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.


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