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


  1. Elspeth: Another great (Bear) race report, I always look forward to your tales. Hoping that your back is feeling better soon, more core strength - TimG

  2. A laugh out loud moment at my expense...well done! Be well. Love, Mom :)