Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Seventh American Birkebeiner

Myself struggling towards to finish line

Every year the season comes and the excitement begins as the American Birkebeiner ski race nears its start. The Birkie (as is often lovingly titled) is one of the United States biggest celebrations of nordic skiing. The 52 km race is a point to point journey that brings one over the hills of Northern Wisconsin from Cable to the main street of Hayward.

Rewinding to a week before the race, it rained as temperatures dismally rose above freezing for 5 days straight. Likewise ski trails turned into slush and when the temperature again dropped, became solid ice. So for the week leading up to the Birkie I had not skied much.

The days before the race were filled with time well spent friends from the tightly knit nordic ski community and also was able to spent time with my significant other. The night before the race was filled with nervous waxing, weather reports, and gear checks (and repairs in my case). By the dawn light of the morning of Birkebeiner I awoke well rested. I ate a minimalists meal before heading out the door of our lodgings. Myself and a friend arrived neared the start, parked the car and excitedly walked towards the start. The sky loomed grey and temperature hovered around 14 degrees. I did a quick warm-up of sorts before entering the gates of my start wave.

The Birkie has 6,000-7,000 skier each year and in order to prevent mass chaos they release us in waves according to our past Birkie performance (if you've never done the Birkie... you start in the back). This being my seventh Birkie, I was set to start out of the first wave. Guys and gals in the first wave tend to be a bit nutty. Many are citizen racers gunning to make into the elite wave with the sponsored racers, others have something to prove, and then their are many like me... politely out to ski their own race and their own pace.

This year I made the mistake of attempting to be in the front of the first wave. They released the "Elite" wave in ahead of us and the first wave skiers sprinted ahead to set their skis on the start line and get ready to go. In the sprint I managed to stabbed in the left calf by the ski pole of a less than sane skier. I shook it off and put my skis on and tried to keep myself warm despite the inherent lack of clothing that goes into wearing a race suit.

Only minutes passed before the gun rang out andthe dam broke as myself and the flood of skiers erupted forth onto the snow ahead. I conservatively skied my way along being conscious of keeping my poles from getting stepped or broken. The river of skiers coursed along and up the first set of steep hills and out into the woodlands. It took almost 10k for the racers to begin spread out. During that time, I was not not feeling good. I felt as if I was not getting enough oxygen when huffing up each hill and was hacking like mad to clear my throat. At 18 km I hacked so hard that I gagged hard... and my stomach sloshed violently. I pulled over feeling nastily nauseous, got on my hands and knees and vomited. It this moment this moment, I was ready to quit the race as I picked myself up and continued climbing up the trail ahead. I had never had a stomach this sort in a race, and whatever sustenance I might have had was left in a patch out on the snow. I continued on and tried to take feeds at the feed stations to make up for what I had lost.

Finishing off the race on mainstreet in Hayward

I managed to keep myself going as the kilometers passed by excruciatingly slowly. However, by 30 km my caloric deficit began to catch up with me. I could feel my legs begin to cramp and my pace slow. I fought to adapt my technique to rest my wear legs, but the hills would not allow for much. I fought on, shedding any pride, knowing that I'd be lucky to finish this year's Birkebeiner. As 48 km rolled around, my mind started to get a little foggy, my vision a little blurry, and my balance a little worse. I was hungry and had already eaten all the energy drink and gel that I had brought with me.

I skied down the last hill out onto Hayward Lake with a 1 km to the finish. The lake being flat require constant effort with little rest to fight the wind. As I went along, I was concious to keep my legs from locking in cramps. Each double pole my left triceps and should would tighten and cramp. As I turned the corner onto the main street of Hayward I gritted my teeth and pushed for an attempt of an strong finish. My legs to locked up and by the time I crossed the finish line I could not get my knees to bend.

Myself the last 100 meters of the race, legs locked, and in pain.

I tried to remain standing after crossing the finished line but fell over as my leg muscles would not unclench. Grunting, I grabbed my legs and forcibly bent them until finally they loosened up and I could walk to the food area.

After finding some food and riding the bus back to the start and eventually arriving at our lodgings, I was concerned about my recovery. However, the beautiful part of skiing is that it is forgiving on ones body. Despite my debilitating cramps, within hours and days after the race I had no muscle soreness... only generalized fatigue. My tiredness was relieved by a good meal, a beer, an hour in the hot tub, a nap, and good times with friend and my significant other.

I found out later that night, to my surprise, that my time was only 10 minutes slower than the year before. Looking back it was a challenging Birkie for me, but I'm happy that I did not give up despite the circumstances. Though I hoped for a better finishing time, I am satisfied despite difficulties. It was a memorable weekend and the time with companions was time I couldn't miss. I look forward to next years Birkebeiner!

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