Anyone that know’s him knows that he only races triathlon so he can ski hard in the winter! SSSMST’er Mike Schaefer made the trip home to Wisconsin for the pinnacle of North American cross country skiing, the American Birkebeiner. Since there’s a whole lot of not much going on, the temps are still below freezing and it is snowing again, let’s hear about Mike’s saga. He followed his run of form from some northern Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania events with a very sound result at the Birkie. Quality!
This was my 17th running of the American Birkebeiner – An annual pilgrimage back to Wisconsin for me and 10,000 other skiers! The whole trip was a blast, and we enjoyed excellent camaraderie from the other skiers from Ohio and family in Wisconsin.
I had a personal goal of qualifying for the “Elite” wave for next-year’s race – an honor reserved for the top-200 of “freestyle” (skating) skiers from the year before. I’d qualified once (2009) and narrowly missed it on about 8 other occasions (once by less than one minute and twice by less than 3 minutes). I figured it would be a long-shot with our variable snow conditions and limited training time… But with an excellent triathlon and running season behind me, I decided to attempt another Birkie “Elite qualifier” – after all, I’m not getting any younger…( I hadn’t raced hard since my dad passed away in 2011, choosing instead to tour the race with his old classical-style skis in his memory.)
So, I managed to log about 62 hours of organized training from Dec thru Mid-February – about 10 hours less than in 2009 , but with similar amounts of interval sessions, local races, and a little more strength-training My early season races also showed that I struggled with the steeper hill-climbs so, I knew the Birkie would be a struggle with its rugged terrain (it’s the hilliest of all of the FIS World-Cup series.
My usual job and family obligations didn’t help my training, but they were certainly less stressful than in previous years. It is SO nice to finally have kids who can be left alone occasionally, who rarely wake up in the middle of the night, and who help out around the house (occasionally). Jill still handles most of the household activities (an even bigger blessing! and she’s an outstanding cook! Even though she is not always verbally supportive of my skiing (and triathlon, and hunting, volunteering, teaching, coaching, football-watching, etc), she’s always there for the kids, and she’s the first to notice when I’m over-trained and over-committed. She’s a blessing. She makes me a more self-reflective person which (in turn) makes me a better athlete. This cannot be overstated. In some ways, committing to training time away from her and the family (and the emotional/psychological strain that comes with it), raises the “stakes” of the race. It’s not just my sacrifice – it’s the the whole family’s. Most of you understand this, but I think it’s important to recognize it, and channel it into extra motivation on race day. For this race, we need it!
On race day we caught a break in the arctic weather – as temps warmed to balmy 10deg F. We got a little new dry snow which made the trail even more difficult, but this usually helps me compared to the competition so I was ready to ski!! I made a strategy of starting slower than usual, but I had to let my heart rate redline for most of the first 5Ks just to stay towards the front of “Wave 1” and avoid being stuck in traffic on the first few uphills. We started 10min behind the Elites Wave, and I settled in ~40th place with a great paceline of guys, including one of my old training partners from Minnesota (Henry Walker) who was always very strong. At this point I figured I had to pass about 10 people to have a chance of qualifying, as about 30 skiers from Wave-1 place in the top 200 each year). I hung-on to Henry’s group over the most brutal climbs from 12-21Ks, but I had drop back on the last climb before the half-way point. I was near max heart rate, and there was NO more room left in my lactate tank – OUCH! In despair, I watched the group of ~10 guys ski away over the top when I was still somewhere in the middle.
At this point I was nearly out of the running for qualifying, but I wasn’t quite ready to quit yet. I gave a slight acceleration at the top of the climb to get things rolling again. XC skiing is a sport of momentum – if you start bogging down, you’re DONE, so I kicked a little extra on each small rise, and let the skis run full-out on the downhills. I can honestly say I didn’t snowplow or even carve an aggressive turn ONCE in the entire race. I blew right thru the next feed zone, choosing to finish the bottle on my belt instead – slushy accelerate but not frozen (to my great relief).
Finally I could see Henry and a small group about 45 seconds ahead. I chased him really hard for the next 2-3Ks, on what is one of the flattest parts of the course. This is usually the place where I recover a little, but there would be no rest this year – this was going to be a 100% full effort from here to the end… In retrospect, this was the decisive point in my race. The official timing splits had me 203rd OA at the half-way point, so if I had settled in with the next slower group, I probably would have lost even a few more places – the “Elite Wave” competition remained unseen up the trail, ~10minutes ahead since their separate start.
I was finally able bridge the gap to Henry’s group at about 27K, and after a brief rest I worked my way up in the line to fall into his draft… I “zoned out” here for a while, focusing only on matching his strides and slowing my breathing… just like the “old days” in Rochester… such a familiar draft and rhythm – both of us 12 years older now, but almost as strong and probably twice as determined. I gasped out a few words of encouragement for him and he smiled just a little as I pulled alongside him to take a token “pull”. I only managed 30 seconds in the front, though, as he and a few other guys were tearing up the trail. On the next downhill section I finally got my heart rate down to 170, but that was as low as it would go. We passed quite a few skiers, including a few Elite-wave guys, so I know I was RIGHT BACK in the running!! If I could just hang on to this group, I’d be REALLY CLOSE to 200th overall..
Unfortunately the missed feed gradually took it’s toll as my energy levels started dropping. I had to let Henry’s group go on the long, gradual climb out of the Mosquito Brook valley at 38K, then I slowed even more on the Bitch Hill at 41K. I sucked down my last two gels as soon as I felt the energy drop, but it was a little too late, and the last few swigs in my bottle were frozen solid. I even accepted an granola bar from a random spectator on the middle of the Bitch. Then then I really don’t remember much of the next few Ks. Somehow the granola bar was still stuck in my mouth 3Ks later, and there was no way I could swallow it – so I chewed it a few times and let the crumbs tumble out of my mouth. I almost fell once as I wandered too close to the side of the trail to scatter the crumbs which kinda “jolted” me back to reality. At the last feed station I stopped completely and pounded two cups of energy drink. The gels finally started kicking-in and things came back in focus – Only 20 minutes left, and I told myself that I could do ANYTHING for just 20 minutes. I couldn’t remember how many guys had just passed me, but it wasn’t too many. It was time to get ROLLING again.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one struggling. As I approached the last long climb, I saw about 10 guys ahead of me, strung-out in various states of suffering – shuffling, single-poling, and even just walking up the hill. Henry wasn’t with them anymore, as he had left these poor broken soles in his dust. I just kept chugging along picking them off one by one. This was gonna be TOO close. At the top of the climb I caught a few Elite-Wave guys who were looking totally broken.
A smaller group re-formed on the last decent, and we bucked a steady headwind across the Lake Hayward to the finish on the streets of the city. I figured I could sit-in and pick up a few places in the sprint, but my legs cramped again on the small climb up the lakeshore and kept cramping all the way over the new bridge they constructed this year just to get skiers into downtown. I still gave it full-gas to the finish, knowing that every second could matter over people in other wave starts. As usual, it was a total rush to see the finish line, but I didn’t catch anyone in the finishing sprint.
The adrenaline didn’t stop though, until a quick check of results revealed that I’d done it!! 189th Overall! The beer and bratwurst tasted even sweeter this year! It’s really a joy to qualify for the Elite wave again, and something I’ll cherish for a long time!
Awesome job Mike!