Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Per Rocks the Birkie

Per not only rocked the Birkie, coming in eighth in his age group and wearing the coveted "Spirit of 35" red bib, he also got to hang out and chat with Vegard Ulvang!  It sounds like a super fun weekend with the Johnsens and the Hoidas ... here are Per's story and photos.

A Special American Birkebeiner
by Per Johnsen

Again this year Sandy and I headed back to Wisconsin for the Birkebeiner. Last year’s attempt ended a week before the race when I tore my rotator cuff by falling on an icy driveway in Hayward. No more mishaps this year. We flew to Green Bay and drove to Hayward with our long-time ski friends, Joe and Cheri Hoida. They have met several Kongsbergers over the years: Rune, the Bauers, the Bovengs, Sandy and Ted, Debbie, the Lunds, the Nordheims, the Kaalds, the Bakers, and maybe others. They have also skied at Cabin Creek, in 2004.

It seemed strange to drive through Wisconsin in February and see almost no snow. Bare farm fields, and snow fences with nothing to do. As we neared Hayward we could see a few inches of snow cover in the woods, hardly encouraging. The race organizers had insisted that there was adequate cover and not to fear. The grooming crew had worked tirelessly to pack down every flake that fell on the trail this winter, and a week before the race the course was declared to be in “good shape”. During the two weeks prior to the race, faced with temperatures in the mid to upper 30s, they shoveled and moved snow onto the south-facing hills to preserve the cover. The weather person at one of the Duluth TV station said that, on average, 80 inches of snow have fallen by the 20th of February. This year the total was 19 inches. Then the snow gods smiled and the trail received 5-6 inches of dense powder on Tuesday before the race and the machines were out that night to knock the air out of it (combing, they called it), and the next day it was packed in, and the trail was just fine.

I am getting ahead of myself. We spent eight days in Hayward prior to the race. Joe and Cheri have a wonderful north woods home only 100 meters from the Birkie Trail, at the 39km mark. The area is Mosquito Brook or just “The Brook” locally. In addition to daily access to the Birkie Trail, we could also ski on the local trail around the Brook, which goes by directly in front of the house. Since the weather during the week was nothing like the forecast for race day we decided that testing waxes would be silly. So we simply skied, ate, and relaxed. Joe and Cheri’s daughter, Jessica, spent most of the week with us, and we became well acquainted with her 15-month old son Joey. We took turns chasing him around the house. What fun! Grandpa Joe, who has completed well of thirty Birkies, missed the race last year because of a broken foot. This year he was set for an easy race, an all-day tour, he said. On Thursday he didn’t feel very peppy and on Friday morning he and Cheri drove to the Marshfield Clinic in Rice Lace to take care of a very uncomfortable sebaceous cyst. So, he was out of the race again.

What we have come to enjoy most about being at the Birkie is the rising crescendo of interest in the weather, snow structure, wax secrets, new waxes and base grinds. In addition we run into skiers from all over the country at the grocery store, in restaurants, and at various sports shops. There is no end to talk about the logistics of the race. In addition, the locals are reaping great profits from visitors who are willing to spend nearly anything for the one thing that might make a difference on race day. “How many GUs do I need?” “Would a new drink bottle holder be a good idea?” “Maybe I should pick up a couple of the new Toko Reds before they are sold out.” By Thursday when we can pick up our bibs and file by all the vendors at the Expo, we are easy prey for both the soft and the hard sell.

On Thursday evening at the local high school the former ski champion Vegard Ulvang gave a talk, with slides and videos, describing the expedition he just completed last fall to the South Pole. Last December 14th marked the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Roald Amundsen and his party as the first to the South Pole. So four Norwegians, including Vegard Ulvang, attempted to repeat the trek, on skis, pulling 100kg sleds. Amundsen had dogs to pull sleds. The modern expedition had difficulties staying on the same schedule and they were astonished how well Amundsen had navigated through difficult terrain in an area without maps. I had a chance to talk to Vegard before his talk and he said he was glad to meet another skier from Northern Norway. He was generous with his time and was genuinely interested in meeting those of us who wanted to say hello. He said he was in pretty good shape from the expedition, and that he had trained a little harder for the past few weeks. He is nearly 50 and had modest expectations about his race. Not to worry. He finished second overall in the Classic Birkie. All of his Olympic and World gold medals were not flukes.

A couple of weeks before the Birkie I received a letter telling me that Board had decided that I would race in a red bib from now on. There were 35 racers in the first Birkie in 1973 and as one of those I would wear a bib with the inscription: “The Spirit of 35”. Until now only the Founders, those who skied all of the first ten races have worn red bibs. I had missed the third one. Only three of the original twelve Founders are still skiing the Birkie. So the Board looked for others who were in the first race, plus those who have completed the most races in order to add 35 red bibs. I have the results of the first race, and I may be the only other first race participant they found among the entries. That was quite an honor and I received lots of friendly comments during the race because of the bib.

Race Day. The forecast that we had listened to all week was exactly right. The morning was cold with flurries, followed by clearing and sun. The temperatures were in the low teens before the start and the mid twenties in early afternoon. We had waxed for glide according to the recommendations of Webskis Guru, Bert. A concoction of four different glide products that he guaranteed would give the best glide. In my case, it was perfect. I had the best glide of anyone around me. I even had better glide than the skaters after the two trails joined at 31 km. The kick consisted of a very thin layer of spray Toko Green klister, and then repeated layers of Toko Green binder and Toko Blue and Red kick wax. I may have had 15 thin layers in all. It worked perfectly. I never slipped. Since Sandy would be a little longer on the trail and the temperatures would be a little higher, I put a little Toko Yellow under the Blue and Red. She said her grip was also just fine. A couple of years ago the kick wax of the day was only Toko Green Binder, in many layers, shorter and shorter. The kick recommendations came from our friend Dave Ford. It must have worked for him also, since he won his age group by a whopping 13 minutes.

The race itself was actually enjoyable. Since I am still in a long rehab after shoulder surgery, I skied at an even pace and tried to stay relaxed. I found a comfortable pace, never pressed and finished feeling fine. The times for most in the classic race were slower than usual, about twenty minutes for the winners compared to two years ago. My time was about ten minutes slower than in 2010. I spent the afternoon along Main Street cheering other skiers and visiting with friends. About the time I expected to see Sandy come in I walked down to the lake and cheered her on as she turned into the town and the finish line. We returned to the house at the Brook and Cheri and Joe hosted a Post-Birkie party. Peter and Lisa Boveng, Sandy Schreyer and Ted Lystig, and Rune joined us for snack and drinks and race stories, and we lasted until mid evening when our tired bodies told us they needed rest.

We stayed in Hayward until the following Monday and drove back to Green Bay, and flew back on Tuesday. The next day Hayward received between 8 and 15 inches of new snow. Of all the days we were in Wisconsin the race took place on by far the best day. How lucky can you get?
And one more photo, a little bonus eye candy ...

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