A Tale of Two Ski Races

What a difference a week makes.  In the span of a short seven days, the weather did a full 180, rendering my two cross-country ski races completely different affairs.

As the Mora Vasaloppet approached, the weather forecasters had dire predictions for severely cold weather.  I held out hope that in time the atmospheric patterns would change and deliver us from the promised deep freeze.  But it wasn’t to be.  The night before the race, temperatures dipped to -15.  Packing for our early departure to drive to Mora included every warm layer I owned for skiing.  And I mustered my courage for a frigid race.

Molly and Rich before Mora VasaloppetGathering in the Mora high school auditorium, we were surrounded by racers donning all manner of protection.  The best were the moleskin patches custom made for faces, sporting brilliant patterns.  I never knew such existed!  Rich and I carefully scrutinized and selected our layers, then headed for the start line.

The start of the Mora VasaloppetIf it had to be cold, the sunshine rescued the day.  Its brilliant rays shone in a deep blue sky throughout the race.  Combined with the right clothing and plenty of hard skiing, I felt impervious to the cold throughout my 48 kilometer race.

Because of the low snow conditions, the usual point-to-point route was reduced to 12k laps.  The race crew did a phenomenal job grooming what little snow they had, and the cold temps reduced it to a squeaky cold and fast crust.  Looping four times around the course delivered an entirely different feel to the race.  While the fastest skiers are normally long out of site from my middle of the pack position, in this case they were soon lapping me – the fastest doing 2 loops to every one of mine!  As soon as I’d hear the rapid squelch of approaching poles, I knew enough to move to the side to let them fly past.  It proved rather unnerving, at times.  But on the other hand, there was almost a carnival atmosphere, seeing skiers passing in various directions as the course curved and turned back upon itself.

Following a successful finish, I had only a week before the American Birkebeiner.  In that time the temperatures soared, rain soaked the area for most of the day before the race, and it never got below freezing that night.  Could this be the same climate?

This time my concern was how few Birkebeiner starting linelayers to wear.  How little could I put on and still be warm when I begin to tire near the end of my 52k skate race?  Despite the 37 degree temp, the wind felt cold and I decided to err on the slightly warm side.

In typical Birkie style, the chute was crowded as I took my place among the 13,000 skiers that day.  And I never lacked for company out on the trail.  Even though we weren’t looping this time, I was still being continually passed.  Perhaps there is something to this age thing after all.

Molly after finishing the BirkieOnce again the groomers had worked miracles with quirky conditions, but this time the result was slow wet snow.  Ranging from soft to mushy, it made me work for every ounce of glide I achieved.  Downhills were unpredictable, as my speed varied with the ever changing composition of the snow.  But I persevered.  Even through the puddles that had formed on Lake Hayward – a final surprise with only 3k left to go.

Two races.  Two vastly different conditions.  But a single outcome.  Reaching the finish line.  A great sense of accomplishment.  And having a good time.

Birkie Regrets

Molly Birkie 2012

Finishing in the 2012 Birkie

Birkie Fever.  It’s all around us.  The excitement, anticipation and tension fill the air.  But not in this house.  Last year was the first time we skipped the event since our initial Birkie in 2009.  (Okay, I skied the Korteloppet that year, graduating to the full Birkie the following year.)  But that was different, as we were out in Colorado skiing.  A reasonable trade-off.  This year we’re home.  And living in Duluth and active in the Duluth XC Ski Club, it feels like everyone but us is heading for Hayward.

Uncertain of our winter plans this year, we didn’t sign up for the Birkie.  We thought we might try something different – a new race, or perhaps more travel.  As the winter progressed without snow, it seemed like a prudent decision, and even the races we did enter lost their appeal.  As the Mora Vassaloppet approached, we found it hard to justify driving two hours each way to ski a few kilometers around and around on lake ice.  We skipped that favorite race.  The appeal of winter and skiing was hard to sustain.

On the positive side, I haven’t had to worry about getting in loads of K’s on the trails, building up to the hilly 51k race.  We haven’t had to drive miles and miles chasing snow.  I could bury the anguish over lack of snow by running the lakewalk.  So it certainly has reduced the stress in that department.

But now with the Birkie a day away, I can’t help but wish I too were waxing my skis to perfection and setting out to ski with the thousands of other participants.  I miss the challenge.  I miss being a part of it all.

Registration for the 2016 Birkie is bound to be open soon.  There’s a high likelihood I’ll trade my regrets for next year’s Birkie Fever.

May Day Ski Race

Yes, that’s right – a Nordic ski race.  On May Day.  Where else but in Minnesota?

The Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club holds weekly Wednesday night ski races throughout the winter.  And Snowflake Nordic Ski Center has continued to groom its trails throughout the long tail to this winter season.  So despite the recent warm-up, the packed snow continues to cling to its trails.  That made the perfect opportunity to add one more race to the Wednesday night series.  It was too goodIMG_9889 to miss!

Rich and I arrived early and skied the trails beforehand to see just what we were getting ourselves into.  Despite the bare patches near the warming house, once in the woods, the trails were surprisingly credible.  They had been freshly groomed (I really couldn’t tell) and grassy sections 466169_10201094940278975_87615926_owere taped off, forcing us to zigzag between trail sections.  The snow ranged from soft and mushy to icy and slushy.  And there were a few water hazards…  But it was all part of this most unique race experience.

At 6:30 the racers gathered for the 466606_10201094932598783_648904343_ostart.  It was the largest turnout they’d had all season!  It’s amazing what a bit of novelty can do.  The mood was festive and jovial.  How could we not be in a good mood?

902779_10201094942319026_1436393036_oAs we skied, whoops and hollers could be heard reverberating through the woods.  I added my own noisy yelps when trying to skirt a particularly deep puddle.  With a sickening sucking noise, my foot became mired in the icy water with my ski inexorably anchored by deep mushy snow.  I managed to extricate it with great difficulty, only to have the other foot succumb!  Apparently I just didn’t have the right technique – other more accomplished competitors skied right through.466200_10201094939278950_849080946_o

It’s not everyone who can say they skied in a race on May Day.  Nor ski 7 out of the last 12 months, which is what we did this year.  In Minnesota, when you’re given snow, you just have to ski.

Birkie Spoken Here

It is inevitable.  The hours and days following the American Birkebeiner are filled with conversation about nothing else.  The race is relived from every angle, tales told and retold, anecdotes recounted.  Websites are checked, photos are scrutinized and stats are calculated.

IMG_9591Four of us traveled to the Birkie together – me, my husband Rich, son Erik and our pastor Greg.  It was Erik and Greg’s first Birkie, so Rich and I felt like “old pros” with all of three Birkies under our belt beforehand.  The ride there was filled with anticipation, excitement and some anxiety.  The ride home was filled with talk.  There was no shortage of material.  With over 17 hours on the trail between us, we had plenty to relate, compare and analyze.

Waxes were deemed to be well chosen, although Erik and I regretted our final coat of blue which seemed slow at the beginning of the race.  The temperature was rated excellent for the race, and we were all happy with our chosen layers of clothing.  The deep new snow was a universal complaint.  And of course the hills, hills and more hills – enough said.  Erik literally ran out of fuel and lingered an embarrassingly long time at the final aid station to eat his way to renewed energy.  Greg regretted lugging his own water bottle, which he ceremoniously emptied near the end to lighten his load.  Molly lost a pole early in the race when a fellow skier stepped on it, and had to back up to retrieve it.  Rich captured the full DCIM100GOPROlength of the race with the “ski cam” on his back, snapping a photo every 30 seconds to accumulate 700 photos of the action behind him.  This one of the finish on Main Street reflects a sweet moment for all of us.

Of course, the conversation doesn’t stop there.  The inevitable question is, what about next year?  Erik is in.  He is already planning his training regimen.  He’s quite serious about this – he’s meeting with a personal trainer on Tuesday.  Greg says he’d have to have a moment of lunacy to sign up again.  But in the next breath he starts outlining his strategy.  Rich claims this Birkie was his last.  We’ve heard that before – how many marathons did he do after declaring his retirement?  I thought I wanted to take next year off and just enjoy skiing more.  But there’s something about the Birkie that draws one back.  And if I’m going to have to listen to them all talk about it, I might as well be able to enter the conversation.

Birkie Finishes 1-2-3

Who would you bet on to cross the American Birkebeiner finish line first?

IMG_9546 trimmed

 

Rich

  • Started first – 35 minute lead over Molly
  • Skiing 54k Classic Race, Wave 3 – 4k more than the others
  • 4th Birkie
  • Classic skier since jr high school days
  • Spent a week ago Wednesday in the Emergency Room, scheduled for surgery next week

 

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Molly

  • Started second – 40 minute lead over Erik
  • Skiing 50k Skate Race, Wave 5
  • 4th Birkie
  • Learned skate skiing 6 years ago, first ski race 5 years ago
  • Retired, able to train 7 days/week

 

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Erik

  • Started last – in the final wave
  • Skiing 50k Skate Race, Wave 9
  • 1st Birkie
  • Led his high school Nordic Ski Team in his Sectional meet
  • 4-year hiatus from skiing while attending college in a no-snow zone

 

.We peeled off from the lodge one-by-one, each heading out to ski our own race.  But for me, at least, I knew the others were out there.  I spent the race trying to catch Rich, and hoping to stay ahead of Erik.  Would I succeed?

First there was all the new snow to overcome.  I was in the middle of the pack, but it was already churned up enough to require a lot of extra work to maintain forward momentum.  Uphills are always deep with snow in the Birkie, but this was heavy soft snow which bogged down skiers on every incline.  Hills are my forte, but I never got to ski one at “my” pace.  I was fine with the slower speed on the downhills, however, even if it meant less of a head start on the inevitable uphill that followed.

Aid stations were welcome oases and blessedly frequent.  I anxiously sought out the volunteers offering cups of “Energy,” hoping the drink would deliver just that.  Fortunately, it usually did and I appreciated the extra boost, brief as it was.

As the kilometers passed, I kept a keen eye on the bib numbers around me.  When the classic and skate trails merged at 27k, I found myself in the midst of Wave 3 classic skiers – Rich’s wave.  About the same time, I saw the first Wave 9 bib pass me – Erik’s wave.  I could be in the vicinity of both family members!  It was a welcome diversion to watch for familiar figures.

So, how did it all end?  With success for everyone!  I crossed the finish line first, and was able to cheer on Rich and Erik finishing in that order.  I had my best Birkie ever – not in terms of time, but ranking much higher in my age and gender than ever before.  Rich overcame his medical condition, skied a more controlled race than usual and felt good afterwards – a first for him.  Erik completed his first Birkie, with a much faster time than Rich and me, and is already planning his training for next year.

We all finished.  The order is insignificant.

Countdown to the Birkie

With three family members skiing the American Birkebeiner 50k cross-country ski race this year, there was great potential for raising the level of anxiety and pre-race drama to a fever pitch.  But instead, we were focusing on Rich’s medical problems – a guaranteed way to put life in perspective.  An enlarged prostate that landed him in the emergency room last week didn’t stop him from planning to ski the Birkie.  He continued his training with a catheter, and pressed his already-tired body to stride around the trails.  Going ahead with Skiing Book Across the Bay as planned was an important psychological and emotional achievement, and his doctor and nurse were very impressed!

SCM-2Good news came yesterday – while surgery is required, it is a week away and Rich has the all-clear to ski the Birkie.  The race is still on!  Better yet, he will ski catheter-free.  Look out, ski cam man will return in his signature knickers.

So today we entered the pre-Birkie phase with a vengeance.  We’ve checked the weather forecast for Hayward numerous times.  It doesn’t change much, but somehow it satisfies a need to be informed.  And then there were the discussions over glide wax.  A friend skiing with us offered his fancy waxes, but I don’t know what to do with wax whose name I can’t pronounce.  Red and Blue are my standbys.  After much consternation, emailing with Erik our son, and checking temperature ratings, I finally decided on three coats of red and a final layer of blue.  Will I really know the difference?

We will be driving to Hayward for the day, rather than spending big bucks on underwhelming hotel rooms.  The departure schedule has been set and revised a few times.  With snow in the forecast, we’re allowing extra travel time.  And we hope not to repeat the wrong turn we took last year on the way…

Packing for the event is my forte.  My penchant for making lists does come in handy once in a while.  And yes, of course I have my list from last year’s Birkie.  I have no excuse for forgetting anything vital.

We’ve done our final easy ski, our pasta dinner is in the works, and an early bedtime is planned.  The countdown ends tomorrow.  We’re ready to ski the Birkie!

Skis, Snow and Wind in Mora

As the Mora Vasaloppet cross-country ski race approached, and snow did not, we carefully monitored the race news.  The lack of snow forced race officials to move the course to Knife Lake, which meant shortening the races and looping around the lake’s perimeter on a trail created on top of the ice, rather than skiing through the woods.  Fortunately, there was just enough snow to cover the last 13k from the lake to Mora,  allowing the race to finish on Main Street.  And compared to last year, when it had to be cancelled completely due to lack of snow, we were grateful that the race was on!

In stark contrast, the weather report for race day included a Winter Storm Warning which predicted 8-12″ of snow and increasing winds throughout the day.  Would it really materialize?  Or would it fizzle, as so many snow forecasts seem to do these days?  Only time would tell.

Rich Mora Classic Race

photo courtesy of SkinnySki.com

We were relived to find that the snowfall had not yet started when we made our way to Mora in the early morning hours before the race.  But the threat was still there.  Rich was the first to make his way to the starting line, as his classic race started an hour before the skate race that Erik and I had entered.  As his race was only 26k and included just one loop around the lake, Rich was within 5k of the finish line before the snow started.

Erik and I did not fair as well.  One of Mora’s signature features is the line of huge bonfires near the start, to keep skiers warm while waiting for the race to begin.  Standing there next to the lake, we could feel the fury of the wind as it whipped across the lake.  Indeed, the announcer confirmed our suspicions informing racers that the first 7k around the lake would be directly into the wind.  Oh boy…

Erik

photo courtesy of SkinnySki.com

By the time we started, so had the snow.  Big fat flakes came down that looked pretty in the distance, but in reality whipped into our faces like pin pricks and stung our eyes.  Skiing into the wind was like pushing against an immovable force.  That was compounded by the powdery, sugary snow we plowed through on the trail they had created.  The depth and consistency changed frequently, with ice showing through at times, making forward progress inconsistent.  Add to that being blinded by the snow, and it was like skiing into the unknown!

Relief came when we turned toward the opposite shore and rode the wind back to the beginning of the circle.  Minutes lost earlier were made up sailing in front of the blast, and we had some relief from the snow in our eyes.  It was even enjoyable.  But our euphoria didn’t last.  We’d signed up for the longest race, which although shortened to 40k meant two laps around the lake.  Soon we were battling the gale once again, convinced it was stronger and snowier than the first time around.  A skier next to me asked “When will this hill ever end?”  Despite the flat terrain of the lake, I knew just what he meant!  The lake was obliterated by the snow, and the tracks swept by the wind.  With the skiers spreading out, I found myself on my own hoping I was still following the right course.

Eventually we made it off the lake for the final 13k to Mora.  That final section was on the local ski trails, and we had to retrain our legs to go up and down real hills.  The woods were a welcome wind break, although the snow continued to find us, adhering to our bodies, hair and eyelashes.

Mora Finish LineThe end of the Mora Vasaloppet is always a thrill, and despite the conditions, this year did not disappoint.  One final hill takes skiers up to an old schoolhouse, and then it’s a short ski down Main Street to the finish line.  There women in traditional IMG_9551Swedish costumes hand out medals, and locals dish up their famous blueberry soup.  There’s nothing like it – hot and sweet!  I looked like an icicle by that point, but no matter – I finished.

 

 

Thank you to SkinnySki.com for the above two photos.