Tuesday, February 19, 2019

And My Axe Collection is Complete [for now]: Finlandia 2019

Given there’s four different races at the Minnesota Finlandia (50 km skate, 25 km classic, 25 km skate, and 25 km pursuit) and not a lot of female participants each year, I’ve really been able to rack up the prizes, in particular the axes. Indeed, I’ve won the last 6 times I entered meaning I have 6 axes! Erik won his first axe last year so collectively we have 7 axes. One of these axes is significantly less embellished than my others. That one has been banished to the upstairs closet. The other 6 adorn our dining room fireplace.

Heading into the Finlandia I didn’t need another axe. But at the same time I wanted another axe. But not just any axe. I want an axe with a gnome scene on it. Wow, I have become quite an axe snob.

So with this in mind when I went to register for the Finlandia, I thought a bit about which race I might be most likely to win and which race’s axe might have a gnome scene on it. I had intended to do the classic race, but now I was having second thoughts. But all this was stupid. It was impossible to know what the axes looked like and who might be in my race (well, I could defer my registration to the night before and see who was registered for each race and go from there but I still probably wouldn’t see the axes ahead of time).

All this got me thinking, I don’t need another axe. And last week for Mora I was thinking, I don’t need another Swedish Dala horse. I’m starting to feel bogged down by all my stuff. Why do we need these prizes? Why can’t we just go out and race and not get anything for it?

Most, but not all of my Dala horse collection.
I signed up for the 25 km classic, as I have my last 4 times.

In terms of waxing/ski preparation I’ve had a couple firsts this year. The first “first” was at the City of Lakes Loppet when I actually brought warm-up skis to preserve the life of my fluor topcoat on my racing skis. The second “first” was intentionally not waxing my skis before a major race. Finn Sisu waxed my classic skis for Mora and since conditions were about the same for the Finlandia, I opted to just brush my skis and hope whatever worked at Mora would work for Finlandia, nevermind that they had been skied on for 42 kilometers in between. I figured I couldn’t do a better job than what Finn Sisu did.

The Finlandia is my hometown race. We stay with my mom every year and are greeted by my brother and his girlfriend who handle registration (my brother is also on the board). I know everyone on the board and all the local skiers. It’s a family party every year and throughout the years my mom has hosted a lot of Finlandia skiers. The night before the race we had a pretty epic dance party with my 18 month old niece.

My bro and his daughter (my niece) after the race. I love her hot pink Carhart jacket:) Photo: Dave Harrington

I took a peek at the registration list at packet pick-up. There were some fast ladies in my race- Kerrie Berg and Molly Watkins. Hmmmm...I wasn’t about to give up in the race but an axe seemed pretty unlikely.

Other than eating a bit too much for breakfast, I felt good when I arrived at the Finlandia start. I tested out my skis which seemed to have good kick with SWIX VR40 even though it was barely zero degrees at the start. I wore the same layers I had for Mora given temperatures were similar; except I used my lobsters this time for handgear. I warmed up a bit and then got in the starting line.

I noted the other women in my race- the aforementioned Kerrie Berg and Molly Watkins. Allie Rykken was also there! I lined up in the 2nd row, behind my bro. Erik was next to Leif and Bjorn Adelsman next to me. We were in the midst of a conversation when the air horn went off and the race started. Molly just took off in her old bumblebee U of M suit. At least she was easy to spot:) I skied alongside Allie and then Kerrie came by me. I tried to not let Kerrie get away (Molly was already well away) and tucked in behind Kerrie.

The classic and pursuit line-up. I think my bro and Erik were turned around like this when the air horn went off since there wasn't any count down. Photo: Dave Harrington
The first hill is a steep downhill ski run and I herringbone ran behind Kerrie up that hill. The course then levels off a bit but still climbs up an easier green downhill run. Somehow I managed to stay behind Kerrie, actually striding. In hindsight, I’m super proud of myself to have strided up that part of the hill because striding is not my strong suit. Once we got up the hill I wasn’t completely spent either. Kerrie took off with her strong double pole. A few other guys were pulling away from me, too, but I kept going and after going around a field and down a big hill, I was reeling in the guys.

As we gradually climbed to the eastern section of the course, I passed an NDSU guy in the pursuit race and then Bjorn. Now I was skiing in a pack with a guy in a blue suit and Chris Broderson. I kinda wanted to pass both of them but it was also nice to settle into a pack that I had no trouble keeping up with. I tried to work on my striding. My kick was excellent. A few times I either tried to pass Chris and the blue suit, or Chris tried to pass the blue suit, but we were unsuccessful. It was slow outside the tracks and it seemed like he sped up every time we tried to pass him.

Somehow I got past Chris and then I was skiing behind blue suit. We seemed to have gapped Chris and Allie. We were in a mostly flat section with small hills. We were going a decent pace on the uphills but we were going really slow on the flats. I was able to readjust my pole strap on the flats and not lose ground. I worried Chris and Allie would catch up with me. The NDSU pursuit guy caught up with us. I tried to pass blue suit on an uphill outside the tracks but got quite tired doing so. Finally, there was a long, just fast enough to tuck downhill. The NDSU guy and I got in the tracks and passed blue suit who was outside the tracks.

I skied fast and hard for a bit to drop blue suit. The NDSU guy stopped at the water stop and I skied on by myself for awhile. The NDSU guy caught up to me just as we headed onto the “island” but then I think he fell over on a herringbone hill as I got some time on him. The lead skate pack (they started 15 minutes after the classic) passed me on the backside of the downhill area (the tracks were clearly faster) and then Bjorn made a comeback and passed me back up. I was able to hold off the NDSU guy though. There’s a couple steep hills toward the end of the east side- I herringbone walked them as fast as I could, not able to muster the energy to run up them.

The NDSU guy behind me followed by Bjorn making his comeback (note, Bjorn is wearing a blue suit but is not "blue suit." The lead skate pack is coming up on us as we made our way up a hill on the east side of Buena Vista. Photo: Monty Draper
Then we were through the tunnel and onto the west side. Bjorn was getting away, but not so far away that I couldn’t see his beautiful striding technique which I tried to mimic. I kept skiing hard, now quite sure I had a sufficient gap on Chris and Allie. The west side snakes back and forth and so I frequently saw skiers both ahead and behind me.

Soon I was through the west side aid station and heading out onto what is called “Cann’s Loop.” Now there were only 5 km left. I kept trying to push the pace but walked up “The Wall” which is a steep hill deserving of its name. The hill coming off The Wall is a screamer and almost gets me every year. Then there’s a couple rolling hills before we circle back and climb a hill adjacent to the wall. Brett Arenz passed me skating and as I started up the hill I could hear another skater coming up behind me. This got me to break into a herringbone run. I climbed the hill, rounded a corner and could still see Bjorn ahead of me. I set my sites on chasing him down.

We went down and up and then there’s a straight section heading south. Bjorn appeared to be fading and this gave me more motivation. On the uphills I did as much striding as I could but sometimes got out of the tracks to herringbone. Then I was past the aid station again and heading to the finish with less than 2 km to go. I was gaining fast on Bjorn but he was holding his own. Finally, on the last uphill, I passed him. Then it was through the tunnel, down a small hill, and a long straightaway to the finish. Bjorn rallied and double poled away from me. Bjorn finished one place in front of me last year and again this year, but we were 10 minutes slower this year owing to some slow snow conditions.

Kerrie leading Molly in the bumblebee suit. Photo: Monty Draper
I ended up in third and so won the wild rice! My pantry supply has long been depleted so I’m looking forward to making some wild rice soup. Perishable prizes are always good (literally and figuratively). Overall I was happy with my race. And for this year at least we can keep our current fireplace axe feng-shui. The other two ladies were five plus minutes in front of me and I don’t think I had that in me. I always wonder if it’s more of a mental block rather than physical block keeping me from staying up with the fast women but when Molly took off at the start I couldn’t go any faster and same thing when Kerrie Berg got away.

A not very good podium photo w/ Kerrie (middle in first), Molly (left in second), and me in third. Photo: Dave Harrington

Our axe feng-shui (uh, just look past all the other clutter:)

Of note, not a single axe had a gnome scene:) The women’s axes all had flower patterns (although there were some new chic flower patterns this year) and two of the men’s axes had scenes. One was a brown bear scene but the other were a couple fighting moose:( I didn’t like that axe.

Not at all sad to have missed winning this axe- it went to a men's winner
On the way home we decided to ski at Lake Maria State Park. Similar to my previous experiences skiing at other Minnesota State Parks, while these double tracked classic trails stir up connotations of granny skiing, these trails are only appropriate if your granny has a Zach Handler affinity for tricky downhills. Fortunately, the snow was plentiful at Lake Maria State Park but I did my most snowplowing of the season and these hills were labeled “Intermediate,” not “Expert.” I know I’m not the best downhiller, but even Erik had to do some snowplowing! Yes, I saw him snowplowing:)

A common Zach Handler trail report.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Bubble: Mora Vasaloppet 2019

A couple days before Mora I got to thinking about the racing experience: a discrete period of time in which I’m unplugged from the reality of life. While racing I turn off my phone. I won’t respond to any texts, emails, or calls. I won’t have real conversations with anyone or stop and rest. I can’t google whatever I want. In fact, I won’t be thinking much about anything to google. I’ll be focused on skiing hard, racing my competitors, and staying on my feet. I’ll interact a bit with the other racers, volunteers, spectators, and Bruce taking photos, but for the most part, I’ll be alone inside my head. For a couple hours I’ll be a little bubble weaving around some lakes, woods, and fields in a little section of land in central Minnesota, completely oblivious to the outside world.

Once again this year I registered for the classic race. While my training wasn’t bad, I wished to have a bit more time on snow and feel more prepared- not unlike any other year. I didn’t dwell too much about the race in the couple days before, but was a bit worried when I tweaked one of my ab muscles shoveling the day before now that winter has finally arrived.

With the cold weather predictions of most of the race hovering around zero, I decided to wear two layers of long underwear/spandex under my racing suit. I had all this on, plus my warm-ups and a down jacket when I went to warm-up. Needless to say, I got toasty before the start. This kept me warm in the port-a-potty line and right up until the start. I had put my skis down in the second row and after taking off my warm-ups only made it back there with three minutes to spare. This also helped keep me warm. I never felt cold out there as I’ve finally learned to do two layers under my racing suit at these temps.

In the starting line I looked around for all the other yellow bibs indicating my fellow female racers. Mora has always done this one right- and continues to do so- making the women easily identifiable. The gun went off immediately after the National Anthem was complete without a countdown which seems to happen every year so we were all ready. The start didn’t seem as fast as previous years and I tried to keep Josie in my sights as I skied around a couple other women.

My bro (in the green flying fungi suit in the middle and me, second women's bib to his right) at the start. Photo: Bruce

Trying to keep Josie (far left in the Fast Wax suit) in my site (I'm in the women's bib behind my buddy Dave in the red Finlandia hat). I'm still holding hope that one day I can ski with Josie! Photo: Bruce
On Mora Lake the pace still seemed fairly frantic to me. I passed one woman but then was skiing alongside Kerrie Berg. I thought it was faster outside the tracks but everyone seemed to be skiing in the tracks. I mostly skied outside the tracks. I tried to stay with Kerrie and did a good job on the herring-bone hill coming off Mora Lake and was even able to ski side-by-side with her until the Nordic Center when she got away. I noted how strong her double pole was compared to mine. It was similar last year and while I tried to work on this over the summer months I guess it was ineffective.

Kerrie Berg. Photo: Bruce
My pole straps and handwear were driving me crazy. I often have a problem with my bulky mittens and lobsters falling down my hands no matter how hard I cinch my pole straps, especially on my left watch hand. I debated using a light pair of lobsters that usually don't cause me this problem but was like “Elspeth, it’s going to be really cold, you better wear your mittens.” They had worked fine as far as I could remember in the Loppet Classic Team Sprint but ended up being a disaster at Mora. Both of my mittens kept falling down no matter how many times I tightened them. I never held onto my pole grips and instead all the power went through my pole straps. As a result, my hands pained me the entire race and in the days after.

After going by the Nordic Center, I was skiing by myself feeling like the entire classic field was ahead of me. I knew this wasn’t true but I never looked behind me- only ahead. I could finally settle some. In the first winding section, I would look back to see if any yellow bibs were close. A couple skiers passed me and always I waited with baited breath to see if this was a white bib or a yellow bib. Part way through that winding section a yellow bib passed me. She was skiing in the tracks and I out of them. We skied evenly side by side for a couple kilometers, neither of us saying anything to each other, each thinking our own thoughts.

Skiing side by side with 3rd place woman, Rose Doda. Here you can see my mittens that caused me so much trouble. I did give shouts out to Bruce while in my bubble but was too focused to play goofy for the camera like some of my fellow skiers [Devin] Photo: Bruce
I was somewhat hoping to ski the whole race with that girl but once we hit the small hill on the first classic-only section she had a lot better kick than I did and she got away. I saw her on the next lake and she had really made up some ground. And so I skied on alone.

Josie- always smiling- even through her face tape. She's my S-hero and part of my motivation to train so much. Photo: Bruce
As we returned to the loop around the Nordic Center on our first lap I got passed stealthily by Chris Broderson with nary a word. Chris started skiing a couple winters ago when he met my skier friend Emily. The two subsequently got married. He has been training a lot over the past couple years and has been using me as his benchmark to measure his success. He has testosterone on his side and has been rapidly improving. I knew I’d have to watch out for him based on his improvements.

Chris Broderson. He tells me I'm his motivation to train so much:) Photo: Bruce
“Oh no, you’re not going to beat me,” my psyche raged as I tucked in behind him. It was a bit hard to get used to his shorter, albeit powerful and effective, movements. When we got back on Mora Lake he dropped me with his strong double pole even though I tried to follow his tempo. We passed a classic skier, Chris crossed the skate lane to ski in the outside track, and I caught back up with him. I emerged off the lake onto the herring-bone hill just ahead of him and passed another guy. There was another skier I had passed and so kept hearing somebody behind me who I assumed to be Chris (Chris later told me he poled between his legs on that herring-bone hill, fell down, and I was gone, so it must’ve been the other skier I passed who was hot on my tail for awhile).

OK, I really thought I was going to be in a photo with Chris cause Bruce was right there around the time when he passed me- but he just passed me so fast he was already out of the frame! Photo: Bruce
A couple kilometers later I passed my friend Dave and then another classic skier. I was now mixing it up with the skaters, including my buddy Byron who passed me, I passed him back on a steep herring-bone hill, and then he passed me back up and I skied with him until the first classic-only section. That first classic-only section was nice. It included a small to moderate striding hill, a downhill, a corner, and then a fun downhill onto a lake. There weren’t many other skiers around. I also got super turned around on that lake.

Now I could see that I had indeed gapped some time on Chris as well as the fifth place woman. The tracks on the north-south part of the trail were bomber fast compared with everywhere else. I kept trying to push the pace so to not let others catch up with me. I mostly skied out of the tracks but occasionally jumped into the tracks. Often conditions felt slow and my hands hurt but otherwise things weren’t so bad. I tried to keep the work rate high. I finished almost four minutes behind the guy ahead of me.

There weren’t too many people to catch in the last few kilometers. I felt bad lapping some skiers who still had another whole lap to go- it would be a long day for them but perhaps they weren’t so much in the bubble and therefore weren’t pushing the intensity and focus for that long.

Finishing with my ice beard. Photo: Bruce
I ended up 4th female (of 47 finishers) for the third year in a row:) I still won my age class and ended 33rd of 187 finishers (there were quite a number of DNFers in all the races who called it quits after one lap).

My bro had a good day, too! He finished 13th in the classic and got his first horse.

My bro back on form. Photo: Bruce
It’s always fun to burst the bubble at the end of the race and talk with everyone about how their race went. We often have similar experiences.

Bubble bursting talk with Josh Doebbert (on the right) where we both agreed it was faster outside the tracks. Photo: Bruce
The last few years my back (my lower paraspinal muscles) have been super sore after double poling so much. This year I tried to do more double pole intervals leading up to the race. While my back was still sore this year, it was much less than in previous years. My right lower triceps was bothering me more though instead. It’s too much force on the body to come away unscathed:)

I was sad my bro couldn't stay for awards to share the podium with me. I guess that's what happens when you have an 18 month old. He missed the memo that at the Mora Vasaloppet the horse winners usually bring their kids onstage rather than their skis:) Maybe next year. Photo: Erik

Monday, February 4, 2019

Loppet 2019 Recap

Classic Team Sprints

Temps warmed to a balmy couple degrees below zero for Thursday’s sprints. It still felt cold, especially because it was dark. The initial details of the event were a bit vague other than mentioning ABAB format of 1 km with an $800 purse but finally a few hours before the race it was posted that there would only be one heat for each category (ie. each age group and sex).

I had intended to arrive at Wirth a bit early to catch some skiing on natural snow in the waning daylight and to get in a good warm-up on the course even though our official start time wasn’t until 6:45 pm. My plans were foiled when my car wouldn’t start. I eventually made it to Wirth but had trouble finding a parking spot in the old chalet lot. The lot was crazy and people were parked haphazardly everywhere so I followed suit. By now it was dark but I still had plenty of time before my race.

I began my warmup at 6 pm. It quickly became apparent that the races were behind schedule (juniors went first) and so I skied for nearly an hour back and forth over the new bridge by the Trailhead and then ran and jumped for 10 minutes prior to the race.

I raced with my Vakava teammate Kathleen and was our A skier. We lined up and were given directions and then I don’t even remember much of a “Ready, set, go.” Instead the starter just said “Start.” It was a classic sprint but they started us in the exchange zone so there weren’t any tracks. The snow was slow as it was new and had been cold and in addition there was freshly falling snow. I planned to stride off the line which is what just about all the other women did but my pole got stepped on and just like that everyone got away.

I think I was the last one trailing into the first corner. I changed tracks twice on my way up to Coach’s Corner and managed to pass 2 women and make ground on a couple others. Mind you, these were not pretty lane changes and I didn’t do much pretty striding- the snow was too slow for much glide. I felt way behind coming into the first exchange.

The air was cold and despite what I thought was a decent warm-up I was not prepared for that intensity in the cold! It took me much of Kathleen’s lap to recover.

I was stoked when Kathleen came back into the exchange zone in 3rd place!!!

She gave me a super nice push but I was striding because the snow was so slow I couldn’t use it too much. I was by myself on that second lap. I did notice I was able to double pole farther up the hill to Coach’s Corner on my second lap. I skied as fast as I could and had good energy and was able to maintain our 3rd place.

After I put my warm-ups back on, I headed to the finish to cheer in Kathleen. She brought us into second! We were a long way off first, but those girls are pros so not really in our league anyway.

And that $800 purse was for real. In addition to getting another earring holder, we got a big check (OK, literally the check was big in size, not monetary value). Since I’ve made a whopping $50 in prize money at ski racing (and incurred infinitely more times that in expenses) in the past 12 years since I graduated college, I don’t think I’ll be quitting my day job anytime soon:)

Kathleen and I with our big check! Photo: Spencer Davis

Sunday’s Long Skate

And we’re swinging!

That’s the term I came up with a couple years ago when looking at NOAA’s hourly weather graph when the high fluctuates by more than 30 degrees within a couple of days.

What I mean here is going from a predicted high of -4 ℉ on Thursday to 36 ℉ by Saturday.
OK, I failed to screen shot the 48 hour swing but here's a much more minor swing of almost 30 degrees between the day's low and high.
The trail reports from the Loppet were promising for a point-to-point race on Sunday but I remained skeptical knowing that we didn’t have a ton of snow and we were about to swing to highs in the upper 30’s.

Late afternoon on Friday we skied at Hiawatha Golf Course. I made the mistake of using my B skis when rock skis were clearly in order. Hmmmm, “I wonder if all those Loppet shoveling parties have worked miracles?”

The Loppet officially recommended B skis for Saturday’s classic race.

Typically I wax my skis two days before a race so I can do more resting the day before. Given the trail reports were in flux and I was holding out for the course to be switched to the man-made loop at Wirth (where I could just use my good skis and focus on skiing hard and fast- not grass and rock dodging), I waited to wax my skis. Finally on Saturday morning I put a layer of high fluoro wax on both my A and B skis.

On Saturday we headed to Wirth for the Orienteering race. Erik raced and I volunteered. Afterwards I classic skied for a bit on the Front 9 and then over to JD Gardens, on Wirth Lake, and Jar Hill. Conditions on Wirth Lake were good but everywhere else snow coverage was really thin with frequent bare spots. I used my B classic skis which were fine for going slow and picking my way through things, but I would have wanted to race on my rocks skis.

Erik in the Ski-Orienteering race. But wait,  you can't see him in that camouflage suit! Photo: MNOC

As trail reports on Saturday continued to propose a point-to-point course for Sunday, I was frustrated. I knew the conditions would be less than ideal and wanted to use my rock skis. But my rock skis really suck- the bases are falling off, they are way too soft, etc. So I knew if I wanted to actually race, I would have to use my B skis. I also had a thought of running the course carrying my boots and skis:)

Anyone who remembers back to the 2005 Loppet probably wasn’t too surprised to wake up Sunday morning and learn all the events had been moved to Wirth:):):) I was relieved to learn we’d just be skiing man-made. It did mean that I had to wax up my good skis so used that hour start delay to do so. I put on another high fluor layer and then should note that Erik is our “top coat guy.” He does the rilling (which I’m glad we did for the race) and pure fluoros.

My "top coat guy" (left) skiing with our college friend Travis. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

I saw the man-made course had been changed a bit and got to the start in time to ski the new course. Some parts were freshly groomed and just about perfect (although with all the skiers things would get soft) and a few places hadn’t been groomed recently and were rock solid. The Drevil’s Drop hill was a bit slow. If conditions are really fast I don’t tuck on that hill but it was a slow day so I noted to tuck in the race. I was a bit disappointed to learn we would only be skiing 3 laps for a distance around 20 km. It would make for a short race and not ideal training for the Birkie.

There were a lot of skiers in the Best of the Loppet Wave and things were quite congested at the start. I was glad to see there were many women around my speed and that I would probably have company for the race, unlike last year. We started and those of us in the back had an extra long double pole and things didn’t really get settled until we got around the Twin Lakes Loop and started climbing to Coach’s Corner. Everyone was considerate though and nobody stepped on my poles or skis.

The Best of the Loppet Wave starting. I was way in the back. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

On that hill to Coach’s Corner I found my pack of Stephani Johnson and Nicole Harvey. We skied mostly together for the remainder of the short race. My skis were pretty fast thanks to my top coat guy:) Maybe not the fastest, but I definitely passed some people with slower skis. The whole race went by super fast. I wasn’t sprinting but felt like I was skiing my 5 km pace the whole time. My strength is distance and I just kinda have one speed. I never felt relaxed but for the most part could think about my technique. At one point on some of the V-1 hills (yeah, OK, you fast people out there might say there aren’t any V-1 hills:) I had to remind myself to glide longer on my poling ski. There’s just so many fun transitions on the course that I never really thought about being tired or that I was breathing too hard.

Skiing the hill coming off the Twin Lakes Loop. Man, I think my downhill skills are relatively good but I don't look like it in this photo. Makes me realize I need to be even more aggressive on the downhills! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
By the start of the third lap we were lapping some skiers. They mostly skied on one side of the trail and passing was never difficult. It never felt congested and the course held up well. I did feel a bit bad passing some of these skier who still had 1.5 laps left when I only had 0.5 but I tried to cheer them on whenever I wasn’t too out of breath from going uphill.

Putting in a couple V-1's over the bridge by the Trailhead. I was doing a lot of V-2 out there and should've V-2'd this bump as you can see Stephani doing behind me. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
Overall I felt strong and did good on the downhills- all except the new left hander heading to the new bridge by the Trailhead. That hill was hard packed and almost every time down I curbed way too much speed snowplowing down the first part of the hill (I stepped turned by the bottom every time). I guess it’s good to have something to improve on:)

Well, at least I wasn't the only one snowplowing this downhill. Note, I'm not actually in this photo by Bruce Adelsman.
I didn’t have an extraordinary race but wasn’t expecting that. I finished about where I lined up in the start area. It was fun to have some other women around me and not feel like I was last. Now I’m looking forward to some longer races.

Thanks to everyone who came out to cheer!