I signed up for the Birkebeiner back in November knowing that doing so would be good motivation to ski as much as I could over the course of December, January and February. Good intentions, mediocre execution, the writing of a thesis became far more of a consuming activity than I anticipated. The first half of December was almost a complete write-off except for a gradual return to running after my achilles injury. The Christmas break on the contrary was good and I found opportunities to get out and ski quite frequently and work on learning the ‘squish the bug’ technique on real classic nordic equipment as opposed to the no-camber skis I had previously be horsing around with. January was relatively consistent and then we suffered from some terrible weather and another rough patch in the laboratory that meant I never did as much long-distance preparation as I would have liked. That’s the way the cookie had crumbled though and on the morning of Feb 12 I was at the start line of a 55km race with my 5.5 kg pack loaded onto my back… and there would be nowhere to hide.
I had an odd concoction of wax on my skis, probably a ways away from ideal but I wasn’t on bad wax. A hard wax base binder with a lot of V45 and then K21n klister over top. I’m a total n00b, so let’s not discuss this further, it worked very well until about 12:30pm at which time the temperature had changed so significantly that no-one seemed to have quite the right wax on. I very quickly added some V55 “special red” which helped a lot on the run in to the finish and I have no doubt that by taking a few minutes to reapply I actually wound up ahead of where I’d have been if I were to just have stuck it out and kept cruising along without any grip to kick against.
Back to the race:
I lined up at the 5 hour mark in the grid with Travis three bodies up one lane over and Dave hopped into the tracks right in front of me as we started to skootch forward in the final 30 seconds before the horn. Emily was line up significantly further forward and Jan was right in the middle of the pack, also about 10 lengths forward. As we schussed off at the 9am start we were all flying of across the lake in the crowd and just trying to jockey a bit for position but not really trying to go off as hard as we could. Before we had reached the 1km marker I watched as a lead group of three had already gapped the field and were exiting the lake nearly an entire kilometer ahead of me. That was mighty impressive.
We cruised along, Dave, Travis and myself who had found our way into a little lineup of three and were trying to take it as easy as we could. We averaged 4:20 kms for the first three while still on the flats at which point we entered the Blackfoot Rec area. Luckily the gate in the Elk fence had been unlocked (unlike last year) and so there was no need to scale the 8 foot fence in ski-boots and pass skis through the holes. It seemed everyone around had a different version of the same joke to make about the unlocked gate. Then the hills began, nothing serious to start, but they really provided an opportunity to identify who had bad wax on their skis as they were either going backwards on the uphills on standing still on the downhills. I did some nifty navigation stunts here as Travis got out of sight way off down the trail in front of me. Dave on the other hand was tracking me like a cougar on a deer and every time I shoulder checked he was still there. Rather quickly we were cruising in around the final corners on the way into Aid-Station #1. I knew the handups would be coming from the left and so had made my way over to the left hand track within the final kilometer (we were all still going two wide in the pack at this point) which meant I was on the outside of the final downhill right-hander into the feed-zone. Then from the inside of the corner comes a wildly out of control lady, leaps out of the tracks just as she begins to fall and then slides across the outer tracks right in front of me, missing the front tips of my skis by a grand total of 5 cm as she slid into the ditch. Woooeee!
I was probably in the thickest part of the pack at this point so it’s no wonder that the people at the blackfoot feed zone were scrambling… but it was a wonder at how poorly organized their scrambling was. I was embarrased on their behalf and after stepping out of the tracks an realizing that instead of filling up a jug with water there was a lady proceeding to spill the entire contents of a 50 liter tank all over the table. I shook my head in disbelief and then turned to forget about getting a drink here and decided to head off to Round-up before getting in my first food and drink. Unfortunately that would mean I’d consume nothing in the first hour of the race, not a wise choice, but I really didn’t have any other options.
As I was turning around to hop into the track Dave was having his day really turn for the worse. His binding had torn out of his ski leaving him absolutely nothing that he could do. It was a super sad moment realizing that there was absolutely no way that you could fix something like that. I offered him my cell phone and then after rooting around in my pack for a moment, realized that I didn’t bring it with me. Not being of much use I figured I was best off to just get skiing again and so set off down the trail.
The eventfulness of the racing slowed down dramatically through this section as I made my way through Round-up, Wapiti and Winter aid stations before getting in towards the real hills. I was finding myself coming up on a few groups of people and having to hop out of my track and really push hard to get past them before being able to settle back down to my steady racing pace (165 bpm or thereabouts). Passing took a lot of energy and when I’m racing next time I figure I’m going to have to start faster (and plan to just blast past the Blackfoot feed-zone and not consider slowing there) so that I can latch on to faster groups rather than having to pass them. This may sound obvious, but what wasn’t so obvious to me was that the people who are going out at a 4:15-4:20 pace from the start are going to settle in and do 5:00/km pace for the rest of the race which is slower than what I would wind up doing. If I want to be amongst the right group from the beginning I probably need to start at a pace that’s an entire minute faster per kilometer than I will end up doing for the rest of the day. Doing that in the grid and the beginning is a total crapshoot though without practice. Maybe I need to do a couple recreational loppets as well to learn the tricks of the trade. (Want to race better? Race more!)
By the time the full length group had split from the shorter course the track had thinned out so much that it was simple and straightforward to ski the pace you wanted to ski. I pushed on here trying to stay conservative on my surges when I needed to get past someone but also trying to keep the gas on. I was already halfway and after racing Ironman and learning that if you’re really fit it can be tempting to pace yourself at “forever pace” instead of “use yourself up by the finish pace” I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to make that mistake. In some sense 55km is actually kind of short if you’re prepared for it, it’s something like a half ironman. You are going to be going way too slow if you’re not trying to burn off some extra energy along the way when you think you can pick up some speed by doing so.
So, as I cruised through islet lake I was really in a great mood and had pretty much passed all of the people who were obstacles in my way. Now I was beginning to think about the people around me as competition and was gauging my pace against them and pushing my way along. After leaving Elk-Push for the second time there’s a really huge hill and as I got to the top of it I was passed for the first time in probably 10 kms. I was within 20 km of the finish at this point and decided that I needed to roll the dice a little bit and see if I could keep up with this guy. A huge part of me felt like I should just let him go and keep trucking along at my pace, but fortunately the little part of my brain that said “go!” was louder and so I pressed on the accelerator and started to follow. It wasn’t uncomfortably hard but it definitely wasn’t comfortable and he reminded me of Ernst – a huge upper body shaped like a big triangle. I was really drilling it along the flats to keep up with him as we double poled along for long stretches at a time near the fence. Suddenly he pulled up and I don’t know if he thought it was my turn to lead or if he had totally run out of blood sugar but he slowed up and I went past. Then within 200 meters he dropped back and I never saw him again.
Then I saw Travis. First it was just a glimpse and I wasn’t quite certain that it was for sure him but eventually I had reeled him in so that by the time we got up to the Boundary aid station I had closed the gap. I was stopping here with about 40 minutes left to race to apply some V55 to my bases and offered him some. His comment was telling of his state of mind, “I’m just going to finish this thing” and so he was off. I glommed some special red onto my bases and smeared it down with my hand, and was off as quickly as I could. Travis had put down a gap of a bit more than 200 meters which I could see while we were along the fence-line but he was definitely out of sight when we entered the woods again. I was having great success with the wax-reapplication and after mentally reaching a low just prior and starting to get frustrated this was exactly the change that I needed. I was starting to really hurt in my shoulders and back (thanks to chasing Schwarzenegger) and was starting to get really sore in my ankles and feet and so getting a temporary return to good technique was a lifesaver. I passed boatloads of people in the final stages of the race and by about km 52 I had made up the minute or so that I had lost to Travis when I re-waxed. The last stretch around Neon lake was a total nightmare with the snow. My red wax may have already disappeared or it may have heated up so significantly that it was even loosing it’s effectiveness. I was resorting to herringbone on inclines I could normally just bound my way up and trying to double pole everything that I could.
I crossed the finish line in 4 hours 25 minutes and change which was a massive 1 hour and 45 minute improvement on my PR. I was 8th out of 21 in my age category and 47 out of 166 overall. Not bad. As I alluded to early on when discussing wax this was a pretty fast year and so I’ll attribute a portion of my improved time to that, I’ll also attribute a fair bit of it to getting skis that actually have camber in them which helps gloriously with glide but also enables a proper classic technique. Then I’m also going to claim some credit, I put in a solid effort of learning the associated skills this year because good skis still won’t do the skiing by themselves. I also am in better shape for mid February than I was two winters ago. I hope this bodes well for a fast marathon on May 1. There are 76 days to go until my first crack at qualifying for Boston, once I get the incredible pain throughout my body to subside I’ll be back to training. A few more weeks dedicated to aerobic development and then it’s time for a period dedicated to lactate threshold.
I also have to say huge congratulations to a few friends who had totally impressive performances. My favorite ski coach Emily Lynes wound up 4th female overall in the Birkie-Lite with a personal record time and Jan “The Czech Racehorse” Plavec finished 8th overall in the with-pack Birkebeiner (two seconds behind her after drafting and pacing off of her almost all day). Both recorded a stunning sub 4:00/km pace for the full duration. Something to aspire to indeed. Laura and Travis also completed their first attempts at the distance.