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!

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