Thursday, July 17, 2014

Flashback: Birkebeiner 2006


Here’s the thing that I think is so cool about racing.  You do everything you can to prepare: you train and recover, you work on strengthening your weaknesses, you’re careful of your nutrition, you prepare your equipment.  Then, at a given time and place, you stand at the starting line and just see what the day brings you.  If you’re racing in a sport like cross country skiing, the weather can throw in an unexpected surprise, and that’s exactly what happened in this year’s Birkebeiner.
We enjoyed perfect skiing weather in the days leading up to the Birkebeiner, with temperatures around -8C to -12C, with firm tracks and sunny skies.  In fact, the day before the race, Ozzie and Joan and I had a pre-breakfast ski that was beyond spectacular: the sun was just peeking over the mountains, making the snow sparkle like so many crushed diamonds, the cold wind frosted our cheeks, and Ozzie yodeled a cheerful tune as we strode along—I felt like we were in a Norwegian tourism commercial.
Then Ozzie’s friend Steinar showed up at lunchtime with the latest weather forecast: a warm front was moving down from the north, a cold front was moving up from the south, and where and when they would meet was anyone’s guess … and oh yes, high winds were expected, too.  My heart sank when I heard this; this was just the same prediction we’d had before the Great Waxing Disaster of 2004.  I’d ended up dropping out of that race, cold and frustrated and injured, and had been carrying the ignominy of that day for two years. 
Steinar had given me a good pep talk after the GWD of 2004 and told me, in difficult conditions like that, to ignore all the fuss around me and just ski my race.  I vowed then and there that there were only two conditions under which I would drop out of this year’s race: if bone was actually poking through the skin, or if the snowmobiles pulled me off the course for darkness.  I was determined to finish, come hell or high winds.
So the morning of the race found Linda and me hovering around the Swix waxing benches, looking for wax guidance.  All the technicians were slathering on VR55, so we did the same, then took our places in the starting corral.  In previous years, wave starts were organized by age, with oldest first.  This strategy put me well toward the front, at least for the first few minutes.  Now the waves are organized by previous finishing times, which dumped me into wave 12, almost at the back.  This would turn out to be important, as the weather and snow conditions deteriorated over the course of the day.  People like Ozzie, Jimmy and Gunnar started two and a half hours before I did, and were well on their way before the really warm winds kicked up and the temperature rose and the tracks fell apart.  Ozzie and Steinar had fantastic races, making their respective marks by over half an hour (4:29 and 3:36, respectively), and Jimmy, Gil and Gunnar had good races also (5:26, 5:54 and 6:00, respectively).
Mac and Linda and I, however, had a little more of a struggle.  Mac and Linda finished in 6:52 and 7:06, respectively; Linda’s pithy summary of the day: “This sucks!”  For me, it turned out to be a long hard day, the hardest day of skiing I have ever had in my life.  Sometimes my wax worked, and then I skied with happiness and joy, just thrilled to be part of the spectacle.  More often, my wax didn’t work and I slid around like a baby deer on a frozen pond, desperately digging in with my poles to try to push myself forward, thankful for every morning I had gotten up early to go to the gym before work and every evening I had roller skied in the rain.  And oh yes, the wind blew and blew, for a while coming from the side and knocking my poles around, and for a long time coming straight from the front.  Several times I noticed that I had picked up a little train of people drafting behind me, and I figured they must be struggling even more than I.
Eventually I reached the Hill of Excitement, and then I only had about 10k to go to the finish.  The Hill of Excitement is a steep curving drop from the high mountain plateau down to the valley, and can be quite challenging.  I used to call it the Hill of Death, but decided I needed to improve my attitude about it.  I spent a lot of time on Ozbaldy and Amabilis this winter, working on my puny downhilling skills, but was still more than a little worried about the hill in the weeks leading up to the race.  As a measure of how difficult the rest of the day was, the Hill of Excitement this year was a total non-event.  Oh sure, the snow was slushy and rutted, and the tracks were nonexistent, and one person had a spectacular fall right in front of me, but none of it mattered.  I came to the hill; I skied down it.  That was all.
I did finish, finally, more than eight long hours after I had started.  Although it was the most difficult day of skiing I’d ever had, it also was the most satisfying.  I approached the finish line singing “I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it!” and I came through the chute with a ginormous smile on my face.  The DNF monkey finally slid off my back and disappeared into the past; I had finished the race.

But it was after six o’clock by now, and the next problem was finding a way home.  I knew the last bus to our hotel at Rustad had left at five o’clock (although I found out later that the race organizers added some extra buses because skiers were continuing to finish so late in the day), and I knew all my friends had finished long before me and were probably back at the hotel enjoying hot showers and dinner.  So I put on my warm jacket and dry hat and gloves and took the shuttle to the ski stadium, where I hoped I’d find a taxi.  Imagine how delighted I was to see Mac and Linda, Gil and Berit and Steinar there, all waiting for me!  Thanks, guys—I’ve never been so happy to see someone!  We squeezed into the Lunds’ car and chattered away about our various experiences as Gil drove us home.  Fortunately, Rustad had held dinner for us, because we were ravenous.  Ozzie and Joan and Gunnar (and his brother) and Jimmy were waiting at the table, and we dove into the platters of roast beef and potatoes and vegetables, along with multiple bottles of wine to celebrate our survival.  There was chocolate mousse for dessert, plus ice cream that Steinar ordered and a bottle of Bailey’s that Joan pulled out.  Then there was a hot shower and a soft bed and delicious sleep, dreaming of the wonderful day of skiing in the mountains of Norway and counting down the days until I can do it again next year.

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