At about the 20 kilometer marker of the Birkie, someone skiing next to me (and another gentleman) said "hey guys, I have a picture of the three of us all skiing together in my living room, from just about the same point in the race. Want do do it again?"
I looked at their numbers. One was 142. The other was 152. I was 204. Last year, from that point on, I'd lost more than 50 places to each of them. I said something about "that would be nice; last year I kind of pooped the bed the rest of the way."
This year? 142 finished 171th. 152 finished 145th. And me? #204? I finished in 164th position.
So, yeah, it was a much better Birkie.
My diagnosis last year was that having a cold for the Birkie actually wasn't that bad. I couldn't breathe through my nose, but who breathes through their nose in the Birkie. The bad part was my lack of appetite for three days beforehand. I was picking at food, figuring I could treat the race like a three hour road race. Except it's not. In a three hour road race, the first thing to go are your legs. When you fall apart in a marathon, by and large it's less of a body bonk and more of a leg bonk; all of the sudden, your legs can't take the pounding anymore. Many people are reduced to walking uphills. Or everything. In skiing, as I experienced last year, your legs don't fail. But once you lose your ability to process food stores in to energy, you can bonk hard but keep skiing, just skiing slowly. That's what happened to me last year, and I was determined it wouldn't happen again.
So I ate. Full bowls of oatmeal every morning. Lots of food on Travel Thursday. Big meals on Friday. It's also not like a run where the pounding may dislodge anything left in your gut. I also took a maple-gatorade water bottle, and several gels. (I forgot to take one before the race started, which was probably a mistake.) I would not try to ski the race on feeds alone.
But getting back to the race start. We had an easy trip north, bypassed some traffic, and got to the start with 45 minutes to spare, despite an inch of two of snow, some of it falling quite heavily. I went in to get my boots on, spotted an empty chair, and asked if I could sit down for a moment. I was met with a Forrest Gump-ian response: seat taken
. Wait, what? I went and found another patch of ground to lean against a wall and put on my boots and one of the guys said "do you need a seat?" I said no, not really, and he pointed to the seat I'd just tried to use. "Oh, that seat's taken." He offered him mine, I accepted since I was only going to be a couple of minutes, and then continued to joke about how that still-empty seat was taken. About that guy's invisible friend. After a while, he must have been asked about it more than once so he put his backpack there. I could certainly have used and vacated it in the time it took for his friend to arrive (if there was a friend at all). I exercised restraint: I didn't go in and rip him a new one, Boston-style about not being a moron. I let it slide. Welcome to the Midwest.
Jakob and I warmed up for four minutes. Skis running pretty well. Bag, restroom, planned to just ski in a buff but I'd had a hat on, and I remembered to take everything off (ski pants, etc) except the hat. But I thought I'd taken it off and just had a heavy, wet buff until I got to the finish and found a sopping wet hat on my head. Whoops.
Gun went off and I took the left classic tracks, which are less in pole break territory even if you do have to burn a match or two to double pole. I felt okay on the power lines but then got passed by a bunch of people. Jakob came and went on the power lines. Blaise came by at one point (he must have had a problem at the start) and told me to hop on, I tried to but he was much faster (and finished top 100). I settled in past Timber Trail, almost eating it on Heckler Hill, and struggled a bit up to Fire Tower. But my plan wasn't to blow up here, but to conserve enough to have a decent second half. My heart rate, which had been in the 160s for the entire start of the race calmed down on the long hills, and I skied the rest in the 150s, except for hill spikes in both directions. Average of 156, although my watch showed low battery about 10 miles in and finally died at Highway 77. Might be time for a new watch.
Snow was definitely soft, and my skis generally ran fast; another good decision to leave the cancer waxing up to someone else. Right before OO, a gentleman was counting off places: "170th! 171st!" I was in a pack, and that's right around relegation. So I couldn't afford to have a bad second half of the race, since first wavers would be filling in many of those slots. I felt okay but not great at this point, but also that as long as I could maintain my fueling plan, I'd be able to hold on and gain a few places over some of the bonkers. (Last year, I was one of them.)
The first first-wave skier passed around Highway OO, but we actually passed him later and I put another five minutes on him by the finish, so he finished behind me. See? Not bonking. At some point a few more Wave 1ers passed, I jumped on one of them attacking my group and no one came along. I kept thinking the group would recatch me (and a couple did, near the end) but for the most part I was passing more people and I was being passed by. That's a recipe for success.
On what used to be 29k Hill and is now 23k-left Hill I took a long pull from my feed bottle. That was good. Then rolled down towards Mosquito Brook, still feeling pretty decent, and at times punchy. And passing people here and there, and not getting passed by many. I skied for a while with 144 through Mosquito Brook, although he dropped me up the ensuing hills, our mini-pack did reel a couple of folks in. I skied a while with 191, who was struggling on some uphills but had rocket skis on the downs. He also gave a shoutout to BirkieGuide, and wasn't the only one. I had some caffeine goo coming in to the feed there, which helped but my stomach wasn't really excited about it, but it wasn't bad for the hills.
The hills were, well, hills. I don't mind them too much, except the new one. It's too gradual to be that much of a challenge, yet so long that it's just a grinder (and at 26 miles in to a 30 mile race, it's a challenge). At least the descent is just steep enough to be a recovery. Passing more women now, with a few more first wavers mixed in. Last year I suffered past Highway 77, this year I led a pack up the hill, made some passes, and took the descent on to the lake well. Last year I suffered on the lake. This year, despite a cramping right leg, I led a pack on the lake, made some passes, and pushed the pace. My watch had died, but I was working. Not struggling.
Over the bridge, I was in a pack for a pack sprint. Taking nothing for granted time-wise, I felt I was in pretty good shape. Jakob was just up ahead, and down the cheering, cowbell cacophony of Main Street I punched through to the finish. 2:48, so not fast, but 162nd, so not bad. (I'd lose two more places as more people came in, including Nils Koons finishing 72nd from the 7th wave.)
Oh, and I beat Kikkan. By 17 seconds.
Then it was the traditional afternoon of beer and podcasting. But you'll have to listen to the podcast to find out more about that.