Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

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.

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