Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Spring in Norway - Act 2, Lillehammer and Birkebeinerrennet

     After our trip to Bergen we changed trains in Oslo and continued north to Lillehammer, arriving Wednesday evening. We were a bit delayed getting in to Oslo, so we really had to race to get our skis from the storage locker and jump on to our next train, but we made it. I picked up a head cold while we were in Bergen and was pretty wiped out after a long day on the train, so when we got to our AirBnb I pretty much went right to bed. Eva walked to the grocery store to buy me some soup.

    The next morning we hopped on a bus from Lillehammer up to Sjusjoen and got our first look at the race course for Birken, the Birkebeinerloype. We met Erik Hendrickson and a couple other Minnesotans, Taylor and Marianne, to ski a loop up in Sjusjoen. Then Eva and I were going to ski the race trail down to Lillehammer. We had heard from several people that it would be a good idea to preview the long and occasionally steep downhill at the end of the course before racing it. 

    The weather in Sjusjoen was wonderful, we really got lucky with weather our whole trip I feel, or maybe that's just how it is in the spring in Norway. The race course is easy to find, it is 40' wide where it goes through the Sjusjoen stadium, and there were people at work setting up sponsor banners, timing equipment and building snow chairs for the weekends races. The terrain was not what I had expected. In Oslo and Bergen most of the trails were though the woods, and didn't feel that different from trails in the US. In Sjusjoen the terrain was much more open, with stands of trees and a lot of open ground; much more of an alpine feel. The trails themselves were also different, all the trails were wide and the grooming was amazing. The 4 enormous groomers sitting on the side of the trail in the stadium area are a good clue as to why. It also helps that they seem to regularly get fresh snow that packs well and are far enough North that even the mid March sun doesn't transform it very quickly.

Minnesotans in Sjusjoen

    I feel like it's been a while since I've spent much time skiing somewhere completely new, so there was a great novelty factor for this first ski. Norway has an amazing interactive app/website that has all of their ski trails on it at In addition to being a great navigation tool it provides a bunch of useful information such as when they were last groomed (including realtime movement of the groomers while they are out), if it is groomed for skate, classic, or both, what the elevation profile of each segment of trail is, and where there are road crossings, bus stops, cafes, and other places of note. As much as I love Skinnyski this website is in another league as far as trail info.

Ski Trails around Sjusjoen - Real Time

    We skied the opposite direction of the race for a while, then turned on to another trail that looped around and back to Sjusjoen and linked back up with the race trail right where it dropped under a road and into one of the steeper sections of the downhill. Eva and I continued down, the other skiers in our group took a different trail back to the stadium.

    The section of downhill right after leaving Sjusjoen is probably the fastest section of the race course. This was the only part of the downhill I was out of the tracks for, and I probably could have stayed in if I'd been a bit more brave. There were several places over the next 10k down to Lillehammer where I got a bit nervous about how much speed I was carrying, but much like rollerskiing down Trading Post in Afton it is just a matter of trusting that things will level out eventually and you'll be able to bleed off some of that speed. It was super fun spending so much time in a tuck just zipping downhill and around gradual corners. We dropped out of the open Tundra and back into the pine trees and before we knew it we were in the Lillehammer stadium where the race finishes. This was the opposite side of town from our AirBnb though, so we continued our ski on a trail up in the hills above the city and after one more long exciting downhill (with a narrower trail and less recent grooming than the Birkie course) we ended up at a trail head only a few blocks from where we were staying.

    That afternoon we walked back across town so we could see what was going on at the Expo. It was really crazy, crowded, with many vendors and lots of fancy ski gear, wax, clothes, energy products, and lots of other outdoor gear as well. Many had really good deals going on too, so we picked up a few things and headed back home.

    There was a lot of fresh snow and wind overnight Thursday night, but Friday morning looked mostly clear in Lillehammer, so we got right out on our skis and skied back up to the stadium to see if we could cheer on Zach Nelson and the other skiers racing the skate Birken (SkoyteBirken).

This was groomed yesterday
    We hiked  up through some fresh snow and eventually got to a trail that was fresh groomed and we could ski it all the way up to the stadium where the race finished. It is a long uphill from town up to the stadium, so we really got a workout skiing up. When we got up there is was oddly quiet, and there were some skiers sprinting around, but no Birken racers that we could find. We finally stopped by one of the fire pits to ask someone what was going on, and we were informed that the race was cancelled. The 9 inches of fresh snow and high winds up on the open terrain meant they couldn't keep the trail in a safe condition.

Hanging out at the finish of the race that didn't happen
    With no racers to watch we skied back down and started to pack up for our trip to Rena. When Eva skied her first Birkie she stayed in the school gym in Hayward, and even if it didn't lead to a great night of sleep she met many friendly skiers and we thought it might be a fun experience to try that here. Plus we could get a couple extra hours of sleep in the morning before heading to the start. We packed up our sleeping gear and race gear and hopped on the bus. When we got to Rena we picked up our bibs and hiked up to the school. There was an expo tent in Rena as well, where I picked up some extra gels so I'd have plenty of fuel for the race. We were staying in a classroom with about a dozen others. We were provided with a foam mat and a chair, pretty minimal, but it worked out just fine. We waxed our skis at a picnic table outside the school. Dinner was lasagna, with a waffle for dessert, prepared and served by the school children for a small fee. Then we headed off to sleep.
Sleeping accommodations
        Race morning was warm and very foggy. We were provided breakfast at the school, then hopped on a bus to the start. My stomach was still a bit off from being sick, so I didn't eat too much. The start was busy, people were panic waxing, testing, elites were warming up, bathroom lines were crazy (there were definitely not enough porta-potties for the number of racers and they quickly ran out of toilet paper). The announcer on the intercom was very calm however, reminding athletes that if they miss their start they can just join another wave and will still get the correct time.
Race Morning
    It was very humid at the start, so Eva and I decided to add a bit warmer wax, even though we were told it would be drier and colder a few km up the trail. I haven't been that confident in my double pole this season and wanted the extra kick. I hopped in my corral when it opened and lined up somewhere in the middle. I qualified into wave 2, but figured I wouldn't be the fastest one in the wave, so I didn't worry about getting right to the front. Everyone is required to carry a backpack weighing at least 7.5 lbs to simulate carrying the baby prince Haakon over the mountains, just like the Birkebeiners the race was named after. Since everyone was packing their warmups in their backpacks there wasn't a crazy rush to get warmups to the trucks and then stand around cold at the start like there often is at the American Birkie. In addition to my warmups I packed all my gels and a 2 liter bladder of water to meet the weight requirement.
In the corral, ready to go!
    The race started pretty relaxed, the front line went out quickly, but everyone else was pretty content to set a fast but relaxed pace and start working into the climb. The course goes uphill for 15+ km with few flats and no downhills, so there is a lot of time to sort out your position in your wave with 10 sets of tracks available. I felt good for a lot of the climbing, I felt like I was working my way forward in the wave and keeping my striding relaxed. I made sure to keep the pace under control with many km of climbing still to go. It was right around freezing, so I had dressed pretty lightly but was still on the edge of overheating due to the hard striding. As we got higher the kick got better and the terrain opened up around the trail. There were some areas where I could look ahead and see the trail way up in the distance. Eva said when she came to some of these areas starting in wave 6 she could see a string of skiers for many km up ahead.
Birken Course
    We finally neared the top of the first climbing section. There was a KOM banner for the Ski Classics series racers, and it was really whipping around in the strong wind as we neared the summit. I saw many gel wrappers discarded along the trail as we neared the peak (despite a supposed penalty for littering). I planned to take my gel on the downhill when I could tuck and relax. As soon as I crested the hill I could see I was outmatched by the skiers around me. They were double poling hard and really being aggressive on the gradual down. I could also tell the extra warm wax was slowing my skis a bit. The downhill was a little over 1km long, and it went by fast! Then it was right in to another 5k of steady climb.
    I clawed back many places on the climb, but once we crested the next ridge there was a lot of down and flat and most of those people raced past me again. I tried to hop on to some of the packs double poling past, but couldn't hold on long. I took all the rest of my gels over the next 15k, but was still feeling the lack of energy due to all the energy expended on the climbing and not fueling enough while I was sick. There was one more long climb, about 7km and now we were out in a pretty warm sun. By the top I was roasting and completely bonked! The last 1/2 km to the summit I was just walking on my skis, I didn't have enough energy to kick and glide. I stopped at the aid station just after the summit and took a couple minutes drinking several cups of energy drink and eating everything I could get my hands on, including some really amazing warm Lefsa with cinnamon sugar. I'm sure I was stopped for only a minute or two, but it's been quite a while since I've needed to stop during a ski race, so it felt like I was giving up a lot of time.
Eva on course just after the high point
    I started moving again and slowly started to get back some energy. There were still skiers passing me, but only a group here and there instead of a steady stream. My main motivation to keep up the pace was that I was still in contention for a 25% prize for my age group. They manage this really impressively, with live billboards at a couple locations along the course letting skiers know what the cutoff time was.
Live Updates on Age Group prizes
    I finally hit the section of trail we had skied on Thursday, and I was feeling refueled and confident that I could at least finish with a steady pace and not bonk again. As the race passed through Sjusjoen the atmosphere buoyed me even further. It was like mainstreet Hayward, but even more rowdy, and with no fences. There were spectators with their fires going right on the side of the trail. There were speakers blaring everything from DJ Tiesto to Neil Diamond to Wu Tang Clan all packed in to a 1/2 km section of trail. Eva said it was even crazier when she came through, with spectators offering drinks and drunkenly trying to help push the skiers up the hill.
    From Sjusjoen it was a crazy rush down to the finish in Lillehammer. My legs were pretty shaky, and the course was already breaking down. The classic tracks were washed out and there were some berms starting to form. I had some energy back, but was trying to use it judiciously so I stayed tucked whenever I could and worked on pushing over the rolling sections to carry as much speed as I could. The last km of the race is completely flat and loops around the edge of the Lillehammer ski stadium to finish right where the Lillehammer Olympic and world cup races finish, so it was fun to experience that, even if the stands were pretty empty by the time I came in. The mood was celebratory at the finish however. After finishing, everyone goes directly through the food line where you get a Norwegian Wurst (hotdog) wrapped in lefsa with ketchup and mustard, an apple, non-alcoholic beer and a red bull. No soup in sight. It was a gorgeous day to be outside and people were hanging out swapping race stories and cheering in the racers streaming by. Erik Hendrickson finished shortly after me, and some of his Norwegian relatives were there spectating, so visited with them and with some other Americans around the finish area including Holly Brooks. After saying hi to Erik and I Holly was visiting with Kristin Stoermer Steira, and when I looked around I noticed her husband Devon Kershaw standing nearby and introduced myself. 
    Devon is a retired world cup racer and Olympian from Canada who now hosts a podcast for Fasterskier covering world cup racing. He has always been one of my favorite skiers to watch and has had an impressive career. He gave North American fans someone to cheer for in mens racing when good results were thin on the US mens side in the 2010's, especially in distance racing. For those who don't listen to is his podcast is world cup commentary and hot takes informed by his continuing relationships with Canadian and Norwegian team racers and his own career as a racer and is one of the best sources for world cup coverage of North American skiers. I usually have the podcast on while I'm out grooming the trails in Northfield, so getting to meet him in person was a real treat!
Devon Kershaw Live!
    I had a long time to wait for Eva to finish, so I skied down to Hakons hall to change into dry clothes, boots, and to drop off extra gear, then took the bus back up to the finish to cheer Eva in. The tracking app was a bit spotty on times and I somehow missed Eva finishing, but her time updated when she crossed the finish line, so I zipped over to catch up to her as she exited the finishing chute.  Zach and Jenna were skiing together and were not that far behind Eva, so we stayed to cheer them in then headed down so Eva could get dry clothes on as well.
Eva and I cheering on racers

Jenna Nelson finishing rocking the US Flag

    We hung around in Hakons hall for a while. I picked up my age group prize and we got our finishers certificates, then we headed back to our Airbnb in downtown Lillehammer and started to pack up for the next leg of our Journey. We had rented a cabin in Sjusoen for a week of easy recovery skiing and relaxed cabin living. Stay tuned for that in the next installment.
    Skiing the Norwegian Birkebeinerrenet was a really amazing experience. The grooming and course conditions were fantastic, yet the course still really seemed remote and epic, and it was cool to be crossing the same terrain as the iconic warriors and their prince back in 1206. I would highly recommend it to any ski racer looking for an adventure race. The competition there is at another level. I finished in 3:49. Not a great time compared to what I usually finish the American Birkie in, but not that bad, and I was only 65th in my age group and 1232 overall. That's the worst place I've ever finished in any race, including the Boston and New York marathons which have 45,000-50,000 racers, so the level of competition there is really impressive. I really hope to go back and try it again soon now that I have  better knowledge of the course and the logistics and can hopefully avoid getting sick before the race.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Spring in Norway - Act 1, Holmenkollen

We were watching some early season world cup races this season and Eva was so enamored with the gorgeous looking ski conditions she floated the idea of traveling to Ruka in the spring to go ski. We started looking around at potential dates and venues; maybe travel to Lahti for the world cup finals and then head North, maybe go to Beitostolen instead. I was really interested in going to Holmenkollen, since there is so much history and hype around those races, and it was going to be the first ever Women’s 50k on the world cup. It has always been a dream of mine to go ski the Norwegian Birkebeiner as well, but last time I checked it always filled almost immediately after registration opened. Just out of curiosity I checked anyway, and registration was still open. This was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so the dates were set and we got to work on planning. 

Great Crust Skiing in Southern MN

Our first stop was Oslo to ski, spectate the Holmenkollen races, and tour around the worlds furthest North National Capital. The crust skiing in Northfield was amazing as we were getting ready to go, and we knew we'd be missing some fun social ski events in Minnesota like the Last Chance race, Denim Derby, and Team Gregg team sprint, so we were hopeful that Oslo would offer some wonderful skiing. The weather forecast was looking like temps right around freezing the first few days we were there, so I packed a variety of klisters and warm hard waxes, and figured we shouldn’t have trouble finding a ski shop if there was anything we needed when we arrived.  

We left on a Wednesday evening and arrived in Amsterdam midday on Thursday. It was green and warm there. The tulips were already blooming and there were rabbits out racing around the airport grounds. After a couple hour layover we were back on a plan and we arrived in Oslo on Thursday evening to wet falling snow. Our plan for the trip was to just get by on public transportation, so from the airport we hopped on a train to Oslo Central station, and from there on a Tram out to the Majorstuen district where our hotel was. We checked our ski bag and carried on our Birkie bags for the flight. We traveled as lightly as we could since we would be walking and hopping on and off public transit often. Eva found a hotel that was close to a train station that would take us out to Holmenkollen, close to other skiing options for us, and close to some of the attractions we wanted to see.


On the train with all gear in tow

Friday morning we first got to experience one of the best parts of vacation in Norway, the continental breakfast. The Swedish word Smorgasbord describes it well, there’s a wonderful selection of hot and cold foods, everything from smoked salmon and cod, to waffles and pancakes, to beans and sausages, to yogurt and muesli, to grain bread and cheese. While we were staying in hotels we usually ate enough at breakfast to last us well into the afternoon.


After eating we hiked to the train station and headed out to the nearest ski trail. It was only a couple hundred meter hike from where we got off the train to the trail head, and from there we were able to ski up to the Holmenkollen trails and all the surrounding trails in the Frognerseteren area. We brought our backpacks with us so we could wear shoes and warmer jackets for the walk to the train and change into our ski boots when we got to the trail. This also gave us some additional practice skiing with our backpacks before racing Birken the next weekend. I had been told that many people bring skis on the train, and had seen a couple of people at central station walking around with ski bags, but I was curious how true that was. When we hopped on the train we got our answer. The entire car was full of teenagers heading out to alpine ski, so nearly everyone in our entire train car had skis with them.

On our way up the hill

Lots of good striding here!

We hopped off the train and started up the hill to the trailhead. We passed a school and all the kids were outside enjoying the snow. That was a theme we saw often in Norway; there were many people were outside rain or shine, warm or cold.

The start of our ski involved gaining 500 ft of elevation in the first 2.5km. That’s almost the elevation difference from the start area to the high point of the American Birkie course. This was a good introduction to what much our skiing in Norway would be. Erik Hendrickson told us "All of Norway is a gradual uphill," and that certainly seems true of how they lay out their ski trails. Many of our skis included long continuous ups and downs, a very different kind of terrain than we’re used to in Minnesota. Once we got up to the race venue though the rest of the ski was more moderate. We had to briefly ski along the race course when it merged with the trail we were on, and we saw several athletes out training for the weekend races. Then we were out onto some gorgeous double tracked classic trails winding around lakes and through forests. In addition to seeing some of the racing athletes out on the course we also saw Clay and Deb Diggins out skiing as well.

Some nice trailside scenery
Friday's ski

After a little over an hour of skiing we were pretty tired and our bodies still weren't really set to local time, so we headed down a different trail that dropped down to a lake called Sognsvann that had a train stop. When we arrived there were people out everywhere enjoying the day, skiing, hiking, heading out on winter camping trips for the weekend, and some school classes on field trips out into the woods.

There were many train trips with skis

Friday afternoon we went out exploring around Oslo. We went to Vigeland park, Frogner park, Akershus Fortress, and the Royal Palace, before grabbing a bite to eat and heading back to the hotel. I'm going to keep the first few posts in this series focused mostly on skiing so they doesn't get too long, but I will have a post coming soon about all the museums, parks, and other attractions we saw on our trip.

Saturday morning we tried to get up and to breakfast early so we could head up to Holmenkollen. Holmenkollen is the oldest race on the world cup circuit, the most prestigious outside of the major championships (or maybe more than the major championships if you as the Norwegians). It's also a huge party and celebration of skiing, so we were really psyched to take it all in! If you're interested in a broader picture of the event Nat Herz wrote an article about it that was published in the New York Times We expected it to be busy, the race frequently draws up to 100,000 spectators, and we had no idea how the logistics would be getting there. The roads were pretty quiet though, and while there were more people than usual at the train station it wasn’t overly busy. There were extra express trains running to the race venue, so we had no problems hopping on a train right away and we were on our way up!

When we got to the train station at the race venue is when we found the crowds. We thought we had allowed plenty of time to get to the area where we had tickets for the men's race, but the crowds were HUGE, and we waited in line for probably 45 minutes to march the ½ mile up to the race course.

It was over a half mile of this before getting to the arena

When we got up to the VM Haugen where we were spectating we managed to connect up with a few other Minnesotans who were also there spectating. Zach and Jenna Nelson, Michael Moulsoff, and Erik Hendrickson and his cousin who lives in Norway and had just moved to the Oslo area. Where we were we could see the athletes go by right on the other side of the fence as they climbed out of the stadium and before they dropped back in to lap. We could look down on the stadium and see the action there and up the hill behind and see them crossing in the distance. There was also a jumbotron so we could watch the race footage when the athletes were out of sight. We also got a taste of how how Norway spectates ski races. Where we were there were many families that brought the kids out, set out reindeer hides to sit on, got out their cookstove and roasted up hotdogs and marshmallows, and had their thermoses of hot chocolate. People got right up on the fence to cheer on their hometown athletes.

Spectating from VM Haugen
Eva ready to cheer for the US men

It was a small field with only 39 starters since the world championship 50k was only a week prior. There were 4 American men starting so we had plenty of people to cheer for, and the deep Norwegian field made for a very competitive race, even with a small field. Things unfold slowly in these long races, and most of the field was still together at 25k. From there things got interesting as Holland and Kruger chose to make a ski change at the end of the third lap of 6. They were off the back for a while but chased their way back onto the pack, and by 30k they were pushing the pace and the pack broke up quickly. When most of the rest of the field changed skis at 33k those two along with a young Iver Anderson getting away from the field. Kruger put on a surge in the last 1/2km to get away from Holland, and Anderson faded back and was passed by a hard charging Nyenget shortly before the line.

Kruger, Holland, and Anderson racing off the front

Kruger sprinting in for the win

After the race we headed to the harbor to see the Fram & Kon Tiki museums. Then we headed back up to where we had started skiing Friday to get some night skiing in on the lighted trails around Holmenkollen. Anywhere we crossed or skied along the race course there were revelers around their campfires eating, drinking, singing, and cheering us on if they even noticed us passing.

Well lit and wonderfully groomed

Oslo in the distance
Saturday Night Ski

The evening got a bit more exciting after our ski. We finished skiing at the Frognerseteren train station, which is the end of the train line that goes around Holmenkollen. We were hiking up the hill to the station and we saw the train sitting there, so we booked it up hoping to catch it before it left. We made it and found seats and started to change back into our shoes and warmer coats. Then the conductor came back and told us there was an issue at the central station so no trains were being allowed to run. He told us we could call a cab and the train company would reimburse us. We decided to hike down instead since we were basically at the city limit way up away from the population center, so we weren't sure how successful we'd be getting a cab. As we hiked down towards a more populated area to call a taxi we saw at least 5 taxis pass us going up the hill towards the train station, so I guess they go that far out after all. We hiked down to the Holmenkollen train station and saw the trains were running again. We saw 3 trains go up towards the end of the line, but none were coming back down, so we waited and got pretty cold there still wearing our ski gear, until finally one came back down and we hopped on. By the time we got back to our Hotel it was after 11:00PM, so we went straight to bed.

Sunday morning we were determined to get to the venue with plenty of time, so we got to breakfast as soon as it opened, ate quickly and headed for the train. It was less crowded than the day before with many spectators still out in the woods or hung over at home in bed. America had some superstars in the race though, so we were excited to go cheer on Jessie, Rosie, Alayna, and Hailey. We had tickets for the stadium, because we wanted to be right in the action if someone from the US ended up on the podium. We sat right where the skiers looped at the far end of the stadium so we could watch them corner and head back out each lap. It was also a bit less crowded than at the finish line. We could also zip down to the far end of the stadium to cheer as the racers came down the hill towards the ski exchange and towards the finish. We had our large American flag draped in front of us and we were waving our small ones.

    The women's race started out more aggressively than the men's. Jessie was chasing after all the intermediate bonus points, so she pushed the pace early and about a third of the field was out of the pack by 3k. A couple of young Norwegians did a lot of work at the front as well, so the pace stayed honest. By halfway the lead pack was down to 16 skiers, with Jessie and Rosie still in the mix. Rosie fell off the pack around 35k, then it was down to 8 skiers. Jessie was the first to go in the sprint to the finish, but couldn't hold off some of the Norwegian skiers and ended up 3rd in a very close finish.

The women's front pack early in the race.

Being in the stands was really exciting. There was music and a jumbotron across the stadium to watch the race when the skiers were on the course, and the announcer did a great job keeping everyone engaged and leading cheers and songs. We also got to meet several other Americans at the event, including workers from the American Embassy, a big group from Alaska, Jessie's parents, the group on the Lumi Experiences trip, and Julia Kern.
    The world cup sponsors were there in force, so after the race we stuck around the venue to watch some ski jumping, win some ski ties and a hat at the Coop booth, eat cheese and S'mores, and check out the Northug shop. Then we went back to the hotel and headed out to ski before it got too late. We tried a different course starting from Sognsvann and heading east to connect up with a lighted trail. There was still some daylight when we started, but we knew we'd be finishing in the dark.

Skiing along the river
    The Trail was gorgeous, and the grooming was excellent. I think pretty much every day that we skied I marveled at how many km of ski trails there were, and how fantastic the grooming was everywhere! It was just unbelievable to me that we could take the train right from the center of the city and get out on a trail that started out through the forest, along bluffs, across farm fields, along a creek, and up to a trail side cafe. Then we hopped onto a lighted trail for a mostly downhill run back to the train station. There are over 100km of lighted trails right in Oslo, so even if all of our skiing had been at night we would have had plenty of trails to explore.

Better scenery than the lighted trail at Hyland

Last ski in Oslo
    Once we got back to the hotel we packed up all our things so we could leave bright and early the next morning. We took the train to Bergen for a couple days and left our skis in a ski locker at Oslo Central Station. I'll cover the Bergen trip in the final post of the series, the next post will pick up when we pick up our skis and head to Lillehammer.


Sunday, March 19, 2023

Birch Shorts

 20 Birkies gets you Birch Leggings.  I'm halfway there at 10 now so that must be birch shorts right?  No?  Moving on...

Birkie Prep

Where we last left our hero... too much?

OK, so the Vasaloppet was a bit of a bummer.  The course profile and layout and the usual trail conditions really suit my skiing style.  Far more so than I think/thought the Birkie course did.  I can use my balance and glide to cover up for a lower power to weight ratio.  So laying a bit of an egg there a week after a less than stellar Boulder wasn't super encouraging.

The first week between Mora and the Birkie started the taper.  I can't quite remember why a month later now that I took Monday and Tuesday off completely.  Then Vakava practice on Wednesday night my activity is titled Ice Skating.  It was the second week in a row where Battle Creek was just this side of terrifying and that is coming from me who likes when the conditions get a little icy.  Instead of skate intervals we ended up doing double poling which isn't my favorite.

With no race on my calendar, and no full marathon racing of the season other than Seeley, I decided to make my final Saturday workout a solo 1 hour marathon pace effort.  Based on the feel of all of my racing and training up to that point, I wanted to head out to the hills of Battle Creek and test what I thought would be my Birkie pace.

The workout went great, and it was super fun to see many many other feverish skiers out at Battle Creek getting their final tune-up in for the Birkie.

Birkie Week

Have you heard about the Birkie week snowstorm?  Well that pretty much threw the week leading into the Birkie into disarray.  I took Monday off of skiing as is pretty typical.  But then decided to try to do my last interval work on Tuesday instead of Wednesday since I didn't think I would make it to practice.  I met up with Ian and Laura at Theo that evening and we cranked out 4 x 3 minutes at L4.  Well I tried.  I felt like hot garbage.  Legs loaded up immediately, just scrambling all over with my technique.  Just a mess.

The loaded up legs feeling is something I've struggled with by Birkie time the last few years.  Basically I just feel cooked right from the gun.  I was worried this was the start of it again, right at Birkie week this time instead of the few weeks leading into it so that would be something in the right direction.

Then came the shoveling.  And despite it being a super light and fluffy snow, I somehow managed to strain a bunch of the muscles in my back.  So by the time I drove up to Hayward on Thursday afternoon I was in all sorts of disarray physically and mentally.

After a only mildly nerve-wracking drive to Hayward I met up with Artie and family at Coops for dinner and then tried to get to bed early.  Friday was more relaxing, a trip to the Expo to pick up my packet, and a quick shake out ski at the Hayward golf course to see if I still knew how to ski.

That was actually a pretty nice ski for a change and I felt a little more relaxed going into the evening that the big day would not be a disaster from the line.

Ski Prep

I leave the detailed prep to Finn Sisu.  My only task is to decide what ski to use.  Given the forecasted temps of single digits at the start and only warming into the mid 20's, that was a pretty easy call.  I have a pair of Rossignol's that I have probably raced on 75% of the time.  They have an FAC1 (now obsolete I think) grind from Finn Sisu on them and have been my goto for anything below warming conditions.

After the race I told Devin and Nate that my skis were decidedly above average.  And not the sort of above average from Lake Wobegon, but actually better than more than half the skiers.  I saw a few people with better skis, and lots of people with much worse skis.

Mental Prep

I've talked about it before.  I feel like I am a bit of a headcase when it comes to the Birkie.  You try not to put too much value on your results... but it is hard not to.  And I've had one really good Birkie, a couple of decent races, and a couple of absolute stinkers.

With minimal else to do the day before I spent a fair bit of time reviewing my notes, pacing notes, check lists, and checking my piles of gear for the bag.

That list is relatively unchanged over the last two or three Birkie's.  The one item I actually removed from the list was something about being comfortable being uncomfortable.  AKA, its gonna hurt, don't be a wimp about it.  For the millionth time I was telling myself to not go out too hard.  Most of my bad races come from bonking/blowing-up at about 35km into the race.  So I decided to forgo the idea that I should be uncomfortable and maybe even start to think about the first half to two thirds of the race being too comfortable.

Race Strategy

Uberlegger Jay Wenner always seems to ski a great Birkie.  So when I saw him before the start I told him to whack me with a pole if he ever saw me ahead of him before the High Point, and maybe even OO.

Basically the strategy was to ski at a pace I thought was "too easy" until at least OO.  I get too wrapped up in who I should be skiing with and thinking this is a race, so if I'm not pushing hard I'm not racing.  The effect usually is that I race 35km and suffer for the last 15km.

Based on my marathon paced workout and the racing I had done thus far I had a rough heart rate I didn't want to exceed.  Other than that it was about relaxing.  Getting good balance and ankle flexion.  And letting people go.

So my goal was a solid race.  I figured if  I could do that, my training had me in top 300 men shape.

The Race

Finally, race time.  I really dislike the Wave 1 pen race.  Thankfully it wasn't too cold this year.  And since I wasn't too concerned about trying to get out at the front of the wave I opted to be a little more conservative in the pre-race race and ended up about 6 or 7 rows back.  About as far back as I've ever been at the start of the race.

The gun goes off, and we are on our way to Hayward.  I made it out cleanly.  I think I only saw one person go down and I was able to dodge them cleanly.

I quickly saw Jay and opted to try to settle in behind him.  There is a lot of comings and goings in the first few km up to the power lines.  Plenty of people who think they've gotten a horrible start and MUST get through right now and try to wedge themselves into lines or between lines etc.  Trying to relax and get my flow on I wasn't overly aggressive in holding my spot.  As a result Jay was steadily moving further up the line than I was.  By the High Point I could still see Jay near the top of the climb as I approached the bottom.

Strava Flyby showing Jay slowly putting about 30 seconds into my by the high point.

Despite Jay getting away from me I was feeling good.  I had managed to get my first gel down, my legs felt good, and my HR was staying "comfortably" in my target range.  I was touching the limit occasionally, but it seemed easy to back it off just a tiny fraction or tighten up the technique a hair and it would come back.

There were a couple of short stretches where the group with Jay in it was up ahead and there was some pretty empty trail between us.  But for the most part I was able to find another skier or three that was willing to go to the front and do any work that might have brought them back.  Sometimes someone would come through much too hot for me to want to stick to them, but the group that formed and dissolved around me up to OO seemed pretty solid and I was happy to let someone else do the pace setting.

My family was going to be at OO so as I skied through I was watching for them.  I never saw them, but they apparently saw me because my kid got a picture of me looking up the bridge over OO.

I was still feeling good but I knew the wide open field through the Korte start area, the bit of a headwind out of the south, and that gradual climb to Picnic Table was going to be unpleasant.  I wouldn't say I stalled there, but I definitely didn't go charging off on my own and as soon as I saw someone else I happily let them take the lead and I hopped in behind.

Safely over the hill the next bit of the course is fairly solidly downhill with only one notable climb before Gravel Pit.  Somewhere in this stretch a nice little group formed that I was happy to sit in about second or third ski.  I frequently found myself thinking, should I be going harder yet?  Maybe I can make up some ground.  No... not yet.

We made it to Gravel Pit, and so far I had only had one minor brief burpy moment.  Otherwise I was feeling decent enough for 30km into a race.  I was getting my gels and water in plus a cup or two of water or energy at the aid stations if they were convenient.

But we were entering the sector of death.  Somewhere between Gravel Pit and Mosquito Brook is usually when not only do the wheels come off, they start a tire fire, the head gasket blows, and the transmission leaves parts all up and down the trail.

The little pack I was skiing with... actually... I should mention I actually have no idea how big the group was.  I never once during the race looked back.  I wanted to keep my head up and looking towards the finish, not over my shoulder.  So anyway, the two people who were occasionally in front of me, and whoever else might have been behind continued to ski at what felt like a pace I thought I could totally hold for another 20km.

Somewhere before Mosquito Brook we got passed by the first and maybe second person from Wave 2.  They had 10 minutes into us, I obviously wasn't going to be trying to hitch a ride with them.

Shortly before Mosquito Brook I grabbed a quick Gatorade feed from Frank.  I managed to get a chunk of snow stuck in the cuff of my boot in the process and proceeded to make a huge bonehead move.  So when I said I never looked behind me, I guess that wasn't entirely true.  Instead of bending over to pick out the chunk of snow I somehow thought it would be a good idea to pick up my foot and pick it out... promptly catching my ski tip in the trail and getting spun around until I was hands down on the trail facing back to Cable.  I didn't actually fall, but I did come to a complete stop and killed all of my momentum heading down that last descent into the Mosquito Brook aid station.

Thankfully since I was carrying my own nutrition and had just grabbed a big swig of Gatorade I didn't need to stop.  So I was able to ski through and with a little bit of extra effort was able to catch back onto my group.

This is when the skiing zombies started appearing.  Oh, I have soooo been there.  You would see someone just rocking back and forth on their skis.  Or just plodding along.  I even saw someone get a little too far over their ski, lost there balance, and honest to goodness swan dive off the trail into the powder.

Mosquito Brook/39k climb came and went.  Just three more hills to go.

Bitch Hill came into view and looked huge... but oddly not that terrifying.  I wasn't going any faster than before, but the effort was starting to add up.  There were just the little niggles of cramps starting in my quads and triceps.

Bitch Hill came and went.  I knew the next stretch was a bit rolly, just a couple of short climbs, and some nice descending down to Hatchery.

I was looking forward to my high five with Keith there and then moving on to tackle the last two hills.

I slapped my high five and rushed past the aid station having taken my last gel on the descent into the aid station (note, I tossed my garbage into the aid station, no littering time penalty for me).

For the first time since a couple of odd locations back in the first 10km of the race I was out front.  Rosie's hill is such a brutal climb.  Not steep.  It just keeps rolling.  One climb after another.  I think one of the guys I had been skiing with caught back up and as we crested the top of the hill he was out front by a tiny bit.  I pushed over the top to try and catch back on.  My skis were running good (Finn Sisu remember) and I was able to get back on again.

One more climb.  77.  That three tiered wandering monster.  The check engine light was starting to flicker on the dash at this point.  Nothing had cramped yet, but things were threatening.  Technique was starting to falter.

My V1 was actually holding together pretty well though and I felt like I was moving when I went into it.

I caught Craig at the top of the last climb before we descended to Duffy's field and headed for Wheeler Road.

As we hit the lake the Donut guy I had been following for probably 20km was right in front of me.  Wanting to make a solid push for the finish I offered to take a pull.  Nice guy huh?  Draft a guy for 20km and finally offer to pull.  And I think I dropped him.  In similar fashion to my elite wave qualifying year, I went to the front on the lake and pulled all the way to the line.  One guy pipped me right before the bridge by Market Place, but no one else did.

It felt good to be hauling in Elite Wave skiers and classic skiers all the way across the lake.

Actually, it felt good to finish the race feeling like I had left 98% of it out there all along the trail.  Not 110% in the first 35km and then another 100% in the last 15km.


So 2:48:21, 284th overall, and 257th male.

I'm quite pleased with that.  The splits tell a tale of a reasonably well paced race.

As far as placings go, it was my second best result in 10 (9 because there was a virtual year in 2021) attempts.

By time it was the third fastest, just squeaking in ahead of 2016 by 14 seconds.

Overall I left the weekend quite pleased.  I'll probably not get around to writing up the rest of the season, but I went on to race two more 50k races over the next two weekends (Pepsi 50k skate and Bear Chase skiathlon) and I think each one was better than the one before it.

Anywho... good season and after some time off structured training, a good solid offseason of some biking and running, and I'm excited to be back skiing and racing again next year.