Dark (not happy) places + steaming hot HEED = EPIC, American Birkebeiner 2013

Up next we have what will quite likely be the last XC Ski report of the season. Dr Mike’s annual trip to the Ice Planet Hoth Wisconsin. No further explanation is needed. Full saga is after the break.

This was my 15th running of the American Birkebeiner – An annual pilgrimage back to Wisconsin for me and 10,000 other skiers! It’s the third largest on-snow event in the world, and this year’s crowds included racers from 48 states and 22 countries. As usual, I had a personal goal of qualifying for the “Elite” wave in next-year’s race– an honor reserved for only the top-100 finishers in the “Classical-style” marathon, and the top-200 of “freestyle” (skating) skiers from the year before. It was only my 2nd-ever Classical-style marathon, but it was definitely one to remember!

This race report is exceptionally long, so I hope you find time to read the rest.. I think you’ll like the ending!! In short, the warm winter here left me a bit under-trained, but I decided to give it my best anway! I started too fast, and got totally CRUSHED by the large hills (and some tough breaks) early-on! I almost stopped racing before the half-way point, but after some serious soul-searching and I managed to put-together a substantial come-back…

Birkie-39K hill climb-2-23-13

The start went well and I settled into ~20th place in the wave (120th overall). My strategy was to hold this position thru the first half of the race (and over the largest of the climbs), then pick off as many people as possible once the trail flattened out. Unfortunately, my kick wax application was a bit too slippery, and I was using way too much upper-body power to keep pace with a hard-charging group of Elite-wave wanna-be skiers!.. By 10K, my arms and shoulders were already fatiguing, and I was starting to get passed by skier after skier. I was gradually going anaerobic, and eventually became really nauseated, sweating profusely and over-heating way too much! I struggled onward for another 2K, but kept being passed… There was NO WAY arms would withstand the series of long uphill climbs that lay ahead. (Here, the course climbs about 400 feet over ~ 1 mile, up to it’s high-point, and many more climbs follow this one!). At 12K, I made the difficult decision to stop to re-wax, sacrificing two precious minutes and another 20 positions. It was heart-breaking to see the skiers stream by, and along with them, my chance to meet my “Elite wave” goal…

Matters only got worse when I started sking again. I was hoping that the waxing stop would let me recover, but I was still totally gassed, and it didn’t seem like my new wax was helping at all! I trudged on, just walking up the hills… chest heaving, arms feeling like noodles, and stomach in knots. Slowly, I felt an ugly dark cloud of self-doubt looming over me … “This race is over Mike…How are you even going to FINISH another 37 kilometers, let alone race them….” The negative thoughts were flying into my head now, one after the other.. “your heart rate has been way too high.. You’re losing too many fluids and can’t even keep any down”…

It was now a mental battle just to keep going, and my mind kicked into “self-help” mode: “I’ve been here before….” “Just stride up one small climb, 5 steps then rest…” This seemed to help a little… “Kick those skis! Make that sticky wax work – it’s gotta work!..” (The doubting was still intense just 2 minutes later: “You’re still sucking wind and you’re not even near the high-point yet…” My mind and body were in survival mode now, “just keep moving… There are some downhills just ahead…”

This mental tug of war continued relentlessly. “You haven’t raced enough this year.” “But I think the wax is working now – just rest those arms a little!” “My God you’re still burning too much energy!…” A few more skiers passed me… “But I don’t feel like puking any more – and there’s the High point!” The largest descents on the course came quickly.. but a bit too quickly – “my God your LEGS are tightening-up too..” I flailed around a corner and almost fell head-first! “But I’m GOOD at downhills- skate around the turns, relax the quads…” But the suffering continued– after a few descents, I started feeling really cold) – “It’s so cold now!…” (the wax-stop earlier had totally soaked my clothes, and I was shivering violently!). “You’re almost out of energy here Mike, and now you gotta start climbing again..UGH!..”

I was finally starting to give-in to the negativity.. I stepped out of the tracks to let 2 more guys pass me.. “Maybe you could just stand here for a while, and wait till someone you know catches up. Maybe just ski this one like a tour again this year..?.. I stepped back into the tracks and made the wax work for a few more strides. “ C’mon man! you’re sucking wind here, and that was the last descent you get for at least 2 more Ks… “My mind was going to a VERY dark place… More skiers passed me. I stepped back out of the tracks preparing to stop, when one final desperate surge of mental energy came to me… “Dammit Mike!!! “Why are you stopping!!… You are CROSS COUNTRY SKIING – this is the sport that you love more than anything else.. it’s what you dream about all year long.… You have 30Ks of the best ski trail in the WORLD in front of you, and you just need to keep moving – it doesn’t matter how fast, just keep skiing!!

I forced a half-frozen Hammer Gel into my mouth – the Double-Espresso treat I was saving for later in the race, and one of six that I needed to somehow suck down just to survive the event) “Just let the gel thaw out and keep swallowing.. Then some fluids.. “Just try a few sips…”

Positive images came to me again, but only in a trickle – more like hallucinations, but I just let my mind dissociate…. “just kick and glide… kick and glike.. ”… I saw glimpses of some old races – a nice warm triathlon in July, then November’s Red Flannel bike tour – now THAT was a tough day!… ”just Kick and glide…kick and glide.. ” Visions flashed again of the few precious ski training sessions I’d had in January, then some great images of skiing with the kids in the back yard.…”kick and glide… kick and glide…” Another skier passed me (I think) but I barely noticed…

I crested a small rise, now totally alone, and noticed an old tree overlooking the trail – quite possibly the one I climbed as a spectator when I was just 11 years old… My friend and I were too young to race then, but we jumped a shuttle bus to the half-way point and skied here to watch for our parents… My god, I hadn’t thought about that day for almost 30 years! Eric is tough-as-nails ultra-marathoner now, and he just lost his 2 year-old kid to a rare metabolic disease. I imaged him pushing his jogging stoller for miles and miles… just running with his kid, spending time together… Then I flashed to another memory of that day…. I could see my dad flying by us, running just behind the race leaders in his best Birkie ever.. He was so fast then, so strong… and then there was that great day 20 years later when we skied the whole race together…then the numerous race-weekends we enjoyed together in Michican.. Another few Birkies together.. Then the unexplained pain that struck him just before his last race.. the damn cancer…. I started to tear-up a little..

But I didn’t let my mind go to THAT darkest place… I was still too tired and fragile right then… and I noticed that I was still sucking wind way too much to be able to cry…. My flashed back again to 1983 – I was on the sidelines again, on that same sunny hillside, high in the tree branches.. Eric and I cheered and cheered forever that day.. We had a pair of binoculars and a race-program listing all 5000 skiers. We looked up people by their bib numbers just to yell their names and a few words of encouragement… We skied together for hours and hours that winter…totally free…enjoying our first taste of young-adulthood and independence…kicking and gliding.. kicking and gliding..” And I slowly re-entered the graceful bliss of a snowy morning on the Birkie trail… “kick and glide….kick and glide..”

Then suddenly I was racing again! I saw a lone skier ahead – I might be actually catching someone! This awakened some primal competitive urge – something I thought wouldn’t come again during this race. “Dude! You need to try to catch that guy!” I slowly closed the gap and passed him on a tricky downhill – he was being over-cautious and I shot past him on the inside corner – not really a major victory, but it was enough to get the competitive juices flowing again! I was NOT going to let that guy catch me now…. “OK Mike who’s the next victim?!? ” An Elite-wave woman appeared in front of me almost as if on-cue. “THERE – HUNT HER DOWN! (I blew by her on a steep uphill) – “Wow that was really hard, your arms are still tired…” But five more guys appeared just ahead, interrupting the negative thought.. “Maybe I haven’t been going so slowly after all…”

Somehow I’d totally lost track of time and distance. – I saw a sign that said 25K… “Almost half way Mike! – just keep skiing… Kick and glide… Who cares how many people have passed you… you’re out here just to have fun now!” I had lost count after about 30 guys, and relinquished any hope of making the Elite wave.… But I passed another group of five skiers on the climb that led up to the half-way point. About 500 spectators and a live band were there. Solitude no more – the race atmosphere was electric! Even better – there was a VERY welcome feed-station with some warm energy-drink.) Now THAT could help!” (If you haven’t had steaming-hot HEED during a cold marathon event, you’re missing one of life’s finer pleasures…) I skied even faster.

The next 10Ks are usually the easiest on the course – multiple flat sections with a few short climbs. Fortunately, and most importantly, they also offered some good visibility of the trail ahead! Three more guys were RIGHT there – just 20 seconds in front… “OK Mike, can you catch THEM?…” A race strategy began to take shape again: “HUNT this group down, then watch for the next…” Each time I caught someone, I’d rest for a few seconds, storing up some energy, then pass them on the next uphill. This would make me totally gassed again, but it was my only option to keep advancing, as my skis were still to sticky glide past anyone in the softer snow next to the track…

So, with each surge of lactic acid and oxygen debt, the mental gymnastics would start again: “heart rate too high…Rest those arms… get the breathing back in control… OK – no more rest! Time to go again…”

My arms were coming back now, ever so slowly… Two more Hammer Gels and more warm energy drink came just in time to keep me going. The inevitable leg cramps started at about 40K, but I was on a roll!! “It’s just a hamstring cramp, this happens every year… – JUST DON’T STOP”. The groin muscles on my left side were next to lock-up.. “keep moving.. They’ll stop cramping once they’re completely fatigued.. At least my arms are feeling better!”

I kept passing people.. In retrospect, everyone seemed to be struggling on the uphills by now, buy my wax was still working.. At 46K, the infamous BITCH hill was looming – a virtual wall of climb rising above some other large ones that make the last 10K so difficult.. The leg cramps had almost run their course, but with the slightest exertion they seized up again. I eased on the hil. and took a mental break – “Just walk slowly uphill –don’t let the quads cramp, easy does it…. There’s the TOP!“ I ran the last five meters of uphill and startstriding again, passing 3 more people.

Then I saw a familiar skier just around the next corner – a really good masters guy that I’ve raced with Michigan. He’d passed me way back before the 10K mark! He was a very strong guy – a veteran of at least 50 marathons. We’d skied stride for stride for an entire marathon in 2008 and I knew he handn’t lost much over the years.. I was right back in position! I struck up a conversation while I passed him. He lamented “Hey Mike – God am I’m cramping!” “Me too Chris” I commiserated.. “just two more big climbs man, hang in there.” It felt so good to give some encouragement! The next 3 people I passed, I gave them a good pep talk and each time, I got another surge of energy!

My next ‘victim’ was an Elite – wave guy (the first I’d seen) and he was still skiing pretty strong. Cool! This was another ray of hope on an elite-placing result. This guy had a 5 minute head-start, and there must be a few more from his wave just in front of me. “You gotta GO now Mike! Only 5Ks to make up some more places!” On the last major climb I passed a woman wearing a coveted “former overall winner jersey”. (More hope!) I cheered her on too, and tried to inquire about her special jersey, but she just gave me delirious reponse – almost un-inteligable “Wow, was that Norwegian – no, she’s just bonking too..” No matter – more people to pass ahead!!

The last 4Ks included a downhills and then the Lake Haward crossing, with the snow-covered Main Street finish in the distance.. But all I could see were the skiers ahead of me: More ‘vicitims’ were just ahead and my competitive urges were RAGING now. “I’m gonna pass EVERY skier I can see! My skis were finally running faster now – The last few downhills were slightly icy and they had polished-off the excess wax! Even better, there was a slight headwind. Usually I’d be cursing the wind on the lake crossing, but I knew that (as a larger guy) it just gave me more of an advantage! “You’re in your element now Mike! – No holding back!” I counted FIVE guys between me and Main Street .. “Don’t settle for just the first one, he’s too slow..” I focused my eyes on the third guy ahead – “Get him before the shoreline. You’ll have a shot at the others on Main Street” I struggled past the third guy just before we left the lake, but the little rise off the shoreline brought the leg cramps back with a vengeance – This time both hams and both quads, but there wasn’t time to acknowledge them now! “Your arms are still good Mike, and those two other guys are up there somewhere!”

I surged into a fury of double-poling – the last effort of the race, and I was FIRED UP!. Main Street is slightly uphill, and over the years I’ve watched thousands of skiers struggle up it’s slushy, soft, trucked-in snow… Most skiers ease-up here to soak-in the moment, some high-fiving family members and grabbing beer for a premature celebration…. some so delirious that they can barely keep moving… some so overwhelmed with emotion that they break into tears…. But I was still RACING! Rounding the last corner, I saw the two guys I was chasing still 30 yards ahead! The announcer was calling off names of finishers… spectators were screaming and ringing cow-bells.. but I completely shut-out the sounds as the tunnel vision started.. “Push with your core, Mike! Keep the tempo high..” I passed the fourth guy with 50m to go, and the fifth one just before the line! What a total RUSH!

I called Jill as soon as I got some dry clothes and hot chicken soup – “Congrats hon! You’re 96th!! – That means Elite wave next year, right?!?” I was too tired to celebrate, and I was skeptical – still mired in the hopeless mindset from when I gave up in the middle of the race anyway.. I knew the results were just preliminary, and there were still a few thousand skiers still on the trail…. But could it be? Had I pulled off the comeback of a lifetime?? Just maybe… Then Jill called again just a few minutes later, “So sorry to have to tell you this…. some people in the later waves must have had faster times…. You’re 106th now.. (Bummerrr!!! “Oh well, at least I raced as hard as I could…I left it all out there.. … Then another call from home- I’d moved back up to 102nd. OUCH!! SO CLOSE!1.. I was emotionally confused now and getting angry (and the caffeine was probably wearing off! ) Can’t they get the results right already! It’s chip-timed for Pete’s sake!.. I was getting emotional again….flashing back to the low-points of the race, and I started making the strategy for next year’s attempt. The wax job was off – too fast and not enough “kick” the early pace was too fast.. I hadn’t done enough interval training and racing early in the season…. I’d certainly drive to Michigan three or four times if I needed to, just to suffer through a few tough races.. Next year, for sure, it wouldn’t even be close! Then YET ANOTHER check of the results – and I had moved up to 94thth!! Incredible!!!! – Could it be? .. A few more searches re-checking other websites –YES!!!! It was official! Elite Wave here I come!!!! I was elated, and grinning ear-to-ear. To think, I’d almost “cashed it in” at the 15K mark.. And I had finally recovered enough energy to celebrate!..

I took some deep breaths, closed my eyes… and vowed (to myself and my family) that this would be my LAST competitive ski race for a while – at least a few years… Next year, despite the Elite wave start, the race will be just a tour.. I will drink a few beers the night before and eat a half-dozen donuts on the morning of the race. I’ll stop and chat with the volunteers at every food station (and suck down as much steaming-hot energy-drink as I can!) I’ll cheer like crazy for the first-wave racers as they catch me on the climbs up to the high-point, and I’ll sure-as-hell give them an ear-full if I see them floundering on the side of the trail. As the miles drag on, my mind will conger up great memories of Birkies-past and more hopes of those to come. I’ll be skiing on my Dad’s favorite skis again… When the crowds start to thin out, and a snowy stillness settles on the last stretches of trail, I’ll feel his spirit again, guiding me onward. And I’ll shed a few tears…..

But you can also be sure that I’ll ski the last downhills with wreckless abandon. I’ll skate hard around every turn, suffer miserably as I climb up Bitch Hill, and I’ll pass a few skiers as we sail across Lake Hayward. I’ll resist the temptation to grab a cold beer at the bottom of Main Street, and I’ll push it hard all the way to the finish line! For it will still be the Birkebiener RACE again… one of the greatest of all time!!!!

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