Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Great Bear Chase 2020: A Mixed Bag

Last year I embedded my Great Bear Chase 2019 race report within a blog post titled “A Mixed Bag.” Somehow that seems to be an appropriate subtitle again this year.

It wouldn't be the Great Bear Chase without at least one hat like this! Photo: Brockit
For the second year in a row, I did the 50 km classic. This is largely because it is a relatively flat course with opportunity for lots of double poling which I love! The 50 km consists of two 25 km laps. It starts flat, has a section with some punchy hills (short with some curves), gets pretty flat again, and ends with more punchy hills. Conditions this year were in the 30s with fresh snow a couple days prior to the race. Knowing that good kick wasn’t essential but would be nice, especially in the second half of the race, I waxed a bit on the warm-side with SWIX 55 then 50 then 45. I tried to cover each layer but it seemed to all just mix together.

The Vakava team stayed in an AirBNB that was ½ mile from the start and so it was nice to walk to the race in the morning. I tested my kick wax and it wasn’t icing (but not exactly giving great kick either) so I decided to leave it alone.

Sunrise on the way to the start. Don't forget that Calumet, MI is in Eastern Time Zone if you go!
An iconic UP house where our Vakava group stayed.

The classic race field was very small with only about 40 competitors. I got a front row start on the far right. I noted any rival women and as we skied up the first hill, I looked around for them, but they were nowhere in sight. The top four men, including Erik and Josh Doebbert, made a break and then I tried to stay on some trailing men. Despite my best attempts, they had all dropped me by 2 km into the race. I thought maybe I’d ski the next 48 km by myself, but in the first section of punchy hills, Badger, so named for what looked like his U of Wisconsin suit, passed me. Then in the flat section a guy wearing black and bright green passed me. We all skied by each other for quite some time. We passed a lot of skiathlon skiers and we also skied with one skiathlon guy who seemed to be taking it easy.

Alex mixing it up with some fast guys in the skiathlon en route to 5th place and some prize money! Photo: Brockit
Ben in the skiathlon making his way to an age class award. Huge thanks to Ben for organizing the weekend trip! Photo: Brockit

Towards the end of the first lap those guys started pulling away from me. I could see one more guy in front of me as well. I’m not sure why those guys pulled away from me so much but I couldn’t quite stay with them.

The snow seemed slow to me. I couldn’t tell much of a difference inside the tracks or on the skate deck so I did a mix of both and cut a lot of corners. I felt like I had been out there forever and still had another lap to ski!

Craiger crushed it in the skate with a 2nd place finish! Photo: Brockit
Scott and Abe weren't far behind. Photo: Brockit
And Dave rocked it, too. Photo: Brockit
The tracks were better skied in and slightly more glazed on the second lap. They seemed faster than the first lap as I was more easily able to double pole up gradual uphills. The skate deck was getting soft and slow and was obviously slower than the classic tracks. After the punchy hill section, I saw a couple classic guys in front of me. I reeled them in with my double pole and was greatly enjoying catching and passing men (it was such a mental boost compared to this year’s Birkie) but then, suddenly, with 14 km to go my back went out on me.

Now, when I say this, it means I started feeling like my actual spine hurt as opposed to my muscles. I could still double pole but I had to change my technique. Kick double poling and striding both sent jolts of pain throughout my back but I was able to run/shuffle without the jolts.

I suppose most people would quit when this happens. But not me. I’m a total sucker for pain and so I just realized this race was going to be way more painful than I wanted and I wasn’t sure if I could walk at the finish. I’ve had this pain before a few times, most recently last summer, and it lasted a couple days and totally sucked. It’s super hard to bend down to pick anything up, tie my shoes, and it hurts to roll over in bed. All those simple activities trigger lightening bolts of pain.

Laura put the smack down in the skate leg of the skiathlon to finish 4th with prize money, too! Photo: Brockit
So I kept going and my back didn’t actually bother me too bad. We started the gradual climb towards the second section of punchy hills and then I saw Badger! Oh yeah, I like coming from behind and passing people. It took me awhile to catch Badger and at that point we passed another guy in the classic race, too, who we came up on real fast. When I passed Badger, I could hear him slip in behind me.

Then we hit the punchy hills again with 6 km to go and on the first uphill, where the tracks were obliterated and some fresh snow had been churned up, I herring-bone ran and my left ski iced. I was able to stomp my ski enough to get the snow off but by then Badger had passed me AND another guy I hadn’t seen before. Bummer. Wow, this race was definitely not perfect. First my back, now the icing. And yet I had just been so excited to pass some guys. Man, I REALLY wanted to beat those guys.

Ok, so I now knew I had to stay in the tracks. That was all well and good except for where the tracks had been wiped out. Fortunately this only happened a couple more times. I could see Badger and the other guy ahead of me but there was nothing I could do to stay with them- not when I had to stomp my ski and lost some time on a downhill when the stomping wasn’t effective enough. I tried to just bide my time, knowing those guys looked pretty tired and the last 2 km or so the hills were a bit less punchy and I should be able to stay in the tracks.

I had really good energy and was disappointed I couldn't go faster but that energy was also helping me deal with my aching back and icing situation.

With 2 kms to go there was a long uphill. I should have been able to stride but my back hurt too bad so I just shuffled up it quickly. I passed both Badger and the other guy. My ski still iced a tad where new snow had been kicked into the track from pole plants and skiers outside the track, but I was able to stomp it off and finish without any more icing.

Me and Badger! Photo: Brockit

I stayed ahead of those guys and managed to finish 9th overall, first woman.

The top classic guys. Erik was trailing a tad here but paced things well to finish 2nd overall. I guess we couldn't quite pull off the husband-wife podium like Team Gregg did in the skiathlon. Oh, well- next year! Photo: Brockit

It was very nice weather after the race with temps pushing 50s and sunshine!!! The Vakava team had fun enjoying the snow and weather. My back actually didn’t bother me too bad after the race- it waited a few hours to rear its ugly head. Getting out of bed the next day proved to be my greatest accomplishment! (Uh oh, that’s what my mom says every day!) I really need to start doing yoga or something specific for my back because this pain sucks. Guess I’m just getting too old or pushing my body too hard:)

Some shenanigans after the race- daring to walk out on Portage Lake with Craig, Erik, and Alex. There's an old mining town and the local downhill ski area on the left shore.
Craig taking a selfie in front of the big boat that goes to Isle Royale!

The Great Bear Chase is a great ski marathon in the Midwest. I highly encourage anyone thinking about it to put it on your calendar for next year. The snow and trail won’t disappoint. It’s what skiing should be.

And there was even a panda. It doesn't get better than that!!! See, I told you it's what skiing should be- pandas on skis!!! Ok, I know, pandas aren't real bears. I'm bummed I didn't see this costume because I love pandas. I mean, I once canoed like 400 miles to see some pandas. Maybe next year I'll have to wear a panda costume! Photo: Brockit

Friday, March 6, 2020

Birkie 2020: So Fast And So Slow


Each year that I have qualified for the Elite Wave at the Birkie, I show up more confident that I will make the Elite Wave again. Paradoxically, I also have a growing sense that if I somehow fail to requalify for the Elite Wave, it’s not the end of the world.

All that being said, I knew from the Loppet MinneTour that my fitness was good. In the week leading up to the Birkie, there was nothing I could do to really improve my performance but I could hurt it by training too much.

Given the weather forecast, I suspected this might finally be the year I would break 3 hours in the Birkie. I remember my time in the 3:36 range my first year doing the Birkie at age 19 and thinking it would be pretty amazing to go under 3 hours. I’ve done this in other marathons, but between skiing a bunch of Classic Birkies and Skate Birkies out of slower waves, I had never done this. Last year’s Skate Birkie was slow and I was just over 3 hours. The only thing about a fast Birkie is that I tend to do better the slower the conditions.

So I arrived to the start fairly confident but a bit concerned because I wasn’t as nervous as usual and history has told me that’s a bad omen.

So Fast

Given that the temperature was expected to go from about 22 °F to 32 °F, I decided to only wear underwear and my race suit. Last year for Great Bear Chase, the temperature was similar but I had worn long underwear on bottom and got way too hot! I don’t race well once I get hot so I dressed on the cool side. This was a bit unnerving as our car thermometer dropped to 5 °F on the drive to the start but I decided to trust in the forecast.

There are definitely some perks to the Elite Wave, most notably that it’s small and I don't have to worry about getting a good start position. Everyone always gets in the gate early but I waited a bit longer, trying to stay warm. I got in the gate with 5 minutes to spare. No one was on the right side. After they lifted up the FIS partition, I found myself in the second row, behind the first row of mostly former Olympians.

I got off to a fast start double poling but as soon as the tracks were up and I went to skate, my poles got stepped on twice. This knocked me back a bit. I found some room and kept going but all the women just seemed to pass me up. It pretty much felt like I was at the very back. Before I knew it, we were on the Power Lines. I completely missed the climb up to them. I felt like I was at the back of the wave. I saw the Reker sisters slowly pulling ahead of me. Once we got into the woods, I closed the gap on them. I knew I had to do this. There was a pack of maybe seven of us skiing together, including Jenna Ruzich.

I got off to a good start, demonstrating good technique, but this was about 100 meters into the race and things went downhill from here, literally and figuratively:) Photo: unknown but thanks to the Broderson's for sending it my way.

I wasn’t feeling terribly perky climbing the hills, but they were going by fast. I had, perhaps, made the mistake of doing my shake out ski with Vakava and got horribly dropped. That shattered my confidence. It also didn’t help that I’ve been questioning my V-1 technique lately.

Anyway, I stayed with my little pack to the High Point Hill. No one really pushed it up that hill but I felt a bit tired and so was holding back some. I tend to have an innate ability to pace in a marathon and it didn’t feel quite right to push that hill. I wasn’t really worried about getting dropped by the pack but apparently I should have been because I got dropped big time. Conditions and my skis were super fast. Even without the pack I felt like I was flying. It also felt amazing to have the entire trail to myself.

Then the men started catching me. I think it was after Boedecker. I hope it was after Boedecker. It was after Boedecker last year. I got over to the far right when the men’s lead snowmobile passed me but the Birkie failed to mention that’s where the snowmobile goes and if you’re in their way, they’ll run you over. That snowmobile came within inches of clipping my ski!

The men passing me was a good reminder that I needed to keep pushing hard. And I did. I kept pushing the pace and pushing the pace. And I pushed extra hard over the one lane bridge over OO so I wouldn’t hold up any men and fortunately I didn’t.

I kept pushing and I was flying. The kilometers ticked away so fast. But I wasn’t catching any women. I started trying to hang onto the packs of men passing me. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay with any of them, I was merely using it to inject some speed and as a reminder to keep pushing.

Skiing so fast and all alone. This is actually how I like it. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
 I know my strengths as a skier and I know my weaknesses. Fast conditions have always been a weakness for me. I’ve always cringed at the thought of those fast Birkies. I’ve always doubted my capabilities to ski super fast. My legs are small. I’m not good at balance. I’ve just never been able to get good glide out of my skis and I don’t have a Therese Johaug engine to make up for it. So I knew that even though I was going super fast, I still had to keep working hard.

After OO, I tried to stay with every pack of men passing me. I didn’t move over for them. And some of these were big packs. I knew my Elite Wave was in jeopardy and I was fighting. I’d try to stay with them for as long as possible, but I just kept getting dropped.

Silly me, of course I couldn’t keep up with them.

I tried the hardest with the huge pack that caught me before Mosquito Brook. I stayed with them the longest, yo-yoing on the uphills. Oh yeah, that’s why I don’t like pack skiing. And then they got away, too.

Erik passed me on the 37 km hill. This meant he was doing awesome- it meant I was doing terribly. He was clearly moving up, trying to catch the big pack of skiers ahead of him. Before the race I had declared if he passed me I would try to stay on him. Yeah, that wasn’t about to happen. I didn’t even try.

Erik. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

 I didn’t try to jump on any more men. I was too tired. I was still moving fast, but my tank was starting to run on empty. I was just so glad, again, to be skating up those last two big hills. it’s just so much easier to maintain V-1 form than striding.

Then we were on the lake. There was a pack of men that had just passed me but I thought I saw a woman up there, I thought it might be Jenna. I tried my hardest to chase her down. I skied hard and fast- across the lake, up over that Birkie Bridge, and down Main Street. I was definitely tired at the end.

I checked my watch. Wow, conditions were definitely fast- a PR by 15 minutes!

Bonnie, in her Vakava suit, crushed this year's Birkie in 17th!!!! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
Claire was 24th! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
And Laura was 28th. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

And So Slow

I didn’t want to check the results. I knew requalifying for Elite Wave was in serious peril. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like normal during the race. I didn’t feel amazing but I didn’t feel too bad either. I mean, it’s supposed to be hard and it was. I sufficiently pushed myself hard but had left something in the tank to get me across Lake Hayward, over the bridge, and up Main Street without bonking.

I purposely waited until Wave 2 was well in before I checked.

67th place.

I think I already knew it. But I was honestly completely deflated.

See, the thing about the Birkie, especially about the Skate Birkie, is that unlike any other race I do, how I do this year determines my experience next year. Skiers in the Elite Wave are much more likely to make the Elite Wave again compared to skiers in Waves 1 and 2. And I’ve been in Wave 2 and I completely hated it. Way too many men. I’ve been so determined to NEVER be in that Wave again.

I’ve always hated the Birkie. The Traffic Jam race I used to call it. The exact opposite of what skiing should be- a billion people in my way. And so I’ve always been determined to make Elite Wave so I can race without a bunch of men in my way. And it is amazing to be in Elite Wave- so much better- except for this constant fear I’m going to get dropped from Elite Wave.

Because the Elite Wave is like this benchmark. You’re either a good skier (and along with it comes those special privileges as noted above, plus a low number bib and one with your name on it to boot) or you’re a bad skier. It’s like a pass or fail. I put so much pressure on myself that I hate the Birkie. I hate the week leading up to the Birkie. It’s the only week I consistently hate every year. And it’s where my birthday falls every year. So you can imagine what my birthday is like. Yeah, so I guess I get Birkie Fever, but instead of excitement, it’s dread. It makes me wish I actually had the real flu. I can’t wait for the Birkie to be over. Every year. I love March. March is the best month ever because the Birkie is like 11 months away.

Then it was a torrential downpour of self-deprecating thoughts.

How did this race go so wrong? What had I messed up? What about all my training? Was it all a complete waste of time? Obviously, because it seems I’ve gotten slower rather than faster. I’m just a terrible skier. I should quit racing.

Now everybody knows what I’ve always known. The secret is out. I’m just a FAKE. I’ve just been pretending that I’m fast. I’ve been cheating by skiing the classic race where it’s easier to stay in the Elite Wave. Now everyone knows the truth. Why did I ever try? I sucked back in high school. Why did I keep going?

I don’t deserve to be on Vakava.

I tried not to be too bummed and talked with some of my friends but it wasn’t long until I completely lost it. Erik I were walking down Main Street, watching the later waves finish, but I just had to pull off onto a side street and ball my eyes out.

It’s so dumb that I’m so upset. I mean, it’s a beautiful day, I got to ski, I’m not injured (like a couple of my friends), and I didn’t get injured. I’m healthy. This is such an inconsequential thing that I do. It’s so stupid that I’m this upset.

Anything that makes me feel THIS bad is clearly not fun so why am I subjecting myself to it? I have got to quit racing. Or at least racing the Birkie. It’s not making me happy.

Or are all these tears just because I care so much. Too much?

There’s this fast runner chick’s blog I like to read. But she’s always so down on herself. She’s too driven to have fun or appreciate her talent. She sounds pretty miserable.

Gosh, I guess I sound just like her.

I was completely distraught.

I guess I either cry before the race or after.

If I cry before, I’m gonna get good results. If I cry after, I hate my results.

An interesting spreadsheet Erik created showing time and percent back from winner to qualify for Elite Wave. It was super tight for men this year but comparable to last year for women- except that this was the fastest of the years going back to 2013. I've qualified for Elite Wave all of these years except this one with 2013-2018 in classic.


I guess I was right about going under 3 hours. I was entirely wrong though about my feelings regarding failing to requalify for Elite Wave. Before the Birkie I thought I finally had the self-worth to not care about a result. To know that my other results from the year count, too. But no. And I’m still exceedingly critical of myself.

After my Crossroads posts, I certainly have the self-awareness to see more of the big picture. In some respects that helps, but in others it only makes it worse.

Objectively I know the race wasn’t bad. It may have been the best Birkie I’ve ever had out there, save for worrying about staying in Elite Wave. I had so much of the trail to myself. I never felt horrible. And the weather was perfect. If I didn’t care about that stupid result on paper, that number, those race stats, etc, it would’ve been great. If there wasn’t this magical cut-off. I was two minutes away from being “Elite” but it might as well have been 2 hours.

But I know I gave it so much. My average heart rate was 153, the same as last year, and my quads were seriously sore after. I don’t remember when my quads were last sore from skate skiing.

So how did this happen? I dropped 25 women’s places, doubled my place back in the overall field. Did I just completely miss the taper? Or peak? Did I overtrain? I did almost the same things as last year. Was it really all just the conditions? I prevail in slow snow and flounder under fast conditions?

Which brings me to the unfairness of life. I’m pretty sure I train more than Erik. I work way more on technique. I actually do strength- he hasn’t done any in months. I’ve beat him so many times doing rollerski intervals. And yet, twice, he’s qualified for the Elite Wave when I haven’t. And he even qualified for Boston on just about the most pathetic, limited mileage plan in existence. I mean, I don’t think “low mileage” defines the plan. That’s why I used the word “limited.” It kills me that he seemingly is a better athlete than me. Maybe it just helps that he’s Type B personality. He’s more like my high school friend Anna, telling me to leave something for the race.

“So much of life is managing self-pity,” my good friend Emily said to me a few years ago. That quote has stuck with me and sums up my feelings very well.

Myself and Emily having fun in NYC at the American Girl Doll store the day after we paddled around Manhattan. Photo: Erik

It’s almost like when I lined up on the starting line this year at the Birkie, it didn’t matter how many pull-ups I can do, how many hours of ab exercises I’ve done, how much I’ve ran, or how many interval sessions I’ve done. This year it seemed more like I flipped a coin. Heads fast conditions. Tails, slow conditions. And lo and behold, it was heads.