I had not been on skis for two weeks when I was on the way to the Birkebeiner Ski race. I thought I might have lost that little bit of technique I have acquired the past three months.
Just two weeks before, I raced back-to-back the pre-Birkie on Saturday and the Mora Vasa Loppet on Sunday. The pre-Birkie was a blast. Great snow condition and awesome weather.
The Mora Vasoloppet on the other hand would test my toughness. It was cold and really windy, 20 mph head wind at the start line. I had a 42km race ahead of me and no motivation.
People were hiding behind the porter potties to shield from the wind. It was freezing. My four layers including two winter jackets did not help. I knew I had to take at least one jacket off before the start to be able to move my arms. If someone had told me it would have been totally fine to get in a car instead to the start line, I would have set a new PR for the sprint to the warmth.
Despite my unwillingness to start the race, I managed to finish it.
I was slow!
When I finished, the awards ceremony had started already and I realized that I got a podium finish for my age group! When I walked to the podium still in my ski boots, I thought it was hilarious that I would get a medal for 220th out of 227!
I hadn’t touched my skis since the Mora race when I was on the way to the Birkie. I still had that bad taste from the Mora race in my mouth and was not really excited to race. Would it be as cold and as windy as Mora again?
The day started early: 5:15am, driving to a parking lot and then taking the bus to the racers’ lodge. At 5:30am in the rural part of Wisconsin, there was quite some traffic on the road. I started to realize how big this race would be. I got excited. I would be racing with 8,000 other cross country ski racers – the biggest xc ski race in the US.
While we were waiting for the bus another racer complimented my skis which I replied with that I had been skiing for three months. His response was: “Quite ambitious to race the Birkie after such a short time on skis.” That made me think of what I would actually have ahead of me. 50km of rolling terrain. Yeah, I think he was right. It was pretty ambitious.
In the racers’ lodge, I was waiting for my wave start time. With so many racers, the race is divided into 9 or 10 waves. Previous finishing Birkie times determined which wave one is in. New racers automatically start in wave 9 and 10. I started from wave 9. All waves (but the elite wave) are 10 minutes apart from each other. Since I carpooled with a friend who was in wave 1, I had 2 hours to kill in the lodge with thousands other racers. It was like a zoo.
Finally, time to head to the start line. With two minutes to spare, I found myself in the last row of my wave.
Hundreds of people ahead of me. Well, there was one advantage. No one could pass me. There was no one behind me.
The race started slow but as soon as the first hill came, it started to spread out. Still, it seemed forever to reach the first checkpoint at 13.5k. Also, every time I went through deeper snow, my right ski did not seem to recoil after the skate movement. (Later I learned the binding was broken so I raced 50km on a broken ski)
But the spectators and the participants kept me entertained. I passed a monkey and a banana on skis. Vikings played drums on top of one of the hills. Beer hand-outs on another hill. I felt like in a reverse carnival.
Every time I saw a crowd bunched up in the distance I knew I reached the next food station. Bananas, energy drinks, gels, cookies and more were provided. Spectators were cheering us on. Music was playing and the volunteers made a great effort to give you quickly whatever you wanted.
The hills were my absolute favorite part of the Birkie because it was not only physically challenging but it also had a strategic aspect to it. Cross country skiers go in lines up the hills. With the trails being very wide, multiple lines form up a hill. Every time I approached a hill, I had to choose which line to take so I quickly scanned bib numbers (=wave placement), technique and snow conditions before I made my decision. It was a fun task to approach a climb.
The kilometers went by, some slow, some fast. There were few racers I skied with for 10k and then one of us left the other one behind. I had my rhythm and stuck with it.
The last 10 km went by so quickly that I wished it would have taken longer. Once I got closer to the finish, more spectators were lined up along the trail making the race go by so fast. The finish line was in the center of the town, people cheering and congratulating on everyone’s performance.
I had a blast! What a great race to finish the cross country ski season!
Time to get ready for Trans Iowa end of April!