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.


  1. Thank you for such incredible open self-criticism. I myself hate the Birkie and big mass start races regardless of racing and seeding. As I age, and drop back in waves, it makes me less and less likely to enter big marathons with masses even in 'elite waves.'
    Good luck. I hope you bounce back in spirit and physically.
    Michael Browder

  2. I am a skier from Colorado and did wave 1 classic this year for my first birkie, I thought I would smash the race based on past results of other racers that I had raced against- however I just could not keep up on the downhills on the fast snow and was skiing out of the tracks a lot, finally I collided with another skier and broke my pole, and then my day went really downhill. Hopefully you find a high note to end your season on and can figure out a better plan to attack your weaknesses- I think the never ending quest to get better keeps me in the sport.