The upside to being totally disorganized and losing all of your mental faculties the morning of the race is that you have less time for over thinking the race. Then when you arrive and start at the very back of your wave it is much easier to not be tempted into going out way too hard. I think this is particularly important if the main part of your training plan has been resting and tapering.
I would say that most years I line up more towards the back of my wave than the front but never before have I been at the actual back. It does make for a much more chaotic and slow start. This might bother some people but I went into the event with fairly low expectations and a hope that this wasn’t the year that the Birkie was so hard I hated it. I could have done with a little less of the going, going, stopping, going, stopping, stopping, trying not to run into people stopping, going, stopping, getting run into. It is what it is though and is just a part of the fun and excitement of a big race.
In some ways a long 54k race is somewhat of a blur – a blur of people, of suffering, of self talk, of feeling okay, of feeling bad, of passing people, of being passed and more self talk. The race for me kind of broke down into segments by aid stations.
The first part of the race is mostly about the group getting sorted out and thinned out. The worst of this is the first 9k while the Birkie and Kortie skiers are all together. At 9k the Kortie turns off from the Birkie Classic trail and there are a lot less people. Until that point you are jumping from one set of tracks to another to pass the slower people in front of you. Sometimes though things are just so jammed up that you just have to wait as all three tracks are full enough that it isn’t always reasonable to get around someone who is slower.
For me the biggest problem was the fact that my skis were like rocket ships. I’m not complaining but it does make the first part of the race a challenge. On every downhill I would try to leave a nice gap between me and the person in front of me but every time I would catch them. I’m just going to admit that I was “that person” who sometimes skied up onto the skis of the person in front of me. I really was trying to not do that and I had to do the one ski snow plow so many times in the first 5k that it was ridiculous. However, with rocket fast skis and the tracks full there wasn’t much I could do.
Now some of you are probably thinking I’m exaggerating about the speed of my skis but let me assure you that I am not. One of the perks of being on the CXC Master’s Team is that they wax your skis. Suffice it to say they do an awesome job!
As I said, the first 9k are really the worst for congestion and after the Birkie/Kortie split you know that things will be much better. Patience is required as everyone gets sorted out through the first part of the race. I was happy to take it easy though as I knew it would be a bad idea to get too caught up in the moment and leave myself with nothing for the end. s better to save something for the end.
I’m not going to lie I was pretty nervous about how much this year’s Birkie was going to hurt. It’s not like I thought I couldn’t make it but I didn’t know how much suffering would take place before I got to Main Street in Hayward. I was definitely taking it super conservative in this part of the race. I was passing people but I wasn’t killing myself to do it. I was just looking for people skiing at a pace that felt comfortable for me and slotting in behind them.
The first 9k has two feed stations-one at the Power Lines and one at Timber Trail. This also helps break the race into segments as you are just trying to check off getting to the next one. The Power Line feed comes really early so you don’t really need anything substantial. I grabbed a cup of energy drink since I didn’t have time for anything at the start line. In many ways it is just a psychological boost but the mental game can be key in the Birkie. It's better to eat/drink early and not let yourself get into a deficit.
Approaching the Timber Trail Feed at 9k I ate my first Clif Shot. I like to have a food plan and the early food stations I had decided to go with the citrus flavor. I can’t tell you why but I like to have early race flavors and later race flavors. In a long race I really like having more than one flavor to keep me from getting completely sick of energy gels. I also like my later race flavors to pack more caffeine. I have no idea if it actually matters but it makes me feel like I have a plan and it always seems like a good idea to have a plan.
At 9k when the races split it’s possible to feel like you can just ski a little bit more. Back in Wave 4 there are still lots of people but without the Kortie skiers it is less congested. At this point you are catching Wave 3 skiers but Wave 5 skiers are also catching you. You are moving from track to track a bit and trying to be mindful of not skiing in a manner that makes it impossible to pass. I feel like you need to pay attention to what is going on to make the day go smoothly for everyone. At this point I tried to focus in some on my skiing and think less about the distance and more about my technique. I still have a long ways to go in becoming an efficient/proficient classic skier so focusing on my technique is important as my technique needs so much work. It's also just a great distraction from obsessing about how far you have to ski.
Once you get to the third feed station, the High Point Feed, you’ve done some climbing and so I went for my 2nd Clif Shot – again going for the citrus flavor. I’ve really gotten much better in the feed stations and don’t waste nearly as much time as I did when I started ski racing. In the Birkie it is easy to know the stop is coming up so you can grab your Clif Shot from wherever you have it stapled (bib, water carrier, etc), get it open and in your mouth as you’re going into the feed station, get water from one of the later volunteers to avoid the worst of the congestion, and then drink it as you’re exiting the station. I’m not super fast but I’ve gotten much more efficient. The feed stations are combined classic and skate so there is a lot of pandemonium and the volunteers are amazing to put up with us!
After the high point are some super screaming downhills that last year were a bit scary fast. This year they were just super fun and my wax was still running so fast that you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself. Even big guys couldn’t match me. Oh sure, they would start down and pick up speed faster but I would pass them and then eventually glide way farther up the hills. That was a super sweet feeling! Fast skis are just another one of those things that helps mentally.
Eventually I’m plugging away and I finally reach 20k. That seems like such a great thing . . . . until you realize you still have 34k more to ski. That always freaks me out. This year was no different as I was hitting a little mini-rough patch at about 20k. My legs just felt a little rough at this point . . . you know, like I hadn’t skied much this last month. For a couple of kilometers I would start to think about how far I still had to go and how I felt and obsess about the possibility of cramping, seizing up or just plain being in agony.
Luckily this would pass and I would get back into a good rhythm. The nice part is that I’ve skied the High Point to Double OO more over the last couple of years so the trail had a certain familiarity. Normally I don’t like knowing what is coming but I’ve actually had some really fun skis over this section in the last couple of years. It put me in that good place where you feel like you’ve got this under control and can do it.
At the Bodecker Road feed I was planning to take another Clif Shot. I got it out, opened it up and just as I was going to eat it I dropped it. I could have stopped and grabbed it but I really hate to mess with forward momentum so I decided to go with energy drink and a water instead. Luckily I knew that the aid station at Double OO is pretty close so I wasn’t concerned with this change in plans.
Through this section the familiarity with the terrain has me in a comfortable spot and I'm remembering that I did this in the Pre-Birkie and survived. I'll be fine for sure. At this point though I’m lamenting the crappiness of my double-poling (and couldn’t help wondering why I did cross practice instead of ski strength night) but still I’m feeling like I’m passing as many people as are passing me. The fact that I’m not yet at the half way point is intimidating but I still feel like I’m on track for avoiding a death march finish.
Double OO is always a great feeling as it has the most spectators cheering and ringing bells. It’s super fun and festive to finally reach that point. Since it is a ways to the next food station I always have a Clif Shot here and decided now was the time to go to the Chocolate Cherry flavor. I thought I better eat the one I had stuck in my waist band at the start but it was not there. I look down and find that it has slid down to my knee and it looks like I have some sort of weird knee protrusion. I know I’m going to need that one eventually but I just go for the one still stapled to my water carrier since I don't want to stop and figure out how to retrieve it.
After Double OO the classic trail has some fairly flat terrain for a little bit. At this point I’m really clear on how weak my double poling is this year as I’m not my usual self and I have to force myself to keep at it. I even have to throw in some kick double poles to keep the momentum rolling. But if there is one thing I've learned in the last few years it is how to tough it out with double poling.
It’s not too long after this that the classic trail and skate trail join together and you get to see how the skaters are doing. I have to say that in 3 years of doing the Classic race I have never regretted my decision to switch over to the Classic Birkie. I always see the skaters and feel like it looks like no fun but I’m sure they think the same thing. I probably was thinking that back in 2009 when I skated the race (oh wait, I had a leg cramp for 35k so I wasn't thinking anything seemed fun).
Eventually you come to the Gravel Pit Feed Station which is maybe around 15k from the finish and it’s feeling tough-time for another Chocolate Cherry Clif Shot. I had actually pushed the Clif Shot that had fallen down my tights to my knee back up to my waistband on one of the downhills so I could use it. It just really started to bother me that it was stuck at my knee. It's weird what you can obsess about over the course of a long race.
Pretty much from 20k to go until the end all I do is self talk, “20k isn’t that far. It’s just two 10ks which isn’t really that far.” Then “Okay, 19k that’s doable. I can do that. I’ve done that plenty of times.” And then “18k, okay 18k, yep 18k, 18k more, okay, sure, great, you’ve got this.” Finally it’s more like “17k, wow 17k, okay then 17k . . . where the @#@ is the 16k sign, maybe I missed it, no probably not, oh thank god there it is.”
15k to go is nice as somehow numbers divisible by 5 make me feel more optimistic. Weird but true. At the Mosquito Brook Feed Station I go with my last Clif Shot (once again Chocolate Cherry) and try to psyche up for the remaining hills. First up comes the 11k to go hill which is made much more enjoyable by the huge cheering crowd playing loud music. Somehow the music made it really tolerable for me. Well, tolerable as in I was slowly herringboning up the hill but the music was giving me some groove. However, this momentary relief from the feeling of trudging along to the finish was tempered by the knowledge that the infamous Bitch Hill was next.
The thing with Bitch Hill is that it really isn’t the worst hill ever. The start of the hill really isn’t that bad and it only really kicks up right at the end. However, when you’ve skied 45k it feels so hard. I always try to stride as far as I can but I know that I will eventually plod up in a slow herring bone.
It’s always a nice feeling to have that behind you but you know that there is still more to come. For me about 1k after Bitch Hill I could feel my back start to tighten up in a uncomfortable knot of pain. That’s never a good sign so I started using every downhill as a chance to tuck and stretch out the back. It seemed to be working luckily.
Now the self talk is really going on and at this point it isn’t even as interesting. I’m pretty much just chanting over and over in my head how many kilometers are left – as in “7k, 7k, 7k, 7k, 7k”. Every time I have to change tracks to pass someone the effort gets a little harder and it becomes easier to think maybe you shouldn’t pass them. Maybe their pace is really okay. In the end though you do as you also have this overwhelming need to get to the finish.
At the Hwy 77 feed you know you are almost there. I grabbed an energy drink and kept on moving as to me it feels too dangerous to stop – like maybe you would never be able to get going again. The climb after the highway is always a killer but for me the real test is getting down the last hills without falling. You want to go as fast as possible but the legs ability to corner, get in or out of the tracks, or handle any terrain changes is now getting to be very difficult. We all want to use gravity to move us along but with spaghetti legs many people end up in the snow bank at the edge of the trail (or for me 2 years ago cart wheeling down the hill).
I always feel good when I have safely navigated these final challenges and am headed towards Lake Hayward the real final challenge. I could tell I wasn’t going to make a good showing in these final kilometers as my double poling was falling apart. This was mentally tough for me as that has always been my strength in classic skiing but not today. However, before I made my attempt on the lake crossing I had one final hurrah. As you start onto Lake Hayward there is always a group of people set up with a table with Jaeger shots. It’s right on the left next to the Classic tracks.
As I came by I held out my hand, they handed me up a Jaeger shot to great cheers, and I downed it as I slowly skied by. This year I got a very full cup though and I have to confess that I was only able to swallow half of it. Whenever I take the Jaeger shot I always have a split second where I think it was a bad idea and this year was no different. However, if I give it a minute it’s always okay and for me takes my mind off the interminable lake crossing.
Upon realizing that I didn’t have it in me to double-pole the lake this year I just started striding as best I could (which luckily is improving). I just threw myself into it with complete abandon. n the moment I felt like it was some super awesome striding but that could be because I had a Jaeger shot and was barely functioning mentally. I probably looked like some sort of crazed weeble wobble who had learned how to ski the day before. This was topped off by the fact that I was in the worst possible position for crossing the lake – I was all by myself. The key to the lake is drafting but there was no one behind me to force to pass me so I could draft and no one close enough that even a hard effort would allow me to catch them. At this point it is best to just think about the burning in your mouth from the Jaeger shot.
After what seemed like forever I can finally see the end of the lake and there are more and more spectators hanging out in the sun cheering. I even got a final boost when I passed the spot where former CXC (and now Green Team members) Maria and Bryan were as they cheered me like crazy. That gave me just the push I needed to switch to a kick double-pole (a slightly more respectable technique for the lake) and gear up for the entry to Main Street.
Somehow the exit from the lake to Main Street seemed even harder than normal. The snow for this section is trucked in as late as possible but it seemed especially deep and surgery this year. However, then you’re coming around the corner and onto Main Street. I’m happy to report that I pulled myself together so I could double pole the final stretch so at least I would look like I was doing just fine. (Proof is online at http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/20692468
Crossing the finish line I was so relieved to see 4 hours 58 minutes on the clock. I'd really want to come in under 5 hours and I'd made it! I felt relief to be done, relief to not be horrendously slow. That's really the word - relief. That was fun but so very glad to be done.
Of course, my relief turned to surprise later when Dave got me a results print out and it said I had finished in 4:41. My addled brain never thought about the fact that if I started in Wave 4 that my finish time wasn't what the clock said but actually was the time on the clock minus 15 minutes (which is when the elite skate race starts) minus the 2 minutes it took me to actually cross the timing mat (since there is chip timing).
So guess what . . . somehow, against all odds, I actually set a PR by 6 minutes. I guess working on your technique can help to compensate for lack of training.
And now for the obligatory thank yous . . . . thanks to Jason Cork and the other CXC wax techs for making my skis wicked fast, thanks to all the CXC coaches for all the help with my technique, and thanks to all my CXC Master's teammates who helped keep the training I did do fun. A special thank you to CXC's Jennie Bender for the lesson in West Yellowstone which totally revolutionized my striding (although it may not always look that way!). And, of course, thanks to Dave for putting up with my good and bad ski days!
All that's left now is to wait and see what wave I'll qualify for in 2013!!!