2014 Birkie Report: My ‘No Sweat’ Birkie


by
Peter Rayne

This year’s birkie was my 20th ski from Telemark to Hayward. Each year I learn something new about the course and myself, and each year I resolve to apply what I’ve learned so as to avoid future suffering. This year it finally paid off! Instead of falling into that black pit of bonk 2K before Gravel Pit feed, or missing the wax, or over or under dressing I skied my plan and enjoyed the trail and the day by soaking in the trail, and the enthusiasm and dedication of all the volunteers and skiers. The bright blue sky across which a smattering of wispy clouds raced, the tall trees wearing white stripes of ice and snow down one side, and the smaller saplings doubled over by the weight of their frozen burden bedazzled my eyes and lifted my heart with that “oh what a lucky man” feeling.

As with many events, the race itself is just the punctuation at the end of a long process of training, preparation and planning. My training year began in December with a few skis around the trail network I’ve been working on "in the back forty." Once grades were in and the holidays passed I started skiing two or three days in a row. The skied in tracks in the woods and through the prairie field were fun, pretty, and close at hand so I came up with my Drive Less-Ski More training plan. It all went great until the last week in January when classes started up again and the Polar Vortex continued to bring below zero mornings (the only time I have to get out). Call me a wimp, but I don’t go out on skis unless it’s above zero. My Drive Less-Ski More plan had become a Drive Less-Ski Less plan by the middle of February. I was hanging on to what little training base I had, but my fitness and weight were not progressing the way I’d hoped. As the song says…"If you’re going to ski the birkie, you better do some training, for if you don’t pay attention to this, you’re in for a little paining." That song was going around and around in my head the last two weeks before the race as I awoke to teens below zero and single digit highs day in and day out. The prolonged cold weather also took its toll on my farm. I had to deal with a frozen line out to the automatic waterer that on two occasions took days of running the propane torch and air compressor, and heat gun, and buckets of hot water… etcetera… up and down the hill. Eventually the water flowed again, but the skiing never materialized. Birkie week arrived and with every email and announcement stoked with enthusiasm and excitement that crossed my computer screen, “in for a little paining” echoed in my ears.

The plan was to drive up to the shared room we rent in Hayward early Friday morning, then walk over to bib pick up, and rest and eat all day to top off energy supplies for the big beat down on Saturday. Well, it snowed about a foot Thursday afternoon and into the night, then the thirty mile an hour winds howled all day Friday. At least it was still rather mild (upper twenties) as I spent eight hours on my loader tractor scooping snow. At some point I called my comrades up in Hayward to tell of my late start and heard the race director’s warning. Something about dressing warmly and planning to carry food and water, and being out on the trail longer than one expected due to soft slow snow and cold windy conditions. A good thing about tractor time is it gives one plenty of time to think. As I reflected on the race director’s advice, and my experience in the 2011 Freezer Burn Birkie, a race plan crystalized in my mind. Dress warm and just take it slow. Trying to ski fast in the cold takes twice as much strength and energy. You’re fighting slow snow and creating an even greater wind chill effect. With poor training and little rest my best hope for a finish was to shift into long slow distance mode and just get it done. Wet with sweat and cold wind are one sure recipe for hypothermia. The ‘No Sweat’ Birkie was born.

The white knuckle drive across Northwestern Wisconsin was uneventful and easy compared to the windswept tractor that make my fingers tired and stiff. Picking up WOJB in my comfy warm car helped the snow and ice packed miles of road slip by. I collected my race packet and went straight to bed. The thought of starting with one of the later waves had occurred to me, but my roomy was in the first wave too, and with no starting wire under the snow to register one’s actual start, time ticks with the shout of the announcer’s “GO!” as each wave is released. We caught the early bus to Telemark and on the walk down to the start area I fell in with an elite classic skier from Calgary. He flew into Chicago then his Minneapolis connection was cancelled due to the storm. Unable to collect his baggage he rented a car, drove to Hayward, cobbled together clothes, skis, boots, and poles (mostly from vendors at the expo), and there he was-committed to his start. I blushed at my thoughts of just staying home as I battled the drifts and wind on my driveway. 



He’s a video of my wave going off the start. I’m on the far side of the track visible from 48 to 55 seconds in, with purple bib, red boots, white sleeve,  blue hat with a fanny pack.
 
The announcer said welcome in languages from around the world and the national anthem was sung as wind driven snow billowed across the starting field. I couldn’t wait to get into the woods!  Despite all the fresh snow the tracks were firm and the down hills were fast and fun. The quiet whoosh of skis punctuated by muffled pole plants were all to be heard in the woods. Skier’s minds were wrapped around the task at hand.  Early on the concentration on catching a rhythm, and uncertainty about how one would be feeling in 2 or 3 hours cast a hush that made human voices sound like a hymnal dropped to the floor during a silent prayer in church. What bravery and dedication the volunteers displayed. Water, energy, bananas, oranges, gels, and cookies all served up trail side as one glides through, then, back to the solemn beauty and quiet of a woods buried in a thick quilt of snow. The trail signs that started out as pesky reminders of how far I had yet to go became welcome milestones of accomplishment and harbingers that the end was near. Just before saluting the Landgraf Memorial on the last set of rollers before the lake I got passed by a woman in a pink and black suit form the second wave. It took me a while to read the printing on the side-I was catching up on the downs and she was pulling away on the ups-it said “You Just Got Chicked.”  I chuckled as she disappeared. I started ramping up my intensity level (if you can call it that when you’re doing over 6 minutes per K) after 77 and was glad to have plenty left in the tank when skiing clear of the lakeshore trees and turning to the South toward the water towers brought the full force of the gale onto the right half of my face. I was doing some passing now, and what I was catching did not look pretty.  An occasionally blown in track meant sudden slow spots that twisted and pulled spent bodies down into the soft snow. Still the quietness was pervasive-broken only by the intermittent cheering fan, of a pair of skate skis that squeaked with each step in the cold snow-ouch.

The cheering and clamor of cow bells were a welcome reprieve.  At last, the smell of brats, and their taste was not far off as I searched for my bag in six inch deep sugar snow. For me the real reward happened the next day. As I lay in bed, and stretched my arms and back…no pain!  I sprung out of bed…and did a squat…my knees, my thighs, my calves…no pain! Some years it took until Wednesday to be able to get out of the car without groaning, or walk down stairs without wincing.  As if some sweet fairy had visited as I slept, my ‘No Sweat’ Birkie had become a ‘No Pain’ Birkie.


 

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