Monday, April 6, 2020

COVID-19: Minneapolis World Cup Cancelled but Heart Disease Doesn’t Get the Memo

Had you told me anytime in the past year or more that John Munger would be calling me on Minneapolis World Cup Weekend I would have never believed you. I’m just not that important.

But then something called COVID-19 happened. And the Minneapolis World Cup got cancelled.

This was a huge collective loss for our ski community. After a week of progressively more and more cancellations, the writing was on the wall and I don’t think anyone was too surprised. It was the end of season we’d all been looking forward to and more than anything this was just such a huge let down.

We all tried to make the best of the situation. On Saturday, Pi Day, Erik and I headed out to Wirth to enjoy the World Cup course. Hey, at least we got to ski it if not the professionals. It felt a bit post-apocalyptic as volunteers were still setting up the stadium. Wait, did someone not get the memo that the World Cup was cancelled? Or did we all die and was this heaven and it was going to happen anyway? And Kleabo and Pellegrino would be duking it out for the men’s win and Jessie and Sophie and Sadie and Julia and Hailey and Caitlin in the first ever all American women’s final in World Cup history!!!!

But no, this was the Loppet getting ready to put on a little gathering on the down-low to showcase that we were ready to show the world that the Twin Cities is the #1 ski community in the Western Hemisphere and Oslo better watch out for the world title. Erik and I got wind of some shenanigans and we decided we wanted to partake so we headed back out to Wirth on Sunday.

People had gathered around and there was supposed to be some kind of “sprint” but it was pretty informal so I just skied around but on my third lap or so on the World Cup Course someone said the sprinters were coming. By the time I’d gotten to the top of the snowboarding hill, the hill I was planning to watch the action on in the World Cup, a few people had gathered and it looked like this sprint race was about to happen. And sure enough it did and here came Diggins jump skating like mad up that hill.

It was pretty surreal. I’ve watched Jessie do this on TV at least a hundred times but seeing it in person, well, it just went by so so fast. It was pretty amazing. It was at least a bit of a consolation prize.

After that I kept skiing around and ran into my teammate Claire. We were having a good time talking, practicing physical distancing, and working on some balance and ski speed. But as we approached the Upper Stadium something wasn’t quite right. There were a few people gathered on the north end. One guy was lying on the ground, a couple people were next to him. John Munger was standing and on the phone. My immediate thought was that this was likely a cardiac arrest and given I’m a health care professional I might be in need.

I took off my poles and skis as quick as I could. The two guys giving CPR and Munger confirmed he had seemed to lose consciousness, fell face forward to the ground, and was pulseless. I jumped in and started compressions right away. Munger got off the phone with 911 and said he was going for the AED which I confirmed made sense. My whole goal was to provide high quality uninterrupted chest compressions.

Mortality is very high in out of hospital cardiac arrest, but we had a witnessed arrest with bystanders initiating CPR immediately and EMS activation. These were all good prognostic indicators. The AED is super important, but in the meantime it’s all about high quality uninterrupted chest compressions. There’s no need to count, no need for mouth to mouth, no need to check a pulse, no need to worry about breaking ribs, and no need to worry if the patient is agonal breathing. Just don’t stop the compressions (at a rate of around 100 per minute). There is really really good evidence in providing high quality chest compressions to perfuse the heart and ideally the brain. We were also lucky with 3 people on the scene and one gone for help. This allowed 2 of us to do compressions while the other person secured the scene and had the good common sense to remove this guys poles (none of us knew this skier) and skis (something I only realized hours after). And don’t wait to switch off until you’re exhausted- switch frequently.

Somehow I had the foresight to take off this guys jacket and get his shirt up in preparation for the AED with trying to minimally interrupt chest compressions as much as possible.

Munger had skied down the hill, gotten the AED and got back up the hill. Around the time he returned with the AED, Lazlo arrived. Fortunately Lazlo is a healthcare provider, too, and knows compressions are gold. I fumbled badly with that AED. I couldn't get the pads out of the package. Meanwhile I heard the AED automatic voice saying “Stay calm.” Fortunately Lazlo took over.

Then we had the pads on and that AED was analyzing the rhythm.

“Please please please be a shockable rhythm,” I pleaded.

The AED won’t shock asystole and if the patient is in asystole, meaning loss of heart activity, that’s a bad sign.

Shock was advised.

“Yes!” I screamed, possibly out loud, maybe just in my head.

Somewhere distant I could hear the arrival of the ambulance.

After the shock Lazlo was back on him doing compressions just like it should be. By then the snowmobile had shown up with the sled to get him down to The Trailhead. It seemed like forever coordinating getting him into the sled (but it must’ve been less than 10 seconds) and who would go down the hill doing compressions but Lazlo jumped in and straddled the patient and off they went.

By the time we collected ourselves on top of the hills and skied down to the bottom, EMS had the LUCAS machine on the patient. It took a bit but they were stabilizing him before they got him into the ambulance. Lazlo said he heard they got a pulse back in the ambulance.

Wow, this definitely wasn’t what I expected when I happened out to ski at Wirth that day, and I surely failed at physical distancing for COVID-19, but cardiac arrest happens. Often.

I know this wasn’t Munger’s first rodeo with cardiac arrest. Unfortunately this occurs relatively frequently in skiers. Emergency situations are really difficult, and quite frankly, not my cup of tea. But for a bunch of people who had never practiced together, this situation played out as if it had been rehearsed a thousand times. It was witnessed and two bystanders did exactly what they should do- check for a pulse, get the patient on their back and start CPR. Then Munger came along, called 911 calmly, and had the foresight to go for an AED and alert the trail crew (I believe Issac) to get the sled. I arrived for the high quality compressions while the other bystanders helped and secured the scene (took off the patient’s ski gear). We got more trained people, an AED, the sled, and the patient down to EMS. This was very very seamless and they wouldn’t have done a whole lot better in the hospital other than give some meds through an already placed IV and consult cardiology.

An hour or so after I got home, John called to let me know as far as he knew, the patient was alive in the hospital. This was very good news.

Hopefully no one reading this will need to know what to do in the setting of a cardiac arrest, but inevitably some of you will witness a cardiac arrest. So here’s what to do in three easy steps. Because emergency situations are chaotic and people often act on instinct rather than rationale, it would behoove you to memorize this list and repeat it to yourself every so often. This list does assume access to 911 which might not be the case if you are in the wilderness. Ideally all the steps would happen at the same time.

1. Call 911

2. Get an AED (skip this if you are the only rescuer or if there is no easy AED access)

3. High quality uninterrupted chest compressions (preferably started at same time as calling 911 if multiple rescuers or call 911 on speaker phone): place the heel of your hand with your other hand on top between the nipples and compress down about 2 to 2 ½ inches at a rate of 100 beats per minute- about to the pace of the song “Stayin’ Alive, Stayin’ Alive!”

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Great Bear Chase 2020: A Mixed Bag

Last year I embedded my Great Bear Chase 2019 race report within a blog post titled “A Mixed Bag.” Somehow that seems to be an appropriate subtitle again this year.

It wouldn't be the Great Bear Chase without at least one hat like this! Photo: Brockit
For the second year in a row, I did the 50 km classic. This is largely because it is a relatively flat course with opportunity for lots of double poling which I love! The 50 km consists of two 25 km laps. It starts flat, has a section with some punchy hills (short with some curves), gets pretty flat again, and ends with more punchy hills. Conditions this year were in the 30s with fresh snow a couple days prior to the race. Knowing that good kick wasn’t essential but would be nice, especially in the second half of the race, I waxed a bit on the warm-side with SWIX 55 then 50 then 45. I tried to cover each layer but it seemed to all just mix together.

The Vakava team stayed in an AirBNB that was ½ mile from the start and so it was nice to walk to the race in the morning. I tested my kick wax and it wasn’t icing (but not exactly giving great kick either) so I decided to leave it alone.

Sunrise on the way to the start. Don't forget that Calumet, MI is in Eastern Time Zone if you go!
An iconic UP house where our Vakava group stayed.

The classic race field was very small with only about 40 competitors. I got a front row start on the far right. I noted any rival women and as we skied up the first hill, I looked around for them, but they were nowhere in sight. The top four men, including Erik and Josh Doebbert, made a break and then I tried to stay on some trailing men. Despite my best attempts, they had all dropped me by 2 km into the race. I thought maybe I’d ski the next 48 km by myself, but in the first section of punchy hills, Badger, so named for what looked like his U of Wisconsin suit, passed me. Then in the flat section a guy wearing black and bright green passed me. We all skied by each other for quite some time. We passed a lot of skiathlon skiers and we also skied with one skiathlon guy who seemed to be taking it easy.


Alex mixing it up with some fast guys in the skiathlon en route to 5th place and some prize money! Photo: Brockit
Ben in the skiathlon making his way to an age class award. Huge thanks to Ben for organizing the weekend trip! Photo: Brockit

Towards the end of the first lap those guys started pulling away from me. I could see one more guy in front of me as well. I’m not sure why those guys pulled away from me so much but I couldn’t quite stay with them.

The snow seemed slow to me. I couldn’t tell much of a difference inside the tracks or on the skate deck so I did a mix of both and cut a lot of corners. I felt like I had been out there forever and still had another lap to ski!

Craiger crushed it in the skate with a 2nd place finish! Photo: Brockit
Scott and Abe weren't far behind. Photo: Brockit
And Dave rocked it, too. Photo: Brockit
The tracks were better skied in and slightly more glazed on the second lap. They seemed faster than the first lap as I was more easily able to double pole up gradual uphills. The skate deck was getting soft and slow and was obviously slower than the classic tracks. After the punchy hill section, I saw a couple classic guys in front of me. I reeled them in with my double pole and was greatly enjoying catching and passing men (it was such a mental boost compared to this year’s Birkie) but then, suddenly, with 14 km to go my back went out on me.

Now, when I say this, it means I started feeling like my actual spine hurt as opposed to my muscles. I could still double pole but I had to change my technique. Kick double poling and striding both sent jolts of pain throughout my back but I was able to run/shuffle without the jolts.

I suppose most people would quit when this happens. But not me. I’m a total sucker for pain and so I just realized this race was going to be way more painful than I wanted and I wasn’t sure if I could walk at the finish. I’ve had this pain before a few times, most recently last summer, and it lasted a couple days and totally sucked. It’s super hard to bend down to pick anything up, tie my shoes, and it hurts to roll over in bed. All those simple activities trigger lightening bolts of pain.


Laura put the smack down in the skate leg of the skiathlon to finish 4th with prize money, too! Photo: Brockit
So I kept going and my back didn’t actually bother me too bad. We started the gradual climb towards the second section of punchy hills and then I saw Badger! Oh yeah, I like coming from behind and passing people. It took me awhile to catch Badger and at that point we passed another guy in the classic race, too, who we came up on real fast. When I passed Badger, I could hear him slip in behind me.

Then we hit the punchy hills again with 6 km to go and on the first uphill, where the tracks were obliterated and some fresh snow had been churned up, I herring-bone ran and my left ski iced. I was able to stomp my ski enough to get the snow off but by then Badger had passed me AND another guy I hadn’t seen before. Bummer. Wow, this race was definitely not perfect. First my back, now the icing. And yet I had just been so excited to pass some guys. Man, I REALLY wanted to beat those guys.

Ok, so I now knew I had to stay in the tracks. That was all well and good except for where the tracks had been wiped out. Fortunately this only happened a couple more times. I could see Badger and the other guy ahead of me but there was nothing I could do to stay with them- not when I had to stomp my ski and lost some time on a downhill when the stomping wasn’t effective enough. I tried to just bide my time, knowing those guys looked pretty tired and the last 2 km or so the hills were a bit less punchy and I should be able to stay in the tracks.

I had really good energy and was disappointed I couldn't go faster but that energy was also helping me deal with my aching back and icing situation.

With 2 kms to go there was a long uphill. I should have been able to stride but my back hurt too bad so I just shuffled up it quickly. I passed both Badger and the other guy. My ski still iced a tad where new snow had been kicked into the track from pole plants and skiers outside the track, but I was able to stomp it off and finish without any more icing.

Me and Badger! Photo: Brockit


I stayed ahead of those guys and managed to finish 9th overall, first woman.

The top classic guys. Erik was trailing a tad here but paced things well to finish 2nd overall. I guess we couldn't quite pull off the husband-wife podium like Team Gregg did in the skiathlon. Oh, well- next year! Photo: Brockit


It was very nice weather after the race with temps pushing 50s and sunshine!!! The Vakava team had fun enjoying the snow and weather. My back actually didn’t bother me too bad after the race- it waited a few hours to rear its ugly head. Getting out of bed the next day proved to be my greatest accomplishment! (Uh oh, that’s what my mom says every day!) I really need to start doing yoga or something specific for my back because this pain sucks. Guess I’m just getting too old or pushing my body too hard:)


Some shenanigans after the race- daring to walk out on Portage Lake with Craig, Erik, and Alex. There's an old mining town and the local downhill ski area on the left shore.
Craig taking a selfie in front of the big boat that goes to Isle Royale!


The Great Bear Chase is a great ski marathon in the Midwest. I highly encourage anyone thinking about it to put it on your calendar for next year. The snow and trail won’t disappoint. It’s what skiing should be.

And there was even a panda. It doesn't get better than that!!! See, I told you it's what skiing should be- pandas on skis!!! Ok, I know, pandas aren't real bears. I'm bummed I didn't see this costume because I love pandas. I mean, I once canoed like 400 miles to see some pandas. Maybe next year I'll have to wear a panda costume! Photo: Brockit

Friday, March 6, 2020

Birkie 2020: So Fast And So Slow

Intro

Each year that I have qualified for the Elite Wave at the Birkie, I show up more confident that I will make the Elite Wave again. Paradoxically, I also have a growing sense that if I somehow fail to requalify for the Elite Wave, it’s not the end of the world.

All that being said, I knew from the Loppet MinneTour that my fitness was good. In the week leading up to the Birkie, there was nothing I could do to really improve my performance but I could hurt it by training too much.

Given the weather forecast, I suspected this might finally be the year I would break 3 hours in the Birkie. I remember my time in the 3:36 range my first year doing the Birkie at age 19 and thinking it would be pretty amazing to go under 3 hours. I’ve done this in other marathons, but between skiing a bunch of Classic Birkies and Skate Birkies out of slower waves, I had never done this. Last year’s Skate Birkie was slow and I was just over 3 hours. The only thing about a fast Birkie is that I tend to do better the slower the conditions.

So I arrived to the start fairly confident but a bit concerned because I wasn’t as nervous as usual and history has told me that’s a bad omen.


So Fast

Given that the temperature was expected to go from about 22 °F to 32 °F, I decided to only wear underwear and my race suit. Last year for Great Bear Chase, the temperature was similar but I had worn long underwear on bottom and got way too hot! I don’t race well once I get hot so I dressed on the cool side. This was a bit unnerving as our car thermometer dropped to 5 °F on the drive to the start but I decided to trust in the forecast.

There are definitely some perks to the Elite Wave, most notably that it’s small and I don't have to worry about getting a good start position. Everyone always gets in the gate early but I waited a bit longer, trying to stay warm. I got in the gate with 5 minutes to spare. No one was on the right side. After they lifted up the FIS partition, I found myself in the second row, behind the first row of mostly former Olympians.

I got off to a fast start double poling but as soon as the tracks were up and I went to skate, my poles got stepped on twice. This knocked me back a bit. I found some room and kept going but all the women just seemed to pass me up. It pretty much felt like I was at the very back. Before I knew it, we were on the Power Lines. I completely missed the climb up to them. I felt like I was at the back of the wave. I saw the Reker sisters slowly pulling ahead of me. Once we got into the woods, I closed the gap on them. I knew I had to do this. There was a pack of maybe seven of us skiing together, including Jenna Ruzich.

I got off to a good start, demonstrating good technique, but this was about 100 meters into the race and things went downhill from here, literally and figuratively:) Photo: unknown but thanks to the Broderson's for sending it my way.

I wasn’t feeling terribly perky climbing the hills, but they were going by fast. I had, perhaps, made the mistake of doing my shake out ski with Vakava and got horribly dropped. That shattered my confidence. It also didn’t help that I’ve been questioning my V-1 technique lately.

Anyway, I stayed with my little pack to the High Point Hill. No one really pushed it up that hill but I felt a bit tired and so was holding back some. I tend to have an innate ability to pace in a marathon and it didn’t feel quite right to push that hill. I wasn’t really worried about getting dropped by the pack but apparently I should have been because I got dropped big time. Conditions and my skis were super fast. Even without the pack I felt like I was flying. It also felt amazing to have the entire trail to myself.

Then the men started catching me. I think it was after Boedecker. I hope it was after Boedecker. It was after Boedecker last year. I got over to the far right when the men’s lead snowmobile passed me but the Birkie failed to mention that’s where the snowmobile goes and if you’re in their way, they’ll run you over. That snowmobile came within inches of clipping my ski!

The men passing me was a good reminder that I needed to keep pushing hard. And I did. I kept pushing the pace and pushing the pace. And I pushed extra hard over the one lane bridge over OO so I wouldn’t hold up any men and fortunately I didn’t.

I kept pushing and I was flying. The kilometers ticked away so fast. But I wasn’t catching any women. I started trying to hang onto the packs of men passing me. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay with any of them, I was merely using it to inject some speed and as a reminder to keep pushing.

Skiing so fast and all alone. This is actually how I like it. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
 I know my strengths as a skier and I know my weaknesses. Fast conditions have always been a weakness for me. I’ve always cringed at the thought of those fast Birkies. I’ve always doubted my capabilities to ski super fast. My legs are small. I’m not good at balance. I’ve just never been able to get good glide out of my skis and I don’t have a Therese Johaug engine to make up for it. So I knew that even though I was going super fast, I still had to keep working hard.

After OO, I tried to stay with every pack of men passing me. I didn’t move over for them. And some of these were big packs. I knew my Elite Wave was in jeopardy and I was fighting. I’d try to stay with them for as long as possible, but I just kept getting dropped.

Silly me, of course I couldn’t keep up with them.

I tried the hardest with the huge pack that caught me before Mosquito Brook. I stayed with them the longest, yo-yoing on the uphills. Oh yeah, that’s why I don’t like pack skiing. And then they got away, too.

Erik passed me on the 37 km hill. This meant he was doing awesome- it meant I was doing terribly. He was clearly moving up, trying to catch the big pack of skiers ahead of him. Before the race I had declared if he passed me I would try to stay on him. Yeah, that wasn’t about to happen. I didn’t even try.

Erik. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

 I didn’t try to jump on any more men. I was too tired. I was still moving fast, but my tank was starting to run on empty. I was just so glad, again, to be skating up those last two big hills. it’s just so much easier to maintain V-1 form than striding.

Then we were on the lake. There was a pack of men that had just passed me but I thought I saw a woman up there, I thought it might be Jenna. I tried my hardest to chase her down. I skied hard and fast- across the lake, up over that Birkie Bridge, and down Main Street. I was definitely tired at the end.

I checked my watch. Wow, conditions were definitely fast- a PR by 15 minutes!

Bonnie, in her Vakava suit, crushed this year's Birkie in 17th!!!! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
Claire was 24th! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
And Laura was 28th. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

And So Slow

I didn’t want to check the results. I knew requalifying for Elite Wave was in serious peril. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like normal during the race. I didn’t feel amazing but I didn’t feel too bad either. I mean, it’s supposed to be hard and it was. I sufficiently pushed myself hard but had left something in the tank to get me across Lake Hayward, over the bridge, and up Main Street without bonking.

I purposely waited until Wave 2 was well in before I checked.

67th place.

I think I already knew it. But I was honestly completely deflated.

See, the thing about the Birkie, especially about the Skate Birkie, is that unlike any other race I do, how I do this year determines my experience next year. Skiers in the Elite Wave are much more likely to make the Elite Wave again compared to skiers in Waves 1 and 2. And I’ve been in Wave 2 and I completely hated it. Way too many men. I’ve been so determined to NEVER be in that Wave again.

I’ve always hated the Birkie. The Traffic Jam race I used to call it. The exact opposite of what skiing should be- a billion people in my way. And so I’ve always been determined to make Elite Wave so I can race without a bunch of men in my way. And it is amazing to be in Elite Wave- so much better- except for this constant fear I’m going to get dropped from Elite Wave.

Because the Elite Wave is like this benchmark. You’re either a good skier (and along with it comes those special privileges as noted above, plus a low number bib and one with your name on it to boot) or you’re a bad skier. It’s like a pass or fail. I put so much pressure on myself that I hate the Birkie. I hate the week leading up to the Birkie. It’s the only week I consistently hate every year. And it’s where my birthday falls every year. So you can imagine what my birthday is like. Yeah, so I guess I get Birkie Fever, but instead of excitement, it’s dread. It makes me wish I actually had the real flu. I can’t wait for the Birkie to be over. Every year. I love March. March is the best month ever because the Birkie is like 11 months away.

Then it was a torrential downpour of self-deprecating thoughts.


How did this race go so wrong? What had I messed up? What about all my training? Was it all a complete waste of time? Obviously, because it seems I’ve gotten slower rather than faster. I’m just a terrible skier. I should quit racing.

Now everybody knows what I’ve always known. The secret is out. I’m just a FAKE. I’ve just been pretending that I’m fast. I’ve been cheating by skiing the classic race where it’s easier to stay in the Elite Wave. Now everyone knows the truth. Why did I ever try? I sucked back in high school. Why did I keep going?

I don’t deserve to be on Vakava.


I tried not to be too bummed and talked with some of my friends but it wasn’t long until I completely lost it. Erik I were walking down Main Street, watching the later waves finish, but I just had to pull off onto a side street and ball my eyes out.

It’s so dumb that I’m so upset. I mean, it’s a beautiful day, I got to ski, I’m not injured (like a couple of my friends), and I didn’t get injured. I’m healthy. This is such an inconsequential thing that I do. It’s so stupid that I’m this upset.

Anything that makes me feel THIS bad is clearly not fun so why am I subjecting myself to it? I have got to quit racing. Or at least racing the Birkie. It’s not making me happy.

Or are all these tears just because I care so much. Too much?

There’s this fast runner chick’s blog I like to read. But she’s always so down on herself. She’s too driven to have fun or appreciate her talent. She sounds pretty miserable.

Gosh, I guess I sound just like her.


I was completely distraught.

I guess I either cry before the race or after.

If I cry before, I’m gonna get good results. If I cry after, I hate my results.

An interesting spreadsheet Erik created showing time and percent back from winner to qualify for Elite Wave. It was super tight for men this year but comparable to last year for women- except that this was the fastest of the years going back to 2013. I've qualified for Elite Wave all of these years except this one with 2013-2018 in classic.


Conclusion

I guess I was right about going under 3 hours. I was entirely wrong though about my feelings regarding failing to requalify for Elite Wave. Before the Birkie I thought I finally had the self-worth to not care about a result. To know that my other results from the year count, too. But no. And I’m still exceedingly critical of myself.

After my Crossroads posts, I certainly have the self-awareness to see more of the big picture. In some respects that helps, but in others it only makes it worse.

Objectively I know the race wasn’t bad. It may have been the best Birkie I’ve ever had out there, save for worrying about staying in Elite Wave. I had so much of the trail to myself. I never felt horrible. And the weather was perfect. If I didn’t care about that stupid result on paper, that number, those race stats, etc, it would’ve been great. If there wasn’t this magical cut-off. I was two minutes away from being “Elite” but it might as well have been 2 hours.

But I know I gave it so much. My average heart rate was 153, the same as last year, and my quads were seriously sore after. I don’t remember when my quads were last sore from skate skiing.

So how did this happen? I dropped 25 women’s places, doubled my place back in the overall field. Did I just completely miss the taper? Or peak? Did I overtrain? I did almost the same things as last year. Was it really all just the conditions? I prevail in slow snow and flounder under fast conditions?

Which brings me to the unfairness of life. I’m pretty sure I train more than Erik. I work way more on technique. I actually do strength- he hasn’t done any in months. I’ve beat him so many times doing rollerski intervals. And yet, twice, he’s qualified for the Elite Wave when I haven’t. And he even qualified for Boston on just about the most pathetic, limited mileage plan in existence. I mean, I don’t think “low mileage” defines the plan. That’s why I used the word “limited.” It kills me that he seemingly is a better athlete than me. Maybe it just helps that he’s Type B personality. He’s more like my high school friend Anna, telling me to leave something for the race.

“So much of life is managing self-pity,” my good friend Emily said to me a few years ago. That quote has stuck with me and sums up my feelings very well.

Myself and Emily having fun in NYC at the American Girl Doll store the day after we paddled around Manhattan. Photo: Erik

It’s almost like when I lined up on the starting line this year at the Birkie, it didn’t matter how many pull-ups I can do, how many hours of ab exercises I’ve done, how much I’ve ran, or how many interval sessions I’ve done. This year it seemed more like I flipped a coin. Heads fast conditions. Tails, slow conditions. And lo and behold, it was heads.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ranking Ben's Birkies

Approaching OO with my kids in the background.  Photo credit: Dad

Non-skiers often ask what your goal time is for a given race.  It is hard for them to understand how big a difference the conditions make.  A road running race like a marathon can be substantially impacted by weather conditions.  But skiing takes it to another level.

For this fairly atypical race report for me I'll first talk about a few numbers that really bring that point home.  Then, since those numbers aren't really what I was hoping for, I'll talk about some other Birkie numbers.  Finally, we'll get to the excu... er... reaso... er... well, we will do some pondering.

A Birkie PR of Sorts

For context, this was the 7th Birkie I have completed.  Relative to my similarly aged teammates, that is a pretty small number.  That is what I get for taking 10 years off from skiing after high school.

My second Birkie number is 2:40:50 which of my 7 Birkie's is my fastest.  So #1 all time.  On the surface sounds great right?

Plotting my Birkie times.


On to the third number.  545.  That was my overall place.  495th place male.  <sarcasm alert>Just a skosh off the top 200 men for the 2021 elite wave</sarcasm alert>.  Actually, despite the fastest time ever, this was my #6 Birkie by place.

So much for getting better every year.
I won't deny that this result is pretty disappointing.  I wasn't out for the win, and there was a really strong field this year that would have made even staying 200th place like last year a pretty tall order, but this sort of regression wasn't in my thoughts.

We'll come back to what may have happened in a bit.  First let's do some more ranking.

More Rankings

How about we talk about the weather?  Start temps around 20F, finish temp around 32F, afternoon beer drinking and spectating temps pushing 40F.  Sunshine and blue skies.  Just a slight breeze (and not a headwind on the lake to boot).  Yeah, I'm going to go with #1 weather wise.  It was an absolutely glorious day to be out skiing and hanging out.

A photo of the start of the Elite women skate race.  Blue skies and sun all day long.


And the trail conditions?  Let's see, I skied out of wave 7 on my first Birkie.  Uff, no idea what the original trail conditions were like that year, but wave 7 was not ideal.  2014... there was a little snow.  OK, a lot of snow.  I don't remember 2015.  2016 was soft for at least part of the race.  2017... outside of that one not being one of my 7... well actually that is the point of that one, no one got to ski.  2018 was warm and slushy.  2019 pretty dang nice actually, just a little fluff on top.  Blah blah blah, 2020 was excellent.  So let's go with #1 trail conditions.

Hard to see, but that firm and well groomed trail behind the lead snowmobile there... it was like that ALL the way to Hayward.

Next let's do spectators.  I had a record number of folks out cheering specifically for me this year.  My parents got up early with my aunt, picked up my kids and wife and I had a crew of 6 cheering for me at OO. #1 again.

Not my spectators, but my hosts for the weekend and every one of my 7 Birkies.  I think that was about to be 56 combined Birkie finishes in the car.


Summary Ranking

OK, so we've got 1, 6, 1, 1, 1.  I think that averages out to a #2.  Yeah, that sounds about right.  Probably my second favorite Birkie after last year.

So What Happened

So, barring a full blow by blow race report like I might normally do (and have notes for almost all of this year's races, just didn't actually write anything), what on Earth happened out there?  I'm not really sure.

Being bib 200 and a strong field, I felt pretty safe starting near the back of the elite wave.  I felt OK as we headed up towards the Power Lines.  I didn't want to go out too hard and blow up.  I have a habit of blowing up in first 10k of the Birkie.  A quick look over my shoulder on the Power Lines though and there were only about 20 guys behind me if that.  Hmm, that's pretty close to being out of the Elite wave right off the bat.

Then things went down hill figuratively and never came back up.  My legs felt tired.  There were only a few short stretches after the high point and before OO where I felt decent.  And during that stretch just before Boedecker the lead group of five wave 1 skiers came blasting past.

I don't know that I would call it a full on bonk feeling, but definitely low energy and tight muscles.  Some stomach discomfort too.  Same feeding plan as last year so that probably wasn't a contributor.

After Gravel Pit and while the wave 1 skiers were streaming past I probably checked out mentally.  I'd try to grab the back of a group and would make it about 30 seconds tops before falling off.  Do that eight or ten times and you kind of stop trying.

Theories

Let's run through a few theories.

Life stress.  The body doesn't know the difference between training stress and life stress.  There is definitely stuff weighing on me.  Then again, it was also weighing on me at the beginning of the season too while I was racing better.  Or at least better relative to everyone elses performances.

Sleep.  I could get more.  I tried to really put that at the top of the list in the last two weeks.  I certainly didn't feel any more sleepy tired than I had earlier in the season.

Illness.  I know I had some friends not perform as well as they wished due to actually being sick.  The rest of my house was suffering through stuffy noses, sore throats, and the like for the week before.  I never had more than a slightly snuffy nose.  Continued that way after the race too.

Power to weight.  Hmmm.  I say each year I should do something about both sides of that ratio.  This year I maybe slightly improved the power side.  But I also unimproved the weight side.  After watching all of my team mates during strength at practice I know I have a lot of room for improvement.  I also know, that despite being down considerably from my heaviest, I've got plenty of room there too.  The Birkie isn't exactly a flat course those opening km either.

Mental toughness.  I do think I'm a bit of a headcase when it comes to the Birkie too.  I don't judge my self worth by my Birkie result.  It is important to me though.

Peaking early.  Not quite a November Turkey, but I'd rather be racing my best in February instead of January.  Last year I think I raced less and had a better result at the end of the season.  This year I think I race more frequently, but shorter distances.  I'll actually have to run the numbers eventually.  But maybe I hold back in workouts and racing for a few weeks longer.

What's Next

Well, the race season isn't over yet.  Great Bear Chase in a little over a week.  I'm going to do the skiathlon again just because you don't get many opportunities to do that format.  I'm hoping for something less than the epic bonk I had last year.  Then there is the World Cup format sprint races at Theo and the World Cup itself.  I'm really looking forward to seeing the best in the world!

Then a little offseason and starting to think about 2021.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Vakava Racing Update

Hey remember how I talked about giving regular team updates on the blog?  No?  Good.

Lets see, the last one I did got us all the way through the end of December... 7 race weekends ago!

Vakava has been out racing every weekend.  Sometimes twice per weekend.  Let's roll some January results.

I count 9 podiums in this stretch.

January 4th - First Chance Race 21km Freestyle - Mora

First NameLast NameOverallGender
AndySchakel22
BenMullin88
DavidChristopherson2525
BrockLundberg3129
Andy on the podium.

January 5th - Pre-Loppet 17km Freestyle - Theodore Wirth

First NameLast NameOverallGender
AndySchakel33
CraigCardinal66
NathanPorath99
AbePeterson1616
ScottKyser2828

January 11th - Hyland Rennet

26km Freestyle

First NameLast NameOverallGender
NathanPorath55
AndySchakel77
PaulOlson1111
BenMullin2322
BonnieWeiskopf322
DavidChristopherson6058

Vakava train. Photo Credit: Bruce @ www.skinnyski.com

Bonnie on the podium and in the money!
Age group podium for Andy.
Age group podium for Dave.


26km Classic

First NameLast NameOverallGender
ScottKyser77

January 18th - Seeley Hills Classic

Fresh snow made for some hard work at Seeley.


43km

First NameLast NameOverallGender
CraigCardinal88
AbePeterson2524
BenMullin4944

23km

First NameLast NameOverallGender
AlexReich11
BrockLundberg2222
DavidChristopherson2323
HeatherCichanowski598

January 25th - Noquemanon 50km Classic

First NameLast NameOverallGender
MarshalLandrum2422

January 25th - Badger State Games 43km Freestyle

First NameLast NameOverallGender
AndySchakel55

January 25th - Nordic Spirit 27km Classic

First NameLast NameOverallGender
BonnieWeiskopf92

January 26th - Marine O'Brien Ski Race

25km Freestyle

First NameLast NameOverallGender
AlexReich33
ScottKyser99
BenMullin1414
MaryTuttle151
LauraCattaneo253

25km Classic

First NameLast NameOverallGender
CraigCardinal11
MarkAhlers55
DavidChristopherson1313
HeatherCichanowski304
Craig off to an early lead and on to the win.  Photo Credit: Bruce @ www.skinnyski.com

Monday, February 17, 2020

Minnesota Finlandia 2020: Hugs, Bugs, and Shrugs

Hugs

The Minnesota Finlandia is my hometown race. The ski community in Bemidji is small and tight and so it’s no joke that I know lots of people. Given that Josie isn’t at the Finlandia to give me a billion hugs, I did lots of hugging of my own this weekend- starting at the bib pick up where I met up with my long lost high school friend Jim. I hadn’t seen him in 9 years!

High School Winter Formal circa 2002. From left to right: Kathryn, Jim, me, David, Leif (my bro), and Anna. Photo: ????
My bro runs bib pick up. This means no need for a photo ID for anyone; he just IDs everyone based on recognition and gets them their bib before you can spit out your name.

My bro finishing up this year's Finlandia. Photo: John Arenz
Before the start I exchanged greetings with the Finlandia board, spectators, and fellow racers- and certainly hugged quite a few in the process.

Mark Morrisey, chief of the course, was planning for rocket fast conditions owing to a monstrous base (greatest snow depth in years) and no fresh snow. But mother nature had other plans with a howling wind on Friday that caused lots of blowing and drifting on the course. After cheering on his son at the STATE meet where everything was delayed due to a timing snafu, Mark worked tirelessly all night to make the best possible course.

Despite this, the wind merely shifted directions, keeping up its gale force. As a result, ironically even with the settled massive snow depth, this year saw some of the worst conditions for the Finlandia that I can recall. Don’t get me wrong, conditions were excellent for 90% of the course, but the remaining exposed 10% had soft, blown and drifted snow. It’s a good reminder that we do an outdoor sport, completely dependent on mother nature, and she always has the upper hand.

As noted in my last blog post, Kerrie Berg, was there ready to defend her title in the 25 km classic. Apparently, she has earned the nickname “The Iceberg” for her strong racing results. My plan was to stay glued to her. I lined up in the second row, happy to have our backs to the wind in the starting gate. And then we were off. I stayed in front of Kerrie as we rounded the bottom of the Buena Vista downhill area and as we climbed up Sunnyside, the downhill ski run.

The start of the classic race. Photo: Monty Draper
The field up on the plateau had some blown snow. I was happy to not be skating. Once we headed off the ridge the conditions markedly improved. Here Kerrie got in front of me and I vowed to stick with her- which I did for the next few winding kilometers- often leading. Kerrie took the lead back as we battled the headwind through the narrows. As we went up on the island she almost got a lead on me and I struggled through the last couple kilometers on the east side to stay with her.

Still with Kerrie Berg on the east side. Photo: Monty Draper
As we went by the start/finish area before going out on the west side, there was tons of soft drifted snow and Kerrie started to gap me here. I pushed hard, but she just started to get away from me as we headed onto the west side with the short punchy hills. I’d like to think maybe I had another gear in me somewhere that just wasn’t going to come out to play on this day. Last year, when I saw Kerrie on the start list, I didn’t even try to keep up with her. This year I made it 14 km, so I was happy to take that. Perhaps, a bit too complacent.

I didn’t think there were any other women remotely close to me. Over the next few kilometers I leap-frogged with Matthew Broderson, son of my former rival Chris (he’s no longer my rival since he simply got way too fast this year!), who made STATE as a freshman. It was interesting that I pulled in front of him on the flats and he’d catch me on the uphills. I’m glad I at least provided some inspiration for him since he was tired from racing the day prior at STATE. This definitely helped keep me focused.

Matthew on the left classic skiing when Craig and the skaters (they started 10 minutes behind) passed him. Photo: Monty Draper
Last year I remember getting so mad at myself for not staying in the tracks, which were obviously faster, on downhills. This year it was usually faster out of the tracks and so I couldn’t be mad at myself, but was reminded I still have work to do to trust in the tracks. With two kilometers left I tried to keep pushing the pace. Despite this, I heard someone breathing close behind me. I just kept working hard. I had used SWIX VR45 for kick which was perhaps a bit aggressive but I’m someone who likes good kick. It seemed to be wearing off a tad but I was still able to run really hard up the last uphill before the tunnel. Then whoever was behind me, it was Matthew, came up behind me. Even though technically the tunnel under the highway is two-way, I didn’t really want to try it out and so I let Matthew go.

On the final straight away I tried hard to keep up with him but he was just too fast and I finished a few seconds behind him.

I crossed the line in second place, only 1 ½ minutes behind Kerrie. I would have had to dig really really deep to keep up with her. Last year she beat me by almost six minutes, so I’ll take that as progress. And there were a whopping 21 women in my race!

The Finlandia had its highest turnout since 2011 with 210 participants. This is one of the smallest of the American Ski Marathon Series races but has arguably the best prizes. Need convincing? Read on for more:

Craig won the 50 km skate race and got this axe which has tigers on it! He's now won an axe in each of the races.
I was stoked that my bro (left side) got on the podium. It had been a long time. He got some wild rice and a crock for third place. Owen Baird got a Bemidji Woolen's Mills jacket for second place. And that axe for first place has a beautiful buffalo scene on it! My bro also remarked that the ages of this podium were 32, 47, and 16 indicating that cross country skiers can be competitive for a long time!
Erik and I both got second place in our races and got the Woolen Mills jackets as well. Photo: Erik

And there were only two women in the 50 km skate!


Bugs

Given that my niece lives in Bemidji, I got to spend some quality time with her. She’s 2 ½ and loves to push me around, lock me in the bathroom, and chase me around the house. When I was a kid, I always wanted to live in a house with circles. I was too old by the time my parents bought their current house, but now I got to re-live my childhood running in circles and even using a special door to pull a Houdini trick!

The Houdini House! My niece is pretty smart though and she definitely caught on to my shenanigans:) Photo: Mom


My niece also loves the outdoors. She’s always motivated to go “outside.” Indeed, this was about the third word I heard her say. Erik dug her a tunnel in the snow. It had a 90 degree corner and was pretty awesome. I went through it a bunch of times!


The tunnel. You can see both entrances in this photo.
Playing in the tunnel.
And me crawling through the tunnel. Photo: Erik

Anyway, my niece isn’t a bug, but she had a cold “bug.” Hopefully I didn’t catch it!


Shrugs

When I met up with Jim, my old high school friend, and learned he was doing the classic race, I definitely had the thought that we could just ski together and talk the whole time. Turns out he had been reading my Crossroads blog regarding my ambivalence towards racing. I’m aware that as Kerrie skied away from me, I just didn’t have a desire to chase her to get yet another axe. I already have six. The only way I would want another axe was if it had a cute gnome or animal scene on it. None of the women’s axes had that this year. I’ve already decided that one of these years, my “ugly axe,” the one that’s been banished to an upstairs closet because it has significantly less embellishments than my others, is going to get a new paint job with some skiing gnomes!

Overall I still put forth a good effort. Am I falling into my February slums? Racing week after week takes it out of me mentally. I know my fitness is good. Maybe I’m just saving some mental game for the Birkie next weekend!

Erik's podium with a couple UMD skiers. Photo: John Arenz