Wednesday, March 27, 2019

March Ski Trip 2019: A Mixed Bag

The Great Bear Chase


We kicked off our March Ski trip with the Great Bear Chase Ski Marathon. As I previously mentioned, I decided to do the 50 km classic to best prepare for the best post-race meal offered by any race. Looking at last year’s race results, I knew I had a decent shot at winning the classic which both adds some extra pressure and excitement!

Conditions looked pretty perfect- a start in the mid-teens warming to the mid-twenties. I wore a layer of long underwear on bottom, my sports bra on top, and my spandex suit. The race had spandex bibs this year which was nice- no having to worry about the bib coming undone and flapping throughout the race:) It also makes for a good souvenir. I did a brief warm-up, learned I had decent kick, and then did a bit of running before the start to keep warm.

I lined up in the front row, next to Erik, and the bear we were to “chase”. Or does it chase us? Wait, aren’t bears supposed to be still hibernating this time of year? There was another woman in the front row, some fast guys from Minnesota, and another woman in spandex in the second row. We took off and a bunch of guys passed me on the first uphill. I noted to keep the other front row woman in my sights and easily got in front of her at the crest of the hill.

Tiny me, way over on the left side. This photo really shows that it was a small classic race.

Me in the foreground, keeping an eye on the chick in green who is at the front of this photo.


My goal was to find a pack of men to ski with but within the first three kilometers I had passed back most of the men who had gotten off to a fast start and found myself alone.

The skiathlon started five minutes before the classic and so I was passing a steady stream of these skiers as the course rolled.

“Go Elspeth, I can’t wait to read about this on your blog!” One of the skiathlon guys said. Admittedly, I didn’t know this guy. I guess that makes me famous?!?!?

It had been eleven years since I last did the Great Bear Chase and I’ve only done it twice before- both times skate. I knew the course was fairly flat but checked the course map and profile before the race: a short hill at the start, a bigger hill around 3 km, another hill around 4 km, gradual climb to 7 km, down to 14 km, gradual climb of 300 feet over the next 4 km, then rolling from 18 to 25 km, then repeat (it’s a 2 lap race for the full marathon).

That first lap I mostly skied outside the tracks. I thought it was faster, the pole plants didn’t pencil through on the skate deck, and made cutting the corners easier. The first four guys in the 25 km classic race passed me- the first one was way out ahead. I took a feed 14 km in at the lowest point on the course and this guy in the classic caught up to me. This was a guy with terrible technique. “Elspeth, you gotta go, go, go, cause you’re NOT skiing with this guy with awful technique,” I told myself and took off. I never saw him again.

Somewhere out on course.

From here the course climbs quite gradually. I did some striding, trying to save my double pole muscles for the second lap. The fast 50 km skate guys passed me having started 15 minutes after me. I briefly tucked in behind a pack of skiathlon guys, then passed then. I was enjoying that first lap until the last 5 km or so when the reality sunk in that I still had another 30 km to go. Could I maintain this pace?

I just about caught one skiathlon woman before I headed out on my second lap. I was again alone except for the 50 km skate and skiathlon skiers (now on their skate lap) passing me in a steady stream. It’s easy to feel bad about my skiing ability when being constantly passed but I tried to tell myself I was doing the slower technique and the fact that no other classic skiers were coming up on me was a good sign.

While I really enjoyed that first lap, the second lap was a bit more of a sufferfest. Mostly I was bothered by some pain in my right hand from my pole strap and my left glove/pole strap combo which felt like it was too loose. I mostly skied in the tracks but often my outside pole penciled through which is always frustrating. Sometimes I worried that a women would catch me but then I tried to not focus on that- which is wasted energy- and instead focus on skiing as efficiently, strongly, and as fast as I could. I wondered how much ahead of me Erik was (he was also doing the classic) and figured he had 20 minutes on me, or about 5 kms. Then I tried to think about skiing fast.

My kick wasn’t terribly good by the second half of the last lap. It was mostly a double pole course anyway and I got really lazy about striding well and often herring bone ran or just ran outside the tracks. The woman I had almost passed in the skiathlon caught me back up (she got behind me after her ski exchange) with around 5 km to go. It was dragging on and I was getting tired. My lower back felt like it was about to seize up with 3 km to go but I wouldn’t let it. I modified my technique to not lean so far forward at the waist. I could still crunch well- maybe that’s how I should always be skiing.

I passed up the beer stop but may have stopped had I known they had wine:) Erik took full advantage.

My body temperature had been good on the first lap but towards the end of that second lap my legs were getting really warm with the extra layer. I kept pushing all the way to the finish, having not seen anyone else in the classic race for the last 36 km! I assumed I had won but didn’t hear any announcement at the finish and didn’t have this confirmed until the awards ceremony.

After hanging out at the finish area for awhile, I ran with Craig to the high school as he was getting late for awards (he was second in the 50 km skate!). I don’t think I pushed quite as hard as I could have in the race because I didn’t feel dog tired running and was easily able to keep up with Craig, even with a back pack on.

It turns out if you win the Great Bear Chase you get to hug a bear:) Photo: Erik

I ended up skiing 3 hours and 18 minutes which seemed pretty slow. There were only eight women in my race. I managed to finish 9th overall of 45. Not terrible, and definitely deserving of a front row starting spot where there were at least ten lanes tracked wide. I was only 14 and 12 minutes behind the Erik’s [Hendrickson and Pieh] so I’ll take that.

If anyone likes a flat course in the woods, the Great Bear Chase is a good one. Plus, did I mention yet that they have the best post race food?

And the snowbanks in Big Snow Country (aka Calumet where the race is located) are worth seeing, too!

Mount Arvon


After the Birkie Skate, I really felt like I needed to train for classic. For lots of classic. This wasn’t just for the Great Bear Chase, it was so I could feel good enough the day after the Great Bear Chase to do another classic adventure: skiing to Michigan’s State High Point of Mount Arvon. There are logging roads to the top of this “mountain” that are not plowed in the winter. We decided since we would be driving by and wanted more of a challenge than driving to this peak in the summer, we decided to ski there instead. We were able to find some good info on the Internet that the logging trails become snowmobile trails in the winter that we could use.

We weren’t entirely sure how much of an adventure this would be but knew if our car would make it all the way to the parking lot, round trip it would only be about 13 miles of skiing on groomed snowmobile trails. Our car did indeed make it to the parking lot, although we had to get out our wimpy chain system we had initially bought for our last winter trip to Colorado. It was unknown how good exactly these snowmobile trails would be but they turned out to be pretty good. Erik always likes to prepare well for these sorts of potential adventures so somehow I ended up with a backpack full of extra water (over twice as much as I had wanted to bring) and some spare hats, gloves, jackets, etc. It was snowing and in the upper 20s when we took off. The route gradually climbs and it soon became apparent that I needed to take my jacket off as I was overheating. If I’m cold I keep going, but I pretty much melt down when I get too hot. After I stowed the jacket and was wearing just my long underwear top I took off double poling up the trail. After all, there’s no better time to do some good training for double poling than the day after a mostly double pole marathon:)

I thought the blue signs showing the way to Mount Arvon might be buried under the snow but they weren't. Somebody must have been thinking about winter ascents! Photo: Erik


Erik on the snowmobile heading to Mount Arvon
The register box was almost, but not quite, buried in snow.

Not a very high state high point.
The "view" on top of Mount Arvon. Photo: Erik

Eventually the trail got steeper and here I just walked. We made it to the summit about 1 ½ hours into the trek. Usually I don’t like climbing mountains when it’s cloudy/snowing, but this summit was tree covered and there was no view anyway and it didn’t seem to be snowing hard enough that it would impede our progress back out, either skiing or driving.

It was obviously fast skiing back out as there was quite a bit of downhill. The backpack ended up not being necessary, but I guess it’s good to be prepared:) Erik only carried his drink belt but he was on slower skis. The drive in and out was more of an adventure than the ski- I only had to push the car twice:)


Stokely Creek


From there we made our way farther east to Stokely Creek Lodge, north of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Stokely Creek is an all-inclusive resort with 100 kilometers of ski and snowshoe trails. We spent three nights there getting our fill of skiing, snow, and gourmet meals after meeting some friends who live in Ohio.

Us and our Ohio friends, Eric and Krystal playing on Lake Superior although we look better dressed for downhill skiing, snorkeling, and bank robbing:) Photo: Erik


When we arrived, we could either get a snowmobile ride (they do this so there are no road crossings) or ski to the lodge. We’re all for using our own legs so we skied to the lodge in a couple trips with all our stuff. This added a bit of adventure!

Having arrived in the early afternoon, Erik and I did a skate ski until hors d'oeuvres were served. This ended up being 38 km of hills! In that ski our net elevation was 2,165 feet which means it is hillier than the Birkie. Stokely Creek is located in the Algoma Highlands, a region of ancient mountains so the terrain is quite hilly and a couple of the lakes are even located in what I would consider “bowls” just like the real big mountains!

This first sojourn was followed by two full days of skiing- classic in the morning and skate in the afternoon or vice versa. It was our goal to ski all the trails at least once which we managed to accomplish by our last morning at Stokely Creek. Our first two days the weather was great, including a blue sky day, but the last two days were cloudy and intermittently rainy:( We still made the best of it and maybe I can blame that on my lack of photos:)

We skied to the top of King Mountain (1000 feet above the lodge) on the sunny day.
You can see Lake Superior in the background.

Starting the penguin walk again. The trail climbed substantially from this point.

Eva's Way was one of our favorite trails- single track, pretty flat, along a picturesque river.

There were few rolling trails. On one ski, Erik and I spent 15 minutes, twice, penguin walking uphill. Usually I call this herring-boning but for some reason, as I followed Erik up the hill minute after minute, I thought we looked like Penguins. I may also have gotten this idea from the steepest hill on the Gatineau Loppet course which is called Penguin Hill. For those familiar with Bearskin Lodge, think Bear Cub World Cup-like terrain on the vast majority of trails. There were a few flatter trails and we mostly stuck to these for one ski but still did 550 feet of elevation gain in 16 km.

Fueling up from all the skiing with dinner at Stokely Creek. Photo: Krystal


Stokely Creek attracts quite the repeat clientele whom we met at the friendly common meals. People came from all over but mostly from Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and Ontario. Most of the guests were in their 50s and 60s and non-competitive skiers so it is a bit surprising at their enthusiasm for tackling the long uphill grinders and screaming downhills.

We had a good time but given the drive and extremely hilly trails rather than rolling terrain, I doubt we will head back to Stokely Creek in the future. There are just too many more places to explore!

Our friend Eric and a pile of snow on top of a log at Stokely. This was a very common sight. Photo: Krystal

Some frozen waterfalls at Stokely. Photo: Krystal

The Sault


We spent our last three nights of the trip at an Airbnb near Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior (technically, right at the point where Lake Superior becomes the St. Mary’s River flowing towards the Sault Locks). As such, we decided to go exploring one day. A cold front came through with a howling 30 mph wind. We went for an adventure crust ski but after the rainy conditions, the crust wasn’t quite set up yet. Erik and I skied out on the ice of Lake Superior which was a bit nerve racking since the lake was open and we kept crossing pressure ridges where we could see water below. I maintained that this was relatively safe since we stayed just a few feet off shore where we could likely stand if we fell through and it wasn’t too far back to our Airbnb. Our afternoon adventure was spent hiking at the Gros Cap, a big rock cliff.

Our crust ski on Lake Superior. You can see the cracks in the ice in the foreground and the open water in the background. Photo: Eric


A selfie at the Gros Cap. You can see how windy it was by my horizontal hair!
Winter returned for our last day in “The Sault” and we took full advantage of this, skiing every trail at Hiawatha Highlands in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. They have an extensive trail network of approximately 40 km. Their chalet warmed my heart, basic but comfortable and incredibly utilitarian. We hardly saw anyone else out skiing and enjoyed the beautiful day with temperatures around 20 ℉. Most of their trails are groomed for classic and skating but they did have one trail that was single track classic for a perfect backwoods feel through the forest. This ski area is a definite must stop for anyone passing through the area.

The Hiawatha Highlands chalet. Photo: Eric


The utilitarian benches/stuff storage combo at Hiawatha Highlands.

Beautiful winter single track trail at Hiawatha Highlands.
Over 8 days we skied about 280 kilometers. Not bad for mid-March.

We drove 9 hours back home on Sunday but were able to get out for some brief exploring on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The interesting ice wall on Lake Michigan on the beach in Manistique.

Looking out at the lake from an ice tunnel.

Selfie in the ice tunnel.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Birkie 2019: Slow Striding, Fast Racing

After a string of good skate Birkie's where I was just outside the top 30 I struggled my way to 89th place in 2018. Still feeling the sting of that the next morning when I went to sign up for the 2019 race I decided it was time to switch to the classic race for a while. Throughout the 2019 ski racing season I was coming to regret this decision as my skate races were going fantastic and my classic races were only so/so. It was also my first year helping to coach the Northfield Highschool team, and while this meant my time on snow was still good I was missing out on the long 2 1/2 hour plus skis I usually try to work in to get ready for the longer races. So when Birkie morning dawned I had no expectations for how I would do in a hilly 3 hour plus classic race.
Excited to be Racing! Photo: Bruce Adelsman Skinnyski

Race morning brought fresh falling snow, so I arrived with enough time to test some kick wax to make sure I wasn't icing. Finn Sisu did my glide waxing for me, so I only had kick wax to worry about for this Birkie. The night before I had decided on Swix VR-45 with Rex 30G covering it, and it seemed to be kicking well in the new snow, so I decided to leave it alone. Talking to other racers that's pretty similar to what everyone else had on, except Ivan Babikov who was going with no kick wax.

With fresh snow in the tracks nobody was too anxious to make a sprint for the front line or take the lead when the race started. I didn't want to miss any early moves though, so I settled in to about 20th place or so off the start. There was a surge of pace when we hit the powerlines at 2k, and a lot of shuffling around as things spread out on the climbs and compressed back together at the bottoms of the downhills.

Leaving the powerlines there was a lead pack getting away, so I gave chase for a few km and pulled them in about 3k later. The fresh snow continued to slow things down, so from that point on it was just a matter of doing as little work as possible to stay with the pack. We mostly skied in single or double file. Babikov and Miika Ruokonen from Finland did much of the work at the front. I skied a bit further back in the pack around Murray Carter from Ontario, Jake Boyce from Duluth, Owen Baird, and even Brad Moening who made the jump to the lead pack when things shook out. All in all there were probably just under 20 of us, and I was a bit surprised that more weren't catching up, because the pace seemed almost pedestrian much of the time. It was really nice having the racers names on their bibs so I could identify a few of the skiers in the group I knew by name but not by face.

It was a fun pack to ski with, everyone was relaxed and chatting, taking advantage of some nice pack skiing and waiting for things to get serious. I last raced the classic race in 2014 and conditions were very similar, so I knew when we got to OO where the skate skiers had already been through to pack down the snow that the race would begin in earnest. I resigned myself to race a hard 30k with a nice long warmup and did my best to relax, get a couple gels down, and drink something at every aid station until then.

We got to OO and I was safely tucked in the middle of the lead pack. I had hoped with my head start I would arrive at OO about the same time as the elite skate race so I could perhaps cheer on some of the fast Vakava skiers in that race, but it was all wave 1 bibs when we arrived. I focused on getting a drink of energy and when I looked up the lead skiers were going over the new bridge. WHAT? How in the heck did that happen? I knew the race would go fast at OO but those guys had over a 30 second gap on me in the space of a 50 meter aid station.

I wanted a pack to ski with, and there were 5 or so guys a bit ahead of me, so I amped up my pace and gave chase. Everyone was out in the skating lane where the snow was faster. I'm glad I've been working on my striding out of the tracks the last couple years, because that was all my striding for rest of the race.
The pack I was chasing Photo: Bruce Adelsman Skinnyski
I slowly gained ground on the pack but they were falling apart, so I kind of caught them in ones and twos but never really skied with anyone for long. I could keep seeing classic skiers ahead of me so I kept chasing. When I passed Murray Carter we exchanged encouraging words as I went by him. There was still one classic skier I could see ahead. I slowly gained on him until Mosquito Brook and got close enough to recognize it was Chris Pappathopoulos. This is when I realized I was probably having a pretty good race. Chris is a very strong skier. I didn't quite make contact with him and I was starting to hurt at this point, but I kept him in sight until B**** hill, and that was the last I saw of him.

At that point I was really starting to hurt a lot. I tucked in with some wave 1 skate skiers. They would pull away from me on the flats, but I was faster on the climbs and on the descents (thanks Finn Sisu for the rocket fast skis!). I don't remember much of the race except that it was very painful from that point until crossing 77 when I caught sight of another classic skier ahead. I tried to catch him up that final climb, but wasn't able to make contact. I got close enough to see that it was Maarten Skinstad from Norway. I was in quite a lot of pain at this point, and my triceps and quads were starting to cramp whenever I was striding, so I didn't hold much hope of catching up to Maarten. He didn't seem to be getting away though, so I put in another surge going on to the lake and caught him. We were both struggling at this point, so we took turns pulling across the lake, and getting a ride from a skating pack whenever one went by. I made him do more of the leading, but when we got to the International Bridge he was much faster up and over the top and I couldn't pull him back in on main street.

I was in quite a lot of pain after crossing the finish line and it took me a long time of slow shuffling to make it to bag drop and the changing tent. Finally with dry clothes and a little bit of soup I started to feel better and went to check my result. I knew Chris and Babikov were both in my age group, so I wanted to see if I got the last age group award.

I was 7th overall! I knew I had a good race, but I didn't realize it was that good. With Babikov being pulled out of the age group awards I won 2nd in my age group. My finishing time of 3:19 was one of my slowest Birkie's ever, but I tend to place well when the times are slow, so that worked to my advantage.
Birkie number 18 in the books. Photo: Bruce Adelsman Skinnyski
In the couple weeks since the race it's pretty clear I dug deep for that one, recovery has been slow and the muscles still don't feel peppy, but with so much good snow I've still been out skiing as much as I can. When my skate skiing was going well earlier in the season I decided I wanted a good skate 50k to close the season out, so I'm headed up to the Great Bear Chase this weekend for one last long race. Then I'll probably have to start running again soon. I logged zero running miles in all of February, my first month completely off running since 2013.