"My Best Bonk" Contest Entry - Erik Kiaer
By: Erik Kiaer (2005/03/03)
I have memory of only one real bonk in a race, but to compensate, that memory is vivid. Or rather lurid. Think "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas": "THE BATS, THE BATS!!!" kind of lurid. I had never seen vultures in Norway before, but I swear they were there, circling overhead. Rest in peace Hunter.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
It was the Norwegian Birkie in 1992, a race I had lived within one hour of most of my life, but had somehow managed to avoid.
Eastern Norway had very little snow in '92, and as a result, the start in Rena was moved up the side of the valley about 3-4 km outside of Rena to about 350 meters above sea level, and the finish was at Sjusjøen, which is at 880 meters. Nice climb. But, Norwegians being sticklers for tradition, the race length was still 54 km.
More about this later.
I was skiing with a friend who had done the race before, and I felt I was well prepared. The week before, I had done a 27K race close to my parent's farm, and I had skied a fair amount in Oslo where I worked that winter. Besides, I had a good base from racing while studying at McGill, and felt my five Gatineau 55 races had made me familiar with the distance. So what if the race is in classic style and you carry a pack. I mean - big deal - classic schmassic. I was born with skis on my feet. All Norwegians are. Sheesh.
The start went fine, and we skied along at a good clip. Since the last two years had been low volume due to work and living away from good skiing, I had modest goals - basically, I figured I'd earn the badge and call it good. The badge is calculated by taking the average time of the top five skiers in your age category and adding 25% to the time. This made the estimated time something in the order of 3 hours and 45 minutes for 54 K, puhleese! I had nothing to worry about. On to the race.
No problem up over the first two ridges (470 meters and 120 meters climb, respectively) - that pack feels light as a feather. Downhill to Kvarstaddammen, feeling good, and I speed through the feed. My friend stuffs his fanny pack with cookies. Wuss. We start the climb back up the mountainside, and the wind picks up, making the snow slow. OK, so the pack is a tad annoying, but hey, this is the last serious climb (210 meter gain) before the flat across the mountain and the downhill to the finish. We have passed the last waxing station. No turning back.
As the cabins that dot this hillside thin out and the tree cover disappears, my friend takes the lead. I'm having a slightly harder time keeping up with him, but it's a race, and I should be working, after all. He pulls away. Bastard. My skis are slipping but it's getting flatter. That kick wax is just going to slow me down on the flats anyway - good riddance!
Out in the distance I see a huge eighteen wheeler truck parked up on treeless mountain plateau - a feed station already? Just what the doctor ordered. A little drink, and it's pretty much all downhill to the finish after that.
I mentioned earlier that Norwegians are sticklers for tradition, and in spite of not having enough snow at the lower elevations for the normal course, the race length was still 54K. As I am cruising along towards the feed in the distance, a small sign appears ahead, with an arrow on it pointing north up along the ridge. By later calculations, I have figured out that the portions that had been cut out of the race at the beginning and end came to about 17-18 kilometers. This arrow points to where they are making most of this up, and the trail that goes north runs next to a trail running south, i.e. out and back the same way, all while being able to see the feed in the distance. My thoughts turn to my friend's cookies. Double bastard.
The harsh reality has finally taken over for my optimistic outlook just minutes previously, and the level of my glycogen stores becomes apparent, not even positive thinking can help me now, I am empty, as empty as I have ever been. Everything comes crashing down: my speed, the visions of earning the badge, my will to finish.
Meanwhile, families out to view the race wearing matching knickers and anoraks are passing me, pulling their children behind them in pulks. The kids are eating chocolate bars, and I see oranges and thermos flasks filled with hot chocolate rattle around the sleds. My reality, however is more akin to an escaped convict from the Gulag, fighting his way across the tundra while the wolves are circling. I have already mentioned the vultures people say don't exist in Norway. They are overhead, eyeing me.
By the time I make it to the feed station, I think it must be 1996. At least I feel like I have aged that much. I stagger to a table in front of the truck and begin slugging back one sports drink after another. After the tenth cup, the volunteers are beginning to look at me funny. I down a few more before I stagger on. Surely, it's all downhill from here. About 1K past the feed, a man is standing by the trail holding a bag under one arm and a spoon in the other hand. He is loading a white powder onto the spoon and holding it out to the skiers who pass him. When I get closer I hear him yell "fructose, fructose!" I instinctively open my mouth wide, waving my arms around yelling "yes, yes, yes!" As I go by him, I close my mouth around a grotty spoon covered with saliva and a frozen sugar-like substance hundreds of people have had in their mouth previously, yet visions of sugar plums dance trough my head. "Yes, yes, yes!" Never has something so unsanitary tasted so savory for someone so depleted. I'm in heaven. Angels do exist.
Approximately 500 meters later, the afterburners kick in. Between the gallons of sports drink and the pure fructose (I have at least always told myself it was fructose) I am on a major sugar high. The women, children and pulks who passed me earlier scatter for their lives as I frantically ski to make up for lost time. I am now cursing the fact that there are only downhills left - if it was longer, I could make up more time - never mind logic, just give me a hill to climb! The cabins at Sjusjøen pass in a blur, my eyes fixed down the trail to spot people to avoid. Traaaaaack!
I finish just shy of four hours. The badge was somewhere around 3:40 that year, and the only mitigating circumstances to the day was that my friend didn't make it either. He had also struggled his way across the mountain and came in about 10 minutes ahead of me - the difference of a few cookies - still too late for the badge. Both of us, previously bona fide skiing studs, have had the stuffing knocked out of us by a couple of mountain ridges and a healthy dose of hubris. Fuelling for a 55K skating race that takes between 2.5 and 3 hours does not compare well with doing a 54K classic race that takes 4 hours. The distance is immaterial. I hit the wall at the time I would have finished the skating race, yet I still had a third of the classic race to go.
Yet here I sit, fifteen years later, and the most vivid image I have is the mad dash to the finish. I have just watched the finish of the final event at the Oberstdorf World championships where Estil seemingly ran in fast forward up the last hill before the finish. That's how I felt finishing the Birkie, and in my mind's eye, that is what I looked like. Between the sport of cross-country skiing and the amazing amnesia of the mind, I can't help but think we're the luckiest people alive.
Erik Kiaer is a Norwegian masquerading as an American while living in Portland Oregon where he subscribes to the training philosophy of live low, train high. He has significantly more time on pavement than on snow, and is looking for some mudflaps for his rollerskis.