Monday, February 23, 2009

The Birkie!

I just got back from racing in the biggest ski race in the country, the American Birkebeiner. There were 7,500 racers, 15,000 spectators, 60,000 cookies, and 6000 gallons of soup. That is a lot of cookies. I had no idea what to expect when I signed up for this race, I knew it was big, but how big hadn't quite hit me.

I got to Minneapolis Thursday night, stayed with Aaron Blazar's family, and then we (me, Blazar, Eric Fitz, John Swain, and Nick Kline - stuck in a van full of Colby boys) drove up to Telemark Friday morning. I had to work in the Alpina booth for a bit that afternoon, and we were selling Bjorn Daehlie (the clothing line) hats, but we didn't have a mirror. So, I took pictures on my digital camera and people could look at themselves that way. I particularly like this picture, because it looks like Bjorn himself is skiing up behind me.

The Alpina booth at the demo. I scored a ton of free gels and stuff, I love ski exhibitions :)

Saturday morning, I was starting in wave 2, so I got to watch the elite waves go off. I looked for Bjorn Daehlie in the classic race but I didn't know what suit he was wearing, so I didn't see him. I also didn't realize that you're supposed to be lined up in your wave 10 minutes ahead of time, so I showed up with 5 minutes to go, and everyone was already lined up. I briefly considered lining up in the back, and then decided, screw that, I'm pushing my way to the front. So, I did, and I sort of felt guilty about just barging up to the front of the line, but at the same time, I think I'm pretty easy to pass, so at least this way I could get away cleanly and people could pass me on their own time later. They said go, and I started double poling, and I quickly found myself out front and sort of alone. 4-5 guys went by, and the first 3km went really quickly, until we made a turn and started climbing under the powerlines. A couple more guys passed me there, because I was quickly finding out that my legs felt like utter crap, and climbing was difficult.

It is really too bad that climbing felt this difficult, because there were some big climbs. My skis were fast enough that I would go whipping down the hills, catching up to the guys who had dropped me on the last climb, but then they would drop me again as things angled upwards. There wasn't much flat, but I liked the rollers. At about 12km, there was a really big hill. Actually, I don't think it was that big, but it looked huge. When the trail is 30 feet wide, its a little hard to make it not just go straight up hills in a giant swath of clear-cut. I figured that even though my legs wanted to die, I would just keep eating and try to keep my feet moving, and see what happened. We had some really fun, fast downhills after that big hill, and I was starting to enjoy myself.

The guys I was skiing with were really friendly, and although we never really formed a pack, due to the lack of flats, my Peltonens' rocket powers on the downhills, and my legs' inability to climb, but I was still starting to think of them as my guys, and I was disappointed when I realized that I had to let some of them go so as to not blow up.

When I passed the OO feed station, I knew I was about halfway done, and done with all the major climbs except Bitch Hill. For another 5km or so I put my head down and skied hard, cleaving through wave 1 skiers like a warm knife through butter, but then I caught up to one of my guys from wave 2 who was in a Bowdoin suit, and I just had to know when he had graduated. So we started talking, and skied together at an out-of-breath-but-talking pace for like 5-8k, weaving through lap 1 skiers, and then I realized I should probably go harder than this. I was also realizing, though, that my upper body was getting really tired, particularly my forearms, of all things. I went through the 38.5km feed station, and I'd been sort of taking splits on my watch, and I was glad to see I was going faster than in the beginning of the race when I'd been on track for a 3hr race. Dorcas was there, and she handed me a new bottle, and I did my best to speed up a little.

And then the coolest part happened. The lead classic skiers passed me, in a pack of four, and one of them was Bjorn Daehlie himself! I had to ask, are you Bjorn Daehlie? He grunted and nodded, and I skied along for a couple minutes in complete star-struck-fan-mode. Then I realized that I was catching back up to that pack on downhills, since I didn't have kick wax on my skis, so I got to yo-yo with Bjorn Daehlie for almost a kilometer! Of course, when we hit Bitch Hill at 40k, they classic skiers were gone, and my new life goal is to classic ski like Bjorn - he makes it look so easy! Anyway, my quads were right at the cusp of completely tweaking out, I was basically begging them to please hold it together and let me get up this hill, because if they started spasming that would be the end. Bitch hill ended up not being that long, it was just another of those wide-open attitude-destroyers, and there was a nice downhill afterwards. I made it over the crest without my quads starting to shake, but I could tell they were on the edge.

I took my last gel and pushed hard into each downhill, still able to see Bjorn's pack of skiers but unable to catch up to them. I was still passing wave 1 skiers like it was my job, but I had reeled in two more of my guys from wave 2. The Bowdoin skier I'd left behind me. Finally we came down a long hill onto THE LAKE. I had heard real horror stories about the lake. How people lost minutes to their competition battling a fierce headwind and snarling wolves and shouting natives and beer-guzzling snowmobilers and racers lost their will to finish in front of a grill filled with sausages and cold beer. I didn't think it was so bad, though, I didn't have anyone to draft since I was passing people, but I just put my head down and V2-alternated as hard as I could, and 2km later I climbed up the shore of the lake into the town, and I knew I was almost done, yippee! The finish is down main street, and the snow was all sugary, but the street was lined with fans from shoulder to shops, it was amazing. I've never skied the finish of a race like that. One of my guys from wave 2 passed me on the finish straight, but that was alright, those were nice guys.

After the race, they gave me a medal for finishing, and pointed me in the direction of my clothes bag, and the girl handed me my clothes bag and I tried to hold it in my cramping left hand and immediately dropped it. My forearm was visibly spasming, it was really weird. I managed to grab the bag in a bear hug and made it to the changing tent, and then the soup tent, and then the hang-out-and-wait-for-your-friends tent, and despite being rather tired, I felt pretty good. Its amazing how when you don't bonk, marathons can actually be quite enjoyable! When I finally went to look up results, I found out I was 23rd, so that darn well better put me into the elite wave for next year. Kind of cool to ski into a top 25 from the wrong wave! I think I'll be back...

Elite men's wave.

On main street after the race with Adam and Eric.

Looking toward the lake.

Main street. Packed. Looking at the finish.

Finish area mayhem.


Luke S said...

Congratulations Alex! Top 25 at the birkie is a pretty big deal...Bob haydock still talks about how he did it in like 1930 or something.

Alex said...

I think it started in 1983... but whatever :)

the Birkie is only as big as you think it is, I mean for midwesterners, its a huge deal, but for us on the east coast, I don't think its anything more than just a well-attended, well-organized, well-spectated marathon. Fun times, though.

V said...

i have to say this was one of your most captivating posts! my legs and arms almost hurt reading it. . .of course i'm laying in bed ditzing on my computer so i can't really claim any sympathy pains. anyhow. .good work!

Christopher Tassava said...

Awesome! Great race! I'm glad the Midwest treated you well. You could, in certain bars, drink for free with a top 25 to your credit. When will you try the City of Lakes?

Unknown said...

amazing stories here alex...I started from your last post and read all the way to your adventures at the always have big adventures! Nice job racing! whoooop whooop (me cheering for you)!