I've been squawking about the Birkie for the last two months here. It's the biggest ski race in North America and the automatic focal point on my season, since it's the only ski race I'm paying $600 (airfare,lodging,entry) to do. After all the anticipation, did it live up to the hype? Let's find out!
Unless you're a big-time skier, skilled sweet-talker, or someone who did a qualifying race, your first Birkie involves a wave 10 start. I met none of the above criteria wave 10 it is! Wave 10 is the last group of skiers to hit the course, about 2 hours after the elite wave goes off. Joining me in this inevitable mess was Cary. Starting about 7000 people ahead of us were most of our travel companions, John, Nick, Aaron, and "pro skier Alex Jospe."
Aaron is a Birkie vet so we got some good intel from him. The first race is actually to the front of the staging area, so when wave 9 starts (ten minutes before wave 10) you're in position to sprint the 50 meters from staging to the front row of the actual start line. Cary and I faithfully followed his advice and fought our way onto the front row of staging and took off when the rope raised.
I fell like huge tool as I double poled as hard as I could toward the start line, but right when I thought about backing it off from "frantic sprint" I almost got bowled over by two guys from Gustavus Adolphus College who were sprinting, carrying their skis. I used my cross experience to defend my position as we skidded to a stop at the start line while pushing on each other. I am not exaggerating this one bit, we were actually throwing elbows before the race started.
Ironically, once we got started it was actually totally civil. There were only 20 or 30 people in wave 10 that were in it to "win" it, and the trail is as wide as a four-lane road, so there was plenty of space. Compared to most eastern skate marathons, that put 100 people into single file within 200 yards of the start (I'm lookin at you, Rangeley), it was no problem at all. I settled in, talked some trash with Cary, and noticed that I felt not good at all.
After 3k the trail turns and hits the first climb of the race, Powerline Hill, a stair-stepped climb that's as wide as a freeway. I was immediately in trouble. I quickly gave up my position in the front five as people surged around me. I rationalized that since most of them were 25k racers (they had different bibs), they could be safely ignored. I tried to explain this to Cary, but he was too busy dropping me.
I don't really know what happened -- I'm hoping it was just a perfect storm of questionable fueling, poor rest, air travel, and not tapering soon enough. Whatever it was, my body didn't friggin' work. At all. Usually in a 50k, you have the option of going "way too hard" in the early going to stay with a group, but here I was at the 4k mark watching people ski away from me left and right, and I really couldn't fathom skiing any harder. Damn.
And thus, a 47k sufferfest began!
At least it was a high-traffic sufferfest. With 7000 people on the trail ahead of me and most of them skiing at a slower pace, it got busy fast. We actually passed the back of wave 9 (who had a ten minute head start, mind you) before the 2k mark. By 5k in I was into the thick of wave 9 and rapidly finding wave 8 as well. Soon, the hills were all about lane choice -- full of wall-to-wall skiers four or five abreast, all you could do was try to guess which lane was going to move the fastest and jump into it. Since most lanes contained folks from wave 8 or 9, nothing was actually moving that fast. I'd have been a lot more frustrated if I'd actually had the legs to attack the hills.
After about an hour of skiing, I started to feel vaguely like a ski racer again. Either my body was coming around, the trail was going downhill, or it had been long enough that the fact that my legs didn't work made total sense. In any case, the trail was rolling steadily downward (high point was at 13k in) and I was breezing through hundreds of earlier starters. Hey, I think I'm finally having fun now!
The one thing that was decidedly not fun was the knowledge that I hadn't seen Cary since the 4k mark. Nevertheless, I was hammering the transitions pretty well, and with the stream of people I was passing, surely I was making up ground now?
Unbeknownst to me, the Birkie has sensors buried in the snow at the 22k mark that read your chip time, and I passed the 22k mark over five minutes down on him. Makes all that time I spent scanning the trail ahead of me for his blue suit/red hat combo between 20k and 30k seem kind of stupid, in retrospect.
Side note: do you know how many people race in a blue suit with a red hat? I think it's the state uniform of Wisconsin.
So, if the first 20k I was "inexplicably hurting," and the next 10k I was "working hard," where do you think that's gonna take us? I can't even finish a marathon without falling apart when I pace myself, so it was inevitable that the wheels were coming off this one.
I hung the dream of finishing strong right up to the 40k mark. The gradual downhill rolling section ended and a series of climbs began. I knew that the infamous "Bitch Hill" was somewhere out here, so when I got to a climb with irreverent signs about bitches in the snow and a band near the top, I figured I'd found it and decided that as long as I made it to the top going strong I'd be able to cruise to the finish.
This was stupid for several reasons:
1) This was not actually "Bitch Hill"
2) What appeared to be the top was actually the first of three summits
3) I didn't even make it to the first "top" without my quads cramping, anyway.
So I stopped to eat a gel and think about how much this last 10k was going to hurt.
Bitch Hill was actually hiding directly after this hill, and I knew it was Bitch Hill because it was a 25% wall that made me think "sonuvabitch." Oh, and there was someone in a nun costume standing in the middle of the trail on top. Obviously.
Alright, so after Bitch Hill I should just be able to cruise in, right? Nope. My Birkie guides didn't tell me that 40-47k is actually a series of hills giving me and my cramping quads the middle finger. All hopes of catching Cary are gone, now, because it becomes impossible to envision a scenario in which he is skiing slower than I am.
Finally at 47k the trail hits the lake, and the agony of wondering how many more hills there are is exchanged for the agony of wondering how a lake could be uphill.
A helpful spectator offers me a shot of Jagermeister. I reject it, and then immediately regret it. Puking Jager up at the finish line would have been the best excuse everywhere.
All horrible things must come to an end, and eventually I reach the end of lake. I am chased up onto Main Street by Ari, who is screaming about getting on camera (dude, I ran out of disk space about 2 hours ago) and quite likely drunk.
All in all, it was one of the worst days I've ever had on skis, but at least it was a totally unique ski race to do it in. With the snow starting as super-fast hardpack and ending as churned-up sugar, there was no chance of competing with the earlier waves from wave 10 -- I ended up dropping 22 minutes to Alex (who was the 16th overall woman, pretty impressive) and almost an hour to the overall winner. Against my wave 10 peers I ended up 10th, which sounds a lot better, at least if you don't know Cary was eight minutes ahead of me and leading wave 10 until the 45k mark.
My finish position (791st!) is good enough to qualify me into wave 2 next year, and I regret to say that I've already got 2011 Birkie Fever (tm). I have no intention of doing this race every year for the rest of my life, but as of now, I have a serious score to settle with it. Next year, Birkie. Next year.
(birke-cam coming sometime this week)
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