Oh man! Another Birkie is in the books! I love Birkie weekend, you finish that race absolutely exhausted no matter how diligent you are in your preparation (and I'm not as diligent as I should be). This year, I found myself making a concerted effort not to get too excited on Friday, because I thought that would just wear me out. Still, as I watched the totally weird weather forecast continue to fluctuate, I have to admit I spent a few minutes in the wee hours of the morning wondering if I'd picked the correct skis (turns out I did...but figuring that out race day didn't get me my sleep back).
The 2016 ski season isn't over by any means, but I find I usually don't have my heart in skiing any more after this point. I'm going to switch focus to the Mammoth Gravel Classic coming up April 16th (get your gravel bikes tuned up).
This year, I did all my ski events with my high school classmate Cory, those included the Sisu Ski Fest, the Birkie Tour, and the Pre-Birkie. Also, my friends Shawn and Tammi were doing their first Birkies this year. It's always fun when you have friends coming up to experience the great race for the first time, and all of them came through with great efforts. The Birkie tends to be a family affair. I certainly remember driving up to Hayward to watch my mom finish when I was a little guy, so it's fun to see my own little ones at the finish. I know (from Facebook photos) that Cory's family came out to greet him too, and I'm happy that he got the experience of having his kids there to greet him with a cheer and a hug at the end. That's how future generations of skiers get created!
For the second year, I zip tied my gopro to my water bottle, so I thought I'd share some of the race start photos I got this year. GoPros are a little bit funny, but sometimes you get happy accidents like this photo:
As I said before, the forecast was weird. We were looking at overnight lows around freezing and highs in the 40s. My biggest concern was that the rain on Friday would turn the track into a block of ice. I don't know about you, but I'm too old to endure a crash on some of those sketchy "heckler hills" that happen before "OO" (there are about 3 of them that worry me).
My stiff skis handle better than my soft tipped skis on icy courses, but they are much slower when the trail is soft. I spent a lot of time wrangling over whether I should chose the safety and stability of the stiff skis, or the better overall performance of the soft ones. In the end, I elected the soft skis, and that was the way to go.
When we arrived at the start it was still dark (I always get there early) and there was significant ice cover, but it didn't take long for the temperature to rise and the ice to melt. Before race time, there were massive puddles inside and surrounding the tent. It kind of mist/rained throughout the race, and I doubt we'll ever see a Birkie when that happens again. My mom's done 29 and she said this was the first time she's seen that.
You always chill out at the tent for the first few hours, but everything changes at about 30 minutes to wave start time. You have to dump your warm-ups and queue up for your wave. I was starting wave 4, and you can see the light blue of wave 3 lining up in the above photo.
Here's an awesome pic of me that one of my Facebook friends enhanced:
Much to my surprise, Emalea and Mackey were both in Wave 4, so we got to spend the final 10 minutes before blast off blowing off steam. It was great to see both of them (I don't think I've seen either of them since last Birkie), but hey, 10 minutes spent together during Birkie time is the equivalent of spending a couple weeks together. It's such a relief to see familiar faces right as you're getting worked up.
This is the way to do it, if you get too serious before the event, you'll go nuts. Here's Emalea whacking me with her poles:
The Birkie is such a crowd and there are skiers of so many levels that I usually try to get off the line and away from the group as fast as possible. Normally, I self seed in local races and hang towards the back, but the Birkie is different. First of all, the track is so wide for the first couple Kilometers, that you can blast off to a fast start, then slide over to the side of the trail and allow people passing room without impeding them in the least. The start is a mess, the best thing to do is get out of there. I took off and put distance between myself and the main group relatively quickly.
A couple kilometers into the race, Emalea caught back up to me and we skied together for a while. Once that gun goes off, she gets the eye of the tiger as you can see here:
I swear, cross-country skiers have a switch in their head that instantly goes from super-goofy to dead serious.
Emalea was chatting away with me as we hammered along (I was too winded for chit-chat), but as soon as we started climbing, I knew she was going to take off.
I settled in to a solid rhythm and steadily clicked off the Kilometers. I always like to finish in around 4 hrs (under is better), but my math skills abandoned me during the race. There were times when I thought I was going to be under by 20 minutes, other times I thought I was over by 20 minutes, and eventually I just got too tired to care.
The best thing about this year was that the temperature was so warm that you didn't have to worry about freezing to death. Actually, overheating became the big issue, and I saw a lot of people skiing along without shirts on, or in shorts! The heat made cramping an issue though, and I was happy that I'd filled up my water bottle with warm Coca-cola. At first I was worried that it would taste like syrup out there and make me sick, but a quick gulp before each aid station gave me the boost I desperately needed, then I grabbed a water to wash out my mouth. Normally water bottles freeze up, so it was great to have this on me this year.
Just like last year, Frank was out at Mosquito brook and the hand off he gave me saved the day. Awesome to see familiar faces from St. Croix falls out on the course, both there and at Gravel Pit. Woolly Bike Club's Keith Velaski passed me a much needed water at the Fish Hatchery aid station which was awesome. Volunteer aid station workers are life savers in events like this! Thank you!
Overall, I'd say this race was a little easier than last year, but the conditions were still tough. You could glide, but the surface was so wet and mushy that there was some suction. The lake was an absolute nightmare as it was essentially covered in water. I saw one guy who kept skiing along for a couple hundred meters only to stop and rest on his poles (for some reason, I couldn't reel that dude in...). In my 14 Birkies, I've never seen anything like it, and I doubt I will again.
I eventually finished in 4:05, which was good enough for me. I was TIRED at the end. My wife and kids were waiting for me with the car, so I peeled off my ski suit, got into warm clothing, and went home. Pretty soon my phone was buzzing with messages or announcements about people and their Birkie experiences. Reading all those stories is the part of this whole endeavor that I like the most. If you have a great Birkie story, send it to me and I'll share it here (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I'm sure this is just the start of a week of Birkie posts, so stay tuned. I still have about half my GoPro photos to look at, and I'm sure Mullin will be doing a race report. Tremendous job everyone! 365 days until the Birkie!