Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Strength Reboot

Not unlike many of my posts, this one has been over a year in the making. I’ve held off publishing it until I found a solid strength routine and gone through an entire cycle.

Andy Newell, in his interview with Ian Harvey
, says the biggest mistake skiers make is doing the same strength routine. He says don’t do the same routine for more than 5-6 weeks. He recommends periodization and mixing up the exercises. He also talks about velocity strength. He says that if you aren’t getting faster you need to do something different in the gym.

While I’m good at doing strength three days a week, I’m not good at variety or progression. This is partly because I can do 10 pull-ups which is super kick-ass for a 36 year old woman and I can do the 8 minute ab routine easily and even my 12 minute side-ab routine is getting easier. I keep trying to substitute in different ab exercises and routines, but after a few weeks or months, they all get too easy.

But despite this, I feel weak.

You might be wondering how I can do 10 pull-ups and feel weak but it’s because I haven’t really progressed in the past 8 years or so. I mean, I’ve progressed a bit- I used to do 5 reps and now I’m up to 8, but that's hardly any improvement.

So my strength training needed a reboot.

I began developing a plan last year and tried some things out and this year have made a more complete plan with 3 main goals:


1. Increase variety (do different exercises)

2. Lift with weight more 

3. Progression (i.e. start w/ body weight and then progress to adding weight)

My plan is still to do strength three times a week, each for about 30 minutes rotating through 4 week blocks of progression.

So let’s talk about these different goals.

In terms of variety, I don’t have much fancy equipment at home. Currently I have a pull-up bar, a Total Gym, two 10-pound dumbbells, and some resistance bands. For years I’ve been doing push-ups and pull-ups but as I’ve created a plan, I’ve found that there are a ton of variety options just with push-ups and pull-ups alone. For both, arm position makes a big difference. There’s also different speed and hold options. For example, my push-up planks I hold in high position for 5 seconds, then do 5 push-ups, then repeat until exhaustion. I also do both push-up and pull-up holds whereby I go partway up/down, hold for 5 seconds, go all the way and hold for 5 seconds, and then hold for 5 seconds part way up/down again.

Our Total Gym, some posters for inspiration, and a messy basement:)

Until last year I never did my exercises with extra weight. I brought in weighted pull-ups and then started doing squats with weight. This year I’ve added in weighted stair steps. For the legs it’s not a ton of weight. This will likely increase when we finally buy some heavier dumbbells, but until then, it’s at least a start.

Finally, I developed a 4 week progression working backwards from ski season with a rapid fire in January of one week each. The idea is to do a weight progression followed by a velocity/speed block. This is also to help with developing my power.

My pull-up bar and more posters.

Prior to doing my strength sessions, I like to do a warm-up. Sometimes this is running or biking home from work but my favorite is a 30 minute classic rollerski.

My plan is still a work in progress. I’ve been using Youtube ab workouts to give me some new ideas and I’ve found some hard ones I can’t quite complete! I try not to worry too much if I miss a day of strength (like if I’m building a retaining wall or on an active vacation).

Retaining wall to bust out. This stuff was heavy!

Active vacation in the North Wind River Range in Wyoming.


So here’s my plan. Use what suits you or simply read for interest. 

Overall plan.



More detailed plan. I don't have reps or sets on most of these noted. For push-ups I usually do 2 or 3 sets of 20-30 push-ups, trying to get low enough to get my nose (is that gross?) on the ground. Pull-ups without weight is usually 8-10 on my first set and 6 or 7 on my second set. With weight it's 5-4-4 or so for both sets. I do 20 step-ups (2-3 sets each leg) and 20 squats (1 set each leg position).  

My four different pull-up grips.

Leg exercises including my four squat positions.


A detail of my different ab routines minus the YouTube ones.


My three YouTube ab routines:

6 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M3W5VCsuCY

10 minute lower abs (this one is a killer): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54x6yjnzLms&t=303s

10 minute 6-pack abs (good luck!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOiP3kfFlrE 

I usually do all my abs at once but will alternate an upper body with lower body set so as to not have any “resting” time between sets. If I find I need more rest between sets, I will throw in some physical therapy-type exercises or striding or skating mimic.

Often I do 3 sets of exercises, except I usually do 2 sets for each pull-up grip and 1 set for each squat position.

I realize this plan is heavy on pull-ups for upper body and most people can't do pull-ups with weight. This is the equipment I have and what I've been working with. And while my pull-ups may seem impressive, in my experience, there's only a very minor correlation with ski performance.

Caitlin says "Do Your Pull-ups!"


It took me until I worked through an entire cycle of this plan before I could publish this blog. That way I was able to find the exercises that work for me, and even the ones I found most fun. Jump lunges were initially in the plan but they seemed to hurt my foot and didn’t feel good so I threw them out. Meanwhile I found jumping w/ tucking my legs up to be really fun so I incorporated those. I wasn't able to be very explosive on the pull-ups during the Velocity phase so next time around I will substitute one pull-ups session for inverse push-ups (pull self up to a very low bar with body almost horizontal) and pole jumps (use bounding poles to get self high into the air).

I find the 4 week (or month-long) block to be about the best duration for me to get some progression but not get too bored. If I stretch it out to 6 weeks it feels too long. In the future I may try more rapid cycling with 2 week blocks (although it’s easier to think in terms of months) or perhaps do a full cycle each 4 weeks followed by 2 week blocks.

This new strength plan may or may not make me a faster skier, and I’m OK with that. The point is to do something different, something that’s fun, and something that makes me happy!





Tuesday, April 27, 2021

2020-2021 Season Recap

 The Year of the Skiathlon COVID-19

 

When Governor Walz closed all non-essential businesses for two weeks in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew the pandemic would last much longer than two weeks. But when the Birkie started talking about 2021 contingency plans in May of 2020, I thought “surely we’ll be back to normal by then.” Well, long story short and no surprises, the 2020-2021 ski season was definitely affected by the pandemic.

Despite all, I trained similarly to previous years, including with the Vakava team. Sure, I was bothered by an overuse foot injury but still did a couple training blocks. I missed the freedom of getting together with others, especially indoors, and would have liked to do a few of the local low-key races that didn’t happen this year, but my game are the big marathons and they all happened in some form or another.

Indeed, there were four of them. The first three were all snowy and quite lonely which contrasted with the fourth which was quite sunny and populous.

My favorite ski of the year came on New Year’s Day. I learned a lot about expectations that day and how my overall experience is determined by them. We were in Bemidji visiting my family and went for an afternoon ski with my brother at the high school trails, a system that touts 6.5 km of trail. There wasn’t much snow in Bemidji and so I assumed trail conditions would be less than ideal. Instead we were greeted by a warm sun, 28 degrees (such a nice contrast to the past few New Year’s visits when it was 50 degrees colder!), and immaculate corduroy. There may have only been a three inch base, but those trails have been babied so much they are smooth and that’s all they need. There were just enough hills to satisfy my hill exhilaration and since it has been a few years since I’d been to the trail system, I didn’t have the trail system memorized and there were even some new trails. And the company- my bro and Erik, were perfect. An hour and a half slipped by like five minutes. I showed up expecting rock ski conditions and instead got 10/10 grooming with perfect weather and company. Skiing can’t get better than this. On the flip side, had I shown up expecting 10/10 conditions, I likely would have been disappointed. Expectations are everything. 

The route for our Bemidji High School Trails ski. Check out that temp and sunny!!! Yes, the elevation is pancake flat:)



This year I’m going to summarize my thoughts in a few random bullet points because it feels more appropriate. And I want to keep this brief for once:)


-I enjoy working my body, moving my body, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast.

-I take great stock in human-powered transportation.

-My upper body is strong. I love working my abs and doing my pull-ups.

-I continue to work on transferring that upper body power through my core, into my legs, and into ski speed.

-Race results still mean too much to me. Too much for my happiness.

-I want to be faster without putting in any more work; but alas, I know even then I would not be satisfied. As I noted last year, one of my mantras from a Cheryl Crow song is “It’s wanting what you’ve got.” I’m slowly coming around to this.

-As I get older I feel the juxtaposition more and more of alternately caring too much and quite little about ski racing.

-Why do I keep racing? Why do I want to be good? Why does it mean so much to me?

-I enjoy the process of learning ski technique. Of making little changes, and working the downhills, especially when conditions are good (I struggle in slush big-time).

-I crave winter and mountains (but not below zero weather). Watching the World Cup finale in the Engadin Valley made me want to go there. Maybe someday. 


And what happened to my year of the skiathlon? Well, I had three on my radar: the Minnesota Finlandia, the Sleeping Giant Loppet, and the Great Bear Chase. Due to COVID-19, the Finlandia and Sleeping Giant Loppet were both cancelled (the Canadian Border was closed anyway). But I did the skiathlon at the Great Bear Chase. So here’s to the skiathlon at the Minnesota Finlandia next year. And the Sleeping Giant Loppet, or at least one new ski marathon. And to good health, training, happiness, weather, and maybe, just maybe, the freedom to gather with others, indoors, without masks!

And now for some canoeing time! Here's Erik and I on the St. Croix with the I-94 bridge in the background. It's always a bit crazy finally paddling under a bridge I've gone over so many times in my life.

 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Chasing Snow and The Great Bear

I wanted to go on a ski trip this year but given all the uncertainty with COVID-19, we decided on a fairly “local” trip to Minocqua Winter Park and the Keweenaw Peninsula. Unlike the cold weather we’ve seen for the past couple years, this March turned out to be quite warm. Despite this, over our nine day vacation, I made a goal of skiing every day, with a mental note to lower my expectations.

We started off with a ski at Hyland’s snowmaking loop where we incidentally caught up with some friends. That afternoon we went to Whitetail Woods Regional Park where our Vakava friends, Craig and Eva, had an outdoor COVID-appropriate skiing wedding. Mother Nature obviously had other plans but Craig and Eva weren’t to be detoured. They spent a good chunk of Friday shoveling snow into a mini strip so they could hop on their matching retro three-pin binding wood skis and ski away. Their ceremony was short and afterwards there was no reception owing to COVID-19 rules, but a few of us hung out talking outdoors through masks and Erik and I were able to find enough snow to do a couple sledding runs! 

Craig and Eva's winter wedding. I loved the bridesmaid outfits!


Craig and Eva skiing away.

The next day we headed off to northeastern Wisconsin with the state high point, Timm’s Hill, on the radar. Timm’s Hill is located in a county park. In the summer the high point is a short walk from the parking lot but in the winter the road isn’t plowed. We left the snowless Twin Cities but as we got near Timm’s Hill, there was snow! When we got to the road, it was not plowed as expected. But then we discovered ski trails at Timm’s Hill! By now it was afternoon and the ski trails were slow and transformed and at least one person had walked down the middle, but still, we were stoked to find actual ski trails. 


The closed road at Timm's Hill County Park ended up being a ski trail!

And nice ski trails at that!

Here comes Erik! Yes, lots of hiking tracks on the skate deck:(

 

After doing a short loop, we made our way to the summit, somewhat foolishly double poling up a steep narrow trail. I say foolishly because what awaited us was an arm-busting climb up an old fire tower via ferrata-style. I’d read about this on Summit Post and we had brought our harnesses. Unfortunately for us, even though the weather was sunny and in the mid-forties, it was terribly windy. As I stood at the bottom of the tower shaking in the wind, trying to figure out how to connect my ferrata kit to the ladder rungs, I had serious doubts about climbing this tower. But I had to go.

Erik let me go first. I was wearing my ski boots which sometimes can be slippery. I wore my gloves and really struggled to clip and unclip the ferrata gear. As I got higher, the wind got stronger and this whole endeavor felt like a lot of risk. I moved slowly. I clipped into every other rung as that’s as far as my ferrata kit stretched. Sometimes it seemed it would be better to go without the protective gear so I could just go faster. I don’t know why I was so scared, but I was. 

Starting my climb.




Getting higher! Note the surrounding hills.

Finally I got to the top where there was a small platform. Erik had already started up so I had to wait for him before going down. I tried to enjoy the view as we were surrounded by hills on the west, south, and east, but with the wind whipping I was getting cold fast. As soon as Erik got up, I started down. This time instead of clipping my ferrata kit around the rungs, I clipped into the shell that somewhat protected the ladder. Unfortunately the metal shell shape made it really hard to get my carabiners undone and briefly I thought I was stuck. Finally I was able to undo it only to re-clip into the support and repeat my folly 10 feet farther down. 

Erik up on the tower.



Glad to be back on Terra Firma. You can zoom in and read the sign post. The wooden tower is seen here with the old fire tower just behind.

 

By the time I was two-thirds the way down I gave up clipping in and quickly descended to the ground. While Erik made his descent, I climbed the adjacent wooden tower stairs. This tower wasn’t quite as high but obviously much safer. After Erik got down we completed the ski trail loop and went back to our car. This was plenty of adventure for me for the day- probably even the trip!

 

GPS from our Timm's Hill via ferrata-ski.

 

We stayed in Minocqua with plans to ski at Minocqua Winter Park on Monday and Tuesday. With no snow in the Twin Cities and recent highs in the 40s, we were concerned there wouldn’t be any snow at Minocqua, but there was plenty. It was also possible they would close to the trail system to prevent damage to the trails during the warm weather, but to our satisfaction, they didn’t do this either.

Minocqua Winter Park has quite the trail system, touting 86 km. Arriving at opening, 9 am, icy trails greeted us. We were able to get an edge but conditions sure were fast. After an hour, the sun beating down, the snow began transforming. I had some difficulty as we started on a black trail where halfway down hills, the conditions would go from ice to slush. I fell twice trying to navigate these conditions. Later in the day I’d realize that staying in a tuck position can help and snowplowing seemed to be about the worst thing to do.

We skated 23 km, ate a quick lunch in our warm car, heated by the sun, and then started out on a slow classic slog. Like talk about 21 km in 2 hour and 46 minutes slow! By the end of the day we’d amassed more than a marathon and headed to the hot tub at our hotel. 

Skiing in a sports bra Monday afternoon.



The next day I promised myself I wouldn’t ski another marathon but that’s just what I did. Again we skated in the morning and classic skied in the afternoon as temps got up to 60, skiing almost every trail in the network except for Nutcracker, a black that looked too scary for our liking under the conditions. Erik did several sledding runs on Squirrel Hill while I kept skiing. I joined him for one final epic run, slaloming down the big tubing hill.

Scantily clad by Tuesday afternoon. I thought it might feel weird to ski in shorts but it was so warm it wasn't weird at all. 

 
Erik was hot, too.

All ready for a sledding run in my sports bra and shorts!



And then the rains came!


Wednesday was predicted to be rainy. I got out for a 4 mile run before the precip started. Despite the forecast, I was quite determined to ski. I’m not sure if Erik was truly as determined, but after four days of skiing every day, it would be hard to break our streak. 

Fun running loop over two bridges on a winter snowmobile and summer bike trail and on a winding hilly road.



We were driving up to Calumet that day and planned to ski at the Watersmeet Trails en route. While we loaded up the car, a steady rain fell. While skiing in a mist is one thing, I was less than enthusiastic about skiing in rain.

As we drove north, we debated whether we should ski or just skip it. In Watersmeet, before detouring to the ski trail, Erik checked the radar and saw it would soon stop raining so we went to the trail but when we got there, it was closed to preserve the snow during the warm weather. Well, I guess that settled it. We wouldn’t have to ski in the rain!

From there we kept driving north to Calumet where we stayed downtown in a nice Airbnb above Cross Country Sports. Then we watched the rain come down.

By Thursday morning the rain was changing to snow. Given the snow conditions seemed iffy, we drove farther north towards Copper Harbor to find some adventures. Hwy 41 is a pretty drive, especially as we neared Copper Harbor the road got quite narrow and was completely overhung by snow-covered trees.

Our first stop was Estivant Pines, but alas, it’s a summer road only and a snowmobile trail in the winter. After a lot of driving, I was ready to ski and so we took off skiing on the snowmobile trail. At first it was awesome, but after not too long the rutted ice from the snowmobile tracks left something to be desired. And then we hit some gravel. The snow coverage in the UP wasn’t terribly legendary this year. We took a wrong turn and by the time we righted ourselves we were getting tired of the adventure. We eventually made it to Estivant Pines and skied just a tad but the snow was deep and trail narrow and steep, covered in one down tree, and not conducive to racing equipment so we turned around, enjoying a fairly fast descent to our car.  


Erik skiing towards Estivant Pines.



Getting hot with all the uphill. Note the snowmobile tracks.

GPS of our Estivant Pines adventure.


Next we went for a walk at Hunter’s Point Park by Copper Harbor. The wind was really strong and the waves on Lake Superior quite impressive. These were definitely the biggest waves I’ve ever seen in person. 

Big icy waves on Lake Superior.



By now it was mid-afternoon and we drove along the coast on hwy 26, stopping a couple times to watch the waves and marvel at the ice. We had planned on climbing Lookout Mountain, outside Eagle Harbor, but that was at least a 3 hour adventure so we deferred to another time and headed back to Calumet. 

 

No vacation is complete without at least one crow pose. This one was on a floating piece of ice. The horizon line in the background are big waves on Lake Superior.



I was glad to be wearing my Alaska boots as there was some slush on these floating pieces of ice. Erik captured a pretty cool picture here with the snow/ice-covered rocks in the background.


On Friday we were ready to ski the Michigan Tech Trails despite less than promising trail reports. After the warm weather early in the week, temperatures were down to the teens in the morning so we waited until the afternoon to ski. Unfortunately with the warmer temperatures, the grooming was less than ideal. Yes, it was better than the icy snowmobile trail from yesterday, but some trails barely so. We did a big loop, skiing most of the trails. We also didn’t want to ski too long or hard because it was the day before the Great Bear Chase. The competition trails were so icy I had to work super hard to get an edge to V-1 up them. 

 

GPS from our Michigan Tech Ski- note the elevation profile.



One of the big goals of this trip was to make skiing at Michigan Tech a priority but with the less than ideal conditions, I guess we’ll have to go back. These trails seem like they’d be really fun in good conditions.

Great Bear Chase 50 km Skiathlon


Last year on the day after the Great Bear Chase, I skate skied in my classic boots (because that’s all I had and my back hurt too bad to classic so I borrowed some skate skis). The trail conditions were perfect that day and since I wasn’t working too hard, my classic boots did the trick and even prompted me to do a skiathlon this year skating in my classic boots. I really don’t like to kick in my skate boots and even though there isn’t much kicking in the Great Bear Chase, I still wanted to kick.

That and I didn’t think it would be so bad to skate in my classic boots but when I finally gave this a try again at the Michigan Tech Trails which were a bit rutted, it didn’t work out so well. I realized this would be a big disadvantage.

Given we had been on a ski trip for a week, we had waxed our skis for the race before we left. I thought my Fast Wax Tan (no fluoro ban at the Great Bear Chase) would work well for classic skiing, but with temperatures into the 30s for the skate and sunny, I knew without pure fluoro or an equivalent non-fluoro, my skis would be at a disadvantage.

Even though there wasn’t any prize money for the skiathlon this year, the field was still stacked! With COVID precautions in place, the races all started in small waves of which I was in the very first. With such a competitive field, I didn’t worry about getting a good start position. I started in row 4, behind Mara McCollar, who strided away from me on the starting uphill. I almost caught Caitlin, who was double poling, by the top of the hill, as I ran, but then she quickly double poled away from me. Temperatures were in the upper 20s at the start and my kick was bomber with SWIX V50. It was definitely my best kick of the season- not a bad way to end my classic skiing season.

 

Starting at the back of the wave behind Mara McCollar.



And we're off!

Caitlin still in sight.


Most of the field quickly got ahead of me but I stuck with number 4, a guy, through the first hilly section. Once we hit the gradual downhill, he just double poled away from me. Throughout the rest of the first lap, I got caught by some fast skiathlon skiers in later waves (they started 5 and 10 minutes after me), even including a few women! I enjoyed the perfect snow conditions and my amazing kick for the first 20 kms until the snow transformed. I’ve never done a long skiathlon before but it almost felt like I was skiing two races. As a few muscles were getting tired nearing the half way point, I was glad I could keep hammering and didn’t feel like I had to save anything for the second half given I was changing techniques. 

 

Double poling on the classic leg.




I got to the exchange zone and switched skis and poles and grabbed my drink belt. After the disaster in the Birkie with my drink belt, I decided to just wait and put it on for the second half, taking a good drink before clasping it around my waist. Then I was off skating and it was rough! The snow was transforming. I could tell my fluoros were providing some glide but I also had to contend with the rutted trail from all the skate skiers. My skis were very squirrely. Despite this, the conditions were fairly fast and the kilometers ticked by without too much effort. I wanted to go faster but knew the effort would be fairly futile as these are not my ideal skate conditions and certainly not with classic boots on.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 kms into the skate half, I got in a zone and stopped fighting my squirrely skis. I conceded to efficiency, not flailing, and was still moving decently fast, at least for me. It also helped that I was passing more people (mostly 25 km skiers) than were passing me. And so even though this wasn’t the best effort I’d ever put forth, it was the best I could do at the time and still enjoy myself. Alas, these conditions are why I like to classic ski!

When I went to take my gu flask from my drink belt it was gone. Not again! I kinda laughed to myself at how bad I had messed this up yet again. Where had I lost it? I had skied with it yesterday and it never fell out. I hadn’t fallen. Alas, did it fall out when I drank at the exchange zone before I put the drink belt on? That must have been it (and indeed it was as I found it back in the exchange zone). Good thing I had stashed an extra energy bar in my belt!

I finished in just over 3 hours, more than half way back in the field. That doesn’t happen too often for me. If I do another skiathlon, I might need to think twice about using the classic boots for the whole deal. On the plus, I won my age class...by default seeing as I was the only woman in her 30s :)

Erik did the 50 km classic for the third year in a row, placing 2nd and winning his age group as well! 

 

Erik at the start.



And showing good classic form on the first uphill.

And kick-double poling!

We enjoyed the chocolate milk and cookies provided at the finish in a to-go bag and the pasty and cinnamon roll drive-through that replaced the normal skiers lunch. Such great service- half the price of the Birkie and includes a pasty!!! That afternoon we enjoyed sunny skies and temps in the 40s for a nice recovery walk around town.

On Sunday morning we returned to the Swedetown Trails (home of the Great Bear Chase) for the final ski of our trip. We were met with freshly groomed coarse snow that made for a fast 25 km lap of the course- indeed as fast I was racing but with considerably less effort. It was a great ski.

Then we drove home to the land of no snow.

The total for our week: 225 km of skiing and 4 miles of running. Not too shabby given the warm weather.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Birkie 2021: One Epic Classic Race

Early in the week, the weather was forecast to be a cold 10 degrees at the start of the Classic Birkie on Sunday without any precipitation. By Saturday the weather forecast had changed to 20 degrees warmer with around 3 inches of snow falling during the race. While I like to ski fast, I also know that I persevere better in slower conditions so I knew this updated forecast would give me a better result, albeit with a much longer effort.

The snow was supposed to start overnight so I was a bit surprised that there wasn’t any snow when we awoke. Indeed, it didn’t start snowing until our drive to the start. Without the fresh snow, conditions may have been Klister given sunny and 40 degrees the day before, but obviously with fresh snow, Klister would be a disaster.

I kick waxed with SWIX V45, arguably my favorite wax. I’ve had minimal issues with this icing previously. I wanted to err on the side of kick and the temperature range matched well. We found a small loop for warm-up. The snow hadn’t started accumulating yet and my half kilometer warm-up, despite an easy effort, was probably the fastest I skied all day!

I ran around a bit at the back of the starting pen and had my pick of 10 port-a-potties without a line. Then I gave my warm-ups to Erik and met the other fast women in the women’s Elite Wave start. In a usual year, men’s and women’s classic elite waves are combined, but this year they were separate. Between the classic race on two different days and so many skiers doing it virtual, there were just 14 of us women in the wave. With the likes of Rosie Frankowski, Alayna Sonnesyn, Katie Feldman, Caitlin Gregg, Josie Nelson, and Vivian Hett making up almost half the wave, I figured this would be my first year to finish outside the top half of the women’s elite classic field.

This year's bib. Birkie #14 and totally stoked to have my name on it!



By the time the gun went off, the snow had picked up. I briefly made an attempt to maintain contact with the leaders, but this was futile. I mused that Josie was right up there with them! I fell into a second pack with Vivian skiing between the two groups. By the time we reached the powerlines, I was at the back of the pack and it seemed my skis were a bit slower than the others. Aside from one woman who fell behind, all but Kris Hansen and Lisa Garretson pulled away from me. Lisa seemed to be icing a bit as I watched her stomping at the tops of hills. As we headed into the woods, I pulled ahead of Kris and Lisa.

I walk-herring-boned the 7 km hill (more like 5 km in now on the new course) as fast as I could. Then before long I was down to Timber Trail and about to start the big climb to High Point. My glasses had some snow encrusted on them. I had little visibility from the left lens, but seeing as my glasses are prescription, I kept them on, repeatedly debating when I should put them up. I knew whenever I did the snow would then pelt my eyeballs.

Even though I had practiced with my drink belt, I still screwed it up. Unlike when skating, when I stride/run classic skiing my drink belt often jostles around and moves to the front. By making it tight enough, I can prevent this, albeit it then restricts my breathing some and can be uncomfortable in a tuck if my stomach is too full. Despite sewing the drink belt tight, I hadn’t got it tight enough so repeatedly I flung my arm back to move it back into place. I guess on the plus side it wasn’t tight enough to be constricting.

Kris and Lisa both passed me back up on the climb to High Point. I was getting warm having worn a layer of long underwear under my spandex. That would be way too hot at the same temperature had it been sunny, but I decided to dress on the warmer side given strong winds, cloudy skies, and snow. I also wore a hat as otherwise the snow really clings to my hair. I think the poor visibility helped me along as I wasn’t even sure we were climbing the High Point Hill until we were almost to the top. While I anticipated the restful downhills after High Point, the tracks were much too slow to appreciate these. I did some double pole, was able to tuck some, but mostly did a lot of striding. The kilometers ticked by. I caught back up to Lisa near Bodecker. A few Wave 1 men came barreling by. As we neared OO, a handful of Wave 1 men passed us and I tried to stay with them for a bit so I didn’t have to break trail. They got away from me too quickly. Just before the final climb to OO, I pulled in front of Lisa.

I finally put my glasses on top of my head at OO. Immediately the sharp snow crystals pierced my eyes until I got used to the sensation. Then the snow caked onto my eyelashes. As I descended from OO, the snow on my eyelashes reduced my visibility. I tried to follow the skied-in track. I liked following Lisa when she found it for me, but now I was on my own. I could barely see anything but I was going so slow on the downhills it didn’t matter. Where the tracks were washed out at the bottom of the hills, my skis immediately slowed as I hit the fresh snow. I had to be alert to keep my balance as the slow snow threatened to throw me backwards.

As the Wave 1 men pulled away, I could see Kris up ahead again and soon caught her. I skied behind her for a minute, but then passed her and took off.

Occasionally my skis iced. First it was the right ski, just a small patch, then a few kilometers later the left ski. It wasn’t too bad. Mostly I was able to stomp it off. It happened maybe 6 times, often dealing with it for half a kilometer or so at a time. Only briefly could I feel it dragging on a downhill. Lots of other skiers had some minor icing issues, a few with more major issues.

I went to take a feed from my gu flask only to discover I had lost it. I had even done intervals with the gu flask to make sure it was secure, but it was on a day when my drink belt wasn’t jostling. I suspect one of those times I swung it back into place the gu flask popped out. I was definitely bummed as I was looking forward to some concentrated liquid energy and felt bad about littering. (At least when I told Erik about this later, he was sympathetic. He almost never admonishes me for my follies- he knows I already beat myself up enough). I was glad I had stashed an extra energy bar in my drink belt and that I still had my water bottle.

Another kilometer or so later I pulled out the energy bar. I made the mistake of trying to eat it all at one time so as I took a bite, I kept the rest in my hand. I knew I risked dropping the bar as I kept skiing. That bite in my mouth just wouldn’t dissolve. I’m not a terribly coordinated person and can only say that between skiing, mouth breathing, and holding onto the bar, it’s nearly impossible to chew. I managed this feat back in 2015 in the Twin Cities Marathon and really liked eating solid food, but it is remarkably easier to do running than skiing.

Alas, after I managed a second bite, I dropped the bar. I did an instinctive snowplow, knowing that was my only energy for the next couple hours, but then decided to just keep going. I’m known as a camel for my poor energy consumption during racing, although Erik keeps telling me I’d do better with more energy. I just keep failing at this.

Around Boedecker I tried hard to ski with a Wave 1 guy who had passed me. He was always within sight until Fire Tower. There was another woman who had stopped at Boedecker but she took off like mad and got a long ways in front of me. Through the snow caked on my eyelashes, I just kept slowly going. Finally, with 17 km to go, I got the snow off my eyelashes. Wow, it sure was pretty with all the snow on the trees. Soon after I went down another hill and my eyelashes got caked again. So much for the view!

Oh, there’s some climbing to Fire Tower. As we got close I kept thinking this would end soon. Finally we got to Fire Tower and with it some Wave 1 Korte skiers to pass. They were hard to pass seeing as there was only one skied-in track and going around meant exerting more energy. Fortunately, there were only a handful to pass the rest of the way. The hills down from High Point were hardly restful. At least I was going fast enough that I could tuck and didn’t feel the need to double pole down them! As we neared Timber Trail there were a few more big hills. My left knee with patella-femoral pain was bothering me and I knew, despite my weekly hip flexer strength drills, my hip flexors would be mighty sore the next day. I kept hoping this would be the last hill before a couple turns and downhill to Timber Trail but there always seemed to be another one. Finally I was over the last big uphill and began the gradual downhill slog to Timber Trail. I knew Erik was tracking me. I figured it would be at least an hour between Boedecker and Timber Trail for me. I had little solace with 10 km to go. It would still be an eternity. Apparently I wasn’t skiing very fast because I was no longer hot.

 

Birkie 2021 Map and elevation profile. What a beast!


Once I got to Timber Trail I could see another woman in front of me! I was closing on her fast. I drank some water as I walked up the hill and then kept moving faster. While I can easily drink on downhills skate skiing, I find my balance can get thrown off in the tracks with drinking, especially if the tracks are uneven and with the new snow. In the brief two-way section at Timber Trail I saw a couple skiers heading out. How would they make it after I struggled so?

Just before 6 km to go, I caught the woman. I skied behind her briefly and then took off. Immediately I felt tired, which is often what happens after I pass someone. I kept waiting to see the next kilometer sign, and waiting and waiting. Well, really I was skiing and skiing and around every turn anticipated the next sign and it never seemed to come. Finally they clicked away, 5 km, 4 km, 3 km. I was getting more and more frustrated. The snowmobiles following the leaders had driven down the middle of the trail and the skiers finding this fastest, followed suit. I wasn’t about to plow snow in the tracks so I followed the other skiers but this meant for much of the last 5 kms I wasn’t skiing in tracks. The skied-in tracks had some ridges and I was constantly on guard to avoid falling, especially as I went in and out of herring-boning.

The Hybrid Loppet had been tough this year, but I think part of what helped keep me going was knowing the course so well. Probably the same for the Mora Vasaloppet. Without knowing the Birkie Trail very well, I just kept waiting for the kilometer signs. From 3 to 2 km to go was pretty rough for me. “F***!” I called out to no one at one point. I just wanted to ski in some tracks. Every once in a while the tracks had been skied-in and I enjoyed it for a bit. I could tell I was breathing hard because I was so angry. Finally 1 km to go. Maybe I was going to make it. Then I saw the stadium area. 400 meter to go as I saw the bridge over the tunnel. I was up and over that, descending, around the corner, an extra bump before a slow-mo double pole to the finish.

I was super glad Erik was there to meet me in the parking lot and drive me home. After I shook off some snow, I got in the car. Despite my lack of nutrition over the previous 45 kms, I was exhausted. I was ridiculously content to just sit in the car. It had been a long time since I was so tired. Once back at home I was productive, putting things away and making dinner, able to climb the stairs, but I was wiped out!

As usual, I always feel I had more to give. I finished 10/14 women in the stacked Elite women’s field and was ahead of all the other women who skied that day. Times can’t be compared to Friday or the virtual race. Thus I was 73rd of 287 for the day. Certainly not stellar. It’s hard not to compare myself to the winner, the amazing Rosie Frankowski, who skied a whole hour faster than me. Even though she’s an Olympian with a top-30 finish in the 30 km classic race, it’s still hard to not want more. My heart rate monitor showed an average of 145- a solid Level 3 for me. I was breathing hard the whole time. I could have ran more on the uphills, forced more striding but my engine just isn’t that big. That’s what keeps driving me to train so much. 

 

My heart rate was higher in the beginning when I was skiing more with people. Total elevation change, a whopping 2500 feet! Max speed, a pathetic 23.5 mph! That says everything about the conditions.



What I do know is, this was my third race of the season, and the third during a snowstorm. I told Erik he better watch out for the Great Bear Chase, the first race we’ll be doing on the same day, cause it might just snow a foot!

Monday, March 1, 2021

Virtual Birkie Groundhogs Day

Setting The Scene

I haven't been pulling my weight of blog posts around here.  Elspeth has been holding down the fort all by herself lately.  I started writing one, thought about writing a race report once racing finally started again, but I just wasn't into the story.  My last post was about the July 100k roller ski.  Based on that last post and this one, it looks like my inspiration lately is stupid ideas.

No need for me to tell you that the last year has been anything but normal.  When racing did get started some of the normalcy almost returned.  I did the Pre-Loppet, Skinny Santa, and Seeley hills.  I was racing OK, but not great.  At that point I was still planning on skiing the in person Birkie and even though it wasn't going to "count" (count being defined as qualifying for the Elite Wave like any respectable wave one skier dreams of).  Then the cold snap hit, races got cancelled or pushed back, I had a few really rough practices, and then Mora was anything but encouraging.

I'm realizing more and more that I ski for the social aspect more than the competition.  Sure I still want to do well and I'll put in the work solo if I have to, but I really like the social scene that comes with the training and racing.

So the thought of driving up to Cable early in the morning on Saturday, racing in a race that doesn't count, maybe well, maybe poorly, and then getting back in my car and driving straight back home without getting to hang out with all of my ski friends was just depressing.

Time for a new plan.

Stupid Ideas

Just because I wasn't feeling the urge to go fast and hard didn't mean I didn't want to challenge myself.  I tossed around a pair of ideas.  The first and discarded idea was to ski a skate and classic Birkie on the same day.  The full 50km and 55km versions too, because of course.

The idea was good, but it wasn't quite right.  Plan two... I had friends skiing a Birkie every day from Wednesday to Sunday.  Maybe I should ski one each day as well.  5 marathons in 5 days?  We can probably scale that down to just the stated virtual distance of 43km each day.

So Tuesday I committed myself to my plan.  I did the super easy "Switch to Virtual" option that the Birkie has been pushing for quite a while now.  3 minutes and I was no longer going to be allowed on the course on Saturday.  I let work know I was going to blow out of the office early Wed-Fri and I sent an email to the Vakava crew stating my intentions publicly to have some accountability (funny side story, Dave thought my email said that each of the dates/times/locations I stated were options, not plans, and he was going to send me a smart ass email that I should ski each of them... jokes on you Dave!)

Day 1 - Wednesday - Skate

My wife had the day off of work too so I lined her up to go ski part of my first Virtual Birkie.  My original plan was to get to the Trailhead at Theodore Wirth about an hour ahead of her to get in some extra distance before she showed up.  She ruined those plans though and got there ahead of me.

So about noon on Wednesday, with the sun blazing, a fresh half inch of snow on the ground, and temps pushing 40, we set out south from the Trailhead to ski the natural snow trails and lakes.

I didn't get too far before I decided that a trailside wardrobe change was required as I was WAY overdressed.


Somewhat surprisingly the snow in the direct sunshine was significantly faster than the snow in the woods.  I did a few extra excursions to get some extra distance.  When we were apart I elevated the effort to race pace.  Otherwise it was mostly easy cruising.

When we got to the lakes things were a bit soft, but quite a bit faster.  We saw quite a few people out enjoying the sun shiny afternoon.  The kite skiers on Bde Maka Ska were quite fun to watch.


When we got back to the start of the Skyline trail I had about 6 km to go and she was at her longest ski of the year.  So she peeled off for the car while I skied Skyline and then took the Bridge Trail up to Trail 18.  Except Trail 18 was being turned into some type of ski cross course with big jumps and berms.  Seeing as I was 3:20 into a pretty sloggy ski I decided NOT to hit the sweet jumps.


I navigated around the new skills course and did a short lap of the roundabout back up to Coaches Corner and then finished perfectly on the finish line in the stadium.

Virtual Birkie # 1 complete.  43km - 3:32:22 - 1,404' elevation gain




<Insert total fail to take a picture with my wife>

Day 2 - Thursday - Skate

COVID times means that I'm Uber dad on the hybrid days my kids have school.  So after dropping my spawn off at home it was off to Balsam Branch near Amery for my second go around.  Another 40ish degree day and a 3:30 pm start.  They also hadn't groomed and had about an inch of marshmallowy snow that was just dog slow.  I even cheated and flouro-doped for the day and was not in love with my skis.

Remember how I said I ski for the social aspects?  Yeah, not today.  I shared the entire trail system with one other person the entire time I was there.

Balsam Branch is one of my evening go to spots to ski because it is the closest place to my house that is lit.  So I actually rarely get to ski there during the day so the outer loops that aren't lit are my least skied trails.  The entire trail system is bi-directional and has quite a few different intersecting loops and cut-offs.  One of the things I like to do when skiing there is play "paint the trails" where I be sure to cover all of the trails in both directions.  I was able to get about 10km of trail in before having to skin on the same trail twice even independent of direction.  But skiing everything both directions it feels like there is close to 30km of unique trail.

Again the sun was shining and the woods were beautiful.  As it got to golden hour it was spectacular.



Then in the final hour the temps started to drop and the trail sped up significantly.  I had been working fairly hard.  Probably not race pace, but not touring either.  My 20% splits went 4:11/km, 4:01/km, 4:02/km, 3:50/km, 3:38/km.

I finished just as it was starting to get dark.

Virtual Birkie # 2 complete.  43.2km - 2:50:08 - 2493' elevation gain
Cumulative 86.2km - 6:22:30 - 3897' elevation gain



Day 3 - Friday- Classic

A 1:00pm work meeting meant that I again didn't start until almost 3:00pm.  Another 40+ degree day and the trails were SLOPPY.  My wife works near Hyland so I talked her into skiing with me for a bit again.  This time I was successful in getting there before her and got a few km before meeting up with her.  I also saw Craig out coaching his high school team at the conference ski meet.

The sun and warm temps meant the natural snow trails were taking a beating.  Bare patches of wood chips, standing water on the trail, running water on the trail...  it had me thinking about trading my skis for one of the pedal boats for a hot minute.




It was also pretty nice up by the Nature Center as golden hour hit again.


After Wednesday's longest ski of the year for her, my wife didn't last more than about an hour with me today.  This meant I was alone with my misery as I kept slogging towards my finish.  29km in I was averaging a measly 5:28/km.  Continuing on that pace I was looking at a 4 hour day.

Thankfully as with Thursday, as the sun went down the tracks sped up significantly.  I managed to crank out the last 14km in just over 4:00/km.

Virtual Birkie # 3 complete.  43.1km - 3:36:49 - 2542' elevation gain
Cumulative 129.3km - 9:59:19 - 6439' elevation gain



Day 4 - Saturday- Skate

THIS was the day I was looking forward to.  A bunch of my fellow Vakava skiers were going to get together to ski their virtual Birkie.  Mary Beth took the reigns of organizing and it was AMAZING.

After another warm night that William O'Brien wasn't able to groom the call was made to switch venues to Mora.  The folks at Mora rolled out the red carpet for us and not only were the trails perfect, so was the weather, and the post race amenities.

I think we had 10 of us, my ability to count is starting to get weak at this point.  With overnight temps around 25, some morning fog and clouds obscuring the sun, the trails were really fast (well compared to anything I had skied on yet this week anyhow) until about 11:00am when the sun came out.  My wife jokingly suggested that maybe a double Birkie was in order.  Before the sun came out that didn't seem too crazy.  Claire would have been game I'm sure.



But then the sun came out, the trail side fire and food was set out, and it was definitely time to stop.  But not until my wife who had no intention of finishing a virtual Birkie when she started got to 43km.  So even though Claire and I were done, we skied out the rest with her.  Then we were so close to 50km we figured we should finish that.  And it was a little bit to spite Dave who was trying to give me a hard time that everyone skiing the real Birkie was doing 45km so my virtual ones weren't going to count.  They'll count the 50km one Dave!


The post "race" party was exactly what I needed.  Lots of food, recovery beverages, perfect weather, and lots of ski friends.  Thanks for organizing MB!  The highlight of my season.


Virtual Birkie # 4 complete.  50.1km - 3:25:31 - 1594' elevation gain
Cumulative 179.4km - 13:24:50 - 8033' elevation gain



Day 5 - Sunday - Classic

So the pictures from the actual Birkie make that look significantly harder than what I did.  But it was still hard.  The only thing Clair will turn down going skiing for is homework, and then only maybe.  So I was super thankful to meet her at the Trailhead again at 8:30 Sunday morning.  There was about an inch of snow on the ground and it was falling fast.  With temps right around 32, the snow was simply covering the slush underneath.



Classic kick waxing is NOT one of my strong suits.  But Claire doesn't have skins so we tried to tough it out.  30G... nope.  Start Terva Red... nope.  Rex liquid Gold Klister... passable kick.  Followed by fairly significant icing just a few km later.  Covered with 30G... maybe slightly less icing.



8km in one hour back at the stadium and I wasn't going to be able to slog that out for another 4.5 hours.  So back to the car for the skins.  My wife graciously let Claire borrow her skins and off we went again.

I lost a little track of time but it eventually changed from blowing snow, to just overcast, to eventually blazing sun again.  When we arrived there was still parking in the little parking lot by the Trailhead.  Later the place was a mad house and the trails were seeing some good traffic.  The tracks started glazing a bit instead of just being fresh snow smashed into slush and it started speeding up again.  In some of the areas.  We were still basically striding down the North Finger and La Squadra.



42.05km and we were back in the stadium.  We went out to the Green Meadow cut-off and came back to the roundabout to realize we still needed a little more distance so around the roundabout we went a few times.  Then it was down the finishing straight to finish at the base of the bridge.

Virtual Birkie # 5 complete.  43km - 4:20:37 - 3366' elevation gain




Conclusion

That should be a memorable, one of a kind Birkie.  I think I'll take a rest day now.  Maybe two.

When first conceived, this idea sounded a little dumb and mildly challenging.  I had not accounted for the warm weather and slow snow.  It turned out to be quite the undertaking and there were a few times where the public statement that I was doing it was one of the primary things keeping me going.

I'm looking forward to life continuing to return to more normalcy in the next year.  February 26, 2022 I hope to take my next shot at qualifying for the coveted Elite Wave.

Cumulative 222.4km - 17:45:27 - 11399' elevation gain