2023: American Birkebeiner

The 2022 edition involved skiing both the 29 km Kortelopet and the 55 km Birkie on back to back days with correct form, terrain-appropriate technique, situation-appropriate strategy, ease and peace (and not necessarily racing) as a tangible metric of improved fitness derived from a healthy lifestyle. The primary goal for the 2023 edition was to implement what I learned from additional lessons – skiing with better form, terrain-appropriate technique, situation-appropriate strategy, ease and peace – and race the 53 km Classic to earn my wave placement for 2024 edition.

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. The story of his rescue is etched in history. 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. All who race do it test their own strength and endurance but also to honor the courage of the woman and men who risked their lives to save a young prince and bring peace to their country.

Training Plan

In short, I didn’t have one. At least not one dedicated to or structured specifically for cross country skiing and I realized this during an end of season (2021-22 Winter) conversation with Bjorn. Looking through the notes, I had once signed up for CXC Academy‘s annual plan (thanks to Jan and Craig) but reading the plan had been the extent of following it. Signing up for 2023 Birkie on the very first day of the early registration period (April 11-18, 2022) stuck a dangling carrot of a healthy lifestyle and related choices to pursue for the next 10+ months.

I have since then combined (and been combining) many hours of YouTubing, booking (as in reading books), journaling (as in reading peer-reviewed articles published in journals) and reviewing my own training logs with what I have gleaned from discussions with friends, coaches and mentors in formal and informal settings with an end goal of designing an annual training plan that will cater to my needs of successfully completing certain events – the American Birkebeiner over the final weekend of February being one of them.

A happy byproduct of this process was identifying which activities should be counted when estimating the training volume. I believe learning what to count has been equally (if not more) important than how to count. This is particularly appealing to someone like me (data nerd would be a polite and PG way of phrasing it) since data can come pouring from every direction – making it far too easy to get lost in numbers instead of learning to read between and beyond them. A schematic representation and some details of an annual training plan have been coming together, and it will take some trial and error to figure out the rest.

The wave placement notification from ABSF in early 2022 May took me through a lot emotions. I won’t lie, initial feelings were that of fear and skepticism, and I wanted to wait as long as possible before reading the message – as if passage of time would somehow magically grant me a wave upgrade. It took a game of peek-a-boo and the object permanence lesson it teaches the little ones (OR its adult equivalent: the problem won’t go away just because we refuse to see/acknowledge it) to get me to eventually read the message. Once I opened it, those feelings were quickly replaced with that of gratitude towards anyone and everyone who had chosen to help me get better over the years.


2022-23 Winter

The same wave placement notification reinforced my commitment to further improving form and technique during 2022 Summer, 2022 Fall and 2022-23 Winter with help from the family of friends, mentors and coaches. I took their collective advice and spent a non-negligible amount of time working on the fundamentals – ala wax on, wax off in Karate Kid. Of specific importance to me were

  1. Skate
    1. Resolve timing issues associated with V1 uphill (on the right side) and V2A (on the left side)
  2. Classic
    1. Minimize tail slapping
    2. Improve kick waxing
  3. Classic and Skate
    1. Improve balance and glide
    2. Minimize unnecessary expenditure of energy
    3. Work through the fear associated with navigating curves and corners at speed

At least throughout our (upper) Midwest, 2022-23 Winter has mostly been moderate with noticeably longer stretches of Spring-like weather, freeze-thaw cycles and no fresh snowfall. But our saintly groomers have been working with Mother Nature’s blessings and producing magical conditions to ski. Still missing a formal structure, my weekly training reached a consistent volume shortly after the completion of 2023 US Cross Country Ski National Championships in early 2023 January (see the album above for some of the behind the scenes action). I made a conscious decision to not race with the usual frequency. The general intent associated with outings listed in the table below was to rehearse/tune race preparation (e.g., registration, accommodation, packing, waxing, traveling, racing, nutrition, recovery, not freaking out, etc.), and with #04 and #05, to further strengthen my familiarity and friendship with ABSF trails.

Organized Events
Distance in kilometers, time in h:mm:ss and pace in m:ss/km
# Date Event Distance Time Pace
01 2022-12-10
XCS
2022 Swedetown Season Opener
Calumet, MI 49913 US
8.00 0:34:09.0 4:14
02 2023-01-24
XCC
2022-23 Citizen's Night Ski Race Series #1
Houghton, MI 49931 US
5.00 0:26:30.0 5:17
03 2023-02-04
XCC
2023 Wolf Tracks Rendezvous
Minocqua, WI 54548 US
24.00 1:45:59.9 4:24
04 2023-02-11
XCC
2023 Pre-Birkie
Leonards, WI 54821 US
42.00 3:36:47.0 5:09
05 2023-02-12
XCC
2023 North End Classic
Cable, WI 54821 US
12.50 0:54:51.0 4:23
06 2023-02-14
XCS
2022-23 Citizen's Night Ski Race Series #2
Houghton, MI 49931 US
5.00 0:25:17.0 5:02

Moderate Winter (and structured training) or not, I didn’t want a repeat of the 2017 edition: when I had trained about 14.5 kilometers (in total … all through Winter) and had planned to ski 29 kilometers along the then new (and challenging) Kortelopet course. Mother Nature mercifully canceled the festivities breaking the hearts of thousands of skiers … all in an effort to keep me safe and alive. She might cancel one or two more Birkies in the next 100+ years but when She does, it won’t be from my lack of training. So, I trained and trained pretty well, and plenty of friends, mentors and coaches kept me company on and off the trails, shared what they knew and made me better along the way.

Metrics-wise and as of leaving town on Thursday of the week of weeks, I had skied 810-ish kilometers (407-ish classic and 403-ish skate) over 84-ish hours with 10,250-ish meters of elevation gain. At the start of 2022-23 Winter, I expected to have skied 550-ish kilometers on classic skis by this point – so that the 55-ish kilometer journey during Birkie would be about 10-ish% of the total training volume on classic skis. For any number of reasons (some legitimate explanations and rest just excuses), I ended up with 400-ish kilometers. Be that as it may, I knew that several blocks of the (yummy) Norwegian Brown Cheese and bars of the (also yummy) Norwegian Milk Chocolate I consumed this Winter would easily make up for those lost 150 kilometers on skis.

Training Location Summary (RSC + RSS)
# Location Outings Time
h:mm:ss
Distance
kms
Ele. Gain
meters
1 US 9 9:01:54 86.94 321
1 · 1 US » Michigan 6 5:55:41 72.56 220
1 · 1 · 1 US » MI » Calumet 3 2:03:28 25.45 91
1 · 1 · 2 US » MI » Hancock 1 1:20:57 18.42 53
1 · 1 · 3 US » MI » Houghton 1 0:43:28 7.31 31
1 · 1 · 4 US » MI » Marquette 1 1:47:48 21.38 43
1 · 2 US » Wisconsin 3 3:06:13 14.38 101
1 · 2 · 1 US » WI » Cable 1 0:39:43 2.96 32
1 · 2 · 2 US » WI » Hayward 2 2:26:30 11.41 69
  Total 9 9:01:54 86.94 321
Trail System Summary (XCC + XCS)
# Location Outings Time
h:mm:ss
Distance
kms
Ele. Gain
meters
1 US 77 84:05:17 811.23 10267
1 · 1 US » Michigan 69 72:37:07 700.35 8237
1 · 1 · 1 · 1 US » MI » Calumet » Swedetown Trails Club 21 24:16:35 244.56 2286
1 · 1 · 2 · 1 US » MI » Chassell » Chassell Ski Trails 1 1:01:25 9.56 193
1 · 1 · 3 · 1 US » MI » Eagle Harbor » Eagle Harbor Hiking and Ski Trails 1 1:20:37 5.06 39
1 · 1 · 4 · 1 US » MI » Hancock » Keweenaw Nordic Ski Club 3 5:02:13 37.22 535
1 · 1 · 5 · 1 US » MI » Houghton » Michigan Tech Trails 40 33:40:11 323.45 4017
1 · 1 · 6 · 1 US » MI » Marquette » Blueberry Ridge Ski Trails 1 2:01:25 18.97 316
1 · 1 · 6 · 2 US » MI » Marquette » Noquemanon Trail Network 2 5:14:41 61.53 847
1 · 2 US » Wisconsin 8 11:28:10 110.88 2030
1 · 2 · 1 · 1 US » WI » Cable » American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation 5 5:09:25 31.67 462
1 · 2 · 1 · 2 US » WI » Cable » North End Ski Club 1 0:55:08 12.36 214
1 · 2 · 2 · 1 US » WI » Leonards » American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation 1 3:37:06 41.84 1042
1 · 2 · 3 · 1 US » WI » Minocqua » Minocqua Winter Park 1 1:46:31 25.00 310
  Total 77 84:05:17 811.23 10267

 

Kidding aside, I was at peace with where these kilometers, blocks of cheese and bars of chocolates had taken me. The link above and the images below provide a representative summary of sample of various trail systems I have been fortunate to visit/ski (and often with friends) and the said Norwegian Brown Cheese and bars of Norwegian Milk Chocolates I have consumed leading up to the Birkie Week.

 

I don’t know any cross country ski related race report being complete without a section about waxing and I didn’t want this to be the first one in that ill-advised category. I was/am aware of the ill-informed notion that when we request someone else to prepare our skis, what we are essentially doing is buying an excuse should our performance in the race be anything less than what we had hoped. I had previously trusted the friendly folks at the New Moon Ski & Bike Shop in Hayward, WI, to prepare my waxable classic skis for the 2022 Vasaloppet in pursuit of a Dala Horse Trophy. I had back then figured that doing so (i.e., having someone else wax my skis) 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 race. For a number of other reasons, I hadn’t used those skis for that race and hadn’t found strong enough reasons since then to get them waxed by someone else – professionally or otherwise.

One of my mentors/coaches recently (recent as in … during the CXC Academy’s Technique Progression Lessons at Turkey Birkie in 2022 November and then again during the US Cross Country Ski National Championships in 2023 January) suggested that I seek the expertise of a professional race wax service, and save myself some mental gymnastics as well as precious time leading up to the race. I debated the pros and cons of this suggestion: I had gotten the kick wax right a few times – 2022 Wolf Tracks Rendezvous2022 American Birkebeiner, 2023 Wolf Tracks Rendezvous, 2023 Pre-Birkie and 2023 North End Classic – only when I had sufficient help and guidance. I had also gotten it wrong on more occasions – non-racing situations when I hadn’t asked for such help and guidance.

Not sure why but while debating, I opted to review the UN5390 Scientific Computing (a course I teach at Michigan Tech) and certain line items in one of the slides – asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness and getting help along the way doesn’t make what one achieves any less meaningful – caught my attentionThose line items settled the debate for good, and I reached out to my friends at Out There Nordic in Rice Lake, WI. I have known them for quite a while and things they had been sharing had been making me (and my skiing/waxing experiences) better including a fortnight agoKris and Bjorn Hanson had travelled to Cable, WI, on the day of North End Classic as part of their usual thorough and extensive process of testing snow/ski/wax combinations. They were kind enough to take my skis, and clean and prepare them for me. Long story short and in Bill McKibben’s words (as detailed in his book, Long Distance), I’d be skiing the Birkie on Hansons’ fluoro-free prayers and I was totally OK with it!

Long Distance by Bill McKibben

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.

About two weeks after I had handed over my skis to the Hansons and about a week before The Greatest Show on Snow in da US, I got to recap my wax log and resulting experience from Pre-Birkie and North End Classic with MikeY. Turned out that I had been applying an extra layer or two of kick wax than what was usually recommended as a security blanket. I hadn’t realized that that security blanket was likely costing me some valuable glide. He was kind enough to explain that I needed to have faith in (a) the Toko recommendation, (b) my ability to follow the Toko recommendation, and (c) suck it up if I indeed lost the kick partway through an outing and find ways to finish, and that I needed some more trial (and error) and experience in that aspect to develop the said faith.


The Week of Weeks

Monday – Thursday

As has been a tradition of mine, the Birkie Week (or just The Week) dutifully began with a reading/review of The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen and Mary Azarian. 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.

My reading list has expanded since then and includes Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War by Jeff Folz, Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein and the aforementioned Long Distance by Bill McKibben. I have read all these books (or listened to their audiobook version) quite many times and they are yet to get old. I don’t believe they ever will!

The final Nordic Training Group session (respectfully and affectionately termed Tom Wood University) on Tuesday got the participants – Kim, Tricia and myself – to rehearse the mass start chaos. Of particular interest to me were the necessary etiquette in such a scenario to ensure the event doesn’t end within the first kilometer or two.

I still got to wax send my prayers into a pair of skis. It wasn’t for my own use since I didn’t have any reason to believe the Hansons’ prayers wouldn’t work. But it was for Kim‘s Kortelopet and following the hymn provided officially by the Toko think tank was fairly straightforward.

Having rehearsed the travel logistics over two of the past three weekends, packing for this trip had taken minimal time and effort and was completed by Wednesday evening. After a final body tune-up session, Stephen and I left Houghton around 10 am on Thursday. With an ongoing Winter Weather Advisory, we drove about 20-25% under the published speed limit much of the way and stopped in Mass City, Ironwood and Clam Lake Junction, and so, the drive took its time. The roads weren’t bad and most fellow occupants of the road were good too. Barring a few occasions of whiteout-ness, the drive was safe and uneventful. A fantastic lineup of cross country skiing related podcast episodes (thanks, Stephen!) helped get the Birkie Fever up a few degrees along the way!

The first stop in the Holy Birkie Land was the expo at Hayward High School to pick up our race packets. A quick visit of the essential to me booths and chatting with friends/mentors I hadn’t seen in some time wrapped up the expo experience. The next stop was at Angry Minnow with much of the Keweenaw Contingent (Andi, Christine, DJ, Hannah, Kim, Jim and Stephen) to find some sustenance. Any ski shop during the week(end) of a BIG ski event is a very likely place to run into friendly folks and a quick stop at the New Moon Ski and Bike Shop certainly lived up. Once at the cabin, we (i.e., the Keweenaw Contingent) got to watch the replay of classic sprints (women and men) held earlier in the day as part of the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia and enjoy a hearty home-cooked meal. I made a quick trip to Kwik Trip to pick up my skis from Bjorn and called it night by 9:30 pm.

 

Friday – Kortelopet

This was a race day for Christine (skate), DJ (classic), Hannah (skate) and Kim (skate), and my morning routine mostly involved not being in their way. Stephen and I dropped them off at the Birkie Ridge Trailhead parking lot around 9:00 am. Once back in Hayward, I spent some time perusing the Birkie expo as well as several local business establishments. Getting to meet folks I had only known by name so far was a big bonus!

When the time came, I positioned myself just past the finish area – to transport the Keweenaw Contingent back to the bag pickup/changing tent/food tent area. Interspersed between such trips were the chats with organizers, volunteers, friends, coaches, mentors and finishers (some known and the rest random). Catching a myriad of emotions emanating from the finishers’ faces and that of their friends and relatives was quite the experience, and made the cold air on a Sun-kissed day feel very very warm! I expect to be here in the years to come and experience/share the finishers’ emotions – good, bad or otherwise.

Once back at the cabin, we got to watch the replay of men’s skiathlon held earlier in the day as part of the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia and enjoy a hearty home-cooked meal. With a big day ahead of me, I called it a night around 8:00 (yeah, eight) pm – expecting to dream of strong climbs of big hills on the course and a sweet finish down (or up) the Main Street.

The Day of Days

I don’t know what I dreamed of but Saturday morning came around 4:45 am. Trusting what the body feels like instead of exclusively letting metrics dictate what I should do on any given day let alone the day of the Birkie (Garmin and Oura both wanted me to take an easy day in light of restless sleep) was/is a sign of progress. I had plenty of time for breakfast and coffee, get suited up and request the services of caring friends’ watchful eyes to verify that I indeed had everything I needed (bib, boots, hat, gloves, skis, poles, nutrition, change of clothes, etc.) before heading out through the door.

Kim dropped me off at the Birkie Ridge Trailhead parking lot around 7:10 am. The line to board the bus wasn’t long and the journey to the start didn’t take long either. I was at the main trailhead around 7:30 am – an hour before the scheduled enter the starting pen time. I could have used a part of this hour towards testing the skis for grip and glide. Trust me, I believe in testing and testing thoroughly (and often design multiple ways to verify the result) and I do this on a daily basis for my work. In the very very unlikely event grip or glide (or both) didn’t  work well, I didn’t have any other means to reach Main Street – other than taking a DNS or a DNF.

Neither DNS or a DNF was an option for this day – a concept reinforced most recently from conversations with Laura and Ernie via a beautifully phrased quote: one can do a lot when there’s no plan B. Figuring this what I needed in more ways than one, I chalked this up to be lesson in faith (see the list below). And I put much of that hour towards a more useful endeavor – catching up with friends in and around the cozy confines of Derksen Family Great Hall.

  1. Not knowing what was on the skis (in terms of grip and glide wax) but believing whatever it was was sufficient to do what I needed to do,
  2. Believing in a reminder from MikeY that my training was enough and that I needed to just focus on skiing my best on this day,
  3. Interpreting Sam’s nudge to ski fast and take chances correctly, and
  4. Ability to recall and implement what was necessary from collective lessons my family of friends, mentors and coaches had taught me over the (not so) recent past.
Salomon RC7 196
Glide zone
Cleaner Out There Nordic
Wax/Structure Out There Nordic
Grip zone
Cleaner Out There Nordic
Binder/Wax Out There Nordic

As is common on days like this, the final ~10 minutes before the start – as we progressed through subsequent blocks of the starting area – seemed to take much longer than the preceding ~50 minutes. While the prevailing breeze and light snowfall added to the beauty, they made those final minutes tick by that much slower. Once inside the starting pen and trudging towards the start line, I reminded myself of the goals I had in mind for the day (more about this later). With limited racing opportunities so far this Winter (mostly intentional), I hadn’t had as many occasions to experience and cherish the indescribable beauty of stillness and calmth just before the start. And this likely being the final racing opportunity of the 2022-23 Winter, it was pretty special.

The organizers had made some changes to the Classic course and I had learned about it from a recent episode of the Cowbell Fever podcast. In a nutshell, the Classic Trail would not merge with the Skate Trail after the initial split – other than the kiss points for common aid stations – until just before the aid station near the OO Trailhead. This change eliminated the Power Line climb, trimmed the course by about two kilometers and reduced the overall elevation gain by about 150 meters. Personally, I LOVED this change as it benefitted both striders and skaters: the Classic Trail would have mostly well-preserved tracks for a longer period of time AND the Skate Trail would be more open for the elite wave skiers as they pursued sprint bonuses along the way and the big purse at the end.

The lessons from the aforementioned Nordic Training Group session earlier in the week came in very handy once we started moving. Maintaining compact body (and equipment) positioning, mimicking tempo of the skier just in front and an incomplete follow through of the arms/poles/skis – lot of words to say going slow – for the first 2-3 kilometers was definitely a worthy investment to ensure I (and skiers around me) skied the remaining 50 kilometers. I got to see Mr. Randolph in those early kilometers (and he graciously sent me the photo with permission to use) and followed the train of striders until there was enough wiggle room.

As is common in endurance-based distance events, a handful of partnerships were formed with fellow striders without ever uttering a word. Some of these partnerships lasted only a few hundred meters (or a hill or two) while some others lasted 10-15-20 kilometers. Every one of these partnerships served me well – following my partners some of the times and leading them at other times – and made much of the journey tick by with relative ease. So did reminding myself frequently that these 53 kilometers were my happy place. Per my plan, I stopped at every aid station (about 30-45 seconds) to consume a hydrogel from my pack and a couple servings of the fluid from the volunteers, and check the Garmin for the average pace. Learning from others’ experiences from various other events, I was careful when approaching and leaving these aid stations so as not to ski over any gel packs or banana peels, and made a conscious effort to stay to a side so as not to impede the progress of other skiers.



Weather conditions
hh:mm, temperature (what was and what it felt like), wind, humidity, sky and UV index
Start 08:39, 8/-5 F, 9 mph SW, 86% humidity, Overcast clouds
Middle 10:52, 10/-3 F, 14 mph SSW, 72% humidity, Clear sky
End 13:05, 18/5 F, 14 mph S, 62% humidity, Clear sky
Air quality 75, PM2.5

Goal vs Reality
Goal: 53 km in 4:18:21 (4:52 min/km)
Reality: 53.05 km in 4:25:21.0 (5:00 min/km)
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 6:18 31 7 0:06:18 31 7 6:18 5:33:00 1:14:39
2.00 5:27 29 13 0:11:45 60 20 5:52 5:10:00 0:51:39
3.00 5:05 34 20 0:16:50 94 40 5:36 4:56:00 0:37:39
4.00 4:34 27 23 0:21:24 121 63 5:21 4:43:00 0:24:39
5.00 4:54 16 10 0:26:18 137 73 5:15 4:38:00 0:19:39
6.00 4:55 22 16 0:31:13 159 89 5:12 4:35:00 0:16:39
7.00 4:47 14 32 0:36:00 173 121 5:08 4:32:00 0:13:39
8.00 5:27 36 22 0:41:27 209 143 5:10 4:33:00 0:14:39
9.00 4:49 30 24 0:46:16 239 167 5:08 4:32:00 0:13:39
10.00 4:44 34 38 0:51:00 273 205 5:06 4:30:00 0:11:39
11.00 4:30 19 20 0:55:30 292 225 5:02 4:26:00 0:07:39
12.00 6:04 42 4 1:01:34 334 229 5:07 4:31:00 0:12:39
13.00 4:32 22 27 1:06:06 356 256 5:05 4:29:00 0:10:39
14.00 4:46 9 33 1:10:52 365 289 5:03 4:27:00 0:08:39
15.00 5:00 20 18 1:15:52 385 307 5:03 4:27:00 0:08:39
16.00 3:44 11 36 1:19:36 396 343 4:58 4:23:00 0:04:39
17.00 4:33 24 31 1:24:09 420 374 4:57 4:22:00 0:03:39
18.00 4:38 24 27 1:28:47 444 401 4:55 4:20:00 0:01:39
19.00 6:34 31 12 1:35:21 475 413 5:01 4:25:00 0:06:39
20.00 4:05 6 16 1:39:26 481 429 4:58 4:23:00 0:04:39
21.00 4:34 11 13 1:44:00 492 442 4:57 4:22:00 0:03:39
22.00 4:48 8 8 1:48:48 500 450 4:56 4:21:00 0:02:39
23.00 4:29 22 32 1:53:17 522 482 4:55 4:20:00 0:01:39
24.00 5:47 39 26 1:59:04 561 508 4:57 4:22:00 0:03:39
25.00 5:38 13 16 2:04:42 574 524 4:59 4:24:00 0:05:39
26.00 4:32 17 27 2:09:14 591 551 4:58 4:23:00 0:04:39
27.00 4:52 21 14 2:14:06 612 565 4:58 4:23:00 0:04:39
28.00 3:55 11 31 2:18:01 623 596 4:55 4:20:00 0:01:39
29.00 4:22 14 18 2:22:23 637 614 4:54 4:19:00 0:00:39
30.00 3:48 8 23 2:26:11 645 637 4:52 4:17:00 0:01:21
31.00 5:35 37 17 2:31:46 682 654 4:53 4:18:00 0:00:21
32.00 4:08 7 19 2:35:54 689 673 4:52 4:17:00 0:01:21
33.00 4:03 13 25 2:39:57 702 698 4:50 4:16:00 0:02:21
34.00 5:47 30 30 2:45:44 732 728 4:52 4:17:00 0:01:21
35.00 4:14 20 27 2:49:58 752 755 4:51 4:17:00 0:01:21
36.00 4:48 22 18 2:54:46 774 773 4:51 4:17:00 0:01:21
37.00 4:20 21 26 2:59:06 795 799 4:50 4:16:00 0:02:21
38.00 4:32 16 16 3:03:38 811 815 4:49 4:15:00 0:03:21
39.00 4:34 15 14 3:08:12 826 829 4:49 4:15:00 0:03:21
40.00 4:20 2 31 3:12:32 828 860 4:48 4:14:00 0:04:21
41.00 6:44 38 5 3:19:16 866 865 4:51 4:17:00 0:01:21
42.00 4:32 18 23 3:23:48 884 888 4:51 4:17:00 0:01:21
43.00 5:38 24 22 3:29:26 908 910 4:52 4:17:00 0:01:21
44.00 3:49 6 30 3:33:15 914 940 4:50 4:16:00 0:02:21
45.00 5:28 25 26 3:38:43 939 966 4:51 4:17:00 0:01:21
46.00 7:18 27 15 3:46:01 966 981 4:54 4:19:00 0:00:39
47.00 6:03 26 16 3:52:04 992 997 4:56 4:21:00 0:02:39
48.00 5:44 23 30 3:57:48 1015 1027 4:57 4:22:00 0:03:39
49.00 5:09 19 31 4:02:57 1034 1058 4:57 4:22:00 0:03:39
50.00 4:00 8 33 4:06:57 1042 1091 4:56 4:21:00 0:02:39
51.00 5:20 0 4 4:12:17 1042 1095 4:56 4:21:00 0:02:39
52.00 6:25 0 1 4:18:42 1042 1096 4:58 4:23:00 0:04:39
53.00 6:22 9 5 4:25:04 1051 1101 5:00 4:25:00 0:06:39
53.14 1:00 2 0 4:26:04 1053 1101 5:00 4:25:00 0:06:39
The final cumulative time, 4:26:04, may not match the official time (4:25:21.0) 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, 53.05 km, may not match the designated (or certified) event distance (53 km) owing to idiosyncrasies associated with GPS data collection OR my inability to take the tangents OR the aforementioned early start/late stop reasons, and in some rare cases, incorrectly measured (or advertised) courses or DNFs. As a result, the cumulative pace and the projected finish time might not match the official values as well.

The vociferous crowd at the OO Trailhead brought a LOT of energy (thank you, Carrie!) and my pace noticeably picked up some more over the next few kilometers. I am not really sure what happened in the 7-9 km stretch surrounding the final aid station at Hatchery Park but the kilometers weren’t clicking by at their usual pace. My partnerships with fellow skiers weren’t lasting more than a few strides and it seemed like every skier was passing me. It took Stephen passing by on the hill after Hatchery Park and hearing him call my name to get me out of that lull. Implementing a strategy from the running world, I tried to shake off the slow pace with the running equivalent of strides: short bursts of speed (very similar to some of the drills learned during 2022 Turkey Birkie Technique Progression Clinic).

I needed a handful of these uphill striding attempts and few more conscious reminders that I was still in my happy place before I felt like the pace was picking back up. As it tends to do on windy days, the journey across Lake Hayward felt much longer than what it really was. And without the friendly faces of Keweenaw Contingent and Christine’s parents as well as support from spectators, that journey across the lake would have undeniably felt much harder. Hearing from Erich just before the International Bridge and then from the magnificent crowd (thank you, Allison!)) the over the final 400 meters carried me through the Main Street and then across the finish line.

As in years before, a good portion of the Main Street was spent reflecting on the generosity and kindness of many friends, coaches and mentors over the years that helped me get to this point. New on that list were CXC and its Masters Team Program, US Ski and Snowboard, Team Birkie and Out There Nordic in Rice Lake, WI. The way the Hansons tested the trail/snow conditions, cleaned and prepped my skis played a very vital role in my ability to experience the aforementioned lessons in faith I needed: skiing fast and taking chances, happy feet in and off the tracks, getting into/between and out of tracks, step-turning nearly at speed, staying in the track while climbing a vast majority of the hills and experiencing that sensation of motion blur when approaching/exceeding 40 kmph on a day when conditions might not have been as fast as the year (or even the day) before. The official finish time was 4:25:21 – good for 595/1701 overall, 497/1283 in gender and 68/127 in my age group.

I don’t remember who (Hannah or Kim) carried my skis to the bag pickup and changing tent area and I couldn’t wait to get out of the ski boots (learned later that it was just a hot spot and not a blister). The same short walk from the finish area to the bag pickup and changing tents seemed a lot longer compared to the day before. While in that area, I got to have a quick chat with Alayna and Dave. Much like 2022 and the years before, words wouldn’t make it past the choky sensation when trying to converse with the fellow skiers inside the changing tent. The Keweenaw Contingent gave me plenty of time to change, find some yummy food (the usual bananas, and the soul warming cup of tomato soup – a new and welcome addition this year) in the adjacent tent.

Once all three Birkie finishers – Jim (skate), Stephen (skate) and myself (classic) – were done changing into warmer clothes and had ingested some food, Hannah and Kim drove us all back to the cabin. Some more healthy servings of yummy leftovers ensued and we got to watch the the replay of women’s skiathlon held earlier in the day as part of the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia. As the replay was nearing its end, I went back to the Main Street to find the Hansons and pick up my ski bag from them.

Form/Technique/Discipline-Based Goals
Ski my own race at a sustainably hard effort and do so with correct form, terrain-appropriate technique, situation-appropriate strategy, ease and peace.

Tangible measures included: staying in the track except when the hills were too steep or when the curves were too sharp, tucking in and making myself small during downhills, following good skiers in front of me, doing my best to keep pace with them, letting them go if their pace was significantly beyond my ability, respectfully passing them if/when the time came but with enough notice, not falling or breaking any gear on/of my own or that of anyone else.
Time-Based Goals
Time and Context Status
3:00:00
In 2022, I had skied both the Korte (~2:20:00) and the Birkie (~5:20:00). This is/was a very stretch (like super duper stretch and borderline irrational) goal but it is/was the differential of 2022 times between the shorter and longer events. If reading this made you laugh or roll on the floor, it's totally ok and I don't blame you one bit!
4:25:21
4:20:00
In 2022, I had skied both the Korte (~2:20:00) and the Birkie (~5:20:00). This is/was a more rationale/realistic goal - at least one hour faster than the Birkie finish time from 2022.

Had I not stopped at each of the seven aid stations for about 30-45 seconds (call it 60 seconds for ease of computation), I would have easily met or exceeded this goal. But (it's a BIG BUT) had it not been for the energy gained from the nutrition (gel and fluids), I might have missed the goal by several 10s of minutes.
4:25:21
2:19:00
I am/was very familiar with the final 29 kilometers of the Birkie course (used for Kortelopet since 2018) and I wanted to complete this segment faster than I had ever done before.

Had I not stopped at each of the three aid stations for about 30-45 seconds (call it 60 seconds for ease of computation) in this segment, I would have met if not exceeded this goal. But (it's a BIG BUT too) had it not been for the energy gained from the nutrition (gel and fluids), I might have missed the goal by many more minutes.
2:22:00

I loved (and still do) that this sport is democratic enough and that this event’s stage is big enough to accommodate a very very wide spectrum of abilities, and that there is seamless interaction between skiers of every conceivable ability. I believe there’s beauty in the effort that elites invest and the results they produce – often a full on sprint of 400 meters far and above the red line after what must be a grueling 49.6 kilometers of skiing. And I believe there’s an equally admirable beauty in the effort that non-elites invest and the results they produce – fighting the ticking clock and daylight to cross the finish line year after year. Before I got into the full distance a couple years ago, I had been fortunate enough to see both kinds of beauty and various other kinds in between. Hanging out with Keweenaw Contingent and Scott on Main Street ringing cowbells and cheering for those final finishers got me to admire and appreciate the latter.

We stopped in a couple more establishments on Main Street in search of nutrition and sustenance – both in liquid and (semi) solid form. Along the way, I got to meet and catch up with Liz and Peter, Jake, Jenna and Zach before heading back to the cabin to find more nutrition in the latter form. We all hung out for a little while longer and called it a night around 10:30 pm.

The day after

Sunday morning came at a very relaxed pace but mine started around 4:30 am. We packed up our belongings and restored the cabin to its state prior to our arrival. After one or other forms of Midwestern I Love Yous (this time around, it was mostly drive safe and watch for elks/deer), Kim and I departed the cabin around 8:45 am, and stopped at the Hayward Veterans Community Center (to pick up some stuff for Craig; the systematic arrangement of lost and found items was a work of art and a thing of beauty; even if nothing is lost on race day, I highly encourage visiting them next year), Birkie Main Office (to say hello to Ronda) and New Moon Ski and Bike Shop (to pick up some waxing supplies) before arriving at the Sunday Ski Demo.

Like last year, I didn’t really want to ski any more but really wanted to get my fleet of skis tested using the flex pressure mapping device designed by Matt and his Pioneer Midwest team. I spent my time chatting and catching up with friends, mentors and coaches – Amy and Craig, Andre, Brian, Cade, Caitlin, Cal, Dan, Heidi, Henry, John, LucyMax, Sam, Coach Steve Thatcher and Tom – exchanging our respective race day experiences. Since unforeseen circumstances moved the flex testing to another day, Kim and I left the Sunday Ski Demo around 11 am and after a quick stop each at Redbery Books and Velo Cafe, we started our journey back to da Yoop. We stopped a handful of times along the way and made it safely to Houghton around 5:45 pm.

The 2023 edition of Birkie Fever continued restoring the sense of normalcy – as normal as normal can be in a post-pandemic era. It had a lot of the usuals that I have grown fond of: figuring out the logistics (or being a part of an email chain while others figured out the logistics), traveling with friends, staying together, cooking shared meals, eating together, attending the expo, the long short lines and bus rides, immaculate trail conditions that barely showed any signs of subnivean entities in spite of significant snowfall in the days leading up to the weekend (bless those groomers and the tireless hours they spent at witching hours), skiing the traditional course with a Classic twist (see what I did there?), cheering on and getting cheered on, fantastic Main Street crowd and finish, making new friends, and reconnecting with the ever expanding members of my nordic skiing family. This edition also had a few things missing: a portion of the usual Keweenaw contingent (Betty and Scott, Carrie and Dr. Bob, Greg, Jan and Bob, Rob and Shannon, Sue and the little Handlers), Father Birkie and other Bs on the B Hill, and my sitzmarks anywhere along the course.

As in years before, I am looking forward to the full blown version of Birkie Hangover and using remainder of the Winter to continue incorporating lessons on faith as well as improving form, technique, waxing and skiing (with friends and) with ease and peace.

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.

3 Replies to “2023: 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.