Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Saturday, March 11, 2023

2023 Racing Tales: Mora Vasaloppet, Minnesota Finlandia, and the Birkie

42 km Mora Vasaloppet Classic

The Mora Classic race returned to the 42 km distance after nearing 48 km last year. Even though I’m better the longer the slog, 42 km of mostly double pole is enough for me. Race weekend was warm. OK, maybe hot. The forecast for the classic race the day before predicted mostly cloudy skies but when I checked my weather app the morning of the race, it now predicted full on sun and temps into the 40s, a solid 50 degrees warmer than last year. Now I was really glad it was only 42 km but with a 10:30 am start I was sure we’d still see plenty of transformed snow. 

Coach Dave Christopherson double poling hard in the 21 km on his way to another horsee. Photo: Eve Graves

We got to Mora in time to preview the first and last kilometer of the course. This meant I could see how aggressive they were with laying down tracks on tight corners and downhills. It turned out as has been the case in recent years, they were aggressive again. Good to know. Erik and I were both doing the classic race and even though we would only spend 1% of the race kicking, we had decided on a klister binder with Oslo Purple. This combo was icing on my warm up but not grabbing so even though not ideal, I didn’t make any changes. When I put my skis down in the line-up, I scraped them off and then set them on their sides facing the sun.

I lined up in the 3rd row on the east side so I’d be more on the outside for the first corner where there is always more room. The race goes out fast and I quickly found myself well behind the leaders. I’d passed some people by the time we climbed off the lake on quite icy snow. I seemed to lose any pack much sooner than in previous years. There were a few skiers who passed me but I think I caught more than passed me and some guys who passed me I subsequently passed them back up! 

Classic field going out hot! That's "Vaker" Brock Lundberg on the left getting up high. I'm just behind him on the left. Photo: Eve Graves

The course was a bit short and took me 2 hours 25 minutes, during which I got in 4 feeds which might be a record for me. I had good energy to herring-bone run up the short steep hills and attempt a fast stride on the less steep ones. I mostly had kick but it was a bit hit-or-miss and once on the second half of the second lap I had just a tad of icing. 

Check out Ahvo STRIDING Bell Tower Hill. Sure, he was on skins but this is still darn impressive. He also crushed his age class. Photo: Eve Graves

I focused on getting up high to start my double pole, to keep soft knees, and also to hold firmly onto my poles during the main power phase to generate more force. Sure, I got tired but was mostly able to ski strong. In the transforming snow, it was notably slower outside the tracks.

Because it was so warm, I had decided to ski without any headgear. This ended up being a big snafu because without a headband, my prescription sunglasses kept falling off my face and there wasn’t quite enough downhill to always push them back on without missing a pole:)

My second lap I was chasing my bro who had gotten off to a fast start. In some of the twisty section he was always a turn in front of me. Once we got back out onto the lake I saw him in front of me. He was getting tired quickly and walked up the Bell Tower Hill while I ran. I watched him stride up the street before Main Street while I ferociously double poled, except when I missed a pole to push my glasses back onto my face. He stayed in front of me by 20 seconds but it was fun to finish next to each other in the results.

I love double pole courses and short uphills. It makes me feel like I can sprint every uphill. I finished in 6th place and was just a couple minutes behind some really strong women so I was pleased with that and stood on the age class podium with one of my teammates. 

Molly Watkins (who finished 5th) and a sit skier. Photo: Eve Graves

As for how the rest of Vakava fared, well, it was almost an embarrassment of corral filling.
Vaker Sarah Widder on top of the age class podium with me second and Erik third over on the far right. Photo: Heather Chicanowski

The Minnesota Finlandia 25 km Skiathlon

Six days later it was time for the Minnesota Finlandia. Even though I don’t like skiathlons, Erik has charged me with winning every race at the Minnesota Finlandia and since I haven’t won the skiathlon yet, I entered it again for the second year in a row along with Molly Watkins, who had me by three minutes at Mora. She’s also a classic specialist. I lined up in the front row because there was a spot next to my bro. A handful of skiers took it out really really hot, including my bro, Craig, Artie, and Molly. I just couldn’t double pole that fast. As we skied in front of the Buena Vista chalet, Kerrie Berg passed me. But I rallied, following her to the base of Sunnyside and then herring-bone running up the downhill next to her and keeping pace with her once it leveled out. 

Dennis Curran and Erik at the top of the steep pitch on Sunnyside in the 25 km skate race. Photo: Monte Draper

I kept skiing with Kerrie on the east side as we passed one guy and then dropped another. My skis were fast! After the first aid station I took the lead as we gradually reeled in another guy. Once we caught him though he seemed to accelerate. I jumped out of the tracks to try to pass him but found the skate deck much slower and couldn’t get around him. Kerrie jumped out, too, and in a few hard double poles managed to get around him. I couldn’t though and settled into the tracks behind the guy with Kerrie now leading. At least we were keeping pace but I was worried he was going to slow down and I really didn’t want to lose Kerrie. 

The start of the classic and pursuit races at the 2023 Minnesota Finlandia. That's Craig on the left, he went on to win the skiathlon, Molly Watkins behind him, me in the middle, and Artie Huber on the right who got second in the skiathlon. Photo: David Harrington

The awesome thing about skiing with Kerrie is that we were in different races as she was doing the classic and I was doing the skiathlon. I’d also never been able to keep up with her before for the entire east side and I was feeling good. Eventually I decided to just track that guy and once I did, Kerrie and I dropped him pretty fast. Kerrie and I kept skiing together past the next aid station, through the Narrows, and into the Island. Here the trail was a bit rough with a fair amount of swamp grass poking through. Kerrie got a brief gap on me but I was able to close that down by the final hills on the east side and then the last couple downhills were screaming fast- almost out of control- and I got ahead of Kerrie heading into the skiathlon split! 

Skiing with Kerrie! Photo: Monte Draper

Oh, the skiathlon. I used my good skate skis which are better in soft snow, which it was, but owing to some fresh new snow on top that was transforming my skis were slow and dangerously so on the downhills when they kept catching. Many others echoed similar stories. I soon realized the tracks were faster and tried to use them whenever I was brave enough. At times on the flats I just double poled in the tracks. Not many skating men (who had 10 minutes on me for the 50 km or 12 minutes for the 25 km) passed me and I even held off Erik.

Molly claimed her second consecutive victory, 3 minutes ahead of me again but I was happy to be able to stay with Kerrie on the entire east side. It made me realize that even without running this year, or maybe in spite of it, I was still in good shape. 

Artie out on course racing in his first Finlandia. Photo: David Harrington

53 km Classic Birkie

Then after Mora and the Finlandia it was time for the Birkie. Owing largely to weather, I significantly tapered the week before the Birkie and after skiing Sunday, only went out for a measly 30 minute street ski on Thursday. I didn’t know how much snow we would be getting, and hence how much shoveling I would be doing and that made it difficult to perfect a taper. 

Alex leading the skate field for Vakava. Photo Bruce Adelsman

Since I had felt good at both Mora and Finlandia I was a bit more aggressive in my start at the Birkie. Because the Classic Elite Wave is mixed with both men and women and there’s more of the former, it’s kinda difficult to keep tabs on all the women, even if we do have different colored bibs. After the first couple kilometers though I settled into a steady pace to begin the long grind to High Point. I don’t think I realized how far up in the women’s field I was as the women started to stream by me. I wasn’t about to go with any of them. Sure, I had kept up with Kerrie easily last weekend, but that was a 1.5 hour race and this was a 3.5 hour race at best. So I let her and the others go.

I was all but defeated on the way to High Point, certain I was in 40th place and about to get dropped from the Elite Wave. But I tried to be positive, ski my own race, keep some of those women at least in my sight, and hope I’d feel better after OO when the course suits me better. After High Point I rested on the big downhills. My skis, compliments of Finn Sisu, were fast. I was able to mostly stay with the women around me, although they all beat me to OO. I tried to be patient and after OO began feeling better and better and dropped all of them. 

Erik and Artie skiing together this year in the skate race. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

Last season, after neglecting striding which I’ve never been good at, I had a reckoning before last year’s Birkie and tried to stride a lot. My legs cramped on the way to High Point and my arms were dead by OO. This year I decided to mostly shuffle if it seemed more economical and that’s what I did, especially up that hill after Mosquito Brook. But by then I was getting tired. By now I had a hot spot by my right big toe. My medial epicondylitis was acting up, too. Remember, you’re good at suffering, I told myself. So true- as long as I’m inflicting the pain on myself I’m good. 

Skiing after OO and trying to drop that Wave 1 guy. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

I saw my teammate, Mark Ahlers ahead of me. He was in Wave 1 and had passed me early and I wanted to catch him, but I also watched him stride up B Hill while I herring-boned walked. After that I was closing in on another woman and passed her after the last Aid Station (Hatchery Creek) but that hill climbing out of there, Sunset Hill, is a doozy. I just tried to keep my legs moving and not jump out of the tracks too much. Funny that no one seems to be buying into that development – perhaps too many painful Birkie memories.

On the last big grinder uphill I caught three Elite Wave Men. It would have been so easy to just settle in behind them. No Elspeth, don’t get complacent. You are moving better than them. Go around. And so I did, more than happy to catch breathers on the next couple downhills and milk the tuck and glide.

Then it was time for the flats and double pole. My favorite. As I got out onto the lake I took stock of the skiers ahead of me and vowed to catch them all before the end of the lake. I wanted to ski faster but the pole tips were catching in the ice and anytime I tried to pick up the pace I began hyperventilating. So I again told myself to be patient, focus on the pole plants, getting forwards, and just keep going.

I picked off every one of those skiers, the last being Margie, now I knew for sure I’d requalify handily for Elite Wave.

“This is the hardest thing I do every year!” I told Margie as I passed her. Then I herring bone ran over that Birkie Bridge, tucked going downhill and tried to mount some kind of strong double pole finish but there was a Wave 1 guy in the good track. I debated just tucking in behind him but then decided to make a lane change and really go after it, knowing that places can be determined in tenths of seconds. My Mom watched it on live streaming and said “You looked like you knew what you were doing.” Well, not certain about that, perhaps I should’ve just jumped into the skate lane, but thanks, Mom. 

Jojo and Nate for Vakava in the skate race. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

Somehow I managed to finish 18th. I’ll take it. Looking at the results, I definitely failed to realize I was probably in about 13th when we turned off the skate trail and so even when I was feeling really bad about myself I was still in about 25th. Oh, and I won my age class:)

The classic Birkie is so hard. Maybe it wouldn’t be hard if I was a strider which I don’t think I’ll ever be, but I do think if I get a bit stronger, I could double pole more and I love double poling. This past year I’ve been doing one session a month of 100 pull ups and that, combined with doing weighted pull-ups (I even got up to 30 pounds!) has made me stronger so I’m going to keep that up and maybe next year I’ll be able to double pole up some of Sunset Hill!

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