Friday, February 26, 2021

On the Eve of my 14th Birkie, Reminiscing on my First

I skied my first Birkie in 2004, the day after I turned 19.

Me with my Birkie Finisher's medal.

The Birkie was my second ever ski marathon, having done the 58 km distance at the Mora Vasaloppet just two weeks earlier. At the time I was a freshman on the University of Minnesota Nordic Ski Club. Although we were “just a club” there were several serious skiers in the group, most of them male. Every year the team did a week trip over the winter break to the Birkie Trail. Homesick my freshman year, I opted to stay in Bemidji and didn't do nearly the skiing my teammates did.

We drove a 15-passenger van to the Birkie on Friday evening (my birthday). There were three freshman girls in the van and eight boys. One of the girls stayed with her parents and that left two of us freshman girls with eight boys in a northwoods hunting cabin. I recall thinking this situation seemed a bit sketchy but I wasn’t too worried. The conversation in the van ride was lively and made me fret quite a bit about the race. That and the fact that I became acutely aware I had missed skiing the Birkie at age 18 and this would delay my Birchleggings.

Even though these guys were barely old enough to ski the Birkie themselves, it was clear there would be many, many, many future Birchleggers before age 40 in this posse.

Then the conversation turned to the hills. The guys started talking about all the hills that began almost immediately on the “Powerlines” and far into the race there was one called “Bitch Hill.” Aside from the one marathon I’d skied, my longest skis had only been 25 kilometers. I had never skied on the legendary Birkie Trail but I was amongst a bunch of “expert” Birkie skiers. And I wasn’t looking forward to all those uphills.

The other freshman girl, Meleah [Murphy] had made State in skiing twice. She’d also been on the team trip and so had skied on the Birkie Trail. 

Meleah finishing her second Birkie in 2005.

So who were these guys?

There was Erik [Pieh], two years my senior and one of the numerous Mechanical Engineering majors on the team. This was actually his first Birkie and he would be skiing out of Wave 10 along with me and Maleah, but he had skied extensively on the Birkie Trail previously. He had skied the Mora Vasaloppet half an hour faster than me and so I had some wishful thoughts that maybe I wouldn’t be too far behind him.

Erik skiing his second Birkie in 2005 from Wave 2.
 

There was Dave [Anderson], a year older than me and an Electrical Engineering major. No one seemed to like Dave much. I forget if he had previously skied the Birkie, but he had also at least been skiing on the Birkie Trail and was in a higher wave so likely. He also skied the Mora Vasaloppet near Erik’s time and always said bad things about women so I was in the process of making it my life goal to beat him in a ski race. 

Dave, far left, in his U of M Ski jacket. Hmmm...I didn't save any photos of Dave skiing back in college...love you Dave!
 

There was James [Bischoff], two years my senior and another Mechanical Engineering major (although he was in the process of switching to Biology with plans to become a pharmacist). James was a decent skier and would be skiing out of Wave 1. He was full of encouragement but talked the most about the never-ending hills, especially those on the “Powerlines.” 

James at the finish of the Birkie.



There was Per [Batdorf], also a freshman but who had made it to State skiing for Duluth East and brother to the notorious Bjorn Batdorf. The previous year Per hadn’t yet turned 18 but raced the Korte pretty hard earning a Wave 1 start (or so the story goes that Bjorn raced Per pretty hard to where the old Korte cut back to Telemark). 

Per skiing the Mora Vasaloppet.


There was Jason [Liebsch], also a freshman and brother of Matt. He had also skied either the Korte or Birkie the previous year and would be skiing from Wave 1. 

 

Mat and Jason racing the Slush Rush in combo uniforms circa 2004.



There was Travis [Hinck], an Electrical Engineering major two years my senior who had placed 2nd in the Mora Vasaloppet Classic race two weeks prior. He was skiing out of the Elite Wave and the previous year had found Silvio Fauner lined up behind him at the start. He kindly let Silvio start in front of him. After the Birkie that year Travis would say numerous times “I can’t believe we skied under 2:30” while lamenting about finishing a place off 69th. 


Travis coming off Hayward Lake in the 2005 Birkie.

There was Bjorn [Batdorf], a Microbiology Major one year my senior, and former state champion. He was the guy the good male skiers on my high school team talked about on the back of the bus. Also skiing from the Elite Wave, he would place 51st in 2004.


Bjorn skiing the Birkie in 2005 from 51st place.

And then there was Matt [Liebsch], an Electrical Engineering major one year my senior. He needs no introduction. He talked about waxing and ski flex and hot boxing and how to beat the Italians whenever James wasn’t talking about the hills. The year before Matt had his break-out race skiing to 38th in the Birkie. He hoped to better his place this year. 

Matt skiing the Birkie in 2004, Bib #38


I felt like a naive rookie. I had a fitful night of sleep thinking about all those hills. By the time I got to the start of Wave 10, well over an hour after all those good guys had started on course, the conditions were bad. On the downhills I chose my snow-plowed out lane and tried not to fall on the ice. I got in line to wait to ski uphills. The kilometers somehow ticked by faster than I'd ever skied previously. Meleah had gotten ahead of me but as we neared Bitch Hill, I reeled her in and eventually pulled away. By the time I got to the road crossing at Hwy 77, a volunteer said to me “wow, you are skiing so fast, I think you will move up a wave.” Fortunately at that point, having passed most Wave 9, Wave 8, Wave 7, and Wave 6 skiers, I knew I would be moving up much more than one wave. I eventually finished in 3:36, a time which qualified me for Wave 3. 

Skiing up Main Street to finish my first Birkie!

My teammates, who had been done for hours by the time I crossed the finish line, were all very supportive and told me I had skied well. But compared to the talent in that van, I felt slow. I’ve always been a competitive person and I wanted more. I wanted to ski sub 3 hours and make Elite Wave. I bought rollerskis and began training like a skier. It took me 8 Birkies and switching to classic technique to finally qualify for Elite Wave.

Looking back, I was awestruck by not only the talent, but the dedication. Now 17 years later (holy crap- 17 years have passed!), I’m up to Birkie # 14 after the tour in 2007 didn’t count, 2017 was cancelled, and I missed three while living in New York. Erik is also only on Birkie #14 but all the guys above except the “brothers” have amassed an impressive number of Birkies. Indeed, these guys are about to ski their 18th and 19th Birkies and would already be Birchleggers save for the couple years that didn’t count.

Obviously, this is an impressive number of Birkies that came from that van of maroon and gold stars and stripes 17 years ago. 

 

Someone who shall not be named got a little turned around one year at the start of the City of Lakes Loppet!


Monday, February 22, 2021

Mora Vasaloppet 2021

It was a cold start for the long skate race at Mora, touted as 47 km this year, with temps in the minus single digits but warming quickly for the 8:20 am start. There weren’t Vakava men in the field but two hardy women made up for it. Claire Trujillo kicked off what would end up being a number of podiums for Vakava with a 3rd place finish (and 35th overall)- definitely impressive in a field that included World Cup skiers!!! Laura Cattaneo wasn’t far behind finishing 7th.

A good chunk of the Vakava team raced the 35 km skate race on Saturday, starting after noon under sunny skies. The warm weather was a nice contrast to the previous two weeks. It was nice to see that skiers could leave their warm-ups on the starting line fence. Mora is just so welcoming! Vakava was a sea of pink-on-top, blue-on-bottom in the two elite waves. Nate Porath, Andy Shackel, Jojo Baldus, and Paul Olson all skied together in the lead peak with Nate still having energy to charge with the young guns (aka college kids) for the sprint finish down Main Street. Nate would presumably lose the win by 1.5 seconds. However, taking advantage of going hard from the gun in the second elite wave 2 minutes back, as opposed to the cat-and-mouse tactics of the lead pack, Dennis Curran pulled off the overall victory! It was fun to see him walk down Main Street with the big wreath over his shoulder, beaming from ear to ear.

 

Since I don't have any photos of this year's race, here's the first of a few throw-backs. Erik doing his first Vasaloppet in 2002.


Andy, Paul, and Jojo finished 5th-7th. Erik Pieh was 14th, Arti Huber 17th, Scott Kyser 24th, Mark Ahlers 26th, Ben Mullin 30th, and Dave Christopherson 36th. In the women’s field, only Mary Beth Tuttle made an appearance for Vakava, finishing 12th. Erik apologizes for taking out Arti on the hill heading down to Mora Lake- who says cross-country skiing isn’t a contact sport? Dave found it hard to ski almost the entire race by himself and missed the traditional large mass start. 

And Erik in 2003 racing the dala in the old U of M kit.

Now onto my race, the long classic which I clocked at 40.4 km on my Garmin (which is always right:) This was my first “real” race in almost a year- since last year’s Great Bear Chase. Going into the race it seemed impossible I could go hard for that long- or what usually takes me around 2 ½ hours. Sure, I’ve been doing lots of intervals with threshold sessions lasting an hour but was I really ready? Well, at least that City of Lakes Hybrid Race took me 2 hours and 37 minutes...so I had done a hard effort recently. But Mora has lots and lots of double poling. Would my back muscles be ready? I’d done a handful of threshold double pole sessions and just couldn’t get my back sore.

After the race was delayed by a week due to bitterly cold temps, the forecast for the Sunday classic race looked just about perfect with temps going from 16 to 22 degrees. While I was hoping for an individual start race, Mora decided to have two small elite waves for each race. Everyone else was assigned a five-minute start window. In all reality, this mitigated “cheating” by similar speed skiers starting near each other in an unregulated interval start. 

Mora high school alum, Larissa Sigurdson, crushing the Dala in 2005.

I arrived to the start in time to practice the couple turns heading out onto Mora Lake, get warmed up, and do a couple speeds. Over the years I’ve learned that Mora goes out hot! Then it was time to get in the starting pen. Temps were warmer than predicted in the low 20s with lightly falling snow.

It was nice to have a small elite start and being one of a handful of women, I lined up in back. As usual the pace went out fast and I tried to mark Josie Nelson and Molly Watkins but they were getting away. I tried not to let Rebecca Kolstad get too far in front of me, either. She passed me for Mora Lake but I caught her quickly on the hill leaving the lake. Molly seemed to be slipping in front of me and briefly seemed within reach but then she took off double poling.

For a long time I could see Josie and Molly ahead of me in their yellow bibs. They were skiing with a U of M skier. I skied with a guy until I terribly bobbled on the first lake we skied on (I wasn’t expecting tracks after they had been briefly pulled up but they were added again for the corner). Then that guy got away from me. I stopped seeing Josie and Molly ahead of me but was gaining on the U of M guy. As usual, Mora had a few course deviations which always make it interesting.

In the section across the road near the Snake River, I pulled away from the U of M skier. I welcomed Nate Rhode cheering for me and on the biggest uphill on course, heading back up from the Snake River, some people cheered from their house. From here on out, I skied by myself. Erik met me a few times to cheer. I briefly kept up with a guy who caught me from a couple minutes back but couldn’t stay with him. My bro passed me from the individual start time blocks along with my teammate Brock. 

My bro and I hiking the John Muir Trail in 2012.

It kept snowing lightly but wasn’t accumulating which was nice. Soon I was out onto Mora Lake where I could see just how far in front of me Josie and Molly had gotten. It’s always a bit difficult to pull through the lap with the finish so close but I can’t imagine what it must be like for slower skiers who know others are already done. I guess that’s one advantage to a point-to-point race as it feels overall a bit more epic compared to not actually going anywhere.

Back out on course I was all alone. We’d been listening to a podcast about the atomic bomb and the cold war and for stretches out on course it felt like there had been such a disaster and I was the last one left on earth! Alas, one guy caught me from behind and I passed quite a number of skiers doing both the short and long races and it was nice to cheer for each other and have some human contact. 

My old U of M teammate, James, doing the classic circa 2005

At one point someone I passed said I was only 1.5 minutes behind second place. I didn’t exactly believe this but it got me to quicken my pace, at least for a bit. By the time I got to the Mora Nordic Center, the snow started to pick up and accumulate. I was glad to be mostly done with my race and this gave me an extra boost to ski as hard as I could to get done before it snowed more. I was getting hungry and my right medial epicondylitis was acting up but not too bad and the finish was close. Soon I was charging up Bell Tower Hill and trying to make it down Main Street despite the slow new snow.

I ended up 3rd woman for another podium for Vakava! Craig Cardinal was 7th and Brock Lundberg 11th for Vakava. My bro finished lucky 13. Maria Schilling finished 14th.

Meanwhile, in the short classic race of 20 km, Vakava had as many podiums as members entered with Arti taking 2nd for the men and Bonnie Weiskopf 1st for women, 4th overall.

Uff-da, I’m always hoping for more. In talking to others after the race, I’m not alone in my desire. But we can’t all be at the top. Erik suggested I could push harder in terms of my cardiovascular fitness. I could do this by increasing my tempo until breathing as hard as Therese Johaug! That sounds quite unpleasant. Every once in a while I have a race where I’m just on and want to work really really hard, but for the most part, my mind tells me that probably isn’t terribly good for my body. What we need to remember is that every time we race, we put forth the best effort we can on that day, at that moment, not only in terms of what our body can do, but what our mind can do as well. It’s often not the absolute best we have, but the stars don’t align terribly often.

My bib and horsey, in place of our socially-distanced podium
 

The 42 km classic at Mora is the race I think about most all year when training but I was almost 9 minutes off Josie! Last year I was only 6 minutes off but two years ago I was 12 minutes off. I know that last year I was racing hard and in a pack so that obviously helped my time. I have been doing more pull-ups and weighted pull-ups and feel stronger and for some crazy reason, my back doesn’t hurt this year- either because my training must have been effective or else because I’ve changed my technique to not hinge at the waist. Of some combo of the two:)

So for now, I’m going to appreciate what I do have- a podium finish (I won’t lie, it’s nice when the Kranskula came up to me to tell me I was third), an absolutely amazing strong body (I turned 36 the day before the race- I know I have one of the strongest 36 year old bodies in the country), tough female competitors (even those who finished behind me- you keep me training as much as Josie all year ‘round cause you’re fierce, too), and the incredibly welcoming town of Mora.

Every year I’m touched by the amazing race they put on and this year was no different. They never shied away from hosting a race in person, prizes, and had the same friendly volunteers as usual. As much as I felt alone out on course at times, every time I went by an aid station or road crossing those volunteers were cheering me on so hardcore! I just hope enough people keep skiing that Mora gets to shine their hospitality for years to come.



Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Vakava Racing, Training Update, and the Hybrid City of Lakes Skate Loppet!



Vakava Racing


While I’ve taken January off from racing, a few of my teammates have made use of the rare in-person races these days in light of COVID-19. Here’s a brief and incomplete synopsis.

Nate Porath finished an impressive third in the Pre-Loppet and followed it up with 10th a week later in the rescheduled Skinny Santa Solstice Ski. Ben Mullin and Dave Christopherson also raced both, placing 23rd and 22nd and 59th and 38th respectively. 

Nate racing the Skinny Santa Solstice Ski


Bonnie Weiskopf raced to 25th (2nd woman), Scott Kyser to 27th, and Brock Lundberg 34th, at the Skinny Santa Solstice Ski. New Vakava team member Artie Huber finished 4th in the half distance, less than a minute behind the winner.

At the Seeley Hills Classic, Bonnie pulled off a podium finish in third place. Brock finished 30th followed by Abe Peterson in 52nd, and Ben in 62nd. Judging by the times, conditions must’ve been slow, making for a long grind for these hardy racers. 

Scott wearing the pink!

Meanwhile, Erik Pieh and Laura Cattaneo took first and second at the Loppet Ski-Orienteering race. 

 

Training Update

In my last post I mentioned possibly doing some training blocks over the holiday when I worked less but these never panned out. I’m just not about to drive to go skiing twice per day and I had other things to do like play with my 3 year old niece. 

Couch time with our niece. Photo: Mom


Mostly my training has been similar to previous years except that I’ve been busting out the weighted pull-ups like mad! Otherwise I’ve been skiing 4 days per week, running 2-3 days per week, and doing 2 interval sessions (one with Vakava and one on my own). And up until recently, I have been loving the warm winter weather. 

Sledding with my niece and bro- this should at least partially count as a workout since I had to walk back up the hill! Photo: Erik

 

Hybrid City of Lakes Skate Loppet


And finally onto what was supposed to be my first race during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was honestly pretty stoked for individual starts as this is something different and given that I’m not much of a pack skier, I thought this format would play more to my strengths. With Mother Nature cooperating, this year’s Loppet made use of both natural and snow-making trails for a slightly different course.

Often when I haven’t raced in awhile, the effort feels frantic. As noted above, I hoped my recent interval sessions and knowing the course well would mitigate some of this intensity. The Loppet course is quite technical in my opinion, with almost constant turns and changing terrain. I really like this for skate skiing.

And so I was all set to start my 2020-2021 racing season on February 7th at The Loppet although I will admit with the forecasted cold temperatures I was less than excited. Then 5 days before the race, The Loppet decided to cancel the in-person race.

After not racing since last year’s Great Bear Chase, I figured I should race the “Hybrid” Loppet. This would be an almost entirely solo time trial, with a few others out on course at the same time. Erik and I initially made plans to “race” during the “warm” afternoon of Saturday but supposedly the Hybrid option was only open through Friday and since I have Thursdays off from work, I decided that despite a snowstorm, racing in 20 degree temps sounded preferable to low single digits.

Then I did a bunch of stuff “wrong:” I still went to our weekly Wednesday evening Vakava practice where we arguably did the hardest workout of the year, used my heavy B skis with training wax, and skied during a snowstorm with strong winds.

I arrived at the start line solo in my hot pink polka-dot spandex suit where a nice volunteer greeted me. My two goals for the race were 1) to not be so competitive during the road crossings so as to get hit by a car (never had that goal before) and 2) ski fast. Recently I’ve been listening to the Ian Harvey interviews and in particular Alison Owen Bradley discusses the goal of skiing fast but not necessarily hard. I love the twisting technical Wirth course so planned to have fun on all the corners.

Brock and Bonnie racing fast around a corner on the Elk River course.


The start line was on the north side of Wirth Lake. After starting my watch, I followed the course for a partial lap of Wirth Lake before the trail headed to the four-way intersection with Glenwood and Wirth Parkway. I took my skis off, crossed the road, and then headed up the Wedding Hill. Then it was downhill to the second road crossing and then onto the Bog. Conditions were obviously slow as the snow kept accumulating but I kept a positive attitude and the bog went by quickly- so quickly that I was already almost half way across Wirth Parkway when I had to decide if I should take my skis off. A benefit to using my B-skis and doing the Hybrid course during a snowstorm was that I just decided to leave my skis on and carefully crossed where there was the most snow. A few other ski tracks told me I wasn’t the only one doing this:)

In the Eloise Butler section I met a group of women and a couple dogs walking on the ski trail. I thought about telling them they shouldn’t walk on the ski trail but decided not to. At least they cheered for me and said they liked my spandex. Despite the slow snow, soon I was making my way around the Pavilion Loop and then took my skis off for Glenwood Avenue and was done with my last road crossing. Goal one accomplished. Out on Wirth Lake there was a video crew filming a skier wearing spandex and a bib. It seemed a bit staged to me but maybe my hot pink polka-dot suit made the news!

At times the trail was a bit hard to follow through JD Gardens as by now the wind had picked up and the snow was starting to drift. Soon I was onto Tornado Alley and Skyline. By Skyline it was obvious my skis were so slow on the downhills. I did some V-2 but did more V-1 than I would have liked. As I started on the Bridge Trail I was closing in on another skier- a guy- fast! This was just like a real race! I passed him just before we crossed the bridge over Wirth Parkway.

“Who are you? You’re moving really fast!” he said. Here we’ll clarify that “fast” can be relative. I was crawling but given the conditions, I was pushing.

After this things seemed to take a turn. Although I knew the race was two laps of everything on the manufactured snow side, I was thinking we would head down the smaller tubing hill by the chalet, thus cutting off the machine shed loop both times. Upon discovering this wasn’t true and we would be doing the machine shed loop, up and over the shipping container three times, the race suddenly seemed a lot longer. That and instead of lapping at the Loppet Round-a-Bout, I lapped in the stadium as this wasn’t entirely clear and I didn’t want to cheat. Under normal snow conditions this wouldn’t be a huge deal but with slow conditions all this would add a decent chunk of time to the race.

I kept going, aware that I was very near my car, and I could just quit. There weren’t many people out skiing at Wirth, fewer than I’ve seen on recent Thursdays. I did see a few others doing their Hybrid races which was nice to see. As I came down the hill leaving the Twin Lakes Loop, I made the mistake of looking at my watch. Prior to the race, I figured it would take me around 2 hours, but my watch already said 1 hour 27 minutes and I still had most of my first lap to do plus the second of the Wirth North trails.  

Ben racing the quadruple S race.


The downhills were painful as my glide quickly ran out. As I began on the Judy Loop, I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder out on the prairie- trying to find my way. My fingers got cold but fortunately my body stayed warm. I really struggled up the steep uphills on the Judy Loop, my right quad burning as I V-1’d on my right side but then, on the last downhill before getting back on the manufactured snow, the wind was blazing at me full force. I was about standing still in my tuck. I stood up to V-2 and the wind almost blew me backwards. I got back in a tuck and free-skated. I may have had my record slowest speed on that downhill! Garmin tells me I was going 11 mph.

Once pulling the 180 and getting back on the manufactured snow, the wind did help push me up the long uphill. Next was Drevil’s Drop. On fast days I carry so much speed around the corner at the bottom it can be scary. Not today. I was V-2ing much before I even got to the corner! With the new snow and not many people out I could tell somewhat how my skis were gliding compared to others. My skis seemed a bit slower. According to my Garmin I got up to a whopping 16 mph. I do twice that under fast conditions. 

Dave crushing it in the Vakava "kit."

I really struggled up La Squadra. My goal was to get home before noon for an optional work meeting but as my V-1 on La Squadra felt dyssynchronous between my upper and lower body, I knew I would be late for my meeting. Then it was around the machine shed loop and back up over the shipping container, back down to the stadium, and then I was on my last lap.

I hoped to push it a bit more but was getting tired. Perhaps frustrated was more appropriate. Part of why I ski is to go fast but sometimes the snow conditions just don’t allow for that. When conditions are slow I can put in a medium effort to keep moving or I can put in a hard effort to go slightly faster but still slow. It just doesn’t feel worth it.

In yet another Ian Harvey interview, this one with Charlie French, Charlie talks about “pain sports” versus “thrill sports.” He says cross-country skiing and other endurance sports are “pain sports” but I think there’s some thrill involved- on big downhills, speeding around corners, and passing others. At least part of why I ski is for that thrill aspect. And when that’s gone, on a slow condition day, it just isn’t fun.

I kept fighting on that last loop, telling myself that if this was race day and others were out here I’d be doing better relative to them because the slower the conditions, the better I do. Back out on the Laura Ingalls Wilder loop I tried to find the ice under the drifts to go faster. It was a bit comical. Finally on the two steep uphills I succumbed to single- sticking (also called coach’s skate). It was the right thing to do in the moment. I did more single-sticking up La Squadra! Then I was almost done. I put in a bit of an extra effort, but not a whole lot.

When I finally finished I’d logged 33 kilometers in 2 hours 37 minutes.
Squiggly course!

That was one slow skate race. My average heart rate was only 141 so I know I could have pushed harder as usually my heart race is 10 beats higher for a similar race. Still, my average heart rate was 20 beats higher than for an easy ski. Maybe for my next Hybrid race I’ll get faster conditions. Or maybe this will be my last Hybrid race…

More data. You can see where my heart rate tanked after I looked at my watch!


Erik did the Hybrid on Saturday afternoon. Conditions were mostly fast with a few areas of slow drifted snow. He skied to a time of 1 hour 56 minutes. A lot of skiers reported their times- according to the Leaderboard, Craig won by only 6 minutes from Kitty. Per the sign-up form, Kitty skied under fast morning conditions while Craig skied a few hours later under transforming snow on a balmy day in the 30s. As we all know, snow conditions for skiing can make huge differences. 



Some crazy times. There's no comparing apples to oranges!