Birkebeiner 2016 – The Slush Puppy

As usual this Birkie trip starts off with the battle of packing 7 pairs of skis/poles/boots into 2 ski bags, hoping that everything comes in under the 50lb flight limit.  We fly to Minneapolis and start our vacation with an invigorating -7F run (me) and lake ski (Sue) exactly one week before the 2016 Slumberland American Birkebeiner 52K ski race.  We immediately pack up and hit the road in our beast-mode V8/leather/nav Tahoe rental heading 4 hours Southwest to Richland Center Wisconsin.  I must not be used to the cold temps, because we stopped at a Kwik-Stop for much needed coffee and I had a total brain freeze.  There were all these cappuccino/Frappuccino/slushy machines, and I wandered confused for way too long before finding the coffee.  Then I actually couldn’t find the cream machine and had to ask the nice counter lady for directions, next aisle over doh!

Our first stop is to see Sue’s sister Marcia and her husband Leif at their new house near   The new 130 acre farm they help their daughter Mo, husband Peter and NEW granddaughter Tilia.  The new parents and 10 month old arrive shortly, greeted by Leif’s homebrew and of course fresh cheese curds.  We all enjoy dinner and the Tilia show late into the evening and finally crash after a full day. 
The morning brings nicer temps and SNOW, which we haven’t enough of this winter.  We visit the farm, ski up to the “road” to Mo, Peter and Tilia’s (plus a couple dogs) very cozy cabin dodging the free range cows and enjoy some hot cocoa and another episode of the Tilia show.  The fresh snow over old crust makes for a sketchy ski back down the “road”, but some of us make it back sans wipeout.  We enjoy a relaxing ski with Leif and Marcia along the Kickapoo River  passing cool ice covered mini-bluffs, then it’s back to pack up beast-mode and continue our journey. 
The next stop is a slow snowy hour to Middleton to visit with my parents Myna and Dobbin, brother Steve and his daughter Sidney.  We unload at my parents condo and head out for Sunday dinner including, yes, superb fried cheese curds.  After another night of catching up we crash back at my parents admiring the new sparkling snow on the drive home.
Monday morning the promise of fresh snow gets us out to the local skiing at Pleasant View golf course.  Unlike Weston there is plenty of rolling terrain on this 10K course, and the skiing is dreamy on the new snow with temps in the 20’s.  In the afternoon we switch gears to big ball bowling.  Finally we get to sleep in the same place for more than one night.  We enjoy another sweet powder ski on Tuesday morning, followed by a visit to some friends in Madison, followed by another dinner out to celebrate Mom’s birthday.  Wednesday morning comes quickly and once again it’s time to fill up beast-mode and hit the road.  Today we’re going to our final destination, Stone Lake, just South of the Birkie zone,  Hayward Wisconsin home of the American Birkebeiner and Muskie capital of the world.

We find our cabin on the lake where Sue’s parents, Dennis and Betty are waiting and catch up over a few cold ones before taking the kids out on the lake for a sunset ski.  Marcia and Leif arrive later that evening adding to the party.  Thursday am we heed the Birkie HQ warning to avoid skiing on the course and use Birkie Ridge trails instead.  Another great ski today, plus we get to see the Alaskan  APU team including David Norris (2016 Birkie winner!) skiing on the trail, plus get passed by Brian Gregg like we were standing still.  We hit our favorite brewpub the Angry Minnow for lunch plus a pitcher or two of River Pig Ale and then get our bibs at the always hoppin Birkie expo.  Here the topic is the impending weather and what effect that will have on the trail.  The forecast calls for rain on Friday followed by a high in the 40’s on race day, yuck!  I probably did wish for a warmer Birkie this year, but this may be a mess.  The rest of the gang, Lars, Anika, Mo and the baby arrive later Thursday, and we get episode 3 of the Tilia show relaxing around the fireplace.  

Friday Kyler gets to kick off the racing with the 3K Junior Birkie, which starts in the shadow of the 3 story Muskie replica near the fishing museum, crosses the lake and finishes on Main St in downtown Hayward.  This is a lot more serious than the 1,000 munchkin mass start Barnebirkie free for all.  The top kids in the cxc northern lights race series have gold starts on their bib and get to line up in the front row.  Kyler says “Give me a break, that’s so lame.”, and lines up behind the goldies decked out like mini-Northugs.  The horn sounds and 50+ middle schoolers zoom off across the lake, Kyler  dodges one of the inevitable crashes and gets off cleanly, whew!  (last year someone stomped on his pole and it pulled clean off)  I watch the racers string out across the lake skiing furiously for Hayward then head over to meet everyone at the finish line.  Kyler is happy with his skis and race, and we celebrate with excellent coffee and baked goods at the Backroads coffee shop.  Sue, Lucy and I enjoy a light pre-Birkie ski on the golf course, which is becoming quite soft with the warm (38F) temps and occasional drizzle, not a good harbinger for race day. 

(Summertime photo of the BIG musky statue at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame near Kyler’s start on the lake)

After lunch back at the cabin the inevitable wax-fest of my skis plus, Sue’s, Lucy’s and Carson’s, begins.  The splattering rain outside adds an ominous tone to the basement/wax room.  (For the wax nerds in the crowd, I used Toko HF Black, then Toko HF Red/Yellow mix, then Toko Yellow, 2x course, 2x medium structure w/Toko structurite tool, then Swix pure flour FC10 ironed in, for kick green spray on klister binder under red klister.)  Whew!  Getting ready for a running marathon is never this much work.  As we’re nearing the waxing finish line Leif remarks, “Wow this is the most relaxing pre-Birkie prep ever!”  Soon after that as the wet winds sings outside, bzzuuuaa… and the basement goes dark. Everyone upstairs assumes Leif and I have blown a fuse with all the waxing power tools, except that we had nothing plugged in and were just scraping / brushing.  With only an hour left of daylight we scramble to finish our skis before night falls contemplating a cold leftovers pre-Birkie dinner.  bruuammm… all the worrying is for naught as the power kicks in just in time to fire up the heat gun on Carson’s red klister.  We finish out the evening with some friendly games of Hearts, multiple servings of hot pasta and lastly the meticulous packing of the morning race bag.

The usual fitful sleep comes and goes in a blink as the 4:30 alarm goes off in the pitch dark.  Sue, Leif, Marcia and I stuff bagels, oatmeal and coffee down before the sun creeps up and we pile into car 1 heading for the early buses at Donnelly field Hayward.  Car 2 will be Lars, Carson and Lucy heading up to the larger Como lot near Cable, Car 3 will be Mo Anika and Tilia going to spectate at the halfway point, OO, and final car 4 with Dennis, Betty and Kyler will be at the finish line to greet us.  Operation Birkie Fever 2016 is underway.  The nice WJOB Birkie radio lady (doubleya jahy ohhh bee) spin us some wake up music on the way to Hayward.  “Good thing we got a lotta snoh on dah trail, since we’re gonna be warmin waay up taday doncha knoh.”  We make good time, cram on a school bus to Cable and make the slippery/slushy walk down to start line tents with along with 10,000+ other skiers.  You would think that 35F would feel warm, but with slush puddles everywhere the damp breeze still packs a chill if not the usual  bite.  After some last minute fueling and a few pre-race pictures we gear up and get down to business. 

I load into holding pen 1 a bit late and have to use my track legs to surge up a few rows as we all (~700) skiers make the mad cap 50m dash through shin high churned up snow to holding pen 2.  The mushy snow makes this real work, and I feel my feet get sucked down a couple potholes, but I stay upright.  One final dash into the actual start pen and we all can finally put the skis on and line up.  The snow is soft and slick at the same time, plus if you really lean on the poles they sometimes punch in deep, so this could be a tricky start.  Finally, finally the countdown to go! And we’re off heading South to the finish line on Main St in Hayward.
As usual there are a few skiers spinning out and augering into the soft wet snow while the field slowly thins out, but not as bad as expected.  I remember counting only 3 or 4 face plants and maybe 10 or so snapped pole basket/shafts.  The power line hills come and go without the usual squeaky styrofoam snow sounds.  The track feels firmer and faster now that we’re in the woods, so this doesn’t look to be a slog day despite the warm temps.  I’m settled in the field skiing 3 abreast as usual at around 8K into the race and I hear someone yell “Comin Through!”  Huh, coming through where?  Bam! Pow! Crash!  Holy bat crap brained skier Batman!  I get slammed in the right shoulder and I’m sure the skier to the right of me got it as well since we’re skiing elbow to elbow.  I’m flailing with my right arm to stay up and/or bring down the bozo trying to win the Birkie from wave 1.  “Uff Da!”  (or something like that) I yell tumbling and rolling desperately trying not break anything.  I see one pole flex precipitously, but thankfully it springs back unharmed.  I manage to un-turtle myself, lift my snow-packed shades to see and vent at bat-brain in the snow to my right, “Uff Da, coming through, Uff Da!”.  The venting seemed to help throttle my adrenaline fueled heart-rate spike, and I jump back into the long line of skiers.  I journey on rattled, but thankful my body and equipment come out un-damaged.

The 10K post comes along at around 35min and before long I’m on the long straight climb to the top of the Birkie trail at Fire Tower Hill.  My skis are running just fine over the top and before long 20K clicks by in just under another 35min.  The rolling climbs back to halfway at OO are not easy, but I grab GU 1 and push on.  Going through OO I’m surprised to actually see Mo, Anika and Tilia in the crowd!  I must not be too over-cooked, yet.  The middle 10K is around 34min and my fastest so far, but I’m working to stay with people on every uphill.  I take GU 2 looking to stave off the bonk and start to feel like I’m red-lining every incline, pushing way too hard and starting to lose ground on skiers.  I hit 40K with a slightly slower over 35min split, but I’m spending energy with abandon and Bitch Hill awaits.  I flail up Bitch Hill, not losing too much ground, but feeling more ragged with every stroke.  Then it’s on to the new hill near the trout hatchery after mosquito brook.  I’m naming it Fishhead Hill, because it’s ugly and stinks, at least for me right now.  The legs are going tin-man on me with no push left, ragged or not.  The last 10K are dragging as the snow is getting softer and dirtier, plus now a light mist is falling, blech!  I drag myself up Duffy Hill, the last climb of note and finally drop down to the lake and the final few miles. 

My legs are toast, but how hard can a flat lake be right?  Ugh, grinding out to the lake I get passed by a small group with some dressed up hooligans, first a hot dog then a cow.  The cow even grabs a Jager shot after hitting the lake and still drops me, double ugh!  The mist feels  heavier now as I thankfully hold off any more cartoon characters and push across the slush puddled lake into the damp headwind.  I even look forward to the last “hill”, the steep wooden bridge over the highway, up, over and down to the always welcome main street finish line.  My V2 returns for the last 50 meters, and I cross the finish line with an empty tank.  The last 10K ended up an ugly 46+min, but the end of the Birkie is always a sweet feeling regardless of how you get there. 
(yes, the cow and the hot dog guys beat me, argh)

Kyler, Betty and Dennis meet me at the finish line, and it’s great to see some friendly faces.  I change up and the OO gang of Mo, Anika and Tilia arrive while we’re waiting for Sue, Leif and Marcia to finish from waves 2 and 4.  I enjoy a Surly tall boy as they stream up Main street one by one into Hayward looking tired, but happy to make it in in one piece.  Finally, Lars, Carson and Lucy navigate the busing route and arrive from Cable.  We snap a few group photos before heading back to our cozy cabin.  The celebration at the cabin includes race stories, snacks, more Surlys, results checking, more food, and the final episode of the Tilia show.  The post-race buzz turns drowsy as the hours fly by. The early wakeup call plus 52 kilometers of skiing catch up, and we pack it in toasting another successful Birkie race day. 


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