Birkie 2014, A Good Reflection of the Harshest Winter in 100 Years
The winter of 2014 has been absolutely relentless. Colder and snowier than anything I’ve ever seen in the Upper Midwest, I guess only a fool would expect anything less for Birkie Weekend in Northern Wisconsin. There is a good reason the Birkie is now attracting over 10,000 cross country skiers each year. It certainly offers many things to many people, but above all, I believe it is the legendary story telling that surrounds the “Birkie Experience” that ultimately draws everyone in and back year after year. The unknowns of weather and snow conditions seem to be largely what motivates so many to come back year after year and to test their mettle. This year was no different and according to many long time Birkie veterans, one of the hardest, if not THE HARDEST Birkie ever. EPIC, BRUTAL, BEAUTIFUL seemed to be the key words.
Heading into a major storm
My trip began on Thursday afternoon when I loaded up my gear, picked up my friend Ben and hit the road to Hayward. From Traverse City it is about a 10 hour drive and I knew quite well that we would be driving right into the heart of the massive storm predicted to dump 14 inches of snow in the Northern Wisconsin area. Nevertheless, we set the course and proceeded to drive on. We actually made good time on dry roads through over half the drive. Then we hit snow around Wakefield and it just started getting heavier and heavier. By the time we hit Ironwood, MI it was dumping massive flakes and a complete whiteout, but still not too much accumulation on the roads. However, na hour later leaving Ashland, WI we were plowing through at least eight inches of fresh powder on Highway 2. It was virtually impossible to see anything at this point so we just followed the lone set of tracks in front of us and felt for the rumble strips to know when we were close to the shoulder. When we turned off Highway 2 onto Highway E, we were making first tracks through 10 inches of heavy wet snow. These are the conditions you dream about on a snowboard, but no so much in a car at night in unfamiliar territory. We eventually found our Cabin in Iron River, but the journey wasn’t over yet. We now had a small two track road with a hill and some sharp corners to navigate up to the cabin. Somehow we managed to pull it off plowing through 12 inches of deep snow and then dropped down the driveway, elated to have arrived in one piece safe and sound.
Completely Snowed in Friday Morning
We were concerned enough about getting out in the morning that we turned the car around to have a straight shot up the driveway. We woke Friday morning to realize the snow plow had not come yet and was nowhere in sight. Ben had to be at the Expo by 9:00 to help work the Start Wax booth. We managed to move the car about three feet and got it buried. Despite all wheel drive and new snow tires, the 15 inches of snow was just too much to overcome. To make matters worse, there was no shovel to be found at the cabin so Ben and I resorted to shoveling by hand. Ben is the optimistic type who doesn’t get easily discouraged so he was determined to find a way to get us out of there. The cabin owner eventually came by and told us our best option was to remain put. His 4-wheel drive truck was stuck 3 feet outside of his garage and he was adamant there was no way we would get our car out of there. We begged for some shovels and he eventually tossed us a few garden spades. Two hours later, through Ben’s brute force digging and pushing, and me burning up the clutch and spinning the tires, we eventually managed to push our way up the driveway and out the quarter mile road to the plowed highway.
After the morning challenge and conquest the rest of the day was relatively uneventful. Lots of time spent checking the weather and hoping that miraculously the predicted Saturday morning wind chill would change from -18 to something more balmy like 0.
Preparing our Cold Weather Gear
In the evening more friends showed up and although the road had received a rough plow in the afternoon, it was already wind-blown with drifts 6 feet high. We all agreed the best bet would be to park at the bottom of the road and just walk the ¼ mile up hill to the cabin versus risking stuck cars in the morning.
We all made final gear preparations Friday night making sure we had lots of dermatome and questioning the effectiveness of race suits and why they don’t make them with better wind blocking features.
Saturday Morning – Game On
5:00 AM arrived soon enough and it was game on. Most of the cabin crew was in waves far ahead of me so they were out the door at 6:15. Continuing with my low carbohydrate endurance performance experiment, I opted for a breakfast consisting of a four egg ham and cheese omelet. Despite all the warnings to load up on gels and sports drinks and prepare for a long brutal grind, I opted to take a risk and see how a zero carb day would treat me at the Birkie. All I packed for the big adventure was a single bottle of sugar free branched chain amino acid drink.
It isn’t a Birkie morning without some form of panic or mishap and sure enough, while I was on my way to catch the bus I got a frantic call from Ben. He had accidentally grabbed my poles. Ben is 5’10 and I’m 6’4, so this definitely presented a problem. There was no way that I could get Ben his poles on time but fortunately he was able to get pair from the CXC team and he left my poles at the CXC van where I was able to retrieve them.
I managed to get to the starting area just in time to drop off my gear back and get into the coral and start lining up. I used the run from the bus drop off to the start as my warm-up. It was brutally cold standing at the front of Wave 7 waiting for the gun to go off. When it finally did it became even more brutal battling the head wind and wind-blown snow. It was a hard start but also a clean start as I was out in front with a handful of ambitious Wave 7 skiers. It didn’t take long before we caught up to the back of Wave 6 and then the infamous Birkie lines began. From that point forward every hill I climbed was stacked with skiers in front of me.
I am familiar with the“Birkie Mashed Potatoes” from prior years, but I had never experienced anything as brutal as this year. The snow was slow and the hills were churned into 10 inches of sugary powder. We passed the 12k mark and I was in total denial convincing myself we were at least 20k into the race and that sign was for some other trail system. When we reached the aid station before OO (halfway point) I convinced myself it was actually OO. When we actually arrived at OO 30 minutes later and a glance at my watch revealed it was over 2 hours, I knew it was going to be an epic day, but also great training for my ultimate priority and goal which is crossing the Molokai Channel (32 miles) in May.
In the back of my mind I was definitely concerned about going into uncharted territory with no carbohydrates in my system. The last time I had a 4 hour plus workout was at least 8 years ago. I basically marched in line up the hills and did as much passing as I could when things leveled out (which doesn’t happen much on the Birkie trail). When the classic course rejoined and we had tracks I discovered once again the wonderful feeling of firm ground and spent as much time as I could in the last 20k of the race double poling in the tracks and leveraging my upper body paddle strength. I came across the finish line just as I heard the announcer say Steve Bannow’s (fellow surfski paddler) name. Steve also heard my name and in our delirious and frozen state we both had a chance to congratulate each other through frozen mumbled words. Steve had just completed his 35th Birkie and was saved by an aid station worker who fashioned a garbage bag around him to block the wind so he could keep his core temp high enough to keep skiing and finish the race. See the picture below of Steve at the finish. TRUE GRIT!
Race Performance Assessment
I finished the race with numb hands, but otherwise feeling good and strong. A quick check of my Garmin Results revealed an average HR of 140 and max of 153, so once again exactly the aerobic threshold that I’ve been training at and the same HR average and max I saw at the Vasa 50k race. At that HR I must be burning almost 100% fat because I didn’t have any hypoglycemic feelings and felt great once I had a cup of vegetable soup and got my hands warm. I’m really impressed with the endurance and strength I had on zero carbs, but I am concerned that I was again lacking the mental motivation and physical strength to push harder. It was certainly a tough course, but ideally I still would have expected a faster time and higher heart rate.
Long Drive Back to Wrap up an Epic Day
Following the finish it was back to the cabin to pack up and hit the road back to Traverse City. Both Ben and I wanted to get home to our families so we drove through the night getting back to Traverse City at around 3:30 AM to wrap up an epic marathon day.
Impressive Bunch at the “Back of the Pack”
While I think I may have been a little faster skiing from a higher wave, I really enjoyed the experience of skiing “in the back of the pack”. Throughout the race I couldn’t stop thinking how amazing it was to see the the amount of grit and determination these skiers displayed. I’m sure many of them had not spent much time on skis all year. It was brutally soft and brutally cold and skiers were literally coming to a dead stop on the hills and/or tripping over their skis and poles from sheer exhaustion. But they all got back up or got back moving and persevered on to the finish in Hayward. Of course I also couldn’t help to think, how do I get these people into surfskis? They certainly have the grit and determination required!