Wednesday, November 05, 2014

On racing cyclocross again

If like me you started racing in 1990 it would seem that it would be pretty easy to return to racing after only a couple year hiatus. It would seem that way but it isn't entirely true. It may have been injuries that brought about my hiatus – first a fractured tailbone in 2012 and then SI joint issues in 2013 that continue to flare up even now - but it was a love of the free time that not racing gives you that was truly seductive.  It can be alluring to go out for a ride, a run or a rollerski at any time and any level of effort that I wanted. No showing up at the race location with time to register, warm up, pin on the number, race hard, cool down. Even a short event like cross can eat up your weekend.  Having time to go to brunch, get a few errands done and still exercise is rather relaxing. 

Yet it has seemed strange to put on a big UCI cyclocross race and then not be a part of the scene after it was over. Yes, I feel pretty burnt out on cross by the time the race is over as I've already spent a couple of months totally focused on cross. But only putting on the race makes it hard to remember all the fun I had racing over the years and makes one question why you should keep promoting such a time consuming event.

This year I decided to start getting involved more with cross again so I kicked that off by organizing a weekly women's cyclocross practice. There is actually nothing like a group of women showing up some of whom had never even see a cyclocross race and putting their faith in me to show them the ropes. Honestly it was the most motivating thing I could have done - better than training and actually being fast. It reminded me that what I like about cyclocross and racing (be it bikes or skis) is the camaraderie and social aspect.  For the whole month of October a whole host of women showed up to practice skills and talk about all the various aspects of racing - from heckling to licenses to starts to being okay with getting off and running sections.

And that is truthfully why I started racing again – for the fun people.  Sure it feels somewhat rewarding to have raced hard and pushed myself but after 20+ years I think I know what I can and cannot accomplish athletically. Sure I’ve had some successes – some wins, one state championship, a few meager UCI cyclocross points – and also an overwhelming number of DFLs, a broken finger, a torn ACL, plenty of bumps and bruises.  However, what I really have is lots of friends and acquaintances that are super fun and truthfully I'm hard pressed to think of very many friends that I haven't met either through cycling or skiing.

For all my friends who aren't racing anymore come back and hang out with me! My race season hasn't been that impressive and is highlighted by numbers pinned upside down, poorly executed beer hand ups, almost missing the start, and feeble lungs and legs. However, I have reconnected with some pretty awesome people and met some great new people. I've been heckled and cheered and had a great time recalling that cyclocross is the most fun you can have while suffering intensely! And for all of you doing the heckling and cheering - thanks for making it fun!

Here's some proof that I really have raced!

Sun Prairie Cup

Badger Prairie Start (I'm the one with the slowest start)

Celtic Cross in Fitchburg (I'm the one in green on the left)


 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Remembering F’igen . . . or actually that F’ing Birkie

Sometimes all the things you worry about going into a big event are all the wrong things. As the Birkie quickly approached I spent way too much mental energy worrying about my lack of training.  Of course I only worried about this long after it was too late to make much difference.  November, December or even January might have been a great time to do worry about it as you could still take action.  However, I left it until February at which point I upped my skiing to a record setting 3 days per week.  I even tried to convince myself that I skied 30k one day (luckily Dave pointed out to me that wasn’t true and eventually I reluctantly conceded that it was only about 20k).

I had fantasies of the Birkie being cancelled thus ruining 10,000 people’s days so I could feel better.  I had fantasies of short illnesses that would cause me to miss the race (the Birkie flu instead of Birkie fever).  Of course a sane person would have switched to the Kortie on Jan 31 but that particular day I was overcome with enthusiasm for skiing.  Truthfully I am pretty sure that I was overcome with only enough enthusiasm to not change out of the Birkie but not enough to go skiing when I got home.  I can’t say for sure but I’m pretty confident that I had a surge of confidence and then got home from work and mixed up a nice drink instead of heading out into the cold to ski.  I can say with fair confidence that I kicked back with my drink and was filled with thoughts of how skiing the Birke with little training would be fine.  Sports psychologists do say that the power of positive thinking is important!
The sad reality of life is that no matter what you do you can’t stop time and eventually Birkie day arrived whether I wished it away or not.  (Apparently the power of positive thinking can only take you so far!)
I won’t bore you with details of getting up at 5am to get ready, worrying if I had enough Dermatone slathered on to prevent frostbite, and how much fun it is to freeze in a porta-potty in 2 degree temps (although you can read more about that here).  Instead I’ll just cut to the chase of the actual race.
As mentioned I worried quite a bit (although possibly not enough or too little too late) about my fitness.  I was skiing out of Wave 3 and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to ski that kind of time this year so I lined up in the back. When the gun went off I didn’t let nervous energy get the better of me and send me rocketing towards the front instead I took it easy and just didn’t worry about the pace.  No need to rush around.  Plus I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a slow starter on my best days especially in really cold temps.

I thought my plan was going pretty well.  By around 5k or so I was starting to feel a little bit more warmed up and settling into the race.  The pack was thinning out a bit already back in the back of Wave 3 so it wasn’t so crowded.  By the 9k feed station I really thought that the race was going pretty well all things considered.  Certainly not fast but nice and steady. I was pacing myself off someone whose bib said this was Birkie #28. I figured he knew how to pace the race with that many years of experience!

But then skip ahead to about 17k into the race.  At this point you’ve crossed over Fire Tower Hill but still have lots of racing to go.  Enough that it still seems daunting.  This is the point at which my back started to seize up and was excruciatingly painful. I had lots of back problems in 2013 but they really hadn’t bothered me since mid-summer.  Apparently though my problems had not gone away permanently since I was in agony.
I’m not going to lie – with 37k still to ski I was a little worried.  Luckily my back pain totally took my mind off my lack of endurance. Instead I focused on trying to find ways of skiing that would be less painful. Skiing slower was a big part of the plan as was stretching on every downhill.  I also changed up how upright I was on the skis trying out different positions to find ones that were less painful.
At 21k I got to the Boedecker Road feed station and decided that I needed to stretch out my back.  In the past it would often feel a little better if I could crack my back.  I skied into the aid station, ate a Gu, drank some water and then found a free space.  And I took off my skis, laid down in the snow and stretched. Then I got up and continued on as what else can you do?!?!
My back felt a little better for a kilometer or so but after that the pain was back with a vengeance and at times it was hard to find any position that wasn’t shooting pain up my back. The next rest stop was at OO where you can get a bus if you drop out. That is the half way point for the Classic race and I wasn’t sure if I could last skiing with that much pain for another 27k.
So I thought about it and I thought about it some more. I thought about what I wrote on the toe of my boot – Remember F’igen.   Last September we mountain biked through the Swiss Alps and the day we rode through Frutigen was pretty horrible.  We had 9 hours of riding/walking with steep climbs and plenty of rain and lots of misery. I cried once and it took every ounce of fortitude to make it. Truthfully we should have gotten the bus in Frutigen before we started the final mountain pas to Adelboden but we didn't.
One could take “Remember F’igen” two ways – 1) that if we would have taken the bus when we had the chance the day would have been tiring but enjoyable or 2) that you can dig deep and survive things that are really hard and laugh about it later.  Not shockingly I went with the 2nd interpretation.  I told myself that if I wasn’t crying and I could still move forward then there was no way I should drop out.  Plus they gave us the Finisher hat when we picked up our race bib what would I do with the hat if didn’t finish???
I got to OO and I ate more Gu, drank more water and once again found a spot to take off my skis and stretch my back.  Then I put my skis on and went right on by the easiest place to drop out of the race telling myself that it was the smart move.  I’d regret stopping when it took me one year longer to get my 10 year plaque (or piece of wood as we like to call it).  Once again I felt better for about 1 k and then it was back to pain management.

There is definitely some bruised pride in having to go really slow in the Birkie as everyone can easily see that you started in Wave 3 (based on the number on your bib).  And there you are mixed in with people from Wave 5-7 but what can you do but keep going slowly but steadily just trying to keep the kilometer markers going by. You must ignore the fact that you are not passing anyone while hoards of people are passing you. You just have to stay focused on checking off Birkie #6.
After OO the next aid station is about 9k away which is the furthest between aid stations of the entire race.  Unfortunately this section was particularly painful for my back. I was having trouble finding any position that was comfortable but I reminded myself of lots of other painful things I’ve done (got hit by a car, 35k of leg cramps in Birkie #1, recovering from knee surgery, riding day after day over the Alps, etc, etc).  You also have to focus on the positive such as I’m more than half way, Dave will have plenty of time to take the bus back to get the car and still meet me at the finish, I have cupcakes waiting back at the cabin, etc, etc.
I actually thought about stopping before I got to the next aid station to stretch my back but I told myself to wait as it didn’t seem to help that much. I was imagining myself having to stop every K to stretch which seemed futile. Finally I got to the Gravel Pit feed station ate my Gu, drank my water and stretched my back.  Then I got back to skiing (or maybe just walking on skis most of the time at this point). I focused on getting to the Mosquito Brook aid station which I eventually reached and did the same thing – Gu, water, stretch.
This is where things got interesting. First you go up the 39K hill (which is actually the 43k hill for Classic skiers) which is a nice change of pace because there is a big crowd, music and spectators to take your mind off your suffering.  I wish more hills had music!  Then you have to prepare for Bitch Hill which isn’t really that hard of a hill but it is steep and it is late in the race.  This is another hill that has a crowd of spectators dressed up to entertain the skiers.  I got up both just by going really slowly and finding a body position that took the pain off my back.  So far so good really.
Down bitch hill and you have less than 10k to go which is awesome mentally because 10k is a distance that doesn’t sound too bad. But in the Birkie you can never get complacent! I was going down the 2nd downhill after Bitch Hill when I realized I needed to get out of the tracks to go around a skier with slow skis.  I jumped out into the skate lane but then so did the slower skier.  I was snowplowing so I could slow down and not hit him when a guy behind me started yelling “on your left.” Unfortunately I had nowhere to go as to move to the right required skiing over a mound of snow so he hit me. Given how soft the snow was it wasn’t really so bad to crash as it was a soft landing.  However, after I crashed he crashed and when he crashed he landed on my pole and I heard the heart wrenching sound of it snapping.
At this point I really couldn’t believe my luck.  I could barely ski for back pain and now I had only one working pole. The guy who hit me asked if I was okay to which I replied that I was fine. Then I picked myself up and just skied off. What can you do.  That’s ski racing. I’m not sure if I was more upset that I had to ski with only one pole or that he had just broken a rather expensive pole.
So I started skiing with my one pole and miracle of miracles it actually felt better in some ways. I broke my left pole and it was the left side of my back that felt the worst so in some ways it brought a little relief.  Plus you get lots of sympathy when you have only one pole. Plus the kind of sympathy you get for having a broken pole is better than the sympathy you get for being a Wave 3 skier who has slid back to ski with Wave 6 and 7 skiers.
So there I was skiing along with my one pole just making the best of what was not a great day.  Luckily I was only about 4-5k away from the next aid station where they have extra poles so it wasn’t the end of the world.  At the Hwy 77 aid station I got a new pole and was so invigorated to be close to the end that I didn’t even both to stretch.   My new pole took a little getting used to as it was a cheap pole with just a loop off the grip so it was easy to forget that it wasn’t attached as firmly as my other pole.  It was good though as I didn’t want to ski the whole way to the finish with just one pole as it does get awkward after a while. (Big thanks to Yuriy for all those drills with just one pole over the years though).
After Hwy 77 you have one big climb still to do which seemed easier than normal.  Funny thing about the back pain is that I wasn’t as tired as normal since I had been skiing so slow all day.  I was glad to get the climb over with but I wasn’t as deathly tired as normal.  Once you get up and over that you have a nice long lake to cross before you get to downtown Hayward.
At the start of the lake is the most important part of the race – the table with Jaeger shots.  And yes I stopped for some Jaeger.  Normally I chug it on the move but this year I stopped and savored the smooth burn.  That fortified me for what was the worst crossing of the lake I’ve experienced yet.  The wind is always a factor in the lake crossing but this year was the worst yet.  The wind was howling and drifting the snow so the tracks were completely gone in spots. It was also a very cold wind which was just a nice touch at the end of a very long day.
However at this point you know you’ll make it and when time is no longer a consideration you just keep plugging away slow and steady.  It would have been nice to draft someone but I did not luck into that.  Instead a woman drafted me the whole way so at least I could provide a nice service (and I felt good about it since she was from Wave 4 so obviously not her finest day either).  After what seems like forever you finally make the move off the lake onto the streets of Hayward and finally take the turn onto Main Street.  I was pretty excited to see the Finish line! Stopping skiing felt so good as did get my 6 year pin.
I admit that I never thought I would ski an almost 7 hour Birkie.  And if I am completely honest I would say that there is a part of me that wishes I had dropped out so that I wouldn’t have that recorded for posterity.  However, the bigger part of my conscience is glad that I toughed it out and pressed on to record one more finish.  It offered me one more opportunity to see if I’m tough enough. Truthfully it must not have been that hard as I didn’t even cry once!

And it wouldn't be a Birkie blog without thanking some people.  Special thanks to CXC for waxing my skis as it is always nice to have the pros taking care of things.  Also thanks to the CXC coaches as I wouldn't even be able to ski the Birkie without their instruction.  Special mention to the coaching efforts of Igor who passed away this winter as he always pushed me to be a better skier than I thought I could be.  He will be missed but his memory will live on with all of us who learned so much from him.  Thanks to Matt Liebsch for picking out an awesome pair of Rossignol skis for me last summer as they worked great.  And thanks to the awesome group of friends who I share a cabin with each year for the fun and camaraderie that really make the weekend worthwhile.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Birkie 2013

I know there is a reason I don’t take this blog down – Birkie Fever.  I like having a place to record my thoughts after the race so I can reflect back on all the good times, the suffering and the funny stuff. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Oh wait, is that too cliche a start to this post???  I realize that some of you know that I said that I didn't have a great Birkie this year.  But what about those best of times????  Let's start with that.

The great part about the Birkie is all the stuff outside of the race really (well, except that 5am alarm on Sunday).  You are surrounded by a huge celebration of skiing and  with tons of other people many of whom are people you really like but maybe don’t get to see that often.  I know that a lot of people don’t like the Birkie because of all the people and hoopla and insanity.  However all those things also make it awesome and set it apart from all the other winter weekends.

Barnebirkie
For me I love to get there as early on Thursday as possible but with work commitments I often don’t get to see the Barnebirkie.  However, this year I was determined to be there as I wanted to cheer for the kids who would be doing the event in sit skis (which was a first).  Plus I can’t lie to you I love the Barnebirkie.  Who doesn’t love seeing all sorts of little kids out skiing?  It’s the one time of year I think it would be cool to have a kid so I could do the event with them. (Don't get the wrong idea about that comment as it is more like I'd like to borrow a kid than have my own).

Then on Thursday there is the Main Street Sprints which are also quite an enjoyable time.  Being on the CXC Master’s Team there is usually someone I know racing.  This year was especially fun because my favorite racer, Jennie Bender, won the women’s sprints.  Who doesn’t love watching their friends win?

After the Sprints it was off to the Expo and Bib Pick Up.  Bib Pick Up can be a very crazy undertaking depending on when you arrive.  Luckily Thursday afternoon wasn’t very busy yet so no long lines.  In the expo I saw one of the Smartwool reps that worked at the USGP and chatted with him about CX World’s (I like to talk biking at ski races and skiing at bike races).  I also bumped into quite a few people I hadn’t seen in a while including a few other CXC Master’s teammates and even a former WisDOT co-worker.  Then I got to hang out at the CXC booth and watch people try out their new poling machine which proved quite entertaining.

After the Expo it was off to Cable for dinner at one of my favorite places, River’s Eatery, for some pizza.  I had made plans to rendezvous there with Jennie Bender so we could catch up and we werealso  joined by some other CXC Master’s which provided a perfect group for hilarious conversation.  I’m just going to admit that there are few people who can make me laugh as much as Jennie so good times for sure.  Some might say too much fun but is that really possible??!!?? 

On Friday my only goal was to get out for a short ski since I hadn't skied in a couple of weeks.  On Friday I always have this overwhelming feeling that I've completely forgotten how to ski in any sort of reasonable manner.  This year was no different but being this is my 5th Birkie I've become used to that feeling.  Instead I just ignored my own problems and let myself enjoy all the people out trying out skis and waxes.  Lots of people out sweating which pair of skis to use. I already knew that I would ski my lucky skis which have seen me through all my classic races.  They are a little soft which is less than ideal under some conditions but fine for the type of snow we ended up having.  Besides even though they are a little soft they are lucky which makes them always the right choice. When in doubt go for the lucky skis!!

Friday also has the giant ski, the barkebirkie and the sit ski race.  Plus the obligatory stop at New Moon to look for things you don't need but might buy anyway in a fit of nervousness.  Dave and I even got interviewed on the radio while we were watching the sit ski race.  

Once you get into Friday night then it is time for dinner, selecting the clothes you are going to wear, stapling your energy gels and agreeing on what time we'd leave the cabin to get to the start.  Luckily this year the temps were in the mid-20s so deciding what to wear was easy.  I already had a sense of what Clif Shot flavors I wanted - chocolate for the beginning of the race, a citrus for the middle and chocolate cherry with extra caffeine for the end.  Not the combination for everyone but to each their own, right.

Now on to the racing . . . .  
The fact that I had a bad race is pretty shocking.  Oh wait . . . I didn’t do any mtn bike races, cyclocross races, ski camps, long rollerskis, ski intervals, strength nights, Elver races or other silly things like that.  I did sit on the couch quite a bit and occasionally worked up the motivation to jog 3 miles.  I did go on some nice weekend skis this winter but I certainly avoided mid week skis particularly those on man made snow.   What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to train too much to ski the Birkie but you might be happier if you did. 

So what happened out there?

Unlike last year I had my act together this year at the race start so I avoided any unnecessary drama or stress which is a really good thing as I didn’t need that on top of my lack of preparation.  Learning from last year’s experience I arrived with plenty of time to spare.  Unfortunately this means getting up way earlier than I prefer.  You see I’m the only Wave 3 skier in my cabin.  There were five Wave 1 Classic skiers, two Wave 5 Classic skiers and one Wave 5 Skate skier.  So I went with the Wave 1 Classic Skiers which meant leaving the cabin at 6am.  I suppose in reality you never actually sleep that well once the first people in the house gets up anyway so I might as well join them.

For those of you who haven’t skied the Birkie before it is a logistical nightmare.  There are 10,000 skiers all trying to get to one of the designated parking lots, get on a bus and get to Telemark Resort in time to walk down to where the start is located.  It can be a bit of a crush.  However, if you are going with Wave 1 Classic skiers it isn’t as bad because you are getting there pretty early.  We arrived at the start area by around 7am and it was pretty quiet still.  It’s always hard to believe because in even half an hour it is super crowded.

Me and Jennie Bender at the start
Me and Dave at the start
For the first time ever I tested my skis out on the little warm up loop.  I never do that.  I basically prefer to just have faith (or just have no time).  I did my warm up loop and then since everyone else seemed to be asking for one more layer of wax I did too.  Personally I had no idea if I wanted another layer or not because the warm up loop is basically flat so I couldn't really say if I had good kick or not.  However, everyone asking for another layer were better skiers than me so I felt like I should have one too.  (At this point I should confess that I am on the CXC Master’s Team so my skis are waxed by the team).

After ski testing I had tons of time to kill actually.  I had time to sit around, time for 2 port-a-potty visits, time to drop my bag off without rushing, time to cheer on the women’s elite skate wave, and even time to pose for photos with friends.  I arrived at the start of Wave 3 Classic in plenty of time and with no rushing around. It almost didn’t feel like I was at the Birkie. 

Start of the Women's Elite Skate Race
Now I will confess that in the back of my mind I had some concerns about this race but I had stomped those thoughts down.  I instead focused on reminding myself “that I’ve got this.”  What’s the big deal I’d done this event 4 times before including one year with 35k of leg cramps.  I’d skied for 3.5 hours with bad back pain at Mirror Lake only 2 weeks beforehand so I knew that I could make it.  (I fell on some ice a few weeks before the Birkie and my back was pretty bad but thanks to my massage therapist and acupuncturist I felt hopeful that I would be okay).

With all my doubts firmly pushed to the very dark recesses of my brain I set off on my 5th Birkie with all the optimism that a beautiful 20 degree day in a snow covered woods can bring.  Luckily for me my brain sort of fuzzes out much of the minute details of the event and leaves you with just a thrill of completion.  This means that you will not have to endure a kilometer by kilometer overview of my day (which would be unbearably boring as it really is just glide, pole, shuffle, breathing too hard, slow down, get passed, walk on skis, try to glide, get passed, shuffle . . . . ).

Of course I remember the congestion of the start.  It’s not as bad as the skate race but even the classic race takes a while to get sorted out.  I like to start slow so it doesn’t bother me and I’ve never been tempted to wait until everyone is gone to start (the race is chip timed so people do wait and go a little after their wave starts).  I feel like that congested start can give you a nice sense of camaraderie with the other people in your wave if you can avoid the occasional jerk in the crowd.  And even the jerks are probably nice people who are just too amped up on caffeine, gels and nerves.

I would say the start was pretty smooth except for one little incident at around 3k.  Luckily for me my skis were running pretty fast.  CXC had done a great job with the wax.  All in all this a good thing except during the most congested period of the race when you encounter people in front of you with slower skis.  I’m pretty conscientious of this fact but around 3k I was flying down a nice hill and was starting my glide up the next uphill.  All of a sudden this guy moves into my track and I glide right into the back of him and take us both down.  Now we’re both flailing around to try to get back up on a steep hill section which was not a pretty site.  Truthfully I was pissed with him for veering over into my path but since he seemed annoyed with me for taking him down I apologized while he grumbled. But really, is it really too much to ask for people to hold their line especially during the first 5k? 

At this point in the story I think it is important to mention that it snowed about 6-8 inches the day before the Birkie and didn’t get cold.  If you aren’t a skier you probably think that sounds great.  Skiers like snow and you probably remember how I complained about the abominably cold temperatures two years ago.  Well, sure but not exactly.  The fresh snow was not able to be compacted into a solid classic track (or skate deck really) which means that the skiing is slow and it doesn't take much to completely obliterate the tracks. 

One of the great things about the Birkie Classic trail is that the hills are not as steep so it is much easier to stride and you don’t need to herring bone as much.  Of course the tracks were soft so after probably the elite wave most of the hills no longer had tracks left as they were completely churned up.  This meant much, much more herring bone than normal and much more than I had prepared for during the skiing I did do.  This meant a very slow pace for me compared to normal.  This meant much more tired legs than I would prefer in the first half of the race.

Even in the first 9k of the race I could tell this race was coming off the rails.  I was passing hardly anyone, skiers from the wave behind me were passing me way too soon and my legs were already feeling heavy from the effort.  However, I did what anyone would do which was carry on in a slow and steady fashion and think positive thoughts. 

After the 9k point the Kortie skiers cut off and the trail is instantly less congested.  Of course, you are also in a pretty hilly part of the course and given the need to herring bone it did seem even more relentless than normal.  Plus at this point you see the mileage markers and it is always a bit overwhelming to realize that you've skied 20K but you still have 34k to go.  

I think I always get a little depressed at this point because the finish seems so far away but you feel like you've been skiing for quite awhile.  I actually really like this section of trail – well, when I’m just out for a fun ski at least – but it does have a couple of tricky downhills.  This year because of the loose snow they were like little luge runs.  The fresh snow had all been pushed off by the skiers into banked turns with scraped up hard pack that you had to negotiate around and down.  I was going down one of the trickier corners and was doing my best to carve my skis around the turn.  Part way down my left foot (which is doing the most carving) gets an arch cramp.  All I could think about was not crashing while my mind was screaming that I was doomed.  Somehow I made it around the corner but it was pretty touch and go.

Once you reach the Double OO food station you feel like you've reached a turning point in the race.  Shortly after that the classic and skate races come back together into one trails.  The bad part is that you now only have 2 classic tracks which given the soft snow are even more likely to be in bad shape as skaters ski over them.  I noticed this year that even with both the classic skiers and the skate skiers on the same trail that it was pretty quiet.  Not a ton of people talking.  Usually I like to make little quips or jokes or comment on the passing kilometer markings but I had no energy to spare for talking.  It seemed like I wasn't the only one suffering.

Around the half way point (27k to go) I realized how tight and sore my back was starting to get.  Since I knew this might happen I had some strategies.  Basically I would stretch my back on every downhill and try do deep breathing.  My massage therapist had recommended stretching with deep breathing if my back started to bother me.  I’m not sure if she meant I should stop and do that but there was no way I was going to stop.  I knew my best bet was to just keep going and to ignore the pain as much as possible.
Luckily it wasn't as bad as it might have been.  There were times when my back hurt too much to bend over on the downhills to stretch.  There were times when double poling was painful and times when striding were painful.  Luckily there were also times when I felt fine.  I just had to remember that if double poling hurt to try kick double poling or striding.  I felt bad about my very slow speed up the hills but at this point I just wanted to get to the finish.

In reflecting back on the race I find that the mind is an interesting thing.  You have a lot of time out on the trail and your mind has to have something to do.  Obviously keeping track of how many kilometers remain take up a great deal of the end of the race.  I’m always calculating things although each year when that starts is a little different.  I think this may be the first time that when I got to the 11k marker that my mind actually thought about how I was 20% done.  I know that when I get to 30k to go that I think of that as “just 3 10ks” and when I get to “2 10ks” I feel even better.

Of course you also look forward to the various places on the trail that have a lot of spectators.  Double OO obviously has a lot of people which is nice.  The 11k to go group has music and when you get there you know you are almost to the infamous Bitch Hill.  Bitch Hill has a faux preacher to absolve you of your sins.  Swearing being probably one of the biggest sins of the moment.  Then there are always some costumed people at the top of the hill encouraging you.  Bitch Hill isn't really that bad of a hill in the scheme of things but at that point your legs are tired and the short steep pitch does make your legs scream.

After a very long ski I finally reached the start of Lake Hayward where I could finally get my long anticipated Jaeger shot.  Most years I just take the Jaeger shot because it makes the people at the table happy but I don't care one way or the other about it.  This year though I really wanted that Jaeger shot. Truthfully I’m not a huge Jaegermeister fan but I needed some sort of distraction this year.  And it worked.  For the next .5 k or so I felt better.  I didn't ski better but I felt more optimistic about making it across that stupid never ending lake.

Of course I continued my trend of getting passed and several more classic skiers passed me on the lake but I didn't even care.  I just wanted to get done.  As always you eventually make it across the lake to the sugary snow of Main Street.  It seemed like the downtown was packed when I arrived and I got cheered on by quite a few people I knew who were still hanging out watching finishers.

At the finish line both of the First Aid guys were grilling me about if I was okay or needed anything.  All I could think was that all I needed was to finish so I could stop skiing and I accomplished that so what else was there.  After my mumbling, noncommittal "I'm fine" they finally asked if I'd like them to take my skis off.  That was much more what I needed than any first aid as I feared if I bent over I would never get back up.

After that I wandered around in a serious haze attempting to find my drop bag.  Not as easy as it sounds since the 1st-3rd wave bags are not in the same place as the later wave bags so I went to the wrong place.  Some nice volunteer took charge of me though and commandeered my bag.  Dave was waiting near my bag so located me so he could steer me along to the changing tent and then produced some food for me.  He was my savior for sure!!!

After that there was nothing left but the beer drinking, story telling, food eating and assorted other good times that are Saturday night after the Birkie.

So basically thanks to all my friends as without you I probably wouldn't be thinking that this particular Birkie weekend was awesome.  Luckily all my friends ensured I had a great time and so obviously I'll be signing up for Birkie number 6.  I think I'll prepare a little bit better this time . . . . 


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Birkie in Two Parts: And Now the Race

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 at 22:22).

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!!!

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Birkie in Two Parts: Part One - Pre-Race

Birkie race morning is always a little chaotic since there are over 9,000 racers in a small town trying to get to a parking lot to get on a bus to be dropped off at another parking lot where they walk in a large crowd of nervous people to the start.

For some reason I can never truly remember how long this will take so on more than one occasion cut things really close.  Of course I never realize I’m cutting it close until the start is 15 minutes away and it’s crunch time.  Of course it isn’t actually necessary for me to start with my wave as the race is chipped time so I can technically start anytime after my official wave time of 8:40am (Wave 4 Classic).  However unlike some people I do want to start with my wave.  It gives that official crazy Birkie feeling.

Let’s start this story with my morning with getting on the bus. It was 8am when I was on the bus and so I felt like I had plenty of time.  Once the bus made the short trip from Pilot Fish Inn parking area down the road to Telemark Resort I briskly walked to the start area where I needed to:
  • Go to the bathroom;
  • Get my skis from CXC (who waxes the skis of all the team members and brings them to the start)
  • Put on my ski boots
  • Leave my drop bag at the appropriate truck
This is not a long list of items so it seemed like I would be right on schedule.  I started with going to the bathroom.  I know of a porta-potty that is a little out of the way and it has always worked well for me in terms of avoiding super long lines.  Things looked good this year with only maybe 4 or 5 people waiting in line which is pretty short by Birkie standards.  But then I’m waiting, waiting, waiting.  What are these people doing???  I decide to put on my ski boots while I’m in line to save time.  Okay, that’s done and I’m waiting, waiting, waiting.  For real what is taking people so long???  I decide to take off my overpants so I have one less thing to do.  At this point the elite men's skate wave is going off so it is now 8:25am.  then the elite women at 8:27am and I’m still in line.

I’m a little freaked out with less than 15 minutes to go and still I’m just waiting.  What the hell are people doing?.  FINALLY  I’m in and thanks to my “ninja” porta-potty skills I’m in and out fast.  However at this point I’m freaking but I still think I’m okay on time if I hustle. 

Next up is finding my skis.  This is where trouble sets in for me.  I make a pass through where I expect them to be but I don’t see a Salomon tent or banner or flags which is what I think I’m looking for to find the CXC team area where my skis are waiting.  I walk all the way down the field from my porta-potty to where the main porta-potties are located and I don’t see a tent or flags.  I’m getting a little nervous but I figure I’m just confused as to where they are so I look in the next possible location.

Time is getting tight and I worry is starting to creep in.  My teammate Ann sees me and asks if I know where the skis are as she is in the wave just 5 minutes behind me and hasn’t found them either.  I say no and she goes to the announcers stand to get them to announce where they are.

At this point I abandon looking for my skis and just decide to deal with my drop bag.  Of course, once you are starting to get stressed it seems like you become unable to even do simple tasks efficiently.  I do the same drop bag procedure every year but this year I couldn’t seem to get it together. 

Carrying your extra items for the finish line around in the plastic Birkie bag is a recipe for disaster.  It is awkward to carry on the bus and to the finish line.  Plus it is very easy to rip it such that you are left without a bag.  This has led me to using a Timbuk2 tote bag that I put all my items into and then put inside my Birkie bag.  It is easier to carry and if the plastic bag rips you can just tie it onto the tote bag handles and still have it transported and located at the finish line.

Sounds well planned, right?  It is a solid plan and it has worked for me not just at the Birkie but at other races with plastic drop bags as well.  However for some reason this year I was floundering around at the drop bag area.  I already had my warm up pants in my tote bag and had my winter boots in there as well.  I had no trouble getting my down jacket in and got out my water belt (with stapled on Clif shots) and got the correct gloves on as well.  The tote bag zipped up no problem even with extra clothes, boots, warm up pants, down jacket and dry gloves and a hat.  However, I couldn’t seem to get the tote bag into the plastic Birkie bag.  I knew it would fit as I had done this every other year.  However, my nervous excitement over my rapidly approaching start time was making it impossible for me to figure out how to accomplish this relatively simple task.  Yes, the tote bag is a tight fit in the bag but far from an impossible puzzle.  After maybe four times. . . . and the passing of what seemed like an eternity . . . I finally got the tote bag into the plastic bag and into the right truck.

By now my friend had got an announcement made that CXC skiers should get their skis by the flag poles.  Now I feel like an idiot as I had passed by there thinking that is where my skis would be but in my nervous rushing around had not seen them.  At this point the wave which is starting 5 minutes before me is going off and so I’m in full on frantic racer mode (you know, where normally smart people behave like idiots because their brains are no longer functioning).  I get over to the flag area and luckily one of the waxers, James, is there to assist me as I do not think I could have found my own skis.  Not that it should be that hard as they are labeled with my name and are one of the few pair of Rossignol skis in the lineup.  James luckily finds my skis and hands them to me.  Of course, now I can’t even do a simple task like take the ski holders off so James takes them from me and removes the holders.  At this point clearly I’m not capable of coherent thought and I may or may not have thrown the ski holders on the ground.  I had nowhere to put them them since I’d already gotten rid of my drop bag (where they normally get put so I have them later at the finish).

I have to stop now to give a huge shout out to James who must think I am the most sketch person ever for arriving to get my skis so late, not being able to find them myself, not being able to remove my ski holders and for (possibly) throwing my ski holders on the ground.  I want to say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for your patience, assistance and clear head.  I really am not usually like that.

Okay, so now I finally have everything I need but literally time is of the essence.  So I’m running (yes, actually running) towards the start area, the adrenaline is flowing and I’m just hoping I’m going to make it.  Of course, at this point it is clear that I have completely lost my mind so I can’t even get to the start area in a sensible and efficient fashion.  No . . . instead I get into the area behind the start line where people go prior to their start.  Of course, if your wave is already on the start line then you are in the wrong place.  Finally I get my head together and I realize I’m surrounded by the chaos that is Wave 2 skate.  SHIT!  Now I have to fight my way out of the holding pen which I luckily accomplish by climbing over the snow fence and luckily have just enough self respect left not to trip and fall.  I throw a few elbows to get the crazed Wave 2 skaters trying to get into the holding pen out of my way so I finally reach the starting area where the other Wave 4 Classic skiers are lined up.

I’ve got a minute and a half to get my skis on, my poles on and get myself focused.  Let’s just say I’m not in heart rate zone 1 or 2 at this point.  Somehow I do have mental capacity to get my skis and poles on in the allotted time.  I do somehow manage to knock one of the Clif Shots stapled to my water belt off but I have time to grab it and shove it in the waistband of my tights.

Arriving so late I am lined up so far back that I can feel the breath of the psychotically crazed Wave 2 skaters (who all believe they should be in the elite wave) breathing on my neck.  I just hope that they don’t pull the gate for them to move into the starting pen before I can clear the area (this has happened before and classic skiers were trampled!).

And then BAM goes the gun and we’re off . . . . well sort of. This is the Birkie after all and it takes awhile if you’re lined up in the back, back, back for you to really feel like you’re going but I feel a huge sigh of relief as I’ve made it and I have the right skis and poles.  I’ve remembered to remove my warm up items.  I changed into the right weight of gloves.  I remembered to put on my water carrier with the stapled on Clif Shots.  

I made it!  Chaos, disorganization, lack of ability to make good decisions, poor decision-making skills . . . . it must be the Birkie Fever.


This is the kind of crowd you find at the start area so it can be difficult when you're running around crazy.


Friday, February 17, 2012

So I finally did the Pre-Birkie

If you’re into outdoor sporting activities you’ve probably spent your fair share of time in porta-potties. Every running race, bike race and, yes, ski race has the ever present lines of people waiting for their turn. I feel like the easiest sport for the porta-potty stop is running as it is just shorts, sports bra, and running top. Biking is a little more complicated as you have to stow the bike somewhere and it gets more complicated if you are wearing bib shorts or a skinsuit. Ski racing though presents more challenges especially the colder it gets.

The start of the Pre-Birkie was around minus 3 degrees F. This means you have lots of layers to manage. It’s not like you want to go into a freezing cold porta-potty so you definitely go before you leave your lodging. It’s never enough though even if you aren’t all that nervous. Being just a little bit nervous combined with some morning caffeine means that you are destined to visit the blue plastic throne.

First you have to find a good location for your skis and poles where they won’t be in the way, won’t get knocked over in the wind and where you will be able to find them later. Nothing like looking desperately for your black Salomon skis propped up in a row of similar looking skis and all you can remember is that you left them in a snow bank to the left of the park shelter.

Once you have your skis and poles settled you hope the line isn’t too long as you are closing in on start time and you still have to deal with your drop bag (for your extra clothes) and negotiate the almost always icey path to the start line.

Once inside the porta-potty you have to decide what to do with your gloves, deal with the fact that you’re wearing somewhat bulky overpants, along with lycra tights, long underwear, boxer briefs, and on this particular day, also wicking underwear. That’s a lot of layers. Of course, it’s getting them back on that is the real challenge.

Given the sub zero temps I decided to go with the all in one motion. This is where you attempt to get all your layers back up in one good tug. This sounds great but can be fraught with issues. On this particular occasion I immediately knew there was something amiss; something was just not quite right. No quick wiggle or tug would solve the problem.

Unfortunately the root of the problem was that the quick tug only worked for 4 of the 5 layers. Yes, the underwear were still in their original dropped position while everything else was back up.

At this point you are more or less back to square one and you just have to admit defeat and go back to the method of pulling up only one or two layers at a time. Once you get the underwear and boxers situated back into their spot you can move on to the long underwear and lycra tights. Get those adjusted and get your overpants situated and zipped/snapped so they don’t fall down as soon as you leave your plastic castle.

Of course your efforts are not done yet but at this point you can elect to leave the porta-potty if you would prefer to fidget around outside instead. Yes, your pants are all up but you still have to get yourself retucked so as to avoid unnecessary drafts once you start skiing.

Luckily I only had to tuck in my one long underwear layer as I had opted to go for Craft long underwear top under my Bjorn Dhalie Olympic jacket (which is an awesome jacket combining warmth and moisture transfer such that it actually works for racing).

Sometimes I think it is amazing that anyone gets to the race start line on time given the clothing gymnastics required in the porta-potty. However somehow ski racers make it to the start line on time or at least close to on time (I’ve never been in the porta-potty when the race gun went off but it certainly has happened to friends). It’s easier if you’re not worried about your start position as you don’t need to worry about the announcer’s constant countdown until start time.

Once out of the porta-potty it was on to the next challenge – the drop bag truck. It’s always a fine line between too early and too late on the dropping off of the drop bag. When it’s below zero with a nice wind you want to keep your extra outer layers as long as possible. However, you also don’t want to be running to the start line and still trying to get your skis and poles on as the start gun is fired.

Eventually you just have to face the reality that you are going to be cold for a little while. Then it’s time to determine how best to get your over pants off over your tights without slipping on any ice while wearing ski boots that have slippery plastic bottoms. Finally you are forced to also relinquish your coat and realize your only hope is to ignore the cold. Then make sure you have your skis and your poles (sounds simple but trust me that this can be an area that gets you into trouble). Next up is getting into starting position which may or may not require some jockeying around.

Jockeying yourself into position can take many forms – elbowing your way to the front row because you’re a master blaster who thinks they belong with the elites or the exact opposite which is creeping backwards anytime someone lines up behind you. You can play it either way.

In a weird twist at the Pre-Birkie I actually could have lined up on the front row without throwing any elbows. The Classic race was a new addition to this event and it was a fairly small group. Still even at a small race it usually isn’t that easy to be on the front line especially if you don’t show up early. For some reason though at this race almost every classic racer felt that they had to be lined up in the groomed tracks and not in the wide open skate lane. I cannot explain this since we were starting on a lake and we were going to have to double pole a kilometer or two at least. It was just the oddest phenomenon to see all these people lined up ski to ski in the tracks while a small percentage of us lined up wherever we felt like it in the skate lane.

And then the race was off and we were double-poling across the lake.

The race was a race. The only thing that differentiated it from many a ski race is this: a ways in to the race a guy catches up to me on a hill. As he's passing me He turns to me and says that he's been behind me for about 2 hours and that I provided a better view than anything else out there.

About one minute later he gets out of the tracks and let's me repass him.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

On Instructing

I’ve always been a rather reluctant instructor.  If you’ve been in a mountain bike or cyclocross clinic where I’ve instructed that might sound odd.  Especially since I am always planning and participating in clinics.  However, I generally feel like I’m not enough of an expert at anything to be teaching others.  This has been especially true for skiing as I feel quite new to the sport.  Part of that is probably that many/most of my training partners have been skiing for 20 years so I always feel like I’m the least experienced skier.  Plus I’m not that fast (just average as I’m just a Wave 4 Birkie skier).


However, I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I might give ski instruction a try and attended a short training that the Madison Nordic Ski club held for potential instructors.  That got me on the email list that the club uses to put out a call for instructors when they are providing free lessons.  This last Saturday I finally heeded the call and said I would help out with the instruction at Mirror Lake.  After agreeing I felt simultaneously excited and nervous.  Would I seem like I knew what I was talking about, would they notice my bad technique, would they develop my bad habits, would I be discovered as a skiing fraud once they found out I’d only done 3 Birkies?

Of course the answer is no.  Both Dave and I were first time instructors (although as Wave 1 Birkie skier he seems so much more legit) and so we were assigned the beginning classic skiers.  That was perfect for me as I have been working the last year really hard on my classic technique. At the very least I know what a person should be doing even if I have trouble doing it myself.  Of course no one thought either Dave or I wasn’t legit since pretty much everyone in our group was on skis for the first time.

It was a little bit of a tricky day to teach skiing as the snow was rapidly disappearing (it was 40 degrees) and the snow was sticky in the sun and crusty in the shade (with blades of grass and brown patches developing).  However, I think everyone had fun and learned a little something.  We did some shuffle drills, practiced moving our hips, indoctrinated them on double-poling, and practiced some basic striding.  The area we had to work with was fairly flat but we did our best to simulate climbing and descending so they would be prepared when they headed out on their own.  The goal was to practice more and talk less but I did end up talking a bit more than I hoped due to the lack of terrain.

Everyone seemed pretty enthusiastic and like they were having fun skiing so I considered it a successful day.  It made me pretty psyched on skiing to be able to share what I’ve learned.  Plus it was nice to be able to pay it forward.  Way back in the day when I skied my first Kortoloppet I showed up at the free Madnorski ski lessons the weekend before the race because I wanted to learn how to ski up hills. They did what they could for me and it was very appreciated.  Hopefully one of the people in my group catches the skiing fever like I did (it took me about 5 years but eventually I succumbed to the Birkie Fever!!).