also kept me out of the AG podium. If I had to be out of it, I wanted it to be based on pure effort and not on some technicality/glitch – it was indeed the case and that put me at ease for rest of the day/weekend.

Changing into warmer clothes was a breeze – thanks to warm tents put up by the organizers and a double-bagging tip from Christine. Finding the Lost and Found department took some searching as I needed to return the replacement poles. Soon after that, I found Stephen, Christine and Simon, and met up with Kim and Shannon as well. We walked down to the main Birkie office to meet the lovely people, take some memorable photographs and cheer on Greg and other skiers as they came up on the final few hundred meters of their own journey. Rest of the day was spent in the cabin … cooking, eating and hanging out … before calling it a night around 9 pm (Wisconsin Time).

The Days After

After dropping Jim, Rob and Stephen off at the Birkie Ridge on Saturday morning, DJ and I made our way back to the cabin … via a pit stop at the OO trailhead to drop a nutrition bag off for Jim and at the Backroads Coffee in downtown Hayward for some sugary treats. The location of our cabin provided a very easy access to an excellent vantage point on Lake Hayward to cheer on the Birkie skiers. Another sun-kissed day with Spring-like temperature made spectating a very entertaining activity. We all were treated to premier and up-close access to elite skiers as well as wave after wave of hardworking skiers as they zipped by.

Apart from being thoroughly star-struck by the elites and charmed by the effortless grace of many other skiers (particularly from Birchleggers and Wave 70), the day also brought about a better sense of appreciation for the timing of my mishap the day before. While it was happening, it had seemed like the worst thing ever and the ~5 minutes it took to find replacement poles the longest 5 minutes ever but seeing more than a handful of skiers without poles well past the final aid-station put a lot of things into perspective. And of course, it gave us a front row seat to cheering on many many skiers – some that we knew and many that were yet to be known.

Rest of Saturday afternoon/evening was spent hanging out in the cabin reliving our collective experiences over the past two days and given that everyone was tired in our own way, we all called it a night shortly before 10 pm (Wisconsin Time).

Sunday morning came at a very relaxed pace. After packing our stuff and cleaning up the cabin, we stagger-started our journey towards Houghton (not what you think; think of it as interval start in a ski race). Mine had a handful of pit stops: (a) Birkie main office to get my Worldloppet passport stamped/signed by Ronda, Birkie’s Director of Volunteer & Participant Services, (b) Backroads Cafe to get a to go beverage, (c) Birkie Trailhead in Cable, WI, to try out some Salomon skate skis as part of the On Snow Ski and Bike Demo (thanks be to Andre for setting me up with elite skis again!) – exploring the Power Line and other trails while chatting with known and new friends, and (d) Black Cat Coffeehouse in Ashland, WI, for a late lunch.

Barring the noticeable absence of Betty and ScottCarrie and Dr. Bob, Jan and Bob, and Sue (these have been a part of just about every Birkie Fever experience so far), it was a memorable experience. The event provided a grand opportunity to put together the sum total of almost all lessons that many friends have been teaching me over the past couple winters – helping me unlearn bad habits that I had picked up earlier and replacing them with good/correct ones. Had I changed my sooner about switching from Birkie, my 2019 finish time would have been good enough to be a wave #1 starter in 2020 Kortelopet. I am quite confident that my 2020 finish time is good enough to be a wave #1 starter in 2021 Kortelopet. Based on the same 2020 finish time and following the beautiful Birkie’s wave placement Mathematics,

\mbox{PBE} \:=\: \left[\left(\frac{\mbox{My Time} \:-\: \mbox{Winner's Time}}{\mbox{Winner's Time}}\right) \:\times\: 100 \right] \:+\: \mbox{EAF}
    1. 2020 Kortelopet Classic winner’s time: 1:21:13 = 81 minutes
    2. My time: 2:18:59 = 139 minutes
    3. Percentage Behind winner’s time: [(139 – 81)/81] x 100 = 71.60%
    4. Event Adjustment Factor (from Korte Classic to Birkie Classic): +8%
    5. Percentage Back Equivalency (PBE): PB + EAF = 79.60%
2020 Classic Wave Placement Criteria
Wave 2019 Finish Time 2019 PBE 2018 Finish Time 2018 PBE 2016 Finish Time 2016 PBE
Elite Top 100 male and 40 female finishers from the 2019 Classic
1 4:26:40 44.50 4:02:11 44.50 4:04:12 44.50
2 4:26:41 - 5:07:16 44.50 - 66.50 4:02:12 - 4:39:03 44.50 - 66.50 4:04:13 - 4:41:23 44.50 - 66.50
3 5:07:17 - 5:40:30 66.50 - 84.50 4:39:04 - 5:09:13 66.50 - 84.50 4:41:24 - 5:11:48 66.50 - 84.50
4 5:40:31 - 6:32:10 84.50 - 112.50 5:09:14 - 5:56:09 84.50 - 112.50 5:11:49 - 5:59:07 84.50 - 112.50
5 6:32:11+ 112.50+ 5:56:10+ 112.50+ 5:59:08+ 112.50+
6 New participants and participants with no results for the last 3 years

I’d be a Birkie Classic Wave #3 starter if the wave seeding criteria doesn’t change by much. But there’s a certain appeal to being a wave #1 starter (in Kortelopet, for now) – especially since I know I have made it there. However, the Birkie and the Power Lines keep calling my name … a bit louder with each passing year. Fortunately, registration doesn’t open up for a couple more months – that should give me enough time to work through all this and come to a sensible decision.

Now, on to experiencing #BirkieHangover for a while before moving on with life as scheduled.


Thanks be to

the rejections and opportunities life has brought my way, event folks (organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timing folks, 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.

2 Replies to “2020: American Birkebeiner”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.