Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Sunday, March 13, 2022

A Winter Ski Trip and the Yellowstone Rendezvous

Erik and I continued on both our goals of state high-pointing and completing all the races in the somewhat defunct American Ski Marathon Series with a driving trip to Montana where we hit up the North Dakota high point along the way before ending the week with the Yellowstone Rendezvous.

After the Birkie, we drove home, slept, repacked the car, and set out west. 

Got the unicorn earrings on as we near the North Dakota high point.

First we stopped at Elm Creek for an easy day-after-the-Birkie ski. It’s kind of fun to only ski for an hour and conditions were great and it was warm (20 degrees).

That night we made it to Dickinson, North Dakota which set us up well for the North Dakota high point, White Butte, which rises 3,508 feet above sea level for Monday. It was a 3.5 mile round-trip hike with 445 feet of elevation gain. There wasn’t much snow, although all seemed to rest on the trail, but it was still a bit of an adventure and somehow I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The mud there is tinted white and was occasionally slippery where snow was melting, and reminded me of our last high point, Nevada, in what is called the “White Mountains.” While North Dakota’s high point was significantly easier than Nevada’s, somehow it brought a similar feeling of accomplishment. 


We used Summitpost for the beta on this hike as it's on private land. Apparently the info hasn't been updated and we could have driven down this road to the parking lot (next photo) but instead we got to walk more and pass this abandoned farmhouse that frames the North Dakota high point in the distance.

The official White Butte Parking lot and some small white buttes.

Erik on the trail where we began gaining some elevation!

We saw this grove of trees on the west side of the butte- must be an area of concentrated moisture!

And of course crow pose on the summit:)

Then we kept driving west to Montana and it got warm. Erik wanted to stop at Pompeys Pillar, a notable rock along the Yellowstone River where Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, carved his name. Since the road was closed for winter we ran in and then hiked the stairs to the top. 


Clark's name is in the rock under the frame above my head.

As we kept making our way farther west, the temps continued into the 40s and 50s and it rained as we went over the pass between Livingston and Bozeman. We had two days in Bozeman, both with overnight lows around 40 and temps in the 40s and 50s. After some debate, we went cross-country skiing at Crosscut and hiking the first day (Tuesday).

We skate skied about all the trails at Crosscut. Despite temps in the mid-forties, the trails were only slightly slushy and sometimes a tad icy. While we could have skied more, we decided to call it when it started raining. 


Garmin map from our ski at Crosscut. Note the 45 degrees in the upper right corner.

While it rained, we ate lunch in our car and checked our phones which called for an hour of rain. When the hour was up, we started hiking on a forest road. Erik brought his sled and did a couple super steep runs but then the terrain flattened and we started postholing so we headed back to the car and tried a hike that began climbing up a ridge. By now it was mid-afternoon and so when we got to a good viewpoint, we stopped, took it in, and then headed down- on the sled! Erik sledded the entire way down, sometimes with me pushing him, as he navigated switchbacks by carving and leaning in with his inside arm outstretched. I did a less curvy section near the bottom twice with him (we climbed part way back up) because it was so fun! 


View point.

Erik's switchback sled run route (from the Bracket Creek Trailhead in case you want to repeat this adventure).

The next day- Wednesday- we went downhill skiing at Bridger Bowl. That place seems to have runs going everywhere, especially through the trees, and I got lost a number of times. If you think this sounds goofy, check out Bridger Bowl. I did one run down from the very top on the “road” that got my heart rate up. Things were getting pretty slushy by the afternoon and I called it while Erik did a couple more runs. 


The view south-ish from the top of the highest chairlift at Bridger Bowl that doesn't require avalanche certification.

Before dinner, I ran around Bozeman and found some beautiful old houses and toured the Montana State University campus.

The next day, Thursday, it was time to head south to West Yellowstone. Lacking motivation with the warm temps, we decided to nix skiing at Lone Mountain Ranch for backcountry sledding and skiing adventures. First, we checked out the avalanche-prone slopes overlay on

The sledding was hot! That mountain sun is so strong. I was stripped down to my sports bra before long and finally appreciated the two-way zips on my high school ski pants I was using as snow pants. We hiked for over an hour, gaining 700 feet of elevation, and then mostly sledded our way back down.


So hot hiking up the trail along Cinnamon Creek. Garmin said it was 59 degrees!!!

Erik sledding down.

Next we drove a few more miles down the road for a backcountry ski from the Specimen Creek Trailhead, except we were just on our skinny skis. We had picked this route because it looked as flat as possible for the mountains and it was. After skiing out 4 miles, we had still gained 600 feet of elevation. The snow was melting and slow. In the open areas I was baking in my black top. After we got done we drove the remainder of the way to West Yellowstone. 


Garmin track of our Specimen Creek "backcountry ski." Note, there wasn't enough snow for avalanche danger.

Skiing up the Specimen Creek Trail.

On Friday we took a lap of the 25 km Rendezvous course. Despite fast conditions, the kilometers slowly ticked by. I was amazed by how much the course reminded me of the Great Bear Chase with the exception of rare mountain views- largely because it’s all in towering pines, relatively rolling, and goes under powerlines twice. It got warm again and the powerful sun was transforming the open areas by the end of our ski. In the afternoon we did a short classic ski into Yellowstone National Park. 


Skiing in Yellowstone National Park with the Madison River. Erik and I had just started dating back in 2005 when we went to our first Yellowstone Ski Festival and so this brought back some memories.

Saturday dawned a bit cold for the Yellowstone Rendezvous. Erik and I both did the 50 km skate distance on the two loop course. Since we had been to the Yellowstone Ski Festival twice in the past (2005 and 2007), neither of us were terribly excited about the Rendezvous but the day exceeded our expectations. The snow was again fast thanks to the morning cold temps after the recent warm weather and it turns out that when there’s a marked course and we were blazing through intersections at high speeds, it’s much more fun than just being out for a ski and having to decide which trails to do. I was able to V-2 a lot and despite clocking 1750 feet of elevation change, it felt like we spent 25% of the time climbing and 75% of the time going downhill.

Knowing the course was at altitude (6500 feet and higher) I took it a bit easy and never pounded the uphills. I got placed in Wave 1 and started near the back. As we headed into the early part of the course with a couple big right-hander corners, I made my way to the front of the pack and passed a woman who was snowplowing and only doing the 25 km course. Awhile later she got back in front of me and I had to snowplow on a small hill but I soon went by her on the outside as the course rocketed through an intersection with a swooping left-hander. I worked hard to stay in front of her as we skied on and off the powerlines where there were a few more downhill turns and I didn’t want to snowplow.

That snowplow woman got ahead of me again as we headed on the Deja View trail near the end of the lap. I passed her on an inside corner- something I almost never do. Then I never saw her again because she was done and I was out for a second lap.

Yellowstone Rendezvous course from my Garmin.

The forecast called for clouds which I was banking on to both keep me cool (it was 18 at the start and so I wore a layer of long underwear under my spandex as it was only supposed to get up to 25) but the sun came out and stayed out. I got warm and tried fairly unsuccessfully to roll up my sleeves and also worried about the snow transforming and getting slow. As the kilometers ticked by on the second lap and it hadn’t transformed yet, I was glad and also found the long downhills cooled me off.

By the second lap the corners were heavily snowplowed-out and some even icy. I’ve learned to ski these by going outside the berm and step-turning around. This strategy has served me well. On the first big corner a guy fell in front of me and I had to cut inside but fortunately this was just after the turn and it wasn’t icy.

I skied the second lap by myself with a handful of people passing me from previous waves and me passing a couple. There was a small pack in front of me. As we climbed the big hill on Deja View (I know this section of trail the best as my only SuperTour race was the 10 km classic at the Yellowstone Ski Festival), I caught up to a woman who had passed me previous and then a Montana State University skier caught me. I tried to stay with that MSU skier through Deja View. At one point she had gotten in front of me but I caught her on the last big uphill because I was V-2ing which is so much more efficient for me than V-1, although it felt like all the blood was draining from my arms- a weird effect that I chalked up to the altitude.

The sunny ending stretch stayed fast although it was firm and I mostly used open-field as opposed to V-2. When I looked at my watch and saw I finished in just under 2 hours and 55 minutes I was surprised to be that fast, but snow conditions were lightening speed.

After a quick post-race feed we began our drive home. I drove and Erik read me some of the results; I decided to not look at them, at least not for awhile. If I did, I would be disappointed. True, I had held back at altitude and after a week of trying to enjoy being outside as much as possible, wasn’t exactly rested. I want to keep my good feelings about the race that would be tainted by seeing the results. It’s a novel idea for me, maybe something I’ll try again in the future.

According to the ASMS webpage, we only have four races left. Boulder Mountain Tour next year!!!
I crossed off all the ASMS races we've done. Quite the list spanning just about the entire country.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Birkie 2022: Striding, Gels, and Double Poling

After years of trying to learn how to stride classic skiing, this year I decided to give up, even after striding many miles on my rollerskis. Think France’s Hugo Lapalus vs Finland’s Iivo Niskanen. The latter has a beautiful stride that I would love to mimic but I’m built more like Lapalus and if he can be 7th in the 15 km classic at the Olympics running up hills, well, maybe that’s just a more efficient technique for me. 


Coach Mark Ahlers is an Elite Uberlegger with a good stride.

So I came into this year’s Classic Birkie with more process goals than usual. These included popping over uphills, double poling hard on the flats, getting in a few good strides on as many uphills as I could, and taking at least 3 gels. And I also had a revelation a couple days before the race. If I don’t like racing, why don’t I just consider the Birkie practice? I could practice striding. Ahvo led us through a session with lots of sprinting three days before the Birkie, but it also taught me to slow down my striding and really feel the glide.

It helped tremendously to feel confident I could slow down my strides and work on them in the race and still finish well within the Classic Elite Wave. This took so much pressure off me. It’s a privileged position. 

Teammate Craig crushing another Birkie Classic.

Not counting last year, I’ve done the classic Birkie 5 times- enough to know that the race is far from over at High Point. Hence, my strategy was to start slow and pick off skiers after High Point, not before.

The Classic Elite men and women line up together. With a wide start, we weren’t very deep but I was still near the back. Once we started, I quickly learned it was significantly slower outside the tracks, so I made my way to the left side of the course with the classic tracks. By the time we diverged from the skate trail, I was near the back but OK with that position. In the woods I tried to double pole any flats and slight uphills but it was slow going and quite the strength workout. I tried to stride and not just run in the tracks on the uphills.

On the Powerlines I felt comfortable skiing with a couple women, including Kelly Skiliocorn, but when my friend Annio Bunio came by, I let her go. Once back in the woods I stuck with the same strategy- skiing next to a couple women but looking ahead I bid my time and said “See you later!” After Timber Trail, Erin Blow came up alongside me. I skied with her until the long grinding High Point hill. I felt better than I have in the past at the bottom of the hill and tried to get in some strides. As it got steeper near the top I did a shorter shuffle stride and some running outside the tracks. Wave 1 men were whizzing by me and I felt like I didn’t belong.


My teammate Brock was one of the Wave 1 guys who passed me early on. He stayed well ahead of me to qualify for the Elite Wave next year.

By the top of High Point, despite trying to conserve some energy, my quads cramped but I had dropped the two women I’d been skiing with and caught #619. There’s more double pole terrain after High Point for which I was glad. I took a gel at Fire Tower and then worked the more rolling course to Bodecker where I took an energy drink and saw Annie Bunio. I slowly caught her on the way to OO where I took another gel. 


Annie Bunio rocking the gopher alumni suit.

Wow, the tracks were slow after OO. I mean, they had been slow all along but they weren’t getting any faster! I had intended to start racing harder at OO but was too tired- mostly my arms. The Wave 1 men weren’t coming by me and now I was slowly closing in on some who had passed me before, sometimes skiing with them for a bit, sometimes blazing past. About half way to Gravel Pit I saw Kelly in front of me and slowly caught her. On one hill as I got close to her I noted she was taking shuffling strides and I forced myself to take longer gliding strides and it felt great. Before Gravel Pit I also got my eye on another woman's bib.

I caught the two women just before Gravel Pit but I stopped to take water and a gel. Over the next couple hills, I caught back up with them, briefly skied with them, and eventually was able to drop them. In this section I spent a surprising amount of time skiing in a small pack with some Wave 1 guys. As I neared Mosquito Brook I was coming up on Lisa Garretson. I caught her just as we climbed the hill out of Mosquito Brook. She was striding and I told myself to just tuck in behind her and copy her technique. I did and was impressed with myself. I passed her after that hill, and then worked on catching Kris Hansen, the next woman in front of me, which I did before B Hill.

I walked B Hill, saddened it no longer attracts spectators, and then focused on a couple Wave 1 men in front of me. I took one last gel at Fish Hatchery and then tried to stride some up Sunset Hill but I was dogged tired. I did the best I could but jumped out of the tracks at any steep sections and just ran. When we finally rounded the corner and began heading west I was happy for the downhill. Then we got to ski across the new hwy 77 bridge. I was a bit disappointed to learn that it didn’t cut off any of the last big uphill as I was exhausted. Again on that last uphill I was in and out of the tracks, never walking, but not striding much either. I was glad to be done with the hills and didn’t mind the rolling ones after that. Just the sustained climbs kill me. 


Abe, another Vakava skier, leading his pack.

Just before the lake I passed my coach Dave Christopherson in the skate race. I told him to jump in behind me and that I’d pull him across the lake but he couldn’t sustain the pace. I was glad for the wind on the lake as I was roasting with the big temp warm-up but was also super tired. At least I can double pole well when tired. There were a few guys in front of me that I slowly picked off. A couple times I tried to inject the pace but immediately started hyperventilating so I took strength over turnover.

Once off the lake I never think I’ll make it but things get better once I start climbing the Birkie Bridge. “Make Ahvo proud,” I thought as I herring-bone ran up the bridge, albeit not at sprint speed. As I crested over the bridge I took a couple strong double poles and passed a skater. Then I made my way to the tracks on the left side of the course where I caught a Wave 1 guy and then raced him to the finish. Sure, he had 5 minutes on me but it got me to push harder. 

Me, happy to be in the rolling terrain south of OO.

My 15th Birkie done. 21st of 411 women; 203 of 1642 overall. My second worst place. I thought I was in better shape than that so am not sure what happened. My three best guesses are 1) It was any easy kick year and as a better endurance athlete, I suspect I do better when others are also struggling with kick. 2) It was really great striding conditions but since this jacks up my heart rate, I tried to double pole more early on which was slow and thus tired my arms so when I hit the double pole sections my arms were more tired. 3) Elite and Wave 1 skiers skied in the tracks making them faster for subsequent waves.

Or maybe I’m just getting old and slow!

As usual I think about how I can be better for next year and what went wrong. I still care about racing results. I know if I had the energy to stride more I could go faster, but my engine just isn’t that big. In terms of my process goals, my arms were too tired to hammer the flat sections or pop over uphills. On the flip side, I took four gels during the race and I’m quite certain I strided more in this year’s Birkie than any in the past so two of four process goals complete!!!