Three cheers for middle-of-the-pack skier Carol Anway! It's always cool to read the stories of racers finishing on top of the leaderboard, but there is a special satisfaction in reading the story of someone like Carol, who had two hip replacements in 2016, came back with a year of solid thoughtful training, and -- spoiler alert! -- set a new personal record at this year's Birkie! Way to go, Carol, and way to show all of us in the pack how it's done. And just to prove it wasn't a fluke, she headed to Hyak today and set another personal best on the Iron Horse trail! Here is her story:
I am Dr. Carol Anway, physicist, musician, and proud daughter of Dr. Allen Anway, one of the Spirit of 35 skiers at the Birkebeiner. I live with my husband, Keith, and daughter in North Bend, WA. I started skate skiing in 2012 and did the Birkie in 2014 and 2015. Running combined with hip dysplasia led to both hips being replaced in 2016.
Birkebeiner 2018 was all about reclaiming my physical fitness. My surgeon asked me not to run until a year after the second hip replacement, so I obediently waited to start running until Sept 1, 2017. This was six months before the big race. I increased my speed and endurance aggressively, too aggressively, because I developed left thigh pain in December that sharply limited my mileage.
January, I changed over to skate skiing, which did not bother my thigh. Keith and I talked about it, and decided the strategy was not to hit a particular goal of performance, but simply to maximize physical fitness given all the constraints on my time (such as working full time and being a mom). I skied on weekends, and during the week, I swam, slid back and forth on the slider board, and hiked up hills. By the end of January, I could reliably do 25-35 k each day, often in the rain. In February, I added Friday skiing when possible.
I have never had a formal skiing lesson. New hips might be an opportunity to learn properly. I called a coach, Todd, who gave some general skate ski advice on the phone in September. He had moved back to Vermont and so could not coach me in person. He recommended other coaches, but they were in the Methow valley, and it was just too far, so I went without. I found Todd’s general advice quite helpful. He recommended starting slowly with gentle movements, to learn how to ski again. Light steps, with relaxed angles. Less arms on uphill, more arms on flats. Hands in front on up hills to keep the hill heart rate lower.
Other skiers proved instructive. One example: There were two friendly gentlemen in blue jackets skiing together at Cabin Creek one Friday. We were going the same speed on the downhills, flats, and small uphills, but then there was a longer uphill. I dropped to herringbone. They continued to skate. And I never saw them again. A clue! The next time I went out, I changed to skate up all hills, stopping to breathe if I needed, but really challenging myself. This took six minutes off my 10 k time.
I experimented with form at the old railway trail at Hyak, trying to make my motion efficient and automatic. Eventually, I could go the whole way to Stampede Pass Road, 12.4 k, without stopping for any reason, at a super-fast pace, then eat a sandwich, and go back to the start just as fast. My fastest was 25 k in 2:05. (Note that the Olympians do the whole 50 k Birkie in just over 2 hours, but I do not aspire that high.)
I experimented with breathing. Flat trails allowed me to breathe with the rhythm of my poles. Hilly terrain at Cabin Creek (exit 63) required panting on uphills. The more tired I got, the more I panted continuously. My lungs are simply not as strong as other people’s, and so I’ve started asking people what they do. It seems sprints are the answer. More detailed advice would be helpful. I figured the rolling hills at Cabin Creek were sprints. I made gradual improvement. My best time there was just under one hour for a 10 k icy course.
Each of the two weekends before the Birkie, I accomplished a total of 105 k spread over three days. I was consistent in my split times. The Sunday before the Birkie, I did 40 km at Cabin Creek on nicely groomed new snow (Nick is a genius groomer) with a time of 1:10 for each and every 10 k loop, 4:40 h total (includes sandwiches).
Thursday, Feb 22, I traveled to my parents’ house in Superior, WI. Friday, Dad (Allen Anway, bib 35004) and I waxed and tested our wax at the Superior Municipal Forest. Mom made tacos for supper before race day. We chowed down!
Race day, Saturday Feb 24, 2018, Dad’s friend Mike picked us up at 5:00 am. We drove to Cable and waited in the warm car in premium parking. At the exact right time for minimum cold exposure at 0 deg F, we headed up to the little warming house at the start. The other Spirit of 35 skiers were there. I think I recognized one of the guys from Cabin Creek. Dad lined up with the other skiers for the National Anthem, and then the gun went off at 8:15, and zoom! So proud of all of them!
I watched some waves go, wandered around, and then finally shucked my coat into the bag and got in position for wave six, bib 6269. It was 12 deg F, so purple wax was fine. Gun start at 9:55. Keith and I had calculated that I was a pretty good match in speed for the wave, and so I decided to be in the middle rather than near the back of the pack. This turned out to be a mistake. I did no passing for the first 3 k. I was only passed by others, which pissed me off. The snow was slow and terrible, mashed potatoes 2-3 inches deep. Finally, the wave seven skiers were starting to pass, and that REALLY pissed me off. I’m sure I made a strong personal start given the conditions, because I was really working hard to stick with the ones passing me.
After the first feed station, the skiers strung out more, and I got more into the rhythm of the snow. It was slow, but I learned to be ruthless in choosing the less puffy areas of the trail, and to lift my knees a little higher to avoid stumbling. I dropped to herringbone technique up the steeper hills, because there was no glide. Finally, near High Point, I admitted to a skier near me that I was finding it slow going, and she used the same cuss words I had been thinking about to describe the conditions, so that made me feel better. It was 28-30 deg F. The Birkie registered my average speed in the first two sections as a puny 4.3 mph.
I loved the feed stations. I loved the volunteers. I loved my sandwiches, and the orange sections spoke to me at a level I haven’t encountered for a long time. I knew there were seven feed stations, and I counted them as I went. One surprising pleasure was that I had trained with feeds every 10 k, and the race spacing was closer together, so I was repeatedly surprised by what felt like an early feed. Nice!
At the sign that said 33 km from the end, I remarked to a nearby skier that we were one third of the way through the race. She exclaimed, “and that’s the worst section!” She had a special bib for 20+ years, so I commented that she should know, given her many years. She said, “Yes, I DO know, and it IS the worst!” Very definite. Indeed, that point marked an improvement in trail quality and where it became more downhill.
At County Road OO, 27 k from the end, the mashed potatoes snow disappeared! Instead the base was packed tightly, and I could speed up. So, I did. Still panting, but now having more results from the effort. The Birkie registered my average speed increasing to 5.7 mph.
Up and down hills, everything blurred together. There was a second hill with snow-mobile people heckling the skiers. I fell there, but not badly. That was my only fall. Mostly I just tucked and went down, nothing fancy. Mostly I skated up hills, but the steep places I used herringbone without shame.
At kilometer marking 21 to the end I came to an uphill and saw my Dad!!! I put on a burst of speed and shouted, “Dad!” Everyone nearby was alert to the activity and interested in the outcome. I have never caught up with him before, so it was really exciting! We skied together for a little bit and talked to the people around us. Then I took off, and there was a feed station around the corner. Dad was faster than me at the feed station, because of my sandwich habit, and so I had the pleasure of catching up to him again at marker 20. We again skied together a little bit. It was hard to leave him behind. Afterwards, even kilometers later, people chatted to me about catching my father on the trail and how many Birkies had he done? 41, wow! And wasn’t that amazing?? I was pleased that people understood what a treasure he is and treated him so gently.
More feed stations, more miles, more up and down. There was vodka ski hill, and even though a vodka sounded quite nice, I didn’t want to stop my forward motion long enough to partake. Bitch hill had a “Jesus Saves” theme to repent of the cuss words we used going up the hill.
Then Lake Hayward. Flat. Gloriously flat. Automatically I knew what to do because of my work at Hyak. Boom! I fired up to top speed. Each step carried me far, with good rhythm and everything. I amused myself by passing skiers who had passed me in the first five km. Take that! The Birkie registered my average speed during that last segment as 6.9 mph.
Then came International Bridge with all its flags. Skated strongly up the gentle incline of Main Street in Hayward, many cowbells, cheering. Announcer read my name, I waved, more cheers! And finished! Personal best at 6:14. I beat my previous personal best by 1:15. Woot! Third Birkie finish! I guess these new hips work just fine.
After changing clothes and eating soup, Mike and I walked downhill to catch a glimpse of Dad on the way up. Twilight deepened. It started snowing.
Finally, there was Dad, skating at an easy pace up the hill. I shouted. He looked tired. I cried. The announcer read his name over the loud speakers and the crowd roared big approval. He swayed, his balance uncertain. I ran ahead and wormed through the “media only” entrance. Just after he crossed the finish line, I hugged him, and felt like maybe I should go on holding him so he didn’t fall over. Mike carried his gear. Dad and I walked arm in arm up the hill. Dad was the last skate skier to finish, but he finished. Dad’s time was 9:26. His 41st Birkebeiner finish. Wow!
(ed. note: for my money, this is the most amazing photo. This, my friends, is what mental toughness and fortitude look like! Now back to Carol's story...)
Next morning it was time to help Dad shovel out the new snow. Our muscles were not happy about this! But what are you going to do? It was probably good to get moving.