2021: American Birkebeiner

While fully immersed in the weekend long festivities last year in Wisconsin’s Northwoods and with #BirkieFever running pretty high, I made up a goal: to participate in both the Kortelopet (on Friday, 29 km) and Birkebeiner (on Saturday, 55 km) in 2021. The very real and not so spectacular #BirkieHangover that lasted a full week or more after returning home did nothing to change that audacious goal. Part of the motivation came from wanting to experience a wave #1 start (hence the Korte) and start the Birchlegger journey (hence the Birkie). The rest came from needing to maintain and improve my healthy lifestyle. The ability to complete the combination on back to back days reasonably well would be one tangible metric of improved fitness derived from a healthy lifestyle.

 

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.

Once upon a time in 2020

Just as I was getting ready to put my skis away after the 2020 Great Bear Chase in early March and focus more on the 2020 Spring Marathon scheduled for 25th April, COVID-19 came around and things changed. So, I temporarily paused the marathon-specific workouts and reverted to general base work. With groomers of our local trail systems (Chassell, Michigan Tech, Maasto Hiihto/Churning Rapids, Swedetown, Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor) doing a fantastic job of prepping the skate deck and classic tracks, continuing to  ski on natural snow, often in mid-winter like pristine conditions, a month or two after most people in other areas had put their skis away was a luxury. I got plenty of help in defining and designing the process of improving my health, fitness as well as the technique to increase efficiency from that fitness.

I signed up on the very first day of early bird registration (April 1-7, 2020). My plan from the pre-pandemic times for the 2021 American Birkebeiner included at least two weekend visits to ski as much of the 55 km trail as possible in ~10-15  km segments. This, I thought, was necessary to take my acquaintance with trails built in a region with glacial topography to the next level … before I needed their friendship on race day. As 2020 bore witness, the most pre-pandemic plans for most people and organizations changed. Albeit several kilometers shy of the traditional distance and different from a traditional course, ABSF spread the carefully designed in-person events over multiple days and offered virtual options for all distances including alternate activity types. Monthly updates and updated FAQs put forth by ABSF leading up to the event weekend were of big help too!

The Birkie Weekend

The Birkie week, as has been a tradition of mine over the past few years, dutifully began with a reading/review of The Race of the Birkebeiners. It’s a children’s book that Christine had borrowed me back in 2016 but summarizes the events that led to the origin of this race really well. I happened to be on my way home from the 2021 Vasaloppet USA in Mora, MN, and had opted to break up the journey by spending some time in Cable/Hayward area. That, in turn, gave the opportunity to carry on with the tradition at the main ABSF trailhead.

Having seen the compliance with health department guidelines and safety measures implemented first hand during the 2020 Birkie Trail Run Festival, I had opted to ski the Birkie on Friday and Korte on Sunday. But I got the  opportunity to be a part of the 2021 NCAA Nordic Skiing Central Regional Championships at Michigan Tech on Saturday and Sunday of Birkie week. So, the plans were tweaked yet again – I’d attempt the Korte as a virtual event in Swedetown (Calumet, MI) and the Birkie as an in-person event (in Cable, WI).

An additional guideline put forth by American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) was that all in-person participants get tested for COVID-19 and have a negative result within five days of the chosen race day. Given where I live and the potential for delay caused by unforeseen circumstances, I requested a 7-day window. Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center and Michigan Tech gave me an appointment and carried out the test with plenty time to spare. Though I tested negative for COVID-19, the results also showed that I tested positive for fever … Birkie Fever!!

Kortelopet (29 km 26 km, Classic)

Swedetown Trails, one of the virtual partners for the Birkie weekend, drew up a course for all eligible distances saving everybody a lot of mental jugglery and confusion. In its simplest description, the 26 km course skipped the Ed’s Loop, included Len’s Loop twice and all other loops once – with a LOT of left turns. If someone’s fondness to a course was measured entirely by the kind of turns (left or right), this one would have been the bee’s knees for my previous self – the one who treated XC skiing like NASCAR (I used to call it NASSki) and good at only making left turns.

One of the things Mike Young encouraged me to learn last winter was writing my own wax recommendation for an upcoming event – or at least the first draft of it, and apply iterative corrections as necessary once Toko released their official recommendation. Having done that a few times, I wrote the first draft for the virtual Kortelopet taking into account the prevailing and predicted weather conditions for Calumet, MI. Mike kindly and quickly offered the necessary corrections so that my skis would not only be fast but also be protected. Once the ski preparation was completed and the belly was full with a good meal, the Wednesday night ended early.

Ski preparation
Ski Salomon S/Race Skin 201 Medium Blue
Glide zone
Base cleaner Toko Copper Brush and Star Next Glide Wax Remover
Base layer Toko Performance SP Black
Wax Toko Performance SP Blue, Toko HP LP Red polished with a dedicated brush
Structure Toko Red
Top finish -
Grip zone
Base cleaner -
Base layer Start Skin Grip

Sleep didn’t come easy but with a long day ahead, I needed to stick to the script and move on. I got to Swedetown Trails shortly after sunrise. The skate deck seemed like it had been dragged and the fresh snow was starting to fill up the classic tracks. Yet again, there wasn’t much I could do about the conditions. So, after snapping a couple start line photos, I started my Garmin and got on with the virtual Kortelopet. The goal I had in mind before starting the event – based on predicted weather conditions, expected trail conditions and my wax job – was to complete the 26 km course in the neighborhood of 2:05. It didn’t take long for the drifted snow, windblown debris and subnivean entities to change my plans and in turn, reward my race-like effort with a recovery-like pace.

A reliable metric in recent times has been the difference in average pace between entering and exiting the Bear loops – that takes into account the prevailing weather conditions, existing trail conditions and my wax job. Exiting the Bear loops having lost 6 seconds/km overall than I went in, I decided to not lose too much more and reach the finish line averaging below 6:00 min/km. All said and done, my finish time for the 26 km virtual Kortelopet was a few ticks over 2:35. Initial thoughts mostly hovered around disappointment but they soon faded – once I realized that only 3 years ago, I had taken an extra hour to cover about the same distance under ideal trail and race conditions all the while leaving numerous sitzmarks all along the course. A short drive got me to Keweenaw Coffee Works for a quick bite to eat before heading home.

26 km (16.16 mi), 2:35:06, 5:57 min/km (9:36 min/mile), 10.06 kmph (6.25 mph)
Garmin Forerunner 945 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

 

With much of the aforementioned long day still ahead of me, I prepared some food, packed up the necessary items and hit the road towards Cable, Wisconsin. The drive included a couple stops to stretch my legs and as in previous years, Bill McKibben’s Long Distance kept me company. Something new was a phone conversation with Shannon Mitchell – while I can’t explain everything we chatted about, one thing I can share is a gem that he shared with me – go easy to go fast. Only then I realized it was the same piece of advice Craig Hughes had given me the night before 2021 Vasaloppet USA less than a week ago – something that I had dutifully not followed – I had pushed too hard in the second half only to have a very positive split.

After a quick stop at the Redbery Books to have a chat with Maureen, I arrived at Allison’s cozy guesthouse – quietly nestled on the shores of a now frozen lake and far enough away from any hint of civilization. Her kindness saved me an hour’s worth of super early morning drive from Ashland on race day. A socially distanced, hearty and home cooked meal was one of the few very things that bore a resemblance to previous years. With another long day ahead, I behaved well and called it a night around 8 pm local time.

Birkebeiner (55 km 43 km 45 km, Classic)

After sleeping full and well throughout the night, I woke up on my own around 4 am local time. By midwest winter standards, it was warm and very pleasant, and made for a lovely sunrise. Those quiet early hours came in very handy – to get carefully dressed (including the bib) before leaving Allison’s guesthouse shortly after 6 am. A stop at the Velo Cafe to acquire some warm beverage and oatmeal brought me two new friends that offered to help with my data science explorations.

Ski preparation
Ski Salomon S/Race Skin 196 Medium Blue
Glide zone
Base cleaner Toko Copper Brush and Star Next Glide Wax Remover
Base layer Toko Performance SP Black
Wax Toko Performance SP Blue, Toko HP LP Red polished with a dedicated brush
Structure Toko Red
Top finish -
Grip zone
Base cleaner -
Base layer Start Skin Grip

Unlike previous years, there was no loong caravan of cars to one of the giant parking fields and no long-ish lines to get on a bus with fellow skiers to arrive at the trailhead. I missed them both but getting to park within few short steps of the trailhead wasn’t all that bad either. Owing to the pandemic, we were expected to use our own car as a warming tent and follow the announcements on a dedicated radio station. As an added incentive to keep the skiers in the comfort of their cars, there was no warmup / wax test loop either. The hour or so of waiting went rather well – with a good blend of excitement for my first Birkie and gratitude for the opportunity to be doing so in an in-person race, and the final few minutes were spent polishing the skis one last time for good measure.

Though most skis are long enough to provide the 6 feet separation from fellow skiers, ABSF included 15 minutes between start of different waves to keep the starting area congestion free. Not only that, start times were based on the chip as well – so, one could start any time within the first 10 minutes of gate being opened. The first tangible proof that it was going to be a good day came as I entered the starting pen. One unforceful double pole and the skis effortlessly glided the entire length of the tracks to the very very front. It’s a pretty good great feeling when the wax job matches trail conditions. Getting into the starting pen early gave a few precious moments to make new friends and learn about their Birkie experience as well as their goal for the current edition.

45 km (27.97 mi), 3:39:40, 4:52 min/km (7:51 min/mile), 12.29 kmph (7.64 mph)
Garmin Forerunner 945 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

Goal: 45 km in 3:45:00
Lap Cumulative
# Time
mm:ss
Avg
HR

bpm
Elevation
Gain / Loss

meters
Distance
km
Time
h:mm:ss
Avg
Pace

min/km
Elevation
Gain / Loss

meters
Projected
Finish Time

h:mm:ss
Differential
Goal Time

h:mm:ss
01 4:37 151 22 6 1.00 0:04:37 4:37 22 6 3:27:00 0:18:00
02 4:55 166 36 10 2.00 0:09:32 4:45 58 16 3:33:00 0:12:00
03 3:56 161 30 31 3.00 0:13:28 4:29 88 47 3:21:00 0:24:00
04 5:08 166 35 11 4.00 0:18:36 4:39 123 58 3:29:00 0:16:00
05 4:51 166 27 14 5.00 0:23:27 4:41 150 72 3:30:00 0:15:00
06 4:30 169 33 36 6.00 0:27:57 4:39 183 108 3:29:00 0:16:00
07 4:02 166 35 34 7.00 0:31:59 4:34 218 142 3:25:00 0:20:00
08 4:01 163 30 35 8.00 0:36:00 4:30 248 177 3:22:00 0:23:00
09 4:18 165 23 30 9.00 0:40:18 4:28 271 207 3:21:00 0:24:00
10 5:01 166 39 22 10.00 0:45:19 4:31 310 229 3:23:00 0:22:00
11 7:21 164 56 10 11.00 0:52:40 4:47 366 239 3:35:00 0:10:00
12 3:28 157 25 46 12.00 0:56:08 4:40 391 285 3:30:00 0:15:00
13 3:36 158 23 54 13.00 0:59:44 4:35 414 339 3:26:00 0:19:00
14 3:18 155 19 56 14.00 1:03:02 4:30 433 395 3:22:00 0:23:00
15 5:25 163 39 25 15.00 1:08:27 4:33 472 420 3:24:00 0:21:00
16 5:18 161 47 31 16.00 1:13:45 4:36 519 451 3:27:00 0:18:00
17 4:26 157 14 22 17.00 1:18:11 4:35 533 473 3:26:00 0:19:00
18 4:29 157 12 13 18.00 1:22:40 4:35 545 486 3:26:00 0:19:00
19 4:12 151 17 45 19.00 1:26:52 4:34 562 531 3:25:00 0:20:00
20 4:25 158 27 33 20.00 1:31:17 4:33 589 564 3:24:00 0:21:00
21 7:07 161 37 4 21.00 1:38:24 4:41 626 568 3:30:00 0:15:00
22 5:02 162 37 47 22.00 1:43:26 4:42 663 615 3:31:00 0:14:00
23 5:33 165 38 27 23.00 1:48:59 4:44 701 642 3:33:00 0:12:00
24 4:20 158 14 15 24.00 1:53:19 4:43 715 657 3:32:00 0:13:00
25 4:39 161 19 15 25.00 1:57:58 4:43 734 672 3:32:00 0:13:00
26 4:54 163 20 9 26.00 2:02:52 4:43 754 681 3:32:00 0:13:00
27 4:11 158 14 34 27.00 2:07:03 4:42 768 715 3:31:00 0:14:00
28 4:52 163 33 26 28.00 2:11:55 4:42 801 741 3:31:00 0:14:00
29 5:07 162 33 25 29.00 2:17:02 4:43 834 766 3:32:00 0:13:00
30 6:55 163 44 12 30.00 2:23:57 4:47 878 778 3:35:00 0:10:00
31 4:43 163 23 23 31.00 2:28:40 4:47 901 801 3:35:00 0:10:00
32 6:14 164 36 9 32.00 2:34:54 4:50 937 810 3:37:00 0:08:00
33 5:07 163 28 29 33.00 2:40:01 4:50 965 839 3:37:00 0:08:00
34 3:49 151 6 45 34.00 2:43:50 4:49 971 884 3:36:00 0:09:00
35 5:14 160 25 16 35.00 2:49:04 4:49 996 900 3:36:00 0:09:00
36 4:58 158 25 28 36.00 2:54:02 4:50 1021 928 3:37:00 0:08:00
37 5:19 158 37 37 37.00 2:59:21 4:50 1058 965 3:37:00 0:08:00
38 4:45 159 20 38 38.00 3:04:06 4:50 1078 1003 3:37:00 0:08:00
39 5:45 162 34 16 39.00 3:09:51 4:52 1112 1019 3:39:00 0:06:00
40 5:24 156 17 27 40.00 3:15:15 4:52 1129 1046 3:39:00 0:06:00
41 4:49 159 17 26 41.00 3:20:04 4:52 1146 1072 3:39:00 0:06:00
42 5:35 162 37 28 42.00 3:25:39 4:53 1183 1100 3:39:00 0:06:00
43 4:12 159 16 33 43.00 3:29:51 4:52 1199 1133 3:39:00 0:06:00
44 4:16 161 22 39 44.00 3:34:07 4:51 1221 1172 3:38:00 0:07:00
45 3:57 158 15 33 45.00 3:38:04 4:50 1236 1205 3:37:00 0:08:00
46 1:44 164 5 10 45.35 3:39:48 4:50 1241 1215 3:37:00 0:08:00
The final cumulative time, 3:39:48, may not match the actual time owing to rounding errors. The overall distance, 45.35 km, may not match the designated event distance owing to idiosyncrasies associated with GPS data collection and in some rare cases, incorrectly measured courses. As a result, the cumulative pace and the projected finish time might not match the recorded values as well.

The race started on time but I had a bit of a false start. No, I didn’t start before the start time OR take a tumble getting off the blocks. But I pushed the start button on my Garmin a little too hard as the gate went up. Instead of starting the timer, the hard push just recorded the GPS coordinates. Couple more button pushes and all was good and I was on my merry way.

As the aforementioned great feeling continued, my initial thoughts were to remove any hot key feature associated with that button once I was done with the race. But for an event that’s a year in the making, Birkie gets done all too quickly for most of us. So, the race time was too precious to be worried about some key assignment in Garmin and I let it go. Within 24 hours of completing the race, I got to see the correct way of doing it as I plunged (if you haven’t been an assistant to the timing folks, then, no, it’s not what you think) the 30-second interval starts at the aforementioned 2021 NCAA Nordic Skiing Central Regional Championships at Michigan Tech. In addition to locking all buttons during an activity, removing associated hot key feature and starting the timer 3-5 seconds before the start should remove subsequent false starts.

There was plenty wiggle room right from the start and the wiggle room only grew as we started climbing the character building Power Lines. And so grew that great feeling. It’s not every day that world class groomers set world class trails, and volunteer forerunners, wave #1 and elite skiers of North America’s biggest cross country ski race forerun the course for wannabe volunteer forerunners, wave #1 and elite skiers. Crisp tracks, corduroy between sets of tracks and skis worked so well that I could stay in the tracks while climbing the entirety of Power Lines. It was hard to wipe the smile off my face or from that of fellow skiers around me.

Before the start, I would have been happy with a finish time in the 4:15 – 4:30 range for 43 km. But moving at a very high pace (output) to effort (input) ratio through and after the Power Lines, thoughts of modifying my goal became a little more concrete. And the new goal was to finish under 3:45 taking into account that the course was indeed 45 km and included significant climbs in the second half as well. There were long stretches of many kilometers where I skied solo and there were segments where I stayed with or within reach of a small but friendly and caring cohort of fellow skiers.

With no berms to navigate and gliding so effortlessly at a faster pace than I had ever glided before up and down a 4-lane highway, there were times I felt like I was at least related to (very distantly, of course) Marit Bjørgen and/or Bjørn Dæhlie, if not like being carried by Skaði! I don’t remember too many times when accessing the zone was so easy and that getting out of it, every 10 km or so to consume a gel and a sip of water, took required effort.

After the course turned at the OO Trailhead back towards the finish, there were few more occasions that got me out of the zone. Experiencing headwinds and windblown debris, and debris catching the skin (or in trail lingo, the hairies) causing me to tumble a couple times were some of them. Every time I fell or nearly fell, the mini little angelic cohort of fellow skiers (12325, 12340, 12411, and 12423) ensured that I wasn’t hurt and that my skis and poles were in good condition to keep the journey alive. Part of me that was somewhat disappointed with debris yesterday at Swedetown was actually happy and grateful today – without that timely wakeup call in Swedetown, I likely would have fallen far more often. Remembering the quote – just when we think things are falling apart, things might just be falling into place – in the final 10-15 debris filled kilometers kept me at peace with the proceedings.

Spectators, for all the right reasons, were far and few between. The volunteers at aid stations, sans feed to remove contact, doubled up as hearty cheerleaders for all skiers. Seeing a familiar hat shortly after the 32 km mark and getting cheered on by its wearer (Chris Ransom) was a delightful surprise! When the finish line came after crossing the modified International Bridge (this one was over a giant culvert as opposed to Hwy 63 as in normal years – the same culvert I had run through during the 2020 Birkie Trail Run Festival and the same culvert I had skied over during Turkey Birkie in November 2020), the clock showed 3:39:40.5 – about 5 minutes under the modified goal for the day. The time was good for 126/480 overall, 100/371 in gender and 11/31 in AG for the day. The announcers and photographers were kind and lovely (3:33:20 and onwards in the Finish Line video), and Chip must know his way around these trails like the back of his hand – for he too was there cheering me on! There wasn’t much time after the double fist pump and a kneeling kiss of the trails in gratitude for keeping me safe, and we had to mask up and keep moving to keep the finish area congestion free.

I appear shortly after the 3:33:20 mark

After a brief chat with Ben Popp and several volunteers, the walk back and forth between the car and finish area provided time to reflect on previous outings, the sum total of past 52 weeks and be grateful for the village that helped me get here. I won’t lie – it was and still is very humbling to realize that I was a complete wreck and unable to move around much 3 years ago after completing the Korte in about 3.5 hours (and if I recall, that was the only activity that week); 3 years from that day, I was/am fit enough to not only complete Korte and Birkie (70+ km in ~6:15) but be healthy enough to be active rest of the day.

Heading home

Getting to be a part of the 2021 NCAA Nordic Skiing Central Regional Championships at Michigan Tech meant that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend in Birkie land. I was in for a surprise during a quick stop at Velo Cafe – Jan, the owner of Gear West, insisted on celebrating my first Birkie by buying my grub! I made a quick stop in Hayward to see the Main Street uncovered with snow before starting the drive back to Houghton. With a grateful heart, full belly and a new goal in mind, the drive home was smooth and uneventful.

As unique as it was and as proud as I feel for sticking with the process to achieve the year-old goal, the Birkie weekend missed a lot of the usuals: figuring out the logistics (or being a part of the email chain while others figured out the logistics), traveling with friends, staying together, cooking shared meals, eating together, attending the expo, the long lines and bus rides, cheering on and getting cheered on, Father Birkie and other bitches on the Bitch Hill, finish on Main Street, stopping by the main office and getting my Worldloppet passport stamped/signed by Ronda (Birkie’s Director of Volunteer & Participant Services), and reconnecting with the ever expanding members of my nordic skiing family … just to name a few. It’s also the first of my Birkie weekends where the entirety of Keweenaw contingent wasn’t there: Andi and Jim, Betty and Scott, Carrie and Dr. Bob, Christine and StephenDJ, Jan and Bob, Kim and Greg, Liz and PeterShannon and Rob, Sue and the infectious laughter of three little Handlers. Several friends (Alayna, Caitlin and Brian, Chandra and Erich, Craig, Heidi and Don, Jenna and Zach, KateMatt, Ruth and Sam, Scott) were there but my path didn’t cross theirs for one reason or the other.

Here’s to hoping that it’s the last one such, and that the sense of normalcy we all know and love returns to Birkie weekend in 2022!


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.

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