March 3, 2014

The Birkie!

I will be completely honest in that one of my goals in the past few years has been to be racing fast enough that I am conveniently in Europe during the American Birkebeiner, a 50k skate marathon in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. This year I was not so lucky. Not making the Olympic team meant I really had no reason not to do the Birkie.  I can't imagine a race that suits my strengths worse than a 50k skate. And to add to the negatives, it snowed about two feet two nights before the race and the projected highs were in the single digits with windchill around -15. Needless to say, I didn't have a whole lot of expectations for the race. In fact, I would go as far as saying I was purely terrified about what this race would do to me and if I would make it to the finish in one piece.

Back up a bit, I was lucky enough to be able to stay in my friend Annie Hart's family's cabin right in Cable, Wisconsin. It was a perfect little place and with the frigid temps, I couldn't help but imagine how amazing this place on a lake must be come the summer months. The events start out with Elite Sprints on Main Street. The sprints are only about 400 meters long, 200 meters down the street, around a pole and back up. We raced head to head with the loser going home and the winner moving on in the bracket. It was a really fun event and required a lot of finding a way to stay on your feet through soft and
squirely snow. I found myself in final against the Russian that beat me at US Nationals. Unfortunately for me, I got the "bad" lane that had all the foot traffic and slow snow and I was unable to overcome that, placing 2nd overall. I was pretty happy though because I would consider really short sprints a severe weakness of mine.
Winner Natalya and I 
Sprint Podium
We only had a day to really check out the trail due to the large snow storm that hit. Not wanting to tire ourselves out, we skied the first half of the course. I was planning to ski the last 10 or so kilometers the next day but the snow proved too much to even ski through, meaning I would be skiing the entire second half of the race blind...good thing it's a mass start!
Going for a ski with Rossignol!
The amazing part about the Birkie is that while I am dreading it, there are 10,000 others who are flying in from all over and are ecstatic about this race, it is their whole life. I have never seen anything quite like it. I am thankful I got to ski first in the Elite wave and didn't have to deal with passing some 10,000 others out there on the trail. I also got to pick one of 500 some porti-potties before the race before the hoards of people arrived. It's the small perks of being an elite racer! I am also glad to see so many people excited about the sport I love.
The start of wave 3 of 10, yikes so maybe skiers!

Being as scared as I was proved, I think, an asset in the end. I was over prepared for everything. I had toe warmers, boots covers, body warmers, lots of long underwear, lots of PowerGels, and a drink belt to carry my own drink. I am thankful for everything I wore and brought with me. I think I was probably one of few girls who didn't get really cold out there and I never bonked! 

The first 5 or 10k, I found myself uneasy about the pace, unsure of when to feed and just still a little nervous about the whole endeavor. Eventually, I was able to to relax and even enjoy myself out there, rocketing past people on my very fast skis. I made a point to stay in the top 5 the whole time to be ready for anything and to be able to watch the best and do as they do. The snow was unbelievably slow, getting any glide took a lot of power and energy and I felt that sitting towards the front was less energy due to the accordion effect on all the undulations in the trail. 

Just after half way, the elite boys pack passed us, something I was not expecting. It was whirlwind of commotion and equipment banging as the hard charging boys rushed passed. Unsure of how the girls would react, I found myself caught between trying to find the girls in the pack and eyeing which boys were having a good one. Somehow in all the chaos, eventual winner Caitlin Gregg got away. The rest of us regrouped and set out again, probably a little hopeful we might see her again. At this point I was skiing blind, so I was not about to go out on my own so I just continued to sit in and see how my body would fare as I skied past the 30k mark, marking the longest race I had ever skied prior to that day. 

I knew there was a lake at the end, but it just wasn't coming soon enough, it felt like we just kept climbing and climbing. Eventually, the Italian (who ended up 2nd) and the Finn got away on the back of a small group of boys. I was stuck in the back of the pack, unable to respond and unsure if I could. I started to feel weird cramps in my tricep and hip flexor. I could feel we were near the lake though and suddenly if felt as if the girls in front of my just stopped so I went to the side and just started to go with every bit I had left. I passed two girls and caught the Finn right as we entered. She was not very happy about that and pushed me into the lead. The lake is the last place you want to lead with a solid head wind and slow, wind blown snow. Unsure of what else to do at that point I decided to just focus on what I could, my own skiing. Thinking about my technique, skiing big and powerfully, I trudged on through the wind. When I got to the end of the lake, I peeked back and saw I had dropped the Finn so I did whatever I could to make it through the streets of Hayward and across the finish line in 3rd place. While 3rd is far from winning, I was so happy to not have only skied 50k, but to have surpassed all expectations for myself. Dazed and happy, I was captured by the doping control officer to give a sample and the poor lady had to listen to me babble on and on about my first 50k, but it is really quite a feeling to make it across that finish line! I may even be back again next year...

Cold, tired, and finished!

Sprint Day Interview

More big checks! 
Here is an article and movie about the Birkie that gives you a much better idea about what the race was actually like: