The Birkebeiner is a 55 km ski race that happens annually just east of Edmonton at Blackfoot recreation area. It’s a Norwegian themed event in commemoration of a story of way back along time ago when some Norse guys saved the baby prince of Norway by carrying him 55 km on their backs to safety… eventually he would grow up and reconquer some other part of the country and re-establish his rightful role as monarch… it’s supposed to be a good story that makes you feel all nice…
Well the way it’s celebrated doesn’t exactly feel so nice. Or at least the last stretch of it for myself was a really serious challenge. I don’t think I’d say that is is definitively the most difficult thing I’d ever done in the world of sports. It was however the longest stretch of time that I put out a good solid effort without really stopping to take a break. Total time: 6:10:44. I’ve ridden my bike more more than 6 hours on numerous occasions but they all either included good breaks or periods where I didn’t exactly feel like I was asking a lot of myself. Skiing yesterday on the other hand, I spent almost the entire time asking a bit more out of myself as I skied.
The morning started Uuber-early as I caught a ride with a couple friends (Ben and Lindsay) who were volunteering as medical staff at one of the stations along the route. This meant that they were supposed to check in at their site at 7 am and needed to drop me off on the way… Leaving some time just in case we got lost it meant that I was up, dressed, packed and had fried 4 eggs for breakfast by 5:30 in the morning. I was the first skier there by more than 20 minutes and took my time looking around and then just sitting my bum in a chair to wait it out. I learned a few things watching people arrive. The early people are all old. The early people almost all know eachother (or at least they know some people). The early people like to discuss waxing techniques with words and phrases that are all totally over my head. The early people all have very practiced routines. I could tell because they often paused, looked at something and made a mental checkmark. I learned an interesting way to carry energy gels: They are slipped into the sleeve of your shirt at the wrist inside the outer layer (which is tight… all early people wear tight clothes) and one goes above and one below the wrist, an elastic band (that is red so it matches the shirt being worn… early people all have color-coordinated racing gear) is wrapped around the gels and the shirt. To remove a gel from this location while skiing along and holding a pole you just bring your wrist to your mouth and pull the gel out by your teeth. Then it’s only a one handed affair to grab, rip, spit, suck, squeeze and throw the empty gel to the ground without loosing any speed. Early people are intimidating to people wearing relatively loose clothing that wasn’t color co-ordinated. Had no race morning routines, knew none of the other early risers, and I planned on carrying the bit of food that I did have in my backpack and relying mostly on the aid stations for my nourishment. I switched somewhere in there from the generic to the personal. Let me be specific then… I was unprepared.
I made up my morning routine as I went along, put my ski boots on and sauntered down to the start with my skis and bag. I tossed my skis in a snowbank and weighed my pack… rules required it to be 12 lbs or heavier. Mine was more than 12 kg before I emptied it, most of my stuff went into the dry gear bag but the things I figured I would want or might need during the day stayed on my back. I cut it down to 15 lbs. I was using my backpacking backpack because it has my preferred shoulder straps and waistbelt. It meant thought that I needed to keep my sleeping bag in the bottom to maintain it’s shape so the waistbelt is actually good… Another rookie mistake… carry more than you absolutely need to.
I saw a few people I knew, my supervisor from school and his wife along with one of the other guys (Graham) from our lab. I tested out the wax job I had done for my skis and it was acceptable. I had done something correctly! I chugged a liter of water, ate a muffin and made a washroom pitstop and soon enough it was time to line up. The start is 12 skiing lanes wide and heads out across a lake where the lanes eventually disappear and people have to merge. There are a few signs along the side telling you how to seed yourself in the back and I choose to stand by the slowest sign. The countdown begins with a 15 minute warning. A ten minute warning, seven minute warning someone sings O Canada with a voice that either has decided it is too cold or too early in the morning… A five minute warning. I comment to one of the guys standing near me that calling them warnings isn’t the most encouraging of choices of vocabulary. He laughs and agrees, it’s his first time too and we’re both happy to know we’re not alone in the sea of people who are starting to hop up and down with their skis on and doing arm circles to loosen up. I take off my fleece jacket and put on a windbreaker when we hear the three minute warning. The one minute to start isn’t a warning, just a notice, and both me and my new friend glance at eachother with smiles on.
The horn sounds and we’re off. During the final three minutes there have been about 8 rows of people accumulating behind me and the pressure is on to ski and not hold them back too much, everyone skis at the pace of the person in front of them even though that’s a terrible strategy for spreading out and merging together. I pass a few people who are standing up between the lanes shuffling backwards trying to retrieve a dropped pole or a missing toque. I’m not a total screw-up thus far and keep on trucking along way faster than I’ve pretty much ever skied before. After a couple merges the clump I’m in is really getting bunched up and I glance at my watch… oops I forgot to start it. That sucks. Before we know it the lake has come to and end and we’re narrowed down to 3 lanes. The race leaders are tiny ants on the horizon and we just passed the 2 km mark.
I ski the first 7 kms or so in the midst of some pretty big groups. It’s going good, I feel the permission to ski at my own pace. I see Graham ahead of me and slowly reel him in… he’s going about my pace but his stride is funny compared with mine and it’s distracting to ski behind him. I realize I need to find someone to follow who is mentally relaxing to ski behind and going my pace. The problem is that now there isn’t a huge selection of people to choose from. I’m skiing in a little group. One guy goes by and I like the look of his feet so I want to follow him. Problem is someone else is on his tail so I can’t switch lanes. Maybe it takes a whole kilometer to get behind him… oh well something to think about. I latch on behind the orange coat guy who I notice is on rental skis… I wonder what his story is. We pass a sign giving us a 1 km warning to the first station. We pass an outhouse and my orange coat pulls off the track but I’m not stopping to wait for someone to follow and continue on to the aid station. I pull off the track and have someone right in my face with a tray of gatorade. It’s steaming and warm, another new experience, but this one is great. I drink two cups. Eat two pieces of banana and a cookie. I realize I’d better get skiing as no-one else seems to be taking this long at the stop. I shoulder check and step back out into the track and then finally look on up the hill ahead. There is not a soul in sight. I only stopped for 1:06, what happened to my group?
I ski along largely alone and pass one person who is going so slow I can hardly imagine how she was still ahead of me. I start to look around and take note of all the hoar frost on the trees. I hadn’t really noticed until now, it doesn’t really show up sparkling until the sun shines on it which it was starting to do. Soon enough the trail merges with the 31 km route and there are people all around again. They started 1/2 hour later than the 55 km skiers but took a shortcut so they’ve traveled less distance than us but are on the same track. None of them have packs and the timing of their start and distance mismatch puts me amongst slightly faster people than I had been skiing with alone. That’s okay with me as long as there are some people around and I pick a small group to follow. We come into the next station and I find myself having skied past all of the drinks and need to do the awkward backwards shuffle for a while before someone notices what I’m trying to do and brings me two cups of warm gatorade. I drink them, take a cookie and a piece of banana. I shoulder check and wave to my friend Scott who comes past in the 31 km race. I can’t step into the track quite yet and have to wait for a bit. I’m skiing along in a clump again and prefer it at least for now. We come down around a corner and the hill suddenly gets steeper. I’m standing bolt upright and suddenly my balance is off. I’m balancing on one foot and then am sliding on my side. Quickly I’m back upright before I get run over but managed to force an older lady to hop out of the tracks in the left lane to dodge my skis. She isn’t pleased with me and tells me not to fall, that I should try to balance better and then maybe I wouldn’t fall. I apologize and continue along. The route is getting a bit hillier, or at least the hills are longer each time than they were earlier in the game. The wax is still holding up great and I’m pretty proud of myself. Another aid station warning and before I know it we’re at the next stop. Another two cups of gatorade. They also have ‘cup of noodles’ soup but I don’t want to take the time to eat it. A few pieces of banana, some cookies and see that there is blocks of cheddar cheese. I think back to the summer bike riding and always having some cheese strings while on the bike… yep I can eat that I’ve done that before. It seems like other skiers are avoiding taking the cheese like a plague. Is this a bad choice? I wonder as I pop a whole handful into my mouth and ski off down the hill and on towards the next aid station. It’s protein I tell myself and put the questions out of my head.
I’m now skiing behind some really funny guys. They’re on the short course and making jokes, I stick behind them for a bit. Their km markers are different than mine because of their shortcut detour. Theirs are a bit closer together than 1 km it seems to the guy. The difference between the 55 km markers is longer than the distance between the 31 km markers and joke about the implications not knowing that I’m listening. When they get two markers within a single one of my km markers I pipe up… we all laugh and continue on.
The next aid station arrives and it’s the one where Ben and Lindsay are volunteering. I down another two cups of gatorade a few pieces of banana and a cookie. We take a picture together but it has to be on Lindsay’s camera because mine is frozen solid and says it needs a new battery. It’s easy to be over 12 lbs when you carry dead weight like that. I stop here for a bit and dig through my bag so I can change which gloves I’ve got on. My gloves have turned into big wet bags on my hands with all the sweat and are in need of a change. Wet gloves into the backpack and dry ones out. That adds weight to the pack I thought to myself… oh well.
Leaving station four is straight up a hill and it’s a long one too. There are still lots of 31 km people around who all seem to be happy with the fact that they’ve only got about 10 kms left. I’ve got more than 30. I realize as we climb one of the hills, maybe it was the first one, maybe it was the next that my groin was starting to be pretty tired. I keep trucking along and the uphills are all pretty long, after having realized I was starting to get sore (I’ve been a bit tired for quite a while already) that this was going to be a long 30 kms. Someone pulls up next to me and says “Hey, are you Josh?”. I have no idea what the connection is and he explains that he’s the husband of another grad student and had been with Graham when we saw eachother before the race. He gives me a bit of encouragement as the two routes split and John goes the way of the 31 km tour. I turn left and continue uphill. I’m in behind a familiar person, the girl in the purple jacket. I think the guy in the orange jacket was following her just before we got to the first aid station. I tuck in there and am pleased with that situation. I pass her going down a hill and she never re-passes me. When I shoulder check I can’t tell who is behind unless they’re in the other lane so I have no idea if she is still skiing with me or not. A few more exciting downhills with corners at the bottom and I pull into the next station. I’ve got the pattern down now… Pull in drink a cup of warm gatorade and chow down a few bananas and a cookie. The bananas are starting to be frozen bananas because the time gap between the first people and me must be getting longer. I drink the second cup of gatorade afterwards so I don’t have a cold mouth and hop back in the tracks. As I’m leaving the station I’m passed another bit of banana, this one is peeled for me so I take it. I’m barely finished chewing and a lady is trying to put a cookie in my mouth. I take it between the teeth and keep skiing. I wonder if they’re trying to fill me up because they’re starting to think of us people at the back of the pack as in need of care and attention. That frustrates me as I feel okay and keep skiing. I’m happy to be fed cookies but what about their motivation for feeding me?
Off we go into a tough stretch. I’m in behind an old guy in a puffy red down jacket. He has a bit of a stoop and doesn’t hold his head up straight but I can’t ski any faster than him. I stick in behind a guy who is likely close to 50 years older than me and barely can hang on. My wax starts to fail me just as I’m being humbled by an old guy. It’s getting warmer and warmer and I’m probably wearing off quite a bit of wax with all of my weight and the crystals in the snow, it’s pretty abrasive stuff in these conditions. I tough it out starting to slip now and again as I cruise towards the 6th station. I’m super pleased when I see the 1 km to the station sign and manage to stay with the old guy all the way there. Not being able to pass a 70 year old is one thing but to have been dropped by him would have been another story.
I’m focussed on getting some wax on my skis as I come through the station and am looking for somewhere out of the way. I only grab one cup of gatorade and pull over. Skis off and get the wax out. Failing to have grabbed any food I pull out a fudge and protein bar as well and chow half of that down. I look at the little thermometer hanging off the back of my pack and it says minus 8. I can’t believe that, it’s supposed to be minus 15 right now I think to myself. I ask the others who also have stopped to wax if I should be using blue. They all say that’s what they’re putting on so I do two coats of it the first one thin and I make sure to spread it evenly the second one my hands are starting to get cold so I spread it a bit thicker and don’t so such a good job with the cork. Forget it I tell myself, I’m going to be bleeding from the knuckles if I don’t get my gloves back on. My body apparently is starting to direct it’s attention towards locomotion and not doing such a good job with the peripheral roles. I wonder if I’m digesting anything that I’m eating. The protein bar was probably not the best choice, sugar would have been better. A quick pee while the outhouses are convenient and I’m back on the skis.
I bomb down a great hill onto a lake and head out across the lake. It’s spectacular and the sky is mostly blue. I can see skiers up on top of a hill along the lake ahead and realize I’d better savour the flat lake while I can. I get off the lake at the same time as a girl in blue splash pants. I think back to the morning and think that she doesn’t qualify among the early crowd with baggy pants like those. Off we go up a hill and approach a guy decked out in a matching dark green outfit. He qualifies for the early crew I think to myself and we pass the 35 km sign. Only 20 kms left. As we’re passing Mr. Green I realize that he’s probably only 23 or 25 and gets the boot from the early-risers list, not old enough. I tell him that I noticed he was checking his watch at the 35 km mark and ask him if he thinks we’re on track for a 6 hour finish. He says that he hopes so. I’m encouraged and get back to work and chase down the girl in blue pants. 6 hours would be great. I calculate my finishing time based on that estimate… it’s three o’clock pm. I then realize that I felt like that was a whole calculation, adding 6 hours to 9am! That’s not a good sign, maybe I’m getting a bit stupid as well. No time to think though, I’m on track for six hours and I’ve got to ski. We cruise through some hills and have some really exciting downhill stretches. There’s been yellow signs that say caution on top of lots of these hills, just a notification that you’re going to be going down a hill. One of them actually means caution here though, sharp left midway, then the pitch gets steeper so you can gain some speed just in time for the sharp right at the bottom. I’m having fun and feel like I’m really cruising along. Into the next aid station I tell myself that I can’t stop too long. I down two cups of gatorade. A few bits of banana and a cookie. My mouth is frozen from the bananas and I drink another gatorade to warm it up.
The people at the aid station tell me that the next 5 kms is the hardest part. I look at the course profile which is taped to my ski pole and it looks hilly, no worse that the section where I was trying to keep up with the old man though and now I had good wax. I motivate myself to give it a solid effort as I can make it to the finish in 6 hours and huff out of there and up a big hill. I’m doing more herringbone with my skis than I have been doing for most of the day. It’s been about 15 kms since I decided my groin was tired and it’s now categorized as totally worn out. My hip flexors are tired and pulling each ski through is taking quite a bit of work. I feel like my strides are getting shorter and tell myself that if my strides are getting shorter then they’d better be getting faster. I don’t know if it helps me increase the cadence. I meet up with a guy who has a timex GPS unit on his backpack and I ski next to him for a while. We debate the merits of the Garmin unit that I’m using versus the timex one that he has. He’s a mountain biker and just bought XC skis at Christmas. He’s also totally out of his league and thinks that all of his friends are probably done by now. He’s efficient on the uphills though and pulls away from me even though he says his wax isn’t quite right. I think that means I’m getting tired.
The next station warning happens at the bottom of a short hill and as soon as I’m at the top I can see it down the other side. That was the shortest kilometer of my day for sure, it’s making up for that longer one earlier I think to myself and am happy that the long one wasn’t second, I don’t know how well I’d deal with a long kilometer at this point in the game. This aid station is all about efficiency they don’t want us to stop here, just ski slowly and they’ll keep feeding us. I think it’s because they know if we stop we might not start again. The guy hands me a gatorade as I slide along and just as I do my pole jabs in in front of me and my arm goes shooting up. That cup is on the ground. Efficiency is not the order of the day right now, survival is. I step out of the track and eat my requisite two pieces of banana and drink two cups of gatorade without spilling any more of them. I take a cookie as I leave, chew on the way I tell myself. I can still make it in six hours.
The hills are tamer in the next stretch but they’re not getting any easier. I ski next to a guy from “out east” for a while. He’s also having a tough time, 55 kms is a long way. Slowly though we drift apart. It’s now less important to try and ski alongside someone else or tuck in behind someone whose stride is not distracting. I could care less as I’m now giving things a really serious effort. The six hour goal is motivating me and I have that little bit of hope that the course is getting easier the closer we get to the finish.
One kilometer to the next station seems to be a long kilometer and it finished with a big uphill. As I get to the top I can really feel my heart racing. I am having a tough time and I think the people who are feeding can tell. One guy is peeling my piece of banana for me and when I protest he just does it anyways. “That’s what we’re here for” he says. I get some gatorade in me and this station has definitely taken advantage of the fact that sugar solubility in water increases with temperature. They sure were able to dissolve a lot of gatorade I think to myself… it was about 10 kms ago that I couldn’t add six hours to 9 am and now I am having no trouble thinking about chemistry. Some things are weird that way. I feel like my heart rate is not getting under control and check my monitor. It’s not recovering as quickly as it should. I feel like my body is making the decision about the six hour goal on my behalf and with about 8 kms remaining I had better not be to intent on that for my first go round.
The difficulty of the course was leaning towards my favour but I wasn’t really intent on taking advantage of it. My friend with the timex GPS unit who had stopped at the “highly efficient” station to rewax came by like I was standing still. The route was mostly straight and we could see where we were going. I thought back to the road into Snowville Utah that I rode this past summer on my bike. It was one of my favorite days, endless pedalling in a straight line. I think part of it was realization that the sense of progress is somewhat arbitrary. I was cycling about 38 kph for a long stretch that day and it felt like we were going nowhere.
The diversion to thinking about riding a bike was appreciated and soon enough the straight bit had come to an end. Another station, this was the last one. Remembering Paula Newby Fraser falling apart in the 1995 Hawaii ironman due to skipping some of the last aid stations and being passed by Karen Smyers for the win I pulled in and drank my two cups of gatorade. Another bit of banana and a cookie. I had 5 kms to go and the 6 hour goal was out of reach. Out onto the trail again we soon joined up with some of the other events in progress. No 31 km skiers were to be seen but the 13 km skiers were plentiful. They all had lots of energy and were moving all of their body parts with full ranges of motion. That was certainly something I hadn’t seen in a while out on the 55 km course. Everyone moving my pace had developed their survival skiing mode and was implementing it in fine form. These skiers were doing another fine form and it wasn’t particularly uplifting.
We got to split off of the trail of the quick skiers after a short stretch and got back onto our own route. The snow was quite grainy and in places where herringbone was necessary to ascend a hill the track was chewed up into a sand pit. Pushing against mooshed snow suddenly became incredibly demoralizing and even though these hills were tiny compared to the long ones earlier the challenge seemed enormous. Slow progress down the trail. I switched to the left lane because it was slightly less chewed up as I was all alone. No-one could complain about not being able to pass me as I had been alone for the better part of three kilometers. The one km to go marker came and went and then I heard someone coming from behind me. I planned that I was going to try and race him if he was carrying a pack. I was not about to be passed by someone this late in the game. The mental preparation for the sprint finish was building and building. I felt already like I was going as fast as I could but I was pretty sure that if this guy actually passed me I could just tell my body to go a bit faster and it would have to find another gear. Slowly the sounds were closer and I checked over my right shoulder. This guy had a green bib and wasn’t carrying a pack. What a relief! I wouldn’t have to race to the finish after all. I slowed it right down having passed the final 100 m marker and skied in to the finish. All by myself.
After having my timing chip removed I slid over to the guy weighing packs and he hung mine on the scale. 9.5 kgs. My pack had gained about 5 lbs since being weighed. The pad on the back was saturated with water, I hadn’t weighed in the fleece jacket that I had ended up carrying the whole way and swapped mitts. I was congratulated on having weighed in with the heaviest backpack of the day thus far. No-one else skied the Birkebeiner 2009 with a backpack heavier than mine any faster than I did. That’s a record I don’t think I’m going to try and keep for next year. I don’t know if that means I should switch backpacks to one with less comfortable straps and waistbelt or I should figure out a lighter way to pack this one with everything I need.
I’ve never eaten a hotdog that tasted so good in my entire life before.
I tabulated a few stats based on data from my Garmin:
|* Picture with Ben and Lindsay and mitts
** Waxing and washroom break
A few graphs from the garmin: Heart rate – Elevation – Speed