Saturday, February 25, 2012

checking out the American Birkie

Back in November my x-c skier friend Marcus Boyle and I decided to enter the American Birkie with his friend Cameron Mahon from Toronto. Marcus and I knew we'd be working 24/7 on the airport expansion project the same day as the Canadian Birkie race Feb 11. The American Birkie date was better timing for us being two weeks later.
We entered days before the race sold its 9000 spots! Bonus was getting into the Elite classic wave based on my Cdn Birkie and Keski results. Otherwise, newbies have to start in the 9th wave. Marcus got into Wave 1 which started simultaneously with the Elites. Cam managed to get into the 4th wave for Skate which was the earliest wave to squeak into without a qualifying time.

So many new logistics to figure out, including a challenge to figure out grip & glide wax in the sparsely snowed area. 2012 will be known as the least amount of snow accumulation up until late Feb.

Decided to fly into Duluth, MN. Even though we had to switch planes in Minneapolis, the flight to Duluth was total $500 vs just stopping in Minneapolis at $800. Made no sense! I was willing to take the chance for a missing bag vs opportunity to stay in a quaint town and fly into a teeny uncongested airport.

Met up with Cam in Minneapolis before flying to Duluth. Picked up the rental, stopped at the community whole foods store for pre/post food, and off to drive 1 hour-ish south to Hayward, Wisconsin. The land was close to barren of snow. Reminded me of Calgary/Canmore after chinook winds.

Chatting it up with Cam as he was driving, we almost drove back to Minneapolis by the time I realized we missed the turn East! Well, only an extra 20 miles. We got to the race expo around 5:30 pm to quickly grab our race packages. The wax prediction didn't alter from the prior day's wax testing... HF blue and a powder for the glide... green base wax, VR40 layers with shorter VR45 layers covered.
Cam, Marg & Marcus chilling at Telemark Lodge before the race
Since there is minimal accommodation in the area for all the skiers, locals are encouraged to rent out portions of their homes. We stopped off at the private housing I found considered out-of-town in this town of 2200 people (barely 1 mile from downtown!).

We stayed with an older woman Serena in the house she basically grew up in. Our accom was in an empty room in her little house, perfect! We all brought sleeping bags and crashed on the floor. Originally, Marcus was adamant to sleep at the startline outdoors in his -40C bag. Cam was great to convince us all to eat dinner, prep our skis and by then Marcus was swayed to stay with us.

My race time was early at 8 a.m. with subsequent waves leaving periodically after. Next morning was super early getting up before 4:45 a.m. Not sure of the post-race congestion of 9000 people, the decision was to leave the car parked close to the finish and walk the rest of the way to the bus shuttle location to the race start. As we were walking on dry roads, the stores down Main St were all lit up like at Christmas. Cam pointed out we were about to walk on the actual ski track as the road turned all snowy white for 400 metres. Snow had been dumped for a main street finish off the lake - very cool to see the pristine white tracks prior to racing on them.
Got to the shuttle at 5:45 a.m. waiting for a 6 a.m. departure. I sat next to Gary Zimbric from Wausau, WI who had done 31 of these Birkies! Gary filled me in on details with me asking tons of questions. A half hour traffic-free bus ride later, we were at Telemark Resort. It was nice to be early and all of a sudden see busload after busload of skiers walk into the lodge. The morning temp was about 15F or -10C.

Marcus and I made our walk to the startline on the snowcovered airfield, only 600m away. A huge warming tent was set up to sit or wax skis in. There was an 800m loop to test skis on. Out of the blue... cool to bump into Roch Frey from Encinitas, CA (originally from AB), Don Sissons from MB (met at Transrockies 2005) and of course the Lifesporters from Calgary, Pep and Kat!.

The trucks to load gearbags were ordered by wave and lined up right at the startline. I dropped my skis in position at the line then fumbled stuffing all my overlayer clothes into my bag, and tossed it over the fence towards the truck. I like that close convenience.
I was third in line, not many skiers deep behind me. Then I looked to my right and the startline stretched for over 30 skiers, yikes! It did look like a large number of skiers, all similar calibre. I thought the start would be a gong show of flying skis and poles. Anything but... it was an awesome non-frazzling start with politeness of skiers soon squeezing into 6 then 3 tracks. Pretty much bumper to bumper for the first km though reasonably easy to get around. As we approached hills, we split up accordingly.

I was abit nervous of the crowd, getting the wax right, clothing (I overdressed a smidgeon), my lack of high-end fitness (plenty of endurance, too much work, not enough rest)... that within a couple km of skiing on the course, I was smiling knowing it was the right thing to be there skiing at that moment!!

On our first descent, I was ecstatic my skis glided as fast or faster than the men I was around! Yay, tough to do for 105-lber! Thanks to Marcus for zipping up my skis for glide.

The first 26-km, the classic skiers skied on a trail away from the skate course. This made the classic course 4-km longer though the hills were less steep than for the skate course. The course twisted thru the trees and was very quaint. The descents were long enough to get into a tuck for a few moments rest. LOVED the course!! It was totally entertaining.

Could put in a hard effort up the climb, then rest on the descent. 3 tracks set which were close together though awesome for choice on cornering and passing. There was usually 1 track set on the whole downhill, with the other two flattened for most corners. When I could, I'd attempt to stay in the track as it was quicker though sometimes got spit out on a sharp corner.

I carried my camelbak so usually got away from a handful of skiers each time at a feedzone. Whenever there was a huge hill, it rose in camelhumps so it was never daunting. This course rolled super nice.

A few times I could see skaters speeding along on the right when the courses came close together. At 26 km the classic course merged with the skate course, with two classic tracks together on the left hand side. The skaters had enough room for at least 3 skiers across. With the course merging, the trail was wider and less twisty, more open. It was like a different course from the first half.

I cheered whenever I saw women skaters fly by. I`d get a few smiles and cheers back my way. Women were given a distinct navy blue coloured bib so easy to spot.

Plugged along with the km marking signs ticking away. I attempted to ski with a few skiers though eventually got away and eventually hooked up with a couple others. With the interspersed climbs, it was a hard course to get the right calibre of person to ski with. I was alone for times, especially the latter half except for the constant flow of skaters on my right.

Here and there, were sections of people cheering. Earlier in the race I saw a group of people drumming, and later on a group of sledders dressed in what looked more like hunting camoflauge gear. Nice to have cheers!

Coming around a corner at the 38 km mark in the wooded section on the trails, I could hear amplified cheering and was wide-eyed wondering what was up ahead. The small crowd was loud and hearty with major dance music blaring. I lit up taking in their energy and started bopping to the beat as I climbed uphill. The crowd went crazy seeing I was soaking up their excitement. It was awesome!

Another 2 km later I approached the infamous "bitch" hill. It was a sight to see in front of me as the hill was super steep, could say "daunting", with skiers laden all over crawling up it slowly. Lots of people cheering with a man with a mic, dressed up as a reverend announcing humorous religious statements such as... "Sinners, you are forgiven for your blasphemes shouted out loud as you climb Bitch Hill!". His comments were funny and made the hard effort of skiing the steep climb light-hearted. This was the only spot I had to herringbone climb up the last pitch.

I heard one skateskier comment "only 3 more hills left". I did see the odd skier here and there just leaning over their skate poles resting. Harder to skate up those steep ones.

The temp was warming to below freezing and the sun was peeking out. It was challenging to stay in the tracks for the peak of the climb. I had a wicked technique where once my ski slipped on the track a smidgeon or I could see the grade rise, I immediately jumped out on the open track and literally ran up the climb (this is where Ski-Mo training comes in!). I was going as fast or faster than the skateskiers on these steep climbs! FUN! They would zoom off after the rise.

The last 10 km was flatter. With less than 4 km left, the track went across the lake for 2 km and fortunately the wind was pretty negligible. I was leading then noticed men in tracks on both sides behind me. One guy finally passed on the left. I said to him "it'd be great if you jumped in front of me"... and he did! It was so nice to work to stay on his heels. At the end of the lake, scrambling thru unsettled corn snow, I made my way to the last 400m trackset finish on Main Street and just took in the cheering of the huge crowd.

I was pleased with my effort knowing I can nudge it up a few notches with the right training and rest.

Met Marcus at the finish. The finish corral funnelled the skiers to ski racks where the gearbags from the start line were bunched according to their wave. It was easy to pick up my own bag. Wish the Cdn Birkie set up the bags this way.

We hung out watching the thousands of skiers coming in. And easily met up with Cam who came in one of the top skiers from the 4th wave meaning he had to pass thousands of skiers starting ahead in prior waves.

For accom after the race, I arranged to stay at couchsurfer Jim Levang's place in Duluth. He mentioned his wife Julie was driving down to cheer on their son Sam. Texting my location at the finish, we met up with Julie and Sam. It was great to hear everyone's race story. Sam did the skate race his first time two years ago starting in the 9th wave and earned his spot for wave 2 this year (a tough feat!).

Took in the finishers atmosphere, back to the Serena's house for showers and stories, then off we drove to Duluth. It was the guy's first time couchsurfing and everyone got along well with Jim & Julie and their guest Maureen, not to mention the dogs Chip and Monty. Dinner was full of stories.

It was a race that I`d like to come back to and will have difficulty choosing between skate and classic. As much as I love classic, the skate race looked luring with the momentum-ous hills. Wish the Brkie could set the format up like the Gatineau Loppet (Keski) where classic is on Sat and skate on Sun. No problem to do both!

Now, we`re even considering the original Norwegian Birkie for 2014!!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

New found Pipestone Trails

Weekend prior to the Birkie gave the last weekend to sneak off from work for the weekend. Marcus and I skied every possible x-c trail at Lake Louise...
view of the Hotel from the far end of the x-c trails on the glacier side
...out/back Morraine Lake road, around Fairview, loop in the trees towards the glacier back on the lake, down upper Telemark to Peyto, out the Great Divide and back on the latter part of lower Telemark, walking across the road to hook back onto Tramline. Total 49-km in under 4 hours.

Lake Louise glacier behind us
Stayed at Field hostel in the downstairs suite. What to do the next day?
Reading the reports on (formerly, many skiers reported in about the great condition Pipestone classic trails at the base of the Lake Louise ski hill on the other side of the highway.
My next favourite trails at Pipestone!
Off we went to explore new territory... Wow, the Pipestone trail loop going counterclockwise was wicked! An intermediate trail gently climbing un-noticeably high on swoopy singletrack trails in the trees. I had faith in the groomer who took out the tracks on any corner that was sharp to prepare for a stepturn.
shadow view of the lake
The latter half had crazy rollercoaster descents swooping around in the trees. Fortunately, we were out of these sections each time we came across skiers climbing up that direction. We ended up doing two loops of the 13-km section.

Still wanting a little more mileage, we skateskied out/back Morraine Lake road before heading home. Another weekend warrior weekend!