Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Birkie 2019: Half Way to 100

My first six Birkies I skated. Then I took a three year hiatus while living in New York. My last five Birkies have been classic. This year’s Birkie was special for two reasons.

First, this was my first time in the Women’s Skate Elite Wave. Ever since learning this wave existed 15 years ago when I did my first Birkie, I wanted to be in it. As far as I know, this is the biggest women’s only wave in North America. Both the Birkie Classic Elite Wave and the City of Lakes Loppet’s Best of the Loppet Wave combine genders. Last year when I did the Tour of Anchorage I got to ski out of the women’s elite wave but there were only like 16 of us. So the Birkie Women’s Skate Elite Wave is fairly unique.

Second, if I have my ski marathon count right, Birkie 2019 is my 50th ski marathon!

Talking with Kikkan and holding her gold medal at the Birkie Expo. Erik wasn't quite as enthused. Photo: Fischer rep

Erik was more excited by the backyard snow cave he made and slept in the week before the Birkie.


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I got into the Women’s Elite Skate Wave based on my classic performance. Given I didn’t technically qualify based on skate results, I had some qualms about being in this wave. In a lot of respects, I felt like I didn’t belong.

What if everyone just leaves me in the dust off the line? This is stupid, I told myself. I have raced alongside, kept up, and even beat plenty of women in the elite wave previously.

I figured if I had a really really good race I could get into the 30s. If I had an average race I’d ski into the 40s. I didn’t want to think about a bad day.

What if I didn’t re-qualify for elite wave?

Unlike the past few years that I’ve been doing the classic race, the skate race is shorter- both in terms of kilometers and speed. I anticipated being about 40 minutes faster than if I was classic skiing. This meant I could push harder earlier on. I remember getting to the Boedecker Feed Station my first year in the classic race and thinking I was at OO. Indeed, Boedecker is 20.5 km into the classic race and OO 21 km into the skate race. I’m not a strider and Birkie Classic has always been tough. It’s hard enough for me to stride on fresh legs and on tired legs the focus and effort seems completely impossible.

I was excited to race on fresh corduroy, but as we drove to the start in a snowstorm, I realized we’d be slowed by powder covering the corduroy. This wasn’t all bad- I do better in slower conditions where my fitness rather than technique shines.

The women all got in the starting pen early. I was one of the last to arrive as I wanted to stay warm. There was plenty of room on the right and I got in the third row. I saw my old college teammate, Meleah, and she remarked how different this start was compared to our 10th Wave start 15 years earlier when we both skied the Birkie for the first time.

The gun went off and we got off to what was the most chill start of any race I’ve done all year. Soon we were skiing three wide. I noted who was passing me and who was skiing around me. I was pretty sure I was near the back, but not the last one, and had no trouble keeping up. Once on the Powerline we narrowed into a single file line and by the time we got into the woods I was skiing in a little pack- mostly of Lemons (the adult Loppet Nordic Racing team)- Angie, Kitty, and Mary- and a woman wearing old Michigan Tech spandex.

Meleah passed me as we headed into the woods. I tried to go with her but was at the back of my pack and didn’t want to work so hard going around everyone in the fresh snow so I stayed put.

My skis seemed to be running about as fast as the others. I haven’t done much pack skate skiing- especially not under similar terrain, and so spent some energy trying not to step on poles or skis. I still did a few times but I was really trying not to. Even in our small pack, there was still an accordion effect on the hills. It was nothing compared to skiing out of Wave 2.

We climbed the 5 K hill and passed a woman. We were passing the Spirit of 35 skiers and giving each other encouragement. I stayed at the back of my pack, sometimes trying to copy Angie’s perfect V-2 technique, noting that I wasn’t having any problems keeping up with these women. I worked hard on the uphills but was able to recover on the downhills.

Skiing early on. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
As we began the climb to High Point, Kitty moved to the front of the pack. I thought she might try to break things up but she didn’t. I pushed a little on the hill to High Point. Angie and Kitty broke away a bit and I moved ahead of the others to close the gap. Suddenly it became obvious that my skis were fast. I easily closed the gap on Angie and Kitty and then moved to the front to take the pull. I felt better skiing out front, setting the pace and not having to worry about stepping on poles.

Finn Sisu waxed my skis this year, so they should take all the credit for my fast skis. I only have one pair of racing skis and so by happenstance the medium flex and factory grind was good as well.

I got a lead but then didn’t push the uphills to allow Angie and Kitty to catch up. They caught up and we continued to ski together until OO. I pushed on the steep hill coming into Boedecker. I don’t ski steep hills well and my quads started to burn and that’s when I started to get tired. The lead pack from the men’s race, which started 20 minutes after ours, passed us a couple kilometers after Boedecker.

At OO I took a long drink and Kitty pulled ahead over the new bridge. I didn’t gain on her much until we hit the flat section of the Korte start. I don’t like skating flat sections but the snow was soft and my skis fast and soon I caught Kitty. I decided to pass her right where Bruce was taking photos. Kitty followed behind me for the next few kilometers. We passed a couple more women.

Skiing with Kitty. I think I passed her just after this photo by Bruce Adelsman
Around the time that another big pack of guys passed us, around 25 km to go, Kitty fell back and I skied the remainder of the race by myself.

But I wasn’t really alone. A steady stream of Elite wave guys were passing me- a bunch whom I know.

“You’re having a good race,” Andy Brown said when he passed me. This was helpful info because other than the pack I had been skiing with and managed to drop, I really didn’t know how many other women were behind me.

Nate’s pack passed me just before Gravel Pit. They accordioned on the next uphill and briefly I was able to ski with those guys but they got away pretty quick.

I’ve always been competitive with the guys and so when they passed me I had this instinct to stay with them or go chase them. No Elspeth, let them go. Their bib numbers are too low. You can’t keep up with them.

Between Gravel Pit and Mosquito Brook #43 passed me. I promptly passed him back on the next downhill. He passed me back up on the uphill but now I was easily able to stay with him as I V-2’d behind him. His skis were so slow. We yo-yo’d a bit until my teammate Andy Schakel came up on us. My skis were running faster than Andy’s even though we were waxed the same so we had a conversation about ski flex before he and #43 pulled away from me on an uphill.

#43 and Andy Shackel skiing together before they passed me. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
I passed another woman or two, then came into the Mosquito Brook Feed Station. As I had missed the last one, I stopped long enough to drink one whole energy drink and take down a gel. Then it was onto the Mosquito Brook Hill. This hill isn’t very steep and I like it. Another train of men passed me, including one who I routinely rollerski with in the off-season. I hopped on the back of their pack and easily V-2’d behind them up much of the hill, cheered on by the 39 K club. It was fun having people’s names on their bibs. Then I knew who I was passing and a couple guys I didn’t know read my name and cheered me on. I could also always tell whether the spectators knew me or were reading my name based on their pronunciation of my name:)

Those guys broke away from me on the next couple downhills and then we were on to B Hill. Unfortunately most of the spectators now gravitate towards the much easier hill after Mosquito Brook leaving a lone guy in a priest costume with a drum cracking jokes.

Uff-da, I was getting tired now as the priest said, “I know you guys have paid a whole lot more to hear worse stuff.”

The course rolls to Fish Hatchery. I passed back a couple bonked men. My stomach was queasy so I discarded the gel I grabbed at the Feed Station. Then it was onto the big hill coming out of Fish Hatchery. I wasn’t feeling as strong as I hoped. Prior to the race I imagined myself V-2ing up this hill- but that wasn’t happening. I passed a couple women. I V-2’d part of the hill and tried to not let the men passing me get too far out of sight. But mostly I thought about how easy it was to skate as opposed to stride up the hill. Even when dead tired I can still hold together decent skate form. Not so at all for striding. I mused in the full preview of the 30 lots for sale and this tortuous hill that I enjoyed so much more skating. It appears as though not a single lot has sold. I wasn’t inspired to buy one.

I caught the last guy who passed me on my rocket skis on the next downhill. I took a water bottle at the special feed, then was crossing 77. He pulled ahead of me, and a couple other men passed me. Again, I had envisioned myself with the energy to V-2 up that last big uphill, but was too fatigued. I did V-2 some, wished Ingrid Remak was playing her accordion, and was again so glad to be skating.

Erik hadn’t caught me yet for which I was both glad and worried. It seemed like lots of elite guys had passed me but I really hadn’t been keeping count. I wanted to beat him to the line but I also wanted him to do well.

I tried tucking in behind a guy on the last big downhill. My skis were still running fast and I noted no drag at the dirty snow on the road crossings. Then we emerged onto the lake. This is my favorite part in the classic race because I can just double pole but now I had to skate and again, flat skating terrain isn’t my favorite.

But my skis were fast and I felt surprisingly good. I definitively re-passed #43. Then I passed another woman. Someone tucked in behind me.

“Elspeth, you’re kicking ass,” he said. I didn’t recognize the voice.

“I skied a long ways with Erik. He isn't too far behind me.” OK, so he must not just be reading my name and must actually know me.

Then Phil Rogers pulled around me. He’s such a beast and he told me I was kicking ass! What a compliment!!! In my recollection, he was the last person to pass me.


Phil (in purple) leading Erik before Phil put down the hammer. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

I kept skiing fast, alternating between V-2 and V-2 alternate. As we rounded a slight corner there was Meleah ahead of me and I was gaining on her fast. I caught her, skied behind her a tad, then passed her. There was another woman ahead of me and I kept up the tempo to catch her. Again, my skis didn’t slow at all as I came off the lake. I passed the woman on the outside of the corner heading onto the bridge over hwy 63. From the top of the bridge the finish looks like it’s a long ways away but I just V-2’d strong past that super large high volume crowd. I was tired at the finish but had paced myself well and could still finish strong.

Erik finished a minute after I did and so I won the battle of the sexes on the day. It was mighty convenient to finish at the same time and get our skis together in a bag.

I ended up 42nd woman- well inside the Women’s Skate Elite Wave but as always was hoping for just a bit better. Note, as always, I wanted to do better. Why can’t I just be happy?

I was really stoked about my overall place though- 337! That means I beat a lot of men (shhh, don’t tell them, some don’t like to hear that:) Well into the top 10% overall but I do feel like I cheated a bit getting the best snow conditions of the day. It does make a huge difference- not just in time, but in the enjoyment factor as well.

On the way home on Sunday we skied at the Timberland Trails near Cumberland, WI. They hadn't been groomed in a couple days so we had a slow slog through a few inches of powder but fortunately only encountered this one area of crazy drifted snow. In between the drifts it was down to the corduroy. Gotta keep training now that I'm half way to 100 ski marathons! Photo: Erik

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