THE UGLY, THE GREAT AND THE PRETTY DARN GOOD: A THREE-RACE SCANDINAVIAN ADVENTURE
My last two Norwegian Birkebeiners had been under really tough conditions, so I was eager to try it again to see if my luck would improve. And I had been sick with lung problems the last two winters, but now I was healthy again. Plus, since May I had diligently followed every single training suggestion given to me by SuperCoach Martin Rosvall, so I was feeling very strong and fit. It was time to challenge myself again, so in 2008 I decided to tackle three Scandinavian ski marathons on three consecutive weekends. The adventure began in Sweden, with …
I did this 90k race in 2003, and just love the course. The last 87 kilometers wind through dark Swedish forests and snowy marshes before ending in Mora, but it’s the first three kilometers, steeply sharply uphill, that separate the real skiers from the back-of-the-packers. Last time the super-crowded conditions in the first three kilometers meant that it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to get up, which I thought was crazy, but this year it took almost two and a half hours, which was unbelievable! The steep slope was icy and we 5,000 last-wavers clung to the slippery hillside like a ginormous multi-cell fungus, stabbing our poles into the snow and trying to dig a foothold for our skis to keep from sliding backwards, too packed together to even make a move and only occasionally able to take a step forward. I heard later that almost none of the last-wavers even made it to the first checkpoint by the time cutoff, so the race officials canceled the cutoff (thank you, race officials!) and motioned us on down the trail.
Once I crested the hill, the course was glazed and trackless and I double poled with all my might, trying to make up for lost time, but it was too little, too late. I was unceremoniously pulled from the race at the second checkpoint, along with thousands of other last-wavers who had also missed the time cutoff, and sent by bus back to the finish line. It was a huge disappointment, after ten months of training, to ski a grand total of 24 kilometers in about four and a half hours, but sometimes these things happen. I gave myself one day to feel sorry for myself, then it was on to Norway for …
This 30k women-only race used to start at Nordseter, up in the mountains, and then continue down a long straight downhill to the Lillehammer trails. Now the course starts and ends at Birkebeiner Ski Stadium and features two different 15k loops, which I like much better. The first loop was super fun, with short steep uphills and delicious long swooping downhills, like the best roller coaster ride you’ve ever taken. The second loop was more gently rolling and sent us double poling along the peaceful river and through the woods before ending back in the stadium.
This day was a gift from the ski gods; the tracks were perfect, my wax was perfect, and the weather was just the way I like it: cool and gray. I finished the 30k in 2:26, a new personal record for that distance, and 40th in my age group out of 186 women, also a record best for me in Scandinavian races! To say I was pleased with myself would be a huge understatement; it was one of the best races I’ve ever had and I was thankful for the day. With my confidence restored, my focus turned to …
The first 10k of this 54k race was really tough; once I climbed out of the chilly valley at the start and hit the sunny trails, I was way overdressed and my wax was slipping all over the place. I hate to change anything in the first 10k, because the trail goes steadily up into the mountains and what isn’t working down in the valley might be perfect once you get up on the plateau. Not this time, however, so at the first checkpoint I veered off the trail to the cute Swix waxing technicians and they adjusted my wax while I quickly peeled off a layer of clothes.
After this break, it turned into a bright new day: my wax was perfect, the tracks were fine, and my body temperature was much more comfortable. I skied happily and strongly over the mountains, being passed by some others on the uphills (something to work on for next year!), passing them back again when we got to the flats, and zooming down the downhills in a speed-maximizing tuck. The high plateau was particularly beautiful, with snow sparkling in the sunshine and views all the way to the Atlantic, it seemed.
The Hill of Excitement, a series of short steep downhills in the last 15k of the race, was hair-raisingly scary this year: the 10,000 skiers ahead of me had turned the trail into two deep parallel troughs, too narrow for a good snowplow, too icy to stay in control, too uneven and choppy to get any rhythm. I would hold my speed under control as long as I could, but about halfway down each hill I would lose all control and then just rocket down as if I were on a luge run, hoping no one in front of me was going more slowly. I crashed once, trying to avoid a man who crashed in front of me, but we both quickly scrambled to our feet and zoomed on down the hill. Somehow I made it to the bottom with body and equipment intact, then double poled the last slushy trackless 5k to the finish, the music in the ski stadium pulling me onward.
It was a fantastic day and, as always, I was sorry to come to the finish line! My goal had been to break six hours, and I finished in 6:07, so I was happy enough with that. The last time I did this race, it took me eight hours, but that was a Very Bad Day, so this one was definitely an improvement. I was 60th in my age group, out of about 85 finishers, and any time I finish above the 90th percentile in a Norwegian race, I’m happy!
The day after the Birkebeiner, June and Joan and I had a fantastic chicks’ tour in the mountains in incredibly beautiful spring skiing conditions, a great way to end the big adventure. All in all, it was an excellent trip and I was pleased with how it had turned out, except that I really would have liked to finish that darn Vasaloppet! No matter, there’s always next time …