Sunday, April 2, 2017

Race Report: Rune Rocks the Norwegian Birkebeiner

While Slyfield was doggedly skiing his solitary way through a rainy 50k at Cabin Creek, Rune was on the other side of the Atlantic with his 10,000 closest buddies, doing the real Birkebeiner in the kind of incredible skiing conditions that only Norway can offer.  I always learn a lot from Rune's race reports, like don't sweat what you can't change; wax is your friend, even when it's a new friend; and work is evidently overrated.  Thanks, Rune, for telling us your awesome story, and thanks, Rune and Augustina, for photos to swoon over, here at the tail end of winter as we start to dream about next winter's adventures.

Every race has its own unique challenges, be it waxing conditions at Gunnar Hagen or surviving the cold in Wisconsin (in normal years, that is), but few have as many challenges as the Norwegian Birkie.  With its big elevation changes, usually quite different snow conditions throughout the race, and not the least the logistics, a successful race largely depends on how well these challenges are handled.  
This year I decided to get to Norway almost two full weeks in advance of the race to have ample time to adjust to the time zone, get some quality skiing in, and get a real good handle on the various challenges (work is totally overrated).  

This also gave me time to do the half Birkebeiner, 6 days prior to the real deal, as well.  I totally lucked out this year and got to stay in my childhood friend’s brand new cabin at the top of Mosetertoppen, basically 50 meters to walk and I was right at the start of a 600-kilometer network of groomed trails, at 900 meters above sea level; couldn’t be better!  

Skiing the days before the half Birkie was superb, with blue kick wax and sunny days.  

The half Birkie starts up at Sjusjoen, goes in a 14 k loop in gentle terrain up at the mountain before descending down to the Birkie stadium for a total of 28k.  I had skied the course a few days before and with only gentle hills, I figured if there ever is a double pole course manageable for Master skiers, this is it.  
There were just shy of 1,000 skiers in the race, self seeded in 8 waves, and I got a start position towards the end of the first wave.  I had seen from the times last year that this race attracts a lot of really fast young skiers, this year no exception, and the pace from the start was blistering fast.  I used my Madshus Propulsion skies (double pole skis) for the first time and they were excellent!   I could probably have done a better job tactically and made sure I was in a large group farther up in the wave from the start.  Instead I ended up just 20 seconds off a large group for most of the race before descending down the mountain, and with a gap behind me,  no advantage of drafting in a group.  Nonetheless, a fast and good race, 1 hour and 15 minutes which gave me an 8th in the 50 – 59 age group.  The winner of the age group: 1 hour and 7 minutes, ridiculously fast! 
Now on to the big race, with 6 days to rest and time to do some more skiing. 

The temperatures are changing quickly in mid-March and the sun is all of a sudden having a real effect during the days, glazing and melting the snow in places; with that, it was time to pull out the klisters which we love so much.  
The Swix wax report was still largely based on ice klister covered with hard waxes.  Zach Caldwell skied the course the day before the race, testing a lot of different waxes, and his conclusion was to use one of the universal klisters, with Rex Gold having the best result.  So when I picked up my skis from the local ski shop, who did the glide waxing, I became the proud owner of a brand new tube of Rex Gold, a wax I had never heard of before. 
 Augustina came and joined me 5 days before the race and our plan was that she would take me to the start area in Rena where I had rented a room for the night at a local farm within walking distance to the start.  Looking at the map, Augustina just couldn’t believe how far it is to drive from Lillehammer to Rena, relative to the skiing distance.  Add in Friday night traffic and her round trip to Rena and back was about 7 hours!  Staying at the farm house was a really good move and for the first time, I actually slept the night before; sure beats a 3-hour bus ride at 4 am!  

There is something nerve-wracking about a 54 k race climbing 3 mountains on kick wax you have never tested, but that is the way it goes.  I have learned that testing at the start is meaningless; the warm-up tracks have no resemblance to the conditions up the course, so I just headed to the start and put my skies down.  I skied out of wave 3, which actually turned out really well.  I was able to be in the top 20 or so out of the gate and had plenty of room around me to quickly settle into a rhythm and ski relaxed on what turned out to be an excellent kick; thank you Zach!  
My first split, after 9k of climbing, was 31st in the age group, and I was now starting to catch lots of wave 2 skiers on the uphills, which continued for the first 14k.  The weather was gorgeous with sun, light wind, and anywhere from -2 C at the start to -6C up in the mountains.  Zach cautioned me that the skis that I chose were too flat to carry speed with klister wax and that turned out to be true, but those were the best I had in my travel bag so that’s what it is.  Every downhill I lost places, relative to skiers around me, and gained on the uphills.  My next splits were 47th in the age group, then 42nd after a series of climbs, and 55th at the finish (850 skiers in the 50 – 54 group), with the last 14k pretty much straight downhill skiing.  
All in all, though, I had a really good race where most everything worked out perfectly well.  I finished in a time of 3 hours and 11 minutes, and to give some perspective of how tight it is, there were 14 skiers within one minute just ahead and behind me on the result list!  My goal was top 30 in the age group; I didn’t quite make it, but seeing the splits, I know that a top 30 is within reach and I’m already looking forward to next year!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Birkie of One

The Birkie lifestyle ... both the Norwegian Birkebeiner and the American Birkie present themselves as part of a year-round lifestyle of general athleticism and spending quality time outside, and offer both a running race and a bike race as part of the Birkie trifecta.  With Kongsbergers' Norwegian heritage and focus on outdoor sports, it seems only natural that we might want to mimic this training-all-year concept.

So Jim Slyfield, who is always looking for fun and interesting new ways to challenge himself and others, concocted the idea of a Cabin Creek trifecta, with a bike ride and trail run to come later this summer and a classic 50k Viking/Berg Birkie on the same day as the Norwegian Birkebeiner, which was last Saturday.

Alas, it didn't turn out quite the way he had hoped.  Maybe it was the rain, maybe it was the 50k distance, maybe it was that Americans tend to be skaters more than classic skiers and the skate 50k was just the previous weekend; whatever, Jim was the only one who showed up.   But he did it anyway, 50k in the rain all by himself, no feed station support, no cheering fans, no one trail-side to say, "Way to go, Jim!"  I have tremendous admiration for this kind of mental toughness!  Here is his good-spirited report.  Way to go, Jim!

Good thing the kid brought his swim fins and snorkel….  
It didn’t rain all the time—it even stopped for a few minutes.  
I skied the first 3 laps, then came in to change everything from the belly button up.  Back out for the last two laps and the Berg loop to make it an honest 50K.  
**Ozbaldy Loop (Road+Berg+Viking= 9.5Km)  five times around = 47.5Km.Once around the Berg 2.5Km for total of 50Km. Call me a wuss for not going around for another 5Km and only wearing my waterbottle butt pack.   
Maybe next year the weather will be less oppressive and we’ll have a few more brave souls.  
Looked like Nick had not groomed since Wednesday.  There was a thin layer of new snow on top of the old stuff.  I used my fish scale skis to KISS it on the wax situation.  After the second lap, Universal Klister would have been fine.  
Lack of skiers is discouraging.  Other than rain, the snow wasn’t so bad.  Just get out and do it.  A hot shower when I finished was very welcome.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Way of Seeing

If you were at the Ozbaldy last weekend, either as a racer or a volunteer, you saw the blind skier Maya Jonas and her guide Anne Egger making their way around the course.  Maybe you, like me, were curious about how that was working.  Anne had a headset and a microphone that she spoke into, and a little speaker in the small of her back that Maya could listen to.  Anne's job was to keep talking the whole time, whether giving commentary on the trail ahead or just talking about life, so that Maya could tell where she was and follow her.  She had never skied more than 5k before, and she finished two laps of the race course for 20k.  I was so impressed by her courage, and when Anne sent me her beautiful reflections on the day, I asked if I could share them with the blogosphere, and she agreed.

I felt pretty inadequate, overall - learned a lot, would totally do it again, and have bottomless admiration for Maya for skiing all 20 km. Racers were very gracious, skied around us, smiled at my stupid commentary, and offered lots of encouragement. I realized how much of my joy of skiing comes from the visual impressions of blue sky, tall trees laden with snow, sun and shadow. Maya grew up sighted, so I could describe what I was seeing to her and I stopped worrying about saying things like, "Wow! There's this amazing cloud over the mountains - it's dark gray with white edges and it's billowing over the ridge..."

And I also realized how exhausting it is to not know what's coming, and to start looking at the world as if you don't know whether you will start accelerating or run off the edge or drift to a stop in the next instant. We both got frustrated when I forgot to tell her that I had stopped and she ran into me or when I got too far ahead and one of her skis fell off the edge of the trail.

At the end of the season, starting to grow weary of skiing and the snow, I was reminded of how lovely and unusual our access (in all respects) to Nordic skiing is. I am eternally gratefully that I have two legs and two arms that propel me forward, and after last weekend, I am grateful to see snow against blue sky and to see the trail ahead of me. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Race Report -- Ozbaldy 50k

The 50k Ozbaldy was today and people, we don't get much better days than this for a ski race, here in the Pacific Northwest.  It snowed and snowed all night, and then Sunday dawned bright and bluebird, with temperatures hovering in the low 30s...

... perfect for a little trail-side sunbathing.

So 70 racers tackled five laps of the course at Cabin Creek, with Linnea Rooke victorious for the women and Justin Wade for the men.  A 10k at the same time for juniors was won by Cooper Jackson and Andreea Ghizila.  Thank you, Susie Main, for these pictures of the 50k winners, basking in their glory in the sunshine:

Aric Gaither, Justin Wade, John Svensson

Linnea Rooke

Many volunteers had a hand in creating such a great race experience, starting with Jonathan Loeffler, first-time race director, long-time ski racer, who handled cat herding details with such aplomb that he was able to jump in the race himself, always the sign of a well-managed race!  First-time timing chief Augustina Harper, together with Vesa Suomalinen, smoothly managed a brand new timing system, working with timing crew Elizabeth, Erik, Tom, and Courtney.  Gina and Susie handled front-desk duties, and Kare and Aase Gjolmseli were as awesome as always in the kitchen, keeping racers fed and happy all afternoon, even without some of their most seasoned helpers.  Chief of Course Rune Harkestad, together with Peter Boveng, Chris Queitzsch, Max Limb, Erik Brooks, Jim Lindsey, Jon, Brandon, Alex, Todd and Aaron, managed course set-up and take-down, and Joan Nordheim was on hand to gather bibs at the finish line.  First-time starter Mandy Nelson sent the racers off with a flourish; Joy, Robin, and Dale managed the parking lot, while June Lindsey swept the course near the feed station and picked up wayward cups and gel wrappers.  Even our bell-ringers were superlative this year!

As was the feed station crew: Lisa, Victor, Robin, Joy, TJ, Emily, Brandon, and, of course, Oliver, chief garbage collector and runner of drink refills:

And Peter, who brought feed station duties to a whole new level.  When the water jug ran low, he carried it back to the cabin on his skis,  refilled it, and snowmobiled it back out to the feed station.

And when one racer walked back to the feed station carrying a ski with a broken binding, he, well, he just fixed it, and sent the racer back on his way!

A 50k is a long long race, with plenty of opportunities to live and die and live again, and the feed station is where the hero stories play out.  Racers coming through the feed station are by turns funny and focused, snippy and grateful, steadily deteriorating as the race goes on or looking stronger and stronger with each lap.  The feed station is where strong tough men push themselves so hard they can't go on, and strong tough men regroup and find the resources to finish.  It's where a small determined woman quietly manages her feeds, skiing resolutely to the end and finishing her first 50k, even when the timing crew has finished their duties and left.  It's where the lead pack flies through in an exhibition of fluid speed and grace, and where an exhausted racer on his last lap almost skis into a tree.  And it's where a blind skier, with Anne Egger as her guide, refuels before she finishes two laps of the race, a distance five times longer than her previous longest ski.  Heroes, every one of them!

This was the last Kongsberger race of the season, so a big shout out goes to our sponsors: Madshus, Second Ascent, Essential Baking, Waypoint, and Clif -- thank you all, for your generosity and your support.  Thank you thank you, volunteers, for giving up your Sundays to create a fun and generous race experience for people you don't even know.  And a great big thank you goes to Super Groomer Nick Whitman, who went above and beyond the call of duty last night; it snowed hard all night, so he just kept grooming all night, and left the racers with a super fast course.

And of course, thank you, racers, for training hard and making a commitment and paying your fee and showing up and putting on a bib and doing your best, however that came out this time. We'll see you next year -- have a great summer!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Non-Race Report: American Birkie and Party

By now everyone knows the American Birkie was canceled for lack of snow, but certainly not for lack of trying!  Per and Sandy were there anyway and were able to enjoy all the race-related festivities the race organizers could muster up for the disappointed skiers.  As one long-time Birchlegger wrote, training for 2018 begins today!  Many thanks to Per for sending us this report.  (photos from the American Birkebeiner Facebook page)

We waited for several days in Hayward for temperatures to go down, and they did on Thursday, but not before nearly all the snow had melted.  At the same time our hopes were raised by a forecast of a major winter storm which would bring 8 to 12 inches of snow on Friday.  The storm just grazed us to the south and we received a small dusting.  So the organizers of the ski race provided daily updates about the possibility of a race.  The odds went down to "less than 1%" on Thursday, and finally, they cancelled the race, for just the second time since 1973.

Instead they had a "Birkiefest" at the starting line, complete with a short loop ski trail made from stored corn snow, and tents that sold brats, beer, waffles, and soup.  The temperatures were cold and the ground was covered with ice and dirt.  Still, the faithful showed up in great numbers, many with their numbers on, and most seemed happy.  My guess is that 2-3,000 people attended.  (ed.note: the Birkie Facebook page claims there were between 8,000 and 10,000 partiers!)  

I felt most sorry for the locals who had counted on a big financial bonanza from the thousands of visitors.  Obviously, many skiers and their families went home early and they didn't leave as much money as the merchants had hoped for.

However, we still had a fine time visiting old friends and enjoying Joe and Cheri's hospitality. We also took advantage of the pleasant temperatures to go for some long walks on the roads around here.

Now, home to Washington, where we have tons of snow in the mountains.  Skiing into April, probably.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Race Report -- Canadian Birkebeiner

For my money, one of the coolest things about being part of the ski community is having friends in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s who don't just go for a ski; they commit.  They sign up for a race and put on a number and toe the starting line and say, "Let's do this thing," and then do it.  And then tell us all about it!  Exhibit A: Gunnar Unneland, rocking the 80+ age group at this year's 55k Canadian Birkebeiner.  Way to go, Gunnar, and thanks for sharing your report!

A long-distance XC ski race report for relatives and friends:

Some of you knew of my somewhat ambitious plan of surviving a 55KM Canadian Birkebeiner race. Last year it was cancelled for lack of snow plus I got sick.

After consulting my stamina by skiing 4 hours nonstop a while back, I felt I could give it a chance. It takes place near Edmonton, Alberta, about 1-1/2 hours to get there by plane. 3 other friends from our ski club had signed up. I shared a hotel room with one of them and we arrived Thursday, with the race taking place Saturday at 9:30. I entered without a backpack which was a good choice. There are 2 other Birkebeiner races in the world -- in Norway and the USA -- and when you have done at least one of each,  Canada hands out what they call a King Haakon award. I made it! (The race is commemorating a historical event.)

The weather was nice and sunny. The temperature adjusted overnight to a tolerable level and I ended up removing the windbreaker most of the distance and kept warm hands all the way. The partially crusty snow wore down wax so I had to re-wax twice. I had good glide on my old Skilom skis but the course itself turned out much harder than expected. Twists and turns, up and down with few open flats, although the second half was better. Much of the distance I was totally alone! The reason being the better, faster skiers were sent out first.

The following morning I had stomach trouble so I did not eat until back in Seattle! The return trip Sunday went well, though, with some very tired muscles, of course.

Hilsen Gunnar

Monday, February 20, 2017

Race Report: K├Ânig Ludwig Lauf

All the cool kids are double poling the big classic marathons now, and Jon Fewster is definitely one of the cool kids!  He found himself on the starting line of Germany's Konig Ludwig Lauf marathon with not a drop of kick wax beneath his feet.  How did he do?  Read on!  And thanks, Jon, for the race report and photos and for sharing your adventure with us!


Apparently last week Obberammergau was a winter wonderland with cold temps, full snow coverage and fresh snow in the trees.  Then starting on Tuesday, it started raining.  Race weekend had a freestyle race on Saturday and a classic race on Sunday.  The main event is the classic - which I was doing for the first time.

When I got there on Saturday afternoon, it was warm (+9C) with rivers of water near the course.  Much of the course had been underwater so the course was shortened and moved in places, and they did a lot of work draining water (ponds had been forming) and adding snow.  The course was shortened from one 50k lap to two shorter laps totaling 38k.  This also cut off the longest, steepest climb.  I had planned to double-pole and when I heard this there was no doubt in my mind that it was a DP race!  The night before, I saw some people waxing - and I only saw people putting straight glide on their skis.  Overnight it froze, resulting in rock hard tracks made from large-grain refrozen snow.  The tracks were super fast!

Race morning I was able to walk out the door of my hotel in Ettal, walk to the other side of the parking lot to the ski track, put on my skis and ski 1km to the start.  Could not have been easier!

The race was FAST.  I was not in the elite starting area, but started in the second row of the non-elite.  95% of the people around me were double poling.  There were only three hills where you would consider kicking.  I DP'ed up these without much problem.  Each one had steep sections that required a lot of strength, but there was so much ground to recover afterwards, that it was not an issue.  I only saw maybe five people trying to kick or herring bone.  It was challenging to feed because (1) I avoided the drinks at the aid station due to food allergies, and (2) the trains of skiers were going fast and when I grabbed my bottle or food from my waistbelt, it was easy for the train to get ahead.  I will need to work on my feeding.

The last hill was ~1k from the finish, climbing up to the base of an alpine area.  This was arguably the longest, hardest hill on the course.  Leading up to the last climb was a very fast straight section.  I was following a Norwegian who was setting a screaming pace!  When we started the last uphill where there were extra tracks, I went around the Norwegian and told him "You set a great pace!  Now get on and follow me!"  However, he could not hang on.  It was a hard hill mostly because of the length, but also with a kick up at the end.  I muscled through it and caught up to a splintered group near the top of the hill.  The hill then immediately turned down toward the finish.  This downhill was an open field groomed for skating (no tracks), with the course making twisty turns, including some 90-degree turns.  With the ice-hard corduroy it was hard to stay up or turn.  I stayed up, but also could not go quite as fast as I wanted.  At the bottom of the hill was a small bridge, a tight turn, then onto a running track into the finish.  I was not able to pass anyone in the last section.

I finished 127 out of 1000-1200.  My time was 1:46 (earning me third American!).  Winnning time was 1:26!!!  I was very pleased with my race, staying strong the whole way and with my finish place.  With some more DP training and some intervals/intensity, I should be able to get into the top 100.

After the race I talked to Tyler Cornfield and _____ of APU.  They had come in 7 & 8 - in the lead pack.  They said that just before the last uphill, the lead pack was ~25-30.  At the top of the hill, they were down to 12, led by Tony Livers.  On the downhill, skiers were trying to get ahead, cutting each other off... then Stanislav Rezak went down and Tony Livers had to avoid him.  Max (name?) of Germany had been 30m off the pack at the top of the hill; however, with the pack cutting each other off and with some skiers going down, Max was able to somehow get through/past this group and into the lead for the win.  Germany was excited to have a homegrown Germany winner for the first time in 30 years!

After the race, all the racers went into a gymnasium to pick up their drop bags, get food and take showers.  Only in Bavaria is the first refreshment draft beer!  The race was sponsored in part by Ettal / Benedicktiner beer which is brewed by Benedictine Monks in Ettal, across the street from my hotel.  Pretty nice!

I raced on Propulsion Cold (Warm may have been a little better, however I chose my skis ~ a week before when conditions were cold) waxed for me by HWK (thank you!).  They were fast and glided up many hills.  Gliding on the downhills, my skis seemed the same or slightly faster than those around me.  I know that the stiff forebody of the Propulsion gave me a lot of control to navigate the last downhill.  I was very pleased with the skis!  For bindings, I used the Xcelerator 2.0 Classic front with R4 heelplates to get my body up and forward for double-poling.  That was a good call.  For boots I was on the Super Nano Classic which gave me plenty of control - although knowing how icy and twisty the last hill was, I would now consider racing in skate boots just for additional control on that downhill.

I really applaud the race organizers and course staff for getting the course in such good shape despite the crazy warm weather!

Obberammergau is a small village in the Bavarian alps.  This is what Leavenworth strives to be :).  If you ever have the opportunity to race in Germany, do it - you will have a lot of fun!