Seattle is trapped in a muggy stinky stifling heat wave. It's too hot to breathe, too hot to think, too hot to sleep, certainly too hot to train. So I decided to post some of my old Birkebeiner and Vasaloppet race reports over the next week or so to remind myself that winter really will come back again, someday, and someday my job really will ease up enough to allow me to head back to Europe in the winter and tackle again these awesome races. I miss you, Norway and Sweden!
First up, Birkebeiner 2002.
It is a year long, long ago, and the king of Norway is under attack in the city of Rena from warriors of a neighboring tribe. Despite the best efforts of his loyal soldiers, the Birkebeiners, the king is killed and his infant child is in danger. In a last desperate measure, the baby king is swooped up by the loyal soldiers and hidden from harm. The loyal soldiers, who include me and 10,000 of my closest friends, decide to carry the baby king on our skis to safety in Lillehammer, and that is why we are gathered together in Rena on a gray, chilly morning in March. We’re testing wax and standing in the porta-potty lines and wolfing down Powerbars, ready to begin our epic journey over the mountains to Lillehammer.
The morning had started hours ago, at our cozy mountain hotel in Sjusjoen. Ozzie and I, plus a small contingent from Wisconsin and a pair of anonymous Norwegians, boarded the minibus that would carry us to the start of the race, two hours away. As we trundled along, everyone offered their opinions of the coming day’s weather: is it cloudy? Will the sun come out? Will it get warm or stay cold? Should I use a warmer wax? Should I have had a larger breakfast? Do I really need this jacket? Weighty matters indeed, to occupy our jittery minds.
Once we got near the race start, a bedlam of cars and buses and skiers and coaches and waxing technicians bustling about as if this were an important day, Ozzie took charge and directed our bus driver through the crowd to a parking spot near the center of activity. We unloaded skis and packs, then made our way to the huge trucks, labeled by age group, that would carry our belongings to the finish line—all of our belongings except, that is, the baby king, the 3.3kg pack that everyone must carry to Lillehammer. It gives you a certain feeling of finality to realize that all of your worldly belongings are 58 kilometres away, over the mountains, and the only way you have to get there is on your skis.
Racers (I mean loyal soldiers) are ranked by age and sent off in order, chivalrously sending the oldest ones first to face the arrows of the enemy. This year, because the Birkebeiner was included in the World Cup series, the elite skiers jetted off from the starting line first, jockeying for position before the tracks narrowed. Fifteen minutes later, Ozzie’s age group started and the race had begun. For Ozzie, it would finish a mere four hours and six minutes later; some of the other loyal soldiers, like me, spent quite a bit more time out on the trails.
Forty-five minutes later, my age group toed the starting line, the starting gun went off and we headed toward Lillehammer. The first kilometre was icy hardpack, and we skittered and clattered our way up the first little hill. After that, once we reached the set tracks, the snow turned slushy and soft. Swix had been recommending its VR45 or 50 wax, and I had used that with fine success in the two days of skiing we did before the race. I found out later, too late, that the morning of the race Swix changed its recommendation, suggesting one layer of VR60 just to get us up the first 10k of uphill. Having waxed with VR50, I got the chance to use a lot of that special Norwegian wax called Armstrong to get up the first hill. But after 10k, after the first feed station, the snow suddenly turned to beautiful crunchy powder, the sun came out, and my 50-waxed skis worked beautifully the rest of the day.
The feed stations are wonders of organization: big long tables on both sides of the track and right down the middle, a clutter of skis and poles as racers jockey for position beside the tables, small children calling out “XL-1! XL-1! Saft! Saft!” and handing up cups of warm refreshments. You want to linger and chat over a cup of saft; it’s such a lovely day to be skiing. But you’re on a mission; you have to get the baby king safely to Lillehammer. You imagine you hear the enemy warriors following you, but it’s only the young studs from the later age groups, catching up and passing you in a marvelous display of strength and fluidity that you know comes from years of skiing. So you ski onward.
After about 15 kilometres of steady, unrelenting but not really all that steep uphill, you come to the first downhill. The downhills are a pleasure, even for a downhill chicken like me. The tracks are smooth and perfect, the runout at the bottom is easy, there are no sharp blind corners, and there are no tourists sprawled across the tracks. All too soon, you’re done with the downhill and the second feed station, and you’re grinding your way back up, up, up the mountain. You remind yourself to look around you, instead of staring at the skis of the person in front of you, because hey, you’re skiing in Norway! You’re doing the Birkebeiner and you want to remember it: the broad expanses of white snow in the sunlight, the sharp blue sky, the long line of brightly colored Lycra snaking its way ahead of you up the next hill.
And next thing you know you’re at the top of the second hill and you have a lovely long zippy downhill, tucked into your best tuck, going for the free ride. Another feed station appears. By now, the XL-1 is beginning to taste like the best stuff you’ve ever had in your life, and the little children handing it to you are the dearest, sweetest children in the world. Life is looking really fine; you’re skiing in Norway!
Then you start the last long uphill, and it really grabs your attention. Due to a funny little quirk in the local topography, it seems like there are at least three false summits. You ski relentlessly up; now it’s starting to feel kind of steep and you’re starting to feel like you’ll really be happy when it’s done, and you kind of crest over the top … but it’s not the top, it keeps going up and up to another little crest, but that’s not the top either and you keep going up and you think, I don’t remember it being this long last year, but of course it was so you keep going up and up and pretty soon you really are at the top and there’s a blessed beautiful feed station welcoming you to the high mountain plateau.
Now you’ve hydrated and eaten and you know the worst is behind you. Now you can enjoy the plateau, with white snowy plains, dotted with scrubby little pines, stretching as far off into the distance as you can see. You double pole, feeling the kilometres slip by almost effortlessly. People are along the side of the trail, ringing their cowbells and shouting “Likke til!” (which I’m pretty sure means “You look marvelous!”) and handing you Coke or chocolate or oranges, almost anything you could want. People have set up camps; they have fires going to cook their sausages, and they’ve carved seats and tables out of the snow. They’re there for the day, and again you’d love to stop and join them but the baby king needs to get to Lillehammer, so on you go.
Now you’re at the end of the plateau, you’ve enjoyed the last feed station, and you only have to get down the Hill of Death and double pole a couple of flat kilometres and you’re home. The Hill of Death is a thrill for good skiers, a long steep curving drop, with none of the nice features of the earlier downhills. For others, it’s a challenge; for some, it’s a death-defying challenge. You fall, sometimes literally, into one of those categories.
And then you’re at the bottom. You’re double poling to the finish; there are signs counting down the number of kilometres to the end and you realize, you’re going to make it! You’re going to finish the Birkebeiner! One or two kilometres from the end, you can hear the music and you pick up the pace; you’re double poling for all you’re worth and passing people who are running out of gas. Then one more sharp corner, and you’re heading for the finish line in Olympic Stadium, the same finish line that Vegard Ulvang crossed in 1994! There are crowds of spectators, music is playing, the sun is shining, and you think this is one of the best moments of your life. Then you cross the finish line and the nicest sweetest little old man in the world drapes your precious medal around your neck and you are done. The baby king is safe, and your mission is over.