arah and her kortelopet medal
Fresh, dry clothes, beads, and her medal.

In my email in box yesterday was a note from the Birkebeiner organizers, asking me (and all registrants, I assume) to fill out a form, to give them feedback on the event. It’s great to learn that they appear to be taking steps to make any desired improvements in coming years. For the most part, I was happy with how things went, though there were two specific items that I gave them comments on.

Firstly, I wish they’d had better merchandise, and more of it, available. Yes, I’ve got the bib and medal, but neither are things that I can wear around town to show off to mere mortals (including myself) what I accomplished. They ran out of hats, and I never saw a shirt of any sort that merited my money.

Secondly, despite the planners’ efforts to maintain a website and produce a guidebook to distribute all information about the race, I still felt overwhelmed by the volume and nature of details that had to be tended to, both on race day, and in preparation for race day. So, I suggested to them that they provide, and make easy to find, a few stories by complete greenhorns, about their first Birkie experiences. I get the feeling that the vast majority of people who do the race every year were brought into the fold by family or by their school racing teams. For the few of us who arrived late and alone to the idea of doing this race, race day presented a few moments in which stress spiked and really made us wonder if everything really had been thought out well.

So. In case those organizers write me back and say, “Great! Send us a blog post to put in our new Newbies section!”: here goes. This may be a long post.

I got talked into it by a friend.

Jon and I had both grown up in the Pacific Northwest, the land of nearby mountains and plenty of snow sports, but not a whole lot of cross country ski competition was going on, at least that we knew of. He and I both came to Minnesota for college, and at some point during or after college, we both came to cross country skiing, mostly as a recreational activity, in MN (me) and back in WA (him). I’ve been downhill skiing all my life, but my rule for many years was that I would never sacrifice the possibility of a great downhill day in order to learn to cross-country ski. My husband Steve was then in the picture as a mutual friend; he had grown up in MN, and cross-country skiing had been a part of his family’s activities for years. Once we started dating, just over nine years ago, I finally caved, because cross-country seemed like a lovely thing to do together, in the winter. This is especially true, if a woodsy lodge with a fireplace is involved. Plus, the hills here aren’t long enough to justify a lift pass, most days.

Nearly 20 years went by, and Jon called us to suggest that we all go to Hayward, to do the Birkebeiner 54k class ski race (or the shorter 23k Kortelopet, depending on how our training went, in the months prior). Over the years, we had met him in various mostly northwestern locales, mainly for summer hiking, but we had not yet managed to organize a ski trip in the midwest.

As a runner, I know that a really good way to make something happen is to have that something require registration, and to register for it. Races are great for that; only death in the family or an injury will keep me from a race for which I’ve registered.

So, we registered.

Then, I realized I’d never had any formal instruction in cross country skiing, and a 23k or 54k race is a long distance. Poor technique may mean a no-finish, or an injury, or both. Aside from the few pointers from my husband that enabled me to enjoy leisurely classic-style (“diagonal”) spins around beautiful midwestern lakes and trails, I had no idea how to do so efficiently, nor for several hours, nor on rolling terrain.

Cannon Valley Trail
On the Cannon Valley Trail, for a 3-hour training session with Steve.

So, I sought out some instruction, which ended up being a Wednesday night class, from November til Birkie week, at one of the local urban ski areas that has lighting at night. What I gained from it: improved classic technique and confidence, an introduction to the wild, difficult, but sometimes fun technique of skate skiing, a new awareness of my problems with keeping fingers warm in cold weather, as well as a reminder of the terror of biting off more than you can chew (one of the teachers, early on, convinced me to register for the Birkie skate race. Then, I tried skating. Whoah! Some time in January, I switched my race registration to the classic-style Kortelopet race).

On a side note, I also learned some helpful tips for teaching people who have never tried your activity before, which will come in handy with my yoga teacher training.

Armed with improved technique, I joined Steve for some good longer workouts, in the several weekends prior to the race. This winter was a terrific one for that: we’ve had a lot of snow and it’s been quite cold, for most of the time. Sometimes, even too cold to ski. Those workouts each gave us 1-3 hours of time, getting used to different snow textures, different topography, gear and clothing, hydration, fueling and sun protection.

The boys, at Lebanon
The Mountain Men

Race weekend arrived: Jon and his friend Todd landed at MSP on Wednesday, and we took them skiing at a local park on Thursday. Jon needed to choose between his new lightweight classic skis, and his metal-edged backcountry skis, and both of them wanted to get their feet (skis) “wet” on midwestern snow, before setting off on a the long race on Saturday. Beautiful Lebanon Hills Regional Park put on a great show that day, and we got in 1.5 hours of gently rolling terrain that was just a bit slick, as well.

The next morning, we met up with another college friend, Rita, and her sister Sue: they were joining us in order to cheer us on, to spectate the world-famous Birkie, and to provide us with lodging in the form of their family cabin, which was 45 minutes from Hayward. Our three cars caravanned 2 hours up toward Spooner, MN, and arrived at a well-winterized cabin. We got the space heaters fired up and unloaded the several jugs and about 20 nalgene bottles of water that would enable our coffee- and water-drinking and some of the toilet-using. We then piled into one car and headed toward Cable in order to pick up our race bibs and any groceries.

The Birkie web site had warned us that we’d need to park in Cable and take a bus in to the resort, for our bibs. Somehow we managed to arrive just before such shuttling was needed, and found a parking spot. Once in Telemark Lodge, we found quite the race expo going on: acres of concession and exhibitor booths lined the hallways though which our bib pickup line snaked. The line was long, but went fairly quickly. Once I arrived at the first station, a very nice lady looked at my driver’s license, asked me to confirm my birthdate, then handed me a slip and said, “Congratulations on getting to your first Kortelopet. Good luck, and have fun!”

We all moved on to the next few stations, which would get us our bib packets, timing chip, drop bags, and timing chip activation, which all went very quickly. One of the exhibitors, Smartwool, had a clever gimmick going: they were putting stickers on people that had numbers on them. Every sticker had a number on it, and for some of the stickers, there was a matching number; those visitors who discovered their matches, would get a free pair of socks. Lovely! Rita and Sue, the only sticker-wearers, never found their “matches,” unfortunately.

Along the walls we saw leaflets, which indicated that the lodge would have various ways to get breakfast, in the morning. Although we had packed pastries for the morning, in case no food were easily available, I was very relieved to see that some hot oatmeal would be available: it’s my preferred pre-running race food and I’ve come to rely on it as part of my pre-race ritual: 2 hours before race, input hot oats, some fruit, and at least a liter of water.

We somehow made it out of the Telemark Lodge catacombs, and into the front lobby where the race merchandise was available. No t-shirts were in sight, they were out of 2010 commemorative hats, and the rest was just various trinkets that seemed to belong at a roadside rest in Scandia, MN: calendars, postcards, zipper pulls, poetry. They did have cowbells (in case you’re never been to a winter sports event, these are the preferred spectator noisemakers, especially in Europe), at around $20 a pop, but I already had one. Ah well, I’m trying to save money. They made it easy for me!

birkie fans
This is one for the Voice.

We then stopped at the grocery for post-race beer and a few snacks to take with us on the trail. I’d read that the aid stop foods just included bananas (“naners” and “Birkie sliders,”) water, and Heed electrolyte drink, which ended up being called “energy” by the volunteers. Evidently in the later Birkie stops, Gu and oranges would also be available.

I’ve done a few longer trail running races, which had me running for 2-3 hours. Bananas, water, and “energy,” to me, would not be enough sustenance for the hours I would be on the Kortelopet. I don’t know if regular ski racers have a special way of storing extra glycogen, but I knew for a fact that I would need to carry at least 200-400 calories with me, as would Steve. Jon and Todd would need at least double that, for their 7-11 hours on the Birkie trail, and while fat and protein may not be vital for a race, if you’re out in nature for a few/several hours, the flavor and salt of salami and cheese can really make it enjoyable, if not tolerable, if you’re having a rough go of it.

So, we got some nuts, cheese, crackers and lefse to go with the few different kinds of granola bars that we all planned to carry in packs/pockets/whatever.

To carry water, that food and a jacket/extra insulation layer, in case injury disabled and cooled them, Jon and Steve elected to carry somewhat large but lightweight backpacks with them. I’m sorry to report that during the race, they got no end of grief from some other racers, for carrying that baggage. Ah, I love my wise mountain men. Poo on the mean people. Todd and I carried Camelbaks, which each had enough room for snacks, as well, and when I overheated, I was able to lash my windbreaker onto the Camelbak; I imagine Todd did same.

the angry minnow
Inside the belly of the Angry Minnow

Then, it was on to dinner in Hayward. Steve and I visited this town on this same weekend, a few years ago, and I wasn’t too thrilled with the dining options, then: mostly heavy and unimaginative food and watery beer. But now, they have a brewpub: The Angry Minnow. The six of us had a lovely dinner that included thick bread, quail, pasta, walleye, crayfish, chorizo, and some fine beer.

Back to the cabin we went. The heaters had improved the place, but the living room still needed a few more hours and 6 warm bodies, to achieve actual warmth. We bundled up in blankets, enjoyed some of my homemade brownies, some of us had a glass of wine, and then we turned in for the night. The winterized toilet ended up needing a little more… care and feeding, as it were, so I was very wary of the time that would come, probably in the morning, when I needed to use and flush it.

And so it was, that when we got up at 5am, I elected to postpone eating or drinking anything until we’d made it to within 20 minutes of a gas station in Hayward or Cable. Jon and Todd had left at 4:45, to get to the Hayward park & ride within the very early window it required. It was splendid of them to fill 1.5 thermoses with hot coffee for us; we started sipping from them once we passed through Hayward, and ate some of the pastry (a Jerabek‘s sausage roll: not the bounty of carbs that is ideal, but it’s calories in cold weather). We arrived at the Como park and ride pretty early (7:00), and found there 2 sanicans, as well as the first few waves of fellow skiers, to that lot.

The buses turned out to be school buses that were not outfitted with any special way of carrying skis, to our amazement. We just walked onto the bus with them, and attempted to safely sit with them in our seats, which was no easy feat for Steve and his very long classic skis. I ended up cramped into my seat rather uncomfortably, as I hadn’t had time to remove my Camelbak, before getting seated. Once so settled, I realized that I had better get some more calories in me, in case the concessions at the lodge were disabled for any reason. I had a few bites of the cherry-filled danish. It was too, too sweet, so I put the rest away.

The bus unloaded us in front of Telemark Lodge. From where we stood, there, it looked like people were parking their skis outside, and either going into the lodge, or heading back around the back of the lodge. I had a drop bag that I thought needed to get put into its rightful place as soon as possible, so we parked the skis and joined the line that also contained other people with drop bags (many of them also carried skis, I noticed). We had 1.5 hours until our wave started, so I figured we had time to kill.

What I didn’t figure was that it was about a half-mile walk down to where the drop-bag vans were. Thank God that these ski boots were easier to walk in, than alpine ski boots! About halfway down that hill I realized that that was also where the starting line was, and where the vast majority of sanicans were, as well. My fingers and toes were getting more chilled by the minute. Worries filled my head: Had we made a mistake? Should we have stayed up near/in the lodge longer? Once I drop off my drop bag, would we be able to swim against the tide of masses coming down the hill, as we try to head back up for our skis and find a sanican, when it’s needed?

The doubts drove me to a smallish tizzy (ask Steve, it’s true), as we rode the wave down toward the starting area. Many lycra-clad racecar-esque people were running down the hill, with the four pointy objects that constituted their race equipment. We pushed on, managing to avoid getting speared or falling, and eventually found the drop bag vans, then turned around to get our skis.

When we got back up to the lodge, we still had about 45 minutes to go. And THERE, just inside the door, was the concessions stand with oatmeal. My savior! I’d even forgotten that I’d wanted it, but after we got me a bowl of it, my mind and body filled with the comfort of love and teddy bears. I found a tiny spot to sit and eat it, while Steve hustled off to (unsuccessfully) find a bathroom. By the time I’d finished my manna, retied my boot laces, and gotten my timing anklet and bib on, Steve returned to report that we’d have to wait and use the sanicans down near the race start. No problem; my oatmeal needed at least 10 minutes to execute on that part of its magic.

At this point, most of the day was all downhill (and in a good way) for me. I never thought I was superstitious, but consider me converted. Oatmeal it is.

We headed off back down the hill again, this time amongst fewer lycra-clad speedsters. The general flow down the hill seemed less aggressive, but still excited: citizen racers, I think they call us. The line for the sanican was short; we used the time to get Steve’s bib and chip on, and to apply lip block.

As we made our way over toward the start staging area, we realized again that it was pretty cold! I didn’t have a warm enough finger to use the camera trigger on my iPhone, for a shot of us both. This, we realized, was the proper moment for any racer to finally strip off the down jacket, throw it into the drop bag, and drop the drop bag in its proper van/trailer. If we’d only known!

The start staging area was well-organized. We were in wave 9 for the classic skiers. All we had to do was wait until the card for our wave was visible, then we would progress into the next pen. Once the starters ahead of us left, we could proceed to the starting line, pick one of the 10 sets of classic tracks, and prepare for the countdown.

The logistics of the classic tracks in the race was a detail we were both keenly interested in. Full details were provided (see bottom of that linked page), but we were eager to see how it affected our races. How often would we need to pass someone? Or be passed? Or be in danger of a collision with a slower skier? When would it be feasible to pull over to change clothes or eat something we carried? How would the aid stations be organized?

As it turned out, “often” or “just wing it” was a good answer to all of those questions. As we were in a later wave, in which most people appeared to be just looking to finish and have a good time, none of those situations posed much of a problem or a stress point. I’m pleased to report that I neither fell nor collided with anyone, at all, during the race. I’m really pleased to report that I handled all of the downhills more deftly than I thought I would: evidently my alpine training (and courage) was enough to get me down all of them safely. This included the very first hill, which had such a pileup at the top and bottom that I just took off my skis and ran down it, along the side.

And so, to the tune of House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” we shimmied up to the starting line, counted down, and got started. And BAM, after the 10 tracks went down to five, then down to three, we were going up a helluva long hill, and I got so hot that I had to remove my windbreaker, when the first aid stop came up, suddenly, at 3.6k.

The start of this race wasn’t a whole lot different from the start of many running races: it’s a sort of steeplechase, until each racer finds a spot at which they can move forward at their preferred pace. The starting waves made this a little less crazy, but it still bore the unsavory feeling of being forced to go too slow or too fast, briefly. Luckily, adrenaline seems to help regulate it and provide juice to do what’s needed.

Races, for me, are an opportunity to test myself against time. If I’m in a neck-and-neck race with one other person, that may give me a brief challenge to run faster, but for the most part, I’m far more motivated by open trail in front of me, than by a competitor near me, to go faster. Call me a wild animal, not a competitor. Whatever.

Love birds
We did it together! Arah, wearing the coat Mom got for her, just for this race.

In this race, I ended up getting two opportunities with a large amount of free trail in front of me: just after aid stops 1 and 2. Both times, I had waited for Steve, and got to observe (and absorb) the excitement radiating of the other skiers and the volunteers for a spell. Both times, this opened up the field in front of me; prior to both stops I had reached a comfortable pace, alongside several other skiers who had similar paces, but at both stops, they headed on, while I waited.

Aside from getting a little chilled, and being gifted some lovely Mardi Gras beads from a volunteer at aid station 2, the rest of the race went as expected, and was a blur of rolling hills, large and small, and my frequent thoughts of Steve, working behind me, somewhere, reaching on toward our mutual finish line goal of rest, food, friends, warmth, and relaxation.

Some details that do come to mind, upon reflection, now: my hands were cold only for the first 10 minutes at the start, then for 10 minutes after I restarted after aid station 2. I snacked on cheese, cashews, salami and bananas at aid stations 2 and 3, and sucked down a Gu about about the 19k marker, and drank water at every stop, and in between, via my Camelbak, though I found at the end that I still had water left.

To climb hills, I alternated between striding up, running up, or herringbone-walking up, with not much rhyme or reason to it beyond the space that the hill and other skiers allowed for me. Each downhill, I assessed, made sure I was ok with how clear it was, then snowplowed down, with knees bent deeply (with the one exception of the first hill). On the flats, I double-poled, or double-pole kicked. I didn’t see any others using that technique, which surprised me.

I remember noticing one lycra-clad young woman, who was in front of me for awhile. She double-poled up every single hill. I couldn’t fathom the reason, until a day later: the only logical explanation would be that she had skate skis on. She was skiing with a friend, who kicked up hills. The story I want to believe is that she opted out of the skate race and course, in order to stick with her friend for the remainder of the Korte. How sweet, for whatever reason. But boy, that double-poling up hills looked exhausting!!

Of the scenery, I mainly noticed blue sky, bright white snow, and millions of trees, but not much in the way of wildlife. Of the snow quality, the only change in it I noticed as about 2.5 hours into it, when it had warmed a bit, and in some patches it felt like my skis were going through glue (I use waxless skis, so this was a real surprise).

On one of the later hills, as I slid down toward the foot and started to slow next to a skier in the snowplow-rut next to me, I cheered. I’d made it down another hill, with myself and my neighbors intact. And it was fun. “Wahoo! Victory!!! For now.” The fellow next to me muttered something like, “You are clearly oxygen deprived if you think that was fun.” It made me laugh.

What he did not know is that the prior night, Sue had told us a story about a friend, who had, in a prior Birkie year, collided with another racer. The woman sustained such an injury to her leg that four femoral artery surgeries, so far, have been needed in its repair. FOUR! If that didn’t keep me from colliding with anyone, I don’t know what did. And the woman was racing again, this year. The story did more to scare me, than to inspire me. So, getting down hills safely was a supreme victory for me.

Suddenly, we were at a clearing, about three hours into the race. There was another pre-downhill pileup of nervous and/or analyzing skiers, filling the trail width and heading up around a corner. I could hear what sounded like a finish line announcer voice. I couldn’t believe how quickly the last three kilometers went, nor could I believe that I’d managed to finish this race in less than four hours.

Down the hill, and around the last bend I went. My name was announced, then I crossed the line, to a rather meager collection of spectators: the speediest people had arrived at least an hour before I did. A race official hung a first-year finisher around my neck, and I shuffled over to somewhere between the finish line and the food/warmth/changing tent, to cool down, before I headed in.

I retrieved my drop bag, and changed into dry, warm clothes pretty quickly. The ladies’ changing tent had chairs and heaters; how lovely it was to sit with a bare, damp foot in front of the heater vent, for a few moments, before getting a clean sock onto it.

Next up was the food, and more water. There was tasty hot chicken noodle soup, wheat rolls, and bananas. It seemed to be … not enough, for the feat I’d just accomplished. I expected more variety, or at least, more calories. Trail races at least have cookies, too. Or grilled burgers! Ah well; I’ll just add it to the list of austere behaviors I have already observed in the nordic ski tradition. I still had spicy salami that Jon had brought from Seattle, cheese, crackers and cashews to munch on, while waiting for Steve to cross the finish line.

Which he did, in not much more time. I ushered him through the food and changing steps, then we hopped on a bus and headed back to the car. As Jon and Todd were still out skiing their first Birkie, we headed to Hayward to cheer them through the finish.

Parking was no problem, and via the magic of mobile phones, we reconnected with Rita and Sue, who had visited the results tent and gotten an estimated arrival time for Jon, based on the times he had checked into the aid stations. With that, we four were able to cheer them in, and get them into warm clothes and get cold beer into them, as well as some hot soup and rolls. Both of them were proud to have their far-away hometowns announced, as they crossed the line.

We elected to take our dinner down near the cabin, at McKenzie Landing, later, rather than to attempt dealing with dinner crowds in Hayward. We washed up a little (a handi-wipe bath), and changed into more comfortable/dry clothes, back at the cabin. Once there, we all enjoyed a celebratory gin and tonic. Later, a supper-club dinner of potatoes au gratin, walleye, and ribs completed the day perfectly.

cabin at the lake
A view of Rita & Karen's cabin

The next morning, we put together a fantastic breakfast of supper-club leftovers, sweet potato pancakes, and gallons of Peace coffee. Some of us got to try our hand at using an ice auger, for the first time – the toilet and cabin inhabitants were in dire need of more lake water. We were surprised to find that the augering part was the easy part: plunging a hand and milk jug into the lake water qualified as a torture method, but at least it was one that didn’t take too long.

Tummies full and caffeine needs met (and, I’m pleased to report, toilet flushed successfully by me), we packed the cars up, sealed the cabin back up, and headed back to our normal lives.

Just before we left Hayward, on race day, I was accosted by a tall, blond, drunk stranger. He saw my medal, and congratulated me, and told me that I would be back, next year. He was inferring that contracting Birkie Fever was inevitable.

I think he’ll be right.

Jon found time to take photos during the race: check them out, here.

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