Hey, what about that Birkie?!?!
Somehow the Birkie came and went and it was such a crazy time that I never wrote anything about it. All I can say is that the need to participate in democracy was greater than my need to document my 3rd Birkie. However, I have now decided a month later to chronicle the race to keep the documentation going of my ongoing transformation into a skier.
This year was one of the coldest Birkies ever actually. Someone in the know about these things was saying he thought it was likely the 3rd coldest. The temp was -6F when I started and I think 6F when I finished. Now it’s not like I don’t ski at much colder temps than that but I wouldn’t normally be out for such an extended period of time (by which I mean just short of 5 hours).
The evening before the race was full of discussions of what to wear. I settled in on a plan pretty early on as I’ve skied in the cold enough to have a sense of what I would need. The CXC race kit is super light (thin lycra really) so I went with warmer Patagonia Capilene 3 midweight long underwear on top and bottom along with craft boxer briefs on bottom and then just the CXC suit. For my feet it was Smartwool socks and then booties over my ski boots. For my hands it was Toko Artic Mits which are lobster claw style. For my head I had a Buff which I pulled up over my ears and put my Seeley Classic hat on top. I then slathered my face in dermatone as exposed skin in the cold is never a good thing. Then on went my sunglasses to protect my eyes. All in all I was very pleased with my choices. I was a little cold on a couple of the crazy fast downhills but otherwise good and no frostbite (which was all too common actually).
Now on to the race. I should start off by saying I once again raced Classic which for some reason always seems to come as a surprise to people. I haven’t figured out if people are surprised because I’m not that great a classic skier or if it is because the race is 4k longer or if because it takes longer or what. After doing skate one year and classic one year I currently can’t imagine going back to skating it but I suppose I will one day.
Anyway, as to the race it was good but I never really felt like it was great. I started in Wave 5 this year and it was a pretty relaxed group. Classic waves can be up to 350 people but I’m pretty sure Wave 5 was smaller than that. I wasn’t feeling super crazy Birkie Fever probably because I had spent the 2 weeks leading up to the race protesting the insanity of Wisconsin’s Governor and his budget repair bill. There’s something to say for having bigger issues than your Birkie to keep you from stressing out about racing.
I made it from the Pilot Fish parking lot on the bus to the start line with enough time to use the porta potty one last time, get my skis from CXC, get my warm ups off and into the drop bag, and get into the start pen. I didn’t have a lot of extra time but still plenty of time which really was perfect given that it was cold. I didn’t want to have too much time standing around. In the end I didn’t test my skis even though I had them waxed by CXC but instead just put my faith in them (which was warranted as my skis rocked the whole race!). And now I would like to thank Jason Cork and the whole CXC waxing crew for taking such good care of my skis!
So anyway I started out in the middle of the pack and took it pretty chill in the beginning of the race. If you’ve only ever done the Birkie Skate then you won’t really be able to understand that even being possible. Basically I just lined up with a few minutes to spare and got a nice spot in the middle although I could have gone straight to the front if I wanted. The countdown is on and I’m dancing the music being played over the loudspeaker to keep warm. I hope no video exists of this behavior! This whole time I feel a little self conscious wearing my CXC kit but I do notice one other CXC Master in my wave which makes me feel better. It’s not that being on the CXC Master’s team means anything other than you support CXC but since the elite team kits look the same as the Master’s there is a little self-consciousness that I feel when I’m wear it. I
Being so cold it was awesome to finally get started so I could keep warm. Everyone is pretty polite in Wave 5 so there were no incidents with people stepping on poles or anything. It always takes me awhile to get really warmed up and really get going so I was skiing mid-wave. Since I don’t really consider marathon distances my “thing” I wasn’t really concerned with who was passing me or who I was passing. I was just focused on getting into a groove and not going too hard in the beginning. I really start marathon races just hoping to make it.
Mostly the first part of the race wasn’t too eventful. On the powerline I gave my usual shout out to Gary Crandall (of the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival) and thought about how thrilled I was not to be on the skate course. All of us Classic skiers were just having a nice time over on our course. At 12k into the race I had the pre-requisite race fall as I made a last second decision to jump out of the tracks but then totally lost control and went down. It was really more of a sliding wipeout so I was back up fast.
Oh but I should mention the aid stations . . . so as I mentioned it was pretty cold which is never great when you are relying on energy gels. Each time I took an energy gel it turned into a real production. Last year my goal was to not spend so much time in the aid stations but get in and out efficiently. And if I do say so myself I’ve really improved. The Birkie was a challenge though. As I approached the aid station I would rip the gel off my drink belt where it was stapled. I would get it open but then I couldn’t get it out of the packet so I would be fumbling around pressing on it as hard as I could. Eventually I would get it out and get as much jammed it my mouth as possible waiting for it to warm up enough that I could swallow it. Normally you can open it, get it in the mouth and grab water fairly efficiently but with the energy gels so cold you’d have to take extra time before you grabbed water. At one aid station one of the volunteers saw me struggling and helped me by taking my gel packet and pressing down on it against a table to try and get it to come out. However, you can’t ski for as long as I was and not take the time to ingest some fuel.
The kilometer markers can seem to go by slowly sometimes. 54k is just a long way to ski. I definitely had some moments around 20-25k where I felt really tired or at least felt like it was going to be a really long day. However, I just kept plodding along knowing that these feelings will come and go throughout the race. I have to admit it’s never a great feeling when you are feeling tired and you aren’t even quite to the half-way point.
In looking at the results though it shows that in the 2nd half of the race I started to pass people which seem to fit with my memory of the race. I did think that I sure was passing a lot of people with bibs from other waves and as it turns out quite a few from my own wave as well. However, even with the number of people that I did end up passing it never seemed congested or problematic. In some ways it probably ends up making the day go by easier to be seeing lots of people.
I can’t say that I really felt like I rocked it out though as I felt super slow going up some of the hills and at times felt like my technique had totally escaped me. (And the pictures I saw of myself prove that my technique clearly escaped me and I was skiing like I was about to give up!). On the infamous Bitch Hill (which was sans bitches this year) I herring boned up at a crawl and felt super psyched to be done with it even if I felt like I was crawling.
So the true final challenge of the Birkie is skiing across Lake Hayward. Now if you aren’t a skier you probably think that skiing across a lake sounds easy enough but this particular lake isn’t. It is several kilometers long, you can see skiers far into the distance, and it always has a headwind. When you first enter the lake there is always a friendly group of people set up cheering and at their table you can get Jaegermeister. As it happens they are set up right next to the classic tracks so it is impossible to miss. One again this year as I skied by I asked if they had Jaeger shots. They weren’t prepared for my request but quickly jumped up, ran up alongside me to hand off a shot which I gulped down while only slowing slightly. Everyone has strengths as a skier and I have determined that mine is taking Jaeger shots during races.
I know this wouldn’t be the case for most people but that shot of Jaeger made me feel just a little bit better. Good thing as I felt really worn out at this point and the lake seemed rather daunting. I was also feeling a little bummed at the lack of Classic skiers who happened to be near me at this point in time as I desperately needed a draft. Just prior to the lake I had passed a bunch of classic skiers and now the crowd had thinned. Luckily there was one guy ahead who I was able to catch fairly soon and I just sat behind him drafting the whole way across the lake. I’d like to say that I was able to double pole the whole thing but I didn’t. I truthfully was slowly striding with the occasional double pole or kick double pole but mostly a very slow stride. There was no way I could have passed the guy I was drafting as catching him was the last bit of energy I had.
After what always seems like a lifetime I made it across the lake and made the turns onto Main Street. Main Street usually gives you some more energy but I can’t say I felt a surge. I was just thrilled to be done and thrilled to have someone take my skis off for me. I will admitted to being totally wiped out.
Now I’m going to be honest and say that at first I was a bit disappointed in my finish as it was 4 minutes slower than the previous year. Truthfully I had hoped to improve. However, as I was making my way through the finish line and to pick up my drop bag I heard people being announced that were finishing behind me and it included people I had never beat before.
Of course the true test is your wave placement for next year. . . was your finish time at least good enough to be placed in the same wave or will you move down or will you move up. It’s the true test mostly because eventually you get asked what wave you are if you hang out with skiers too much. The Birkie sends out the 2012 wave placement times a few weeks after the race so immediately after the race you can only speculate. I’m happy to report that in a nice turn of events I will be skiing from Wave 4 next year. Not that it matters or anything but it is reassurance that my skiing is improving although I realized I was improving as I ended up finishing in the top 30 people out of Wave 5. I ended up in about the top third of women finishers and about the mid-point of all finishers. I think that’s great and more than I would have expected when I first decided to take up classic skiing.
There you have it – Birkie 2011.