Saturday, March 19, 2011 – BIRKEBEINER 2011. 6 months of goal setting and excitement culminated in an awesome 54 kilometer, 4 hour and 55 minute ski tour across the mountains from Rena to Lillehammer (Norway). What a day it was! Forecasts had shown that it would be nice on Saturday for the whole week so my energy was running high! Øistein and I arrived in Oslo on Thursday night. On Friday, a fine snow was falling as we made out way to Hamar, a town in between Lillehammer and Rena. We planned the day perfectly and had plenty of time to carbo load, rest, hydrate, wax (glide and kick), and have some laughs. We were impressed by our own organization and ability to be prepared for “the big day!” When it finally arrived, nerves were calm as we knew we were in for great conditions of sun and cold enough temperatures that kick would not be a problem. Hoarding along with 16,000 other racers getting to the race venue was exhilarating. So many people all so excited for the same reason!!!! Although I was getting nervous, I couldn’t help my excitement! When our wave finally set off, the endorphins were rushing! In the first 20 minutes it was so warm I started to get worried as we started the nearly endless climb. Given the huge numbers of people, I worked my skills darting in between people here and there and switching tracks. Quickly, a calming rhythm developed as we settled in for the long haul of kicking, striding, and poling for the next 54km.
After about 30 min the crowds start to die down and you start to settle in with the people around you. The thing about such a large race is that you are constantly moving with different folks. The energy level is never low as you build off those around you. And, on such a gorgeous day, the warmth of the sun was more than energizing. Numerous times I looked behind me to Øistein… smiling saying “Isn’t this awesome!??” The only thing missing was the company of my dad – Charlie. Last year was certainly a special experience and it was sad to not have him there. Although the temperatures were warmer last year, in many ways the conditions were faster and almost better. This year, the fine snow and colder temps made for relatively slow going but at least the kick was good! Given that at least 35k of that race is uphill, I guess it doesn’t kill you to not be able to double pole all the time….
At some point in the race, I think at about 25-30k, things got tough. My legs started to cramp, and muscles were getting seriously tired. As energy wavered, I just kept repeating to myself “just bite your teeth together” and keep going!!!!!! A this point, the race becomes less about “this is so great” to “when are you going to eat and drink next”. Focus is narrowed in on one thing: your muscles and how you can make them keep going. You have to consciously be aware of the frequency of your poles and kicks, because otherwise you slow down fast. It is tough, but exhilarating.
When I reached Kvarstad, I knew the next 7.5km to Midtfjell was going to be hard. I remembered it from last year with my dad, that we were surprised at this section. It is steeper than the rest of the race, and comes at a point where you are already tired. When we reached the top, it seemed like Sjusjøen was close, but it was oh so far. Luckily, in this section, there are TONS of people cheering! The weather was so great, that people came out en force. It was such a fun!
In terms of physical conditions, though, there was no time to celebrate when we arrived to Sjusjøen. I looked at my watch and knew that if I wanted to make my “mark” I would have to HURRY. The “mark” is calculated by adding 20% of the time to the top 5 finishers in your age group. As I started the descent for the last 8-10k, I could feel my legs getting weaker, which was problematic for the nasty drifts that had developed from 8,000 other people snowplowing. On top of that, the sun in my eyes through the trees was throwing me off. I took a bad fall but thankfully wasn’t plowed over by other racers! Øistein raced by yelling “are you okayyyyyy?” Yes, I was fine. But my speed and energy were degraded, and I struggled to find rhythm for the last 8k into the finish. Even my desperate attempts to double pole fast and frequent were pathetic. The snow was warmer at this point, and the lack of glide was noticeable. I also remembered this part from last year … it was painfully slow! Mostly flat, but when you have gone 48km already, 6k of double poling is not fun. When I finally sailed into the stadium, I was greeted by a “HEIA ANNA” from Ingrid, my host sister, and another friend from Røros. I was so happy to hear their voices! They carried me into to the finish, where I met an exhausted Øistein, who looked VERY happy to be done. My time was 4:55.31! Which was 5 minutes slower than my goal of 4.50 which was what was needed for the 2010 mark in my age class. I was bummed, although still happy because I had assumed my time would be somewhere between 4.30 and 5.30.
After crawling out of the finish area, tired and sweaty, faces salty and sunburned, we changed into some clothes from our pack and went to find Ingrid. On the way, I saw the sign for the “mark” of each age class. Mine was 4:56.41! I had made it, with a minute to spare! This was a great bonus to the feeling of being done! Øistein and I were elated, happy that a long winter of hard work had culminated in such an awesome day. The weather, the atmosphere, everything had clicked. The only thing missing was good glide, but we were not alone in that. That is the beauty of skiing – you cannot control the snow.
We took our time getting out of Lillehammer by cheering on Jan Arild, Ingrid’s boyfriend, chatting with fellow Alaskan Merrick (who had a rocking race, even if she says she didn’t) and shopping in the sports sale (a must). Finally, we grabbed some dinner, hopped on a bus to take us back to Rena where the car was. The bus was smelly and hurt my legs… we were tired. By the time we got to Rena (about 2 hours), Oslo seemed so far away (another 2 hours)… We finally arrived in Oslo at around 11.30pm. Way too late for our tired bodies and brains but we survived. In the morning we felt good – but achy and tired – and spent the day relaxing, eating, and drinking with the family in Oslo.
On Monday, upon returning to Trondheim, it was clear an era was over. Suddenly, it hit me what a let-down it was to be done. The best part about the Birke is that you have an excuse to train. Now reality had hit: ski season had to be over because I have a TON of work to do on my thesis. I realized that I spent the last 3 months skiing and working and trying to do school on the side. After a conversation with my advisor, decided to limit my hours at work to 2 days a week instead of 5 in order to help with focus. The fun excitement of Birke-fever was over… until next time that is! …..Only 343 days until next year!!!!
Next time, training will be better and goals better set. I would like to make it in 4.30 next year, which I think is possible with some smarter training techniques. I am not 100% sure we can do it (due to location and logistics), but if possible we will make it happen. It is almost just too much fun to pass up! So, onwards and upwards to the next big thing… maybe a running race this summer? I will keep you posted!
To conclude: I recently heard an expert saying that you know you are in your element when 1 hour seems like 5 minutes….and you are not in your element when 5 minutes seems like 1 hour. Well, the almost 5 hours I spent in the race may have hurt, but flew by fast. I take this as evidence that I should keep on skiing…