Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

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!!!

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