To say this has been a abnormal winter for me is an understatement. With the exception of a year in Florida, I've been XC ski racing almost every single weekend in the winter since 1996. Winter means skiing. Skiing means nordic. Nordic means racing.
This time, though, things had been totally off the rails -- the only "real" ski race I did was Craftsbury, and I got blown out by the old men and college girls, and then subsequently called out for noting this on the internet. Not exactly a confidence-builder.
So it was with much apprehension that I headed out to the Birkie last Thursday. Last year, I showed up with my worst legs of the season and Cary, my only real metric/nemesis, put nine minutes over 50k into me. This qualified him for wave 1 this year, and me for wave 2, which only made me more pessimistic about my chances for revenge -- he'd be surrounded by fast skiers to draft, I'd be surrounded by a bunch of people who didn't ski fast enough to make wave 1 in 2010... just like me.
But you know what they say about excuses... that you should tweet them, to prove you predicted your bad performance before it happened. No, wait, not that. Something else.
Next thing I know, it's 8:30 AM, zero degrees out, and I'm on a snow-covered runway along with 5,000 other people. There's already 200 people lined up for wave two, which starts in 15 minutes, and I'm still trying to figure out where my drop bag needs to go. In a small race, I'm a big fan of the reverse holeshot. The Birkie is not a small race. Whoops.
By the time I got to staging I was in about the fifth row for wave two, with about 60-70 people in each row. Let's get busy!
Nah, just kidding, it's 50k and there's 600 people hitting the trail at once. The only kind of busy anyone is getting is the "busy not breaking other people's poles" kind. I spent the first two kilometers trying to drift through traffic as cleanly and sneakily as possible. It was a success in that I moved from ~200th to ~50th in the wave as we hit the first climb (Powerline Hill). It was not a success in that these were two of the slowest kilometers I skied all day.
On Powerline Hill, I started counting skiers ahead of me. It was not conducive to "chilling out," which is what you should be doing in the third k of a ski marathon. Yep, 40 or 50. Be cool, Colin. Be cool...
Two minutes later, the count was down to fourteen and my legs were on fire. Oops.
The rolling hills before the first feed kept giving me rests and transitions, and the fourteen people ahead of me kept giving me drafts. By the first feed, at 4.5k, I was up to fourth. Volunteers tried to block my path and hand me cups of Heed, but I yelled NO! NO! at them like I was talking to a cat on my countertop and they moved.
Around the 7k mark, I got a good slingshot off a draft and pulled up next to the kid leading the wave on a hill. I remember thinking "I am already working too hard, too early, I might as well be able to say I was leading the wave at some point." So I worked a little more "too hard."
Near the high point of the course (12k), the "lead group" was down to a strung-out four of five skiers. I was at the front with a guy from Gustavus Adolphus college. He says to me, "hey, let's trade pulls for a while."
I am afraid of college skiers.
I told him I didn't think I could keep skiing this fast.
Then we skied together all the way to the 25k mark, dropping all but one other guy from wave two. I took a few pulls, but he took most of them. I continued to be afraid, and acutely aware that I was skiing a little too fast. I felt good at the halfway mark. I have felt good at many halfway marks, though. It's a trap!
I ate a gel at a bad time, and my traveling companion (Scott Kyser) gapped me climbing for about the 15th time in the race. I had a brief chat with my inner fear of college kids and marathon second-halves. It did not go well.
And then I skied alone, in second, for a long time. Except I wasn't really alone, because I was passing hundreds of wave one skiers at this point. This was good for my ego and bad for my complacency. While dodging wave 1-ers and thinking about how great I was, the third place guy from wave two caught me. Shit.
But now we were almost to the final 10k, and my body was continuing to function at a level ordinarily reserved for the 30 minutes of a cross race. What's going on?! If last year was the anti-peak (trough?), this year was the most timely peak of my life. For the first time in my life, I dropped someone while climbing a hill at the 40k mark of a marathon.
45k in. Last feed zone and I still feel good. This is bad for blogging. The window for amusing calamity is running out! I tried to create calamity by skiing the 45k hill INSANELY HARD. It didn't work, my body just kept functioning right over the top. If you told me right now that someone had been putting EPO in my coffee for a month, I'd believe you.
We hit the lake at 48k and I was ready to kill for six more minutes to the finish. Out of nowhere, a train of skiers pulls up next to me. How is this possible? I'm skiing stupid-hard!
Oh, it's possible because the train is being driven by the 3rd-place guy in my wave, whom I thought I had ditched half an hour ago. Well, that's annoying.
I dug in and clung to the back of the train. As much as I would appreciate the calamity now, as I write, there was no way I was losing that draft -- skiing on a perfectly flat trail in a line of skiers is the only training I do anymore. You need someone to sit in for two k and then win a sprint? Hi.
So I did it. We came off the lake, hit Main Street, and I unleashed the kind of unbalanced, thrashing V2 that can only be achieved at the 49.9k mark of a race. Everyone else in the group did the same, but I thrashed the bestest.
It felt like the best marathon I've ever skied, but was that just a sign that I didn't try hard enough? Cary, who had a ten-minute head start in wave one, was nowhere to be found, so I had nothing to compare to. Second place in wave two is good, right? Right?
We eventually got back to the hotel, wrangled some internet, and found results. Holy crap. The first iteration of results had me as 178th overall male and Cary in 192nd. Top 200 make the "elite wave" for next year. Dude! Dude! We're elite!!
It was up to 10 degrees, so the obvious reaction to this news was to take shirtless-or-worse photos of us drinking Budweiser Chelada on the hotel balcony.
The good thing about chip timing is instant results, the bad thing about chip timing is that not all chips read -- so those people get entered manually, after race finish.
No sooner had the Chelada photoshoot ended than results changed. I was now 184th. Cary was now 199th. Did I mention that top 200 make the elite wave? Cary's demeanor changed from "elated" to "neurotic." He paced the room like a serial killer.
Fearing for my own safety, I decided to lock myself in the bathroom and take a shower. He cleverly waited for me to come out before refreshing results... and he was down to 201st.
The best part of the whole thing is that, at 7am on race day, he said to me "I'll bet you $100 I finish between 200-250th," and I told him I'd take that bet. After much consideration... he backed out.
In summary, the Birkie is awesome, beating Cary is awesome, making the elite wave is awesome, the fact that I will now feel pressured all next winter to get in "elite shape" is not that awesome.