2022: Pre-Birkie and Vasaloppet USA

Having skied the lovely trails in and around Mora, MN, three times so far and having experienced the hospitality of the organizers, volunteers and spectators (don’t let me forget to tell you about the soul warming blueberry soup they serve at aid stations), I didn’t need any convincing to sign up for the golden edition of Vasaloppet in 2022. For the past 2-3 years, several experienced members of my nordic skiing family had been encouraging me to do Seeley Hills Classic (SHC) and/or Pre-Birkie (PB) to better handle the Birkie Fever. After checking the schedule of events, SHC was a no go this year (we were hosting the 2022 CCSA Invitational and Great Lakes Division CXC Cup at Michigan Tech Trails on that day). But PB was scheduled for the day before the Vasaloppet. Google Maps again showed that doing both events would amount to approximately the same driving time/distance as doing just the Vasaloppet. So, I made some changes and opted to go for one more of  get two for the price of one deals!

Last weekend, I got another opportunity to continue participating in longish events on back to back days (Wolf Tracks Rendezvous and North End Classic). It had helped to fine-tune the things I had done well in the past and learn from things I hadn’t done so well. Like last weekend, I had a few options to utilize this weekend’s opportunities:

  1. treat both of them as B races and take a conservative approach 
  2. treat one of them as an A race, the other as a B race and recover accordingly
  3. treat both of them as A races and maximize the recovery in between races

This time around, I chose the middle option. Per my plan: the maiden Pre-Birkie outing would be the B race (or even a C race) and I’d use it to continue forging my relationship with ABSF trails (in other words, a trail appreciation outing). The Vasaloppet would be the A race and I’d give it my all to earn the coveted Dala Horse Trophy as a token of winning my age group. Since the A event came after the B/C event, maximizing recovery (i.e., less time on my feet, consuming enough healthy food on time, consistently drinking water and sleeping well) would be just as critical as if I had opted for the third/final option.

Pre-Birkie

I completed preparing my skis and packing for the weekend on Thursday evening Friday morning (thanks be to Toko for releasing wax recommendations and MikeY for valuable tips yet again). Learning from the previous weekend’s experiences, I held off on applying the final Liquid Paraffin wax for another 24-36 hours. A hearty home-cooked meal led to a full and restorative night of sleep. I reached Hayward around 3 pm after what was mostly a cautious drive through winter weather advisory.

Salomon S/Race Skin 196
Glide zone
Base cleaner Toko Steel Brush
Swix Glide Wax Cleaner
Base layer Toko Performance SP Black
Wax Toko Performance SP Blue
Toko High Performance SP Blue
Toko High Performance LP Blue polished with a dedicated brush
Structure Toko Blue
Top finish -
Grip zone
Base cleaner Swix Skin Cleaner
Toko High Performance LP Blue

Picking up the race packet (bib and a sweatshirt) took less than 5 minutes and using Jenna‘s trick (of re-purposing a wearable cloth bib from a different event and pinning the paper bib on top of it) took another 5 minutes. The organizers were assigning bibs in order of participants arrival at the packet pickup. If not for this being a trail appreciation outing for me, I’d have politely requested them to assign me #1787 (prime number) instead of the fairly ordinary #1786. In spite of this being big race weekend in the area (Pre-Birkie and 2022 Wisconsin Nordic Ski League Distance Championships), finding a good dinner option wasn’t difficult. Since the organizers had pushed the start times by an hour on account of colder than previously expected temperatures, I stayed up past my usual pre-race night bed time. But I promise, there was no partying involved!

Combination of a full night of restful sleep and the Birkie Ridge Trailhead being only a 15-minute drive from Hayward led to a very calm morning. After getting a quick bite to eat and sip to drink from Backroads Cafe, I checked out of the accommodation and got to the trailhead around 10:30 am. The Birkie Ridge field had been cleared and prepped as a fairly large (and not as giant as it is during Birkie weekend yet) parking lot. So, finding a spot to park was no trouble at all.

I had been in this region less than a week ago and knew that the 3 km-ish connector from the Birkie Ridge Trailhead to ABSF Skate Trail was not flat by any means (thanks be to Allison for helping relate trail/trailhead name – in this case, Ridge in Birkie Ridge – to the geography). Owing to the modified out and back course at last year’s Birkie, I knew that most of the ascents and descents in the Pre-Birkie course – along the Birkie Classic and Skate trails – were not gentle either. I didn’t remember every climb or downhill (I have only done this route once so far) but I remembered the trails and their surroundings to be very majestic.

Given that this was a B/C event for the weekend and a trail appreciation outing, I started somewhere near the middle of the pack and didn’t give into the usual hustle that marks the beginning of a race. A relaxed steady effort got me into a good movement pattern. Though on the colder side, sunshine and blue skies coupled with absence of noticeable winds made the it all feel fairly pleasant. Adding to that, the trails were groomed really well!

With Shannon‘s suggestion from a few days earlier – focus on the rhythm instead of other tangible metrics like time, distance, speed, pace, etc. – in mind, I kept an eye for one or two folks in the murderers’ row age group to get behind and mimic their technique. I found a lady in bib #2025 – she knew what she was doing and what she was doing seemed to be within the scope of my abilities. I didn’t need a second invitation to follow in her strides until the first aid station at Bodecker Road. She made climbing hills while staying in the tracks look very easy and brought it well within my reach. 

With next day’s event in mind, I took my time at the first (and every other) aid station and consumed two servings of the energy drink. #2025 disappeared ahead but another lady in bib #2053 took her role until we passed through the OO Road aid station and came back to Bodecker Road aid station. Shortly after leaving the aid station, she suggested I lead for a while. I took up on her suggestion and peeled ahead. As my good fortune would have it, I caught up to #2025 shortly thereafter, and followed her through the Fire Tower aid station and to the finish line.

Conditions were certifiably favorable to classic technique as every classic skier, including myself, kept passing several skate skiers for the entirety of this event. When I crossed the finish line a stride or two behind the lady in #2025 (Jennifer was her name and I learned that we had previously met in a coffee shop), the clock showed 2:20:15 for an official time – good for 25/69 overall, 21/51 in gender and 1/4 in AG.

26 km (16.16 mi), 2:20:15, 5:23 min/km (8:41 min/mile), 11.12 kmph (6.91 mph)
Garmin Forerunner 945 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

Weather conditions
hh:mm, temperature (what was and what it felt like), wind and humidity and sky
Start 11:10, -1/-10 F, 4 mph WSW, 72% humidity, Overcast clouds
Middle 12:20, 1/-8 F, 4 mph WSW, 77% humidity, Overcast clouds
End 13:30, 4/-6 F, 5 mph WSW, 53% humidity, Overcast clouds
Air quality 28, O3

Lap by lap analysis
Goal: 26 km in 2:15:00 (5:11 min/km or 8:21 min/mi)
Distance
km
Lap Time
m:ss
Lap Elevation
meters
Total Time
h:mm:ss
Total Elevation
meters
Avg Pace
min/km
Projected
Finish Time

h:mm:ss
Differential
Goal Time

h:mm:ss
1.00 6:10 30 4 0:06:10 30 4 6:10 2:40:00 0:25:00
2.00 6:25 46 13 0:12:35 76 17 6:17 2:43:00 0:28:00
3.00 6:22 37 11 0:18:57 113 28 6:19 2:44:00 0:29:00
4.00 4:06 16 58 0:23:03 129 86 5:45 2:29:00 0:14:00
5.00 5:59 38 21 0:29:02 167 107 5:48 2:30:00 0:15:00
6.00 6:12 47 25 0:35:14 214 132 5:52 2:32:00 0:17:00
7.00 4:46 13 24 0:40:00 227 156 5:42 2:28:00 0:13:00
8.00 4:52 12 14 0:44:52 239 170 5:36 2:25:00 0:10:00
9.00 4:25 17 45 0:49:17 256 215 5:28 2:22:00 0:07:00
10.00 5:10 25 32 0:54:27 281 247 5:26 2:21:00 0:06:00
11.00 7:02 40 5 1:01:29 321 252 5:35 2:25:00 0:10:00
12.00 5:26 33 46 1:06:55 354 298 5:34 2:24:00 0:09:00
13.00 6:10 41 25 1:13:05 395 323 5:37 2:26:00 0:11:00
14.00 5:27 12 10 1:18:32 407 333 5:36 2:25:00 0:10:00
15.00 5:21 11 14 1:23:53 418 347 5:35 2:25:00 0:10:00
16.00 6:13 25 4 1:30:06 443 351 5:37 2:26:00 0:11:00
17.00 5:17 14 35 1:35:23 457 386 5:36 2:25:00 0:10:00
18.00 5:10 34 28 1:40:33 491 414 5:35 2:25:00 0:10:00
19.00 5:07 27 27 1:45:40 518 441 5:33 2:24:00 0:09:00
20.00 6:39 42 11 1:52:19 560 452 5:36 2:25:00 0:10:00
21.00 5:26 23 24 1:57:45 583 476 5:36 2:25:00 0:10:00
22.00 6:17 31 26 2:04:02 614 502 5:38 2:26:00 0:11:00
23.00 4:56 28 40 2:08:58 642 542 5:36 2:25:00 0:10:00
24.00 4:30 20 51 2:13:28 662 593 5:33 2:24:00 0:09:00
25.00 4:38 13 41 2:18:06 675 634 5:31 2:23:00 0:08:00
25.77 2:32 0 33 2:20:38 675 667 5:27 2:21:00 0:06:00
The final cumulative time, 2:20:38, may not match the official time owing to rounding errors. Starting my watch a few seconds before the start and stopping it a few seconds after crossing the finish line can be an additional reason for this discrepancy. The overall distance, 25.77 km, may not match the designated event distance owing to idiosyncrasies associated with GPS data collection OR the aforementioned early start/late stop reasons, and in some rare cases, incorrectly measured courses. As a result, the cumulative pace and the projected finish time might not match the official values as well.

This was the first event ever in my life that I didn’t look at the watch even once during the entirety of being out on the course. It’s a good first sign that I am not as technologically addicted and data driven as previously indicated? I took a quick detour to Cable to acquire a recovery beverage from Velo Cafe and see friends helping their athletes at the aforementioned 2022 Wisconsin Nordic Ski League Distance Championships near the Birkie start area. With enough hydration (water and gatorade) in my possession, I started my drive towards Mora, MN.

 

Vasaloppet USA

Mora, MN, and the Vasaloppet have brought along some very fond memories over the past few years. If not for my friend, Alice, (she won the 58 km edition in 2018) and her constant encouragement to participate in it, I wouldn’t have even known about it. The  2019 edition was not only my longest XC ski outing until that point in my life but it was the first time I learned the value of preparing the skis correctly in accordance with the wax recommendation AND the value of keeping a wax log from Alice‘s parents when they graciously hosted me for the weekend. 2019 edition was also my first time experiencing the famous (and almost addictive) warm Blueberry soup served in aid stations. At the end of the same 2019 edition, I was the recipient of yet another act of kindness from Matthew Liebsch‘s mom: I was likely delirious (and definitely exhausted) from the cold and was headed in the wrong direction – away from gear drop area – when she caught me and sent me the right way.

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!

In full disclosure, my original plans for the 2022 golden edition included making this a long weekend expedition: ski a skate style short-ish event on Saturday (32 km Dala or 14 km Bell Ringer) before a classic style marathon distance event on Sunday. But as noted earlier, that plan was revised. The 2-ish hour drive to Mora after from Hayward after completing the Pre-Birkie festivities was smooth and uneventful, and I reached shortly before 5 pm. The organizers offered the option of having our bibs mailed ahead of time. I had taken them up on this option and had the bib in my possession since late January. So, I didn’t have to worry about bib pickup when I got to Mora. I met up with Sam near the Vasaloppet finish line and we got a hearty meal at El Jalisco Grill and Bar on Main Street. Partying was skipped for the second evening in a row and bed time came a few minutes before 9 pm local time.

I was/am aware of the ill-informed notion that when someone else prepares the skis, what we are doing is buying an excuse should our performance in the race be anything less than what we had hoped. That said, I had trusted the friendly folks at the New Moon Ski & Bike Shop in Hayward, WI, to prepare my waxable classic skis. I figured doing so would help free up some of the mental gymnastics and save some time that I could, in turn, use to better prepare myself for the pursuit of a certain Dala Horse Trophy. This was the first time I didn’t prepare my own skis for a race since I started exploring this rabbit hole a few years ago and folks at the aforementioned establishment did a great job. Had I used them, it’d have been the second time ever and second time in as many weekends that I used fully waxable classic skis in a race.

Salomon S/Race Skin 196
Glide zone
Base cleaner Toko Steel Brush
Swix Glide Wax Cleaner
Base layer Toko Performance SP Black
Wax Toko Performance SP Blue
Toko High Performance SP Blue
Toko High Performance LP Blue polished with a dedicated brush
Structure Toko Blue
Top finish -
Grip zone
Base cleaner Swix Skin Cleaner
Toko High Performance LP Blue

Sunday morning came after another night of good sleep. But when I peeked outside the window, I saw fresh snow that hadn’t been in the forecast and wasn’t sure how the unknown (to me) glide wax application would behave under such circumstances. So, I decided to put the same skin skis that had seen the ups and downs of American Birkebeiner trails yesterday at Pre-Birkie to use again. Hiding behind the sunshine and blue skies was the bitter cold – so much so that the adjustable bindings of the said skin skis wouldn’t move!

After Space Pants-ing (might sound like a fancy club name but it’s just a recently acquired nickname for a recovery session following longer/harder athletic activities) and getting a healthy bite to eat at the Sportsmen’s Cafe, I got to Main Street. Like last year, weekend events were spread around multiple days. So, the traffic was minimal and parking spots were easy to find. After waiting out the final few minutes in the warmth of my car, I made my way to the starting corral and set myself up to start the race on time.

After a beautiful rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, the race started on time. Given that a fairly large number of 48 km and 24 km skiers were starting off at the same time, there was some congestion and even a few accidents – broken skis and poles and all. I was fortunate enough to be not a part of such scene and safely made it to the open expanse of Mora Lake.

The groomers from the Vasaloppet Nordic Center did a phenomenal job of preparing the trails. From 2018 The Best Last Chance Challenge, Vasaloppet in 2019 and 2021, and the Turkey Birkie in 2020 and 2021, I had some reliable experience skiing on mostly human-engineered snow. I put to good use a valuable piece of truth that Craig had shared a year ago on the eve of this event which had subsequently been shared again in some form or the other by Shannon, MikeY, Jan, TomW, CXC Clinic Coaches and Steph: skiing easy, skiing smart and skiing fast can all peacefully co-exist AND good technique is free speed.

24 km (14.92 mi), 2:00:09, 5:00 min/km (8:04 min/mile), 11.97 kmph (7.44 mph)
Garmin Forerunner 945 and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

Weather conditions
hh:mm, temperature (what was and what it felt like), wind and humidity and sky
Start 08:59, -9/-9 F, 0 mph N, 74% humidity, Clear sky
Middle 09:59, -6/-6 F, 0 mph N, 70% humidity, Clear sky
End 10:59, -2/-10 F, 3 mph WSW, 63% humidity, Clear sky
Air quality 33, PM2.5

Lap by lap analysis
Goal: 24 km in 1:45:00 (4:22 min/km or 7:02 min/mi)
Distance
km
Lap Time
m:ss
Lap Elevation
meters
Total Time
h:mm:ss
Total Elevation
meters
Avg Pace
min/km
Projected
Finish Time

h:mm:ss
Differential
Goal Time

h:mm:ss
1.00 4:27 10 7 0:04:27 10 7 4:27 1:46:00 0:01:00
2.00 5:25 20 1 0:09:52 30 8 4:56 1:58:00 0:13:00
3.00 4:49 3 7 0:14:41 33 15 4:53 1:57:00 0:12:00
4.00 5:19 7 1 0:20:00 40 16 5:00 2:00:00 0:15:00
5.00 5:28 8 14 0:25:28 48 30 5:05 2:02:00 0:17:00
6.00 5:18 23 19 0:30:46 71 49 5:07 2:02:00 0:17:00
7.00 4:36 5 11 0:35:22 76 60 5:03 2:01:00 0:16:00
8.00 5:11 11 10 0:40:33 87 70 5:04 2:01:00 0:16:00
9.00 5:23 12 4 0:45:56 99 74 5:06 2:02:00 0:17:00
10.00 4:34 3 14 0:50:30 102 88 5:03 2:01:00 0:16:00
11.00 4:42 5 20 0:55:12 107 108 5:01 2:00:00 0:15:00
12.00 6:03 31 4 1:01:15 138 112 5:06 2:02:00 0:17:00
13.00 5:27 28 28 1:06:42 166 140 5:07 2:02:00 0:17:00
14.00 5:35 20 24 1:12:17 186 164 5:09 2:03:00 0:18:00
15.00 5:03 5 5 1:17:20 191 169 5:09 2:03:00 0:18:00
16.00 5:33 9 9 1:22:53 200 178 5:10 2:04:00 0:19:00
17.00 5:33 3 7 1:28:26 203 185 5:12 2:04:00 0:19:00
18.00 5:14 20 20 1:33:40 223 205 5:12 2:04:00 0:19:00
19.00 5:05 4 8 1:38:45 227 213 5:11 2:04:00 0:19:00
20.00 5:06 9 10 1:43:51 236 223 5:11 2:04:00 0:19:00
21.00 5:45 7 6 1:49:36 243 229 5:13 2:05:00 0:20:00
22.00 5:02 5 13 1:54:38 248 242 5:12 2:04:00 0:19:00
23.00 4:53 9 9 1:59:31 257 251 5:11 2:04:00 0:19:00
23.14 0:39 1 0 2:00:10 258 251 5:11 2:04:00 0:19:00
The final cumulative time, 2:00:10, may not match the official time owing to rounding errors. Starting my watch a few seconds before the start and stopping it a few seconds after crossing the finish line can be an additional reason for this discrepancy. The overall distance, 23.14 km, may not match the designated event distance owing to idiosyncrasies associated with GPS data collection OR the aforementioned early start/late stop reasons, and in some rare cases, incorrectly measured courses. As a result, the cumulative pace and the projected finish time might not match the official values as well.

I had the goal of skiing my heart out and finishing under 1:45:00 but at no point I had any plans to skip the yummy and soul warming servings of blueberry soup at aid stations. Blåbärssoppa (blueberry soup in Swedish) tastes twice as good on a cold day and maybe more in the middle of a race! I got to ski for a couple kilometers with Alice’s dad and few other kind-hearted skiers along the way. I did my best to use the correct posture and terrain-appropriate technique (lot of double poling and kick double poling, longer glides on each ski even though glide was hard to come by, arm recovery, keeping the chest up when going up ascents, etc.) and raced smartly with ease and peace. Racing with peace (i.e., not worrying about the competition and controlling the controllables) was made possible by past discussions with MikeY and recent discussions with Steph. I crossed the finish line in an official time of 2:00:09. It was beyond the intended goal time but good for 43/135 overall, 36/78 gender and 3/8 in AG.

The average pace during Vasaloppet on a relatively flatter terrain (approximately 750 feet of elevation gain) at race effort was not all that different from that of Pre-Birkie on a fairly hilly terrain (upwards of 2000 feet of elevation again) at an easy effort. Nature of snow and weather conditions might be a portion of the explanation for this observation. But my finish time got me on to the age group podium and that, in turn, earned me my first ever and long coveted Dala Horse Trophy! I won’t have it for another month – until Alice’s parents have graciously offered to safely transport it from Mora to Houghton over the Great Bear Chase weekend.

I probably sound very obsessed with passionate about this Dala Horse Trophy. OCD Passion for this materialistic memorabilia comes in because it’s something that cannot be bought from a store (correction: I learned later that there are authentic copies available on etsy.com I see no fun in just buying one). It needs to be earned by skiing well enough around these trails (and on Main Street) to be in the top 3 overall or at least top 3 in the age group. While I don’t yet have what it takes to meet the first criterion, I felt (and still feeling) pretty grateful to have the necessary wherewithal meet the second criterion and have earned one! It might be an event-specific award but it’s a marker of the process I have been fortunate enough to be a part of over the past couple years and the progress I’ve been able to make with help from my family of friends, mentors and coaches.

The folks at the hotel, like last year, were kind enough to grant me a late checkout. The hot shower felt divine and sped up the thawing process after the race. I spent some time near the finish line with the Kranskullas ( they were kind enough to pose with me for a photograph as they had done in 2019), chatting with Sam and Brian, getting a bite to eat at El Jalisco Grill and Bar, chatting with Alice’s mom and Amy before heading towards Hayward. A long recovery session in Space Pants, good meal with Sam and  lots of fluids (water, gatorade and one pint of Spotted Cow) led to a full night of restorative sleep.

 

The days after

I spent some quality time forging my relationship with North End Ski Club and American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation trails as well as getting a hands-on tutorial on ski preparation. With the volume and intensity of skiing over the past 3-4 days, the overall volume (XCC and XCS) for the 2021-22 winter crossed the 550 km mark with approximately 8,900 meters of elevation gain. 550 km is a good benchmark from what Jan taught me a few years ago – with Birkie being a 55 km outing, it provides at least a 9:1 ratio of base:race distance on race day when the fever will run high!

The return journey was punctuated with a few pit stops to stretch the limbs and I reached home safely by 6 pm. I kept up with the tradition of taking an at home COVID-19 antigen test after each race weekend, and the result was negative this time around as well. In spite of following Alayna‘s reminder about the cold and taking sufficient precautions, my lips were/are sore and dry. But that’s about the extent of pain from the weekend. As noted previously in the 2022 SISU Ski Fest and 2022 Wolf Tracks Rendezvous and North End Classic journal entries, it felt good and grateful yet again to be out with friends and to be a part of real races under current circumstances. I am eagerly looking forward to the full blown version of Birkie Fever in a couple weeks!

Carpe Skiem!


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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