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Craig's 2005 American Birkie Report
By:  Craig Storey   (2005/03/03)


When Wayne and Sheila told me they were going to do the Birkie I hopped on the bandwagon. But it wasn't with reservations. You see 10 years ago I had a nightmare race in Hayward, Wisconsin. For a long time I thought I would never do the Birkie again unless I could avoid starting in Wave #1. Wave #1 is actually the 3rd heat of skiers to start. There is an Elite wave of 200 men that starts the race first, followed 2 minutes later by 50 Elite women then 8 minutes after that the release Wave #1. I say release, because it reminds of that Simpsons quote 'Smithers, release the hounds'.

So I signed up for the Birkie, 3 weeks before the big event. But since I hadn't done the Birkie lately, they stuck me in Wave #1 again. Not even a handful of top 20 results in the Keskinada and other 50km races was enough to convince the Birkie officials that I belong in the top 200 starters. Not official letters, nor mathematical justification, nor begging were successful. If I wanted to ski the Birkie again I would have to go through the Wave #1 initiation, AGAIN!

What's so bad about Wave #1? Wave #1 makes a mosh pit look like a civilized gathering of intellectuals. There are two very appropriate nicknames for Wave #1 pretty much sum up the problem; 'Freak Show' and 'Testosterone Wave'. There are 1000 skiers in Wave #1, and most believe that they are faster than the Elite men and they are ready to prove it by skiing over top off anyone in their path when the gun goes off. Mix in some skiers that are only doing half the distance, the Birkie's little brother the 25km Korteloppet and you have a frantic start.

So there I was waiting, warm-ups off, *near* the front of Wave #1 with 10 minutes to go until the start. Why was I standing there in my racing suit at -21C so early? Well, this is Wave #1 and it's part of the initiation! To get near the front on the real start line you have to stand in a pen behind the Elite men's and women's pen ready to rush to the starting line the second the Elite women go off. Some people enter the Wave #1 pen 30 minutes before the start just to stand at the front! Basically you sacrifice a warm-up for a position where you don't need to pass 1000 skiers in the first few kilometers of the race.

This bit of Wave #1 trivia was lost on me the first time I did the Birkie and trust me a good warm-up doesn't outweigh having to pass 1000 people before the trail gets too narrow. If you don't want to get caught up in the mele in the holding pen, or the start line then you might as well use the porta-potty one last time and give the Wave #1 skiers a 5 minute head start because if you just casually start at the back you'll walk the first 5-10km.

So with 10 minutes to kill before I start I try to forget that I'm getting cold and I reviewed my race plan a few more times:

  • I will test skis and double check grooming - check.
  • This time I'll get to the pen 15 minutes before the race start and stand there with my skis - check.
  • When the women start and the Wave #1 flags go up I'll sprint like mad to get a position on the start line.
  • Start clean, don't break any poles and don't get in any crashes.
  • Get near the front before power line hill even if it means a sprint for 2km.
  • Do not ski the race alone, find a pack to work with.
  • Feed early on the small downhills after 10-15km.
  • Ski strong and leave it all out there the last 10km.

Last time I was at the Birkie, I only accomplished the last task on that list successfully. This time my skis were fast, the course was well groomed, hard and fast. It was going to go better!

Ok, Elite men are off! Wave #1 presses forward straining at the flags that hold us back. Barbed wire might make this mob more civilized. Mmmm.. 2 more minutes of this. Mild claustrophobia sets in.

For comic relief an official, a small man in an orange hunting jacket, walks in front of the flags and warns us all not to push or trample anyone. Then he wishes us luck and with a chuckle gets out of the way. Was good luck in the race, or not getting trampled? I'll take both, thanks.

Elite women are off! The flags go up and skiers burst forward at an all out sprint, poles and ski clashing together like thunder. It only lasts a few seconds though as everyone piles again up 30 feet away from where they started, held back again by a new set of flags. The volunteers who pull the ropes to lift the flags are slowly recovering from their heart attacks..it must be like the guys who run with the bulls.

All this excitement and we still have 8 minutes to go? Still, the tension is high all around. I try to relax and take in the scene. It's tight. Behind me there's a guy not more than half a ski length back with one of his skis between mine. In front there are 3 strong US sprinters doing the Korteloppet before the flags - good, they'll go out fast. To my right, are 100 people to the other side of the pen and on the left there's a guy smiling at me as he relieves himself between his skis and says "When you gotta go, you gotta go!". Yeah I thought, "Let me go!".

Finally the flags go up and skiers rush off as the crowd hollers support.. or were those just the shouts of angry Wave #1 skiers? I get a clean start behind the sprinters. After 1km, it's just me with my white Birkie bib and 5 Korteloppet guys in their yellow bibs. When I look back and I can't see a single white bib. Oh, oh... this could be a lonely ski. Am I starting too fast? I can't tell, mainly because I can't feel my toes they are so cold. So I keep skiing fast to warm-up. By 7km I've managed to spot white bibs behind me so I ease the pace to let two of them catch up. The first one pulls up beside me and asks "Hey, so you think we've started too fast? I've never skied 50 before." Great!

The Korteloppet skiers turn off at 8km, and my two companions and I lead Wave #1 of the Birkie. Better still my toes are warming up. I'm doing most of the leading, the other two like to rush the uphills and slow down the flats and downhills. Not the right pacing for a 50km race on a rolling course. Conserve on the uphills and carry your speed from the downhills, I'm thinking to myself. By 15km there are two of us. Looking back I can't see anyone. My skis are fast so I'm not surprised we've dropped the other guy.

By 20km I've also settled into a pace that seems to have me skiing by myself, passing women and Elite men. The sun is really warming things up and I'm way too hot. When you're hot, skiing alone and the course is relatively straight it's easy to get drousy. Maybe that's why I fall over when I catch up to Sheila. No, she didn't trip me. I was just about to drink when I recognized her, and talking, drinking and skiing at the same time were a bit too much for me at this point. (That should have been a sign to drink more!)

I get up, but not before a few Wave #1 guys go by me. Where did they come from? I skip the feed and sprint off. I may have mumbled something at Sheila, which was meant to be 'You're doing great, top 10 I think. Go!'... but it probably came out like 'wanwanwan...go!'.

It wasn't that hard to catch up, but it took 5 minutes of fairly solid effort and when I get there they are surging and slowing. A real energy waste and very hard pace to follow if you are at the back. Not a game I can play with my post-sprint legs. So I decide to feed over the next little bump. By the time I get the gel out I'm on a good sized uphill and I loose the train a bit.. but it taste so good and I'll need it to keep the pace. I settle into a catch-up pace but I'm 10s off the back of the guys that passed me. It's hard to keep track of them now as we are weaving through Elite women, and slower Elite men. The feed is slow to hit me and I dond't make up the gap over the next 2km.

Birkie skiers think their course is hilly, but really by Keski standards it's not. The hills are short and though some are steep, they aren't long enough to hurt you badly. Still the last 10km starts with 3 good hills so I'm a bit too conservative. I feel great once the gel and eload kick in. Now that I'm on a section I've skied the day before my mind is more focussed on the finish and trying to catch the guys that snuck by. I'm skiing strong now passing large groups. I pass one of the guys in the pack that's blown up with 2km to go. I ski strong to the end but can't quite catch the other four guys in the end.

Speaking of end, the home stretch up Main St. in Hayward is amazing! If you haven't raced with screaming fans all around, I'll tell you it really helps. I'll bet that's why so many people do the Birkie 20 times and catch what locals call 'Birkie Fever'.

All in all a strong race and better ski than the Keski. I don't have the feever, but I may just do this again sooner than 10 years from now.

Interesting Reading. . .
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