. . . . . . Rezac pips Brink (United Bakeries) by 1 second after 54km
Well, it’s now all over! 14000 men and 1000 women can get on with trying to patch up their relationships after 6 months of training and domestic dereliction of duty.
Yes, that’s right! The cold war is over, well at least for a few months in any case. The Birkebeiner is done and won’t return for another 361 days. The majority of housewives and house-husbands all over Norway will be relieved to get their partners back.
6 months in the doghouse is a long time for anyone and I should imagine that the relief is mutual as ski fanatics alike can now move back home, pretend it’s all over, and gradually begin to build up again for next year.
The Birkebeiner: A Historical Perspective
So, as if the Grenader historical perspective was not far fetched (previous blog), how does the story of the Birkebeiner line up in comparison? Pretty good in all truth. This time we have to go back about 800 years in time to the civil war in Norway.
Around the year 1200,
Norway was very much a divided country. The Birkebeiner party was formed to depose King Magnus V. The Birkebeiner was a typical lawless pauper wearing shoes of birch bark (Birkebeiner) settling on the Swedish border. They survived by pillaging rich settlements. Many of the Birkebeiners turned out to be mercenaries from Sweden and even some from England too (hooray!). The opposition were the Baglers and civil war erupted and continued for decades. Kings came and went and things only really came to a head when King Sverre kicked the bucket. Sverre had managed to take control of most of Norway, but on his passing the Birkebeiners began to lose power. Two years later Sverre’s successor King Haakon son of Sverre also kicked the bucket leaving a void to be filled. Haakon’s successor was Haakon son of Haakon (of course). However, Haakon was only 1 year old and a target for the Baglers to remove the pretender from the throne. The Birkebeiners smuggled Haakon son of Haakon to safety in a dramatic passage across the mountains on skis to save the young infant and future king. In order to commemorate this astounding feat the Birkebeiner ski race was inaugurated in 1932. As a symbol of the young pretender to the throne all competitors must carry a ruck sack weighing 3.5Kg, the approximate weight of Haakon son of Haakon. In todays money this nicely translates into the weight of a six pack of beer. However, extreme conditions can be encountered on the mountains and some clothing and other provisions are advisable.
Back to the Future
As of 2011, Birkie fever has really kicked in. Back in October of 2010, the race opened for registration and 15000 places were sold out in only 18 minutes. I had been fortunate enough to register in time. For most, the Birkebeiner is the big goal for the skiing season. For yours truly my big goal had come and gone in the form of the Grenader and I was now in such a position as to relax and hopefully enjoy the hysteria. My goal for this year was to break through the 4h 30m barrier, which would constitute a significant improvement on last year and a vast improvement from my first attempt (5h 59m). However, nothing ever goes to plan with the Birkie and so it was to prove here. Two days before the event I noticed that the sole of my Madshus Nanos was starting to peel away from the shoe. Not again! This was the 3rd time since I had heavily invested in Madshus equipment (to the tune of about 800 spondoolies) that I would have to return the shoes for the same problem. This was on top of having to return some dodgy Nanoclassic skis with the coating peeling off left right and centre, also currently doing so again. Madshus make some great gear but unfortunately it is not particularly robust. This maybe okay for the elite who can change their gear at a whim, but I can’t afford to change even on an annual basis. Fortunately Milsukern agreed that it was a fault of the manufacturer and exchanged the boots for a new model. However, this meant a quandary. Should I go with worn-in Alpina boots weighing in at an extra kilo, or should I risk the new boots and blister city? Who would possibly be so stupid as to do the Birkie with new boots? Well I thought it might be worth the risk knowing how comfortable the Nanos are and opted to go for it, but to take a reserve pair as contingency. This unfortunately meant having to ditch my 1Kg of beer that I carry over Raufjell, normally to be opened at the finishing line to celebrate the rescue of Haakon son of Haakon. A tough decision but I couldn’t risk having to quit the race due to chaffing and new boots.
If getting up for the Grenader in the middle of the night wasn’t early enough, a 02:30 rising was needed to make the bus to the starting venue, Rena. Some shut-eye was possible this time around and arrival at Rena occurred just as dawn was breaking at 6 am. Start number was collected and the bus then continued to the start zone.
A quick reconaissance showed that conditions were going to be great for once and also prove vmjarl correct in his prediction of the weather and conditions. Temperature at Kvarstad had been -25C and had kept the tracks in good shape, though temperatures were due to rise considerably with the appearance of the sun. The starting area was enshrouded in mist and I made my way to the Swix booth to gain some last minute waxing tips. They advised VR50 grip so I opted for a slightly harder VR45 anticipating that I could scoot over the mountains before it got considerably warmer with a need for the softer wax. This was a good call in retrospect and allowed me to keep some reasonable glide.
I met Marius from Team 2 and he looked in good shape. He was raring to go and had the advantage of an early start from Wave 2. I was in Wave 12 and was starting almost an hour later. In one hour conditions can change drastically so I was hoping that things would remain stable as I applied grip wax to my skis outside the bus. Without knowing it I had travelled with work colleague Anne and twin on the same bus. I bumped into her twin first, not knowing that Anne had a twin, and had a long chat. Her twin was rather bemused and boarded the bus again rather confused. All became apparent as I boarded the bus to find not one, but two Annes on the bus!
Temperatures were steadily rising and were about -10C prior to race start. Whilst waxing my skis I’d noticed a fellow competitor had set the rill on his skis the wrong way! This means that water in the snow would be directed back under the skis as opposed to away from the ski as designed. Having experienced giving advice to people in highly excitable/pressure circumstances before, I opted to avoid tackling the issue in this case. As at Ringkollen, my United Bakeries regalia was attracting attention and people on the bus obviously envisioned that I was some kind of ski wizard and came over in their hoards to unwisely ask Johnny Foreigner for waxing tips.
Yet Another Farce
At the starting point for Wave 12 I met another United Bakeries debutant, Karianne. Karianne was approx 20 yrs my junior and her youth shone through as she seemed eager to try and get to the front of the wave for a better start. We had both turned up at the last minute and it seemed an impossibility to advance from our positions near the back of the field. Karianne and I appeared to be evenly matched having finishing times within 3-5 min of each other in 3 recent big events. Unfortunately for Karianne who was standing behind, I was still faffing getting unclothed when the starting pistol went. Not one to learn, I’d got off to yet another disastrous start and annoyed my teammate in the process as she had to side-step and move beyond my frantic efforts to get dressed and start the race. Still I could comfort myself that my start was superior to last year when I’d stood on the starting line and suddenly realised that my ankle time chip was missing. I had packed it onto the bus which was subsequently on it’s way to the finishing post whilst I stood at the starting line. This caused a panic and a mad dash to the start tent to get a replacement chip and I just about made the start for my wave. At least this year there was not too much to worry about since the starting mat that triggers timekeeping is some 200m further on, and is what determines start time. However, I was right at the back of Wave 12 as we left Tingstadjordet in the fog, 280m above sea level. Unlike Ringkoll-løpet this predicament was of my own making.
On a race as demanding as the Birkebeiner it is often advisable to break up the race into digestible pieces. There were three mountains to surmount and it was going to be important to pace myself and not get carried away with what the other skiers were doing. My overall goal was 4h 30m. To get this I would need to get to Skramstadsætra approx 10 min faster than the year before in a time of 53 min.
This involved an initial climb of 640m to Skramstadsætra at the 9km mark. I could see Karianne in the distance & focussed on catching her after my disastrous start. Things were going well and just before Skramstad I passed Karianne. It had taken me almost 7-8km to get through the herds of skiers to make up for my lacadaisical beginning. Karianne had said that she was strong on the inclines, a noteable weakness for me, and I was beginning to doubt her claim. However, she was to prove me wrong later in the race. I advanced to Skramstad in a time of 53:08. As soon as we’d started the ascent we climbed above the mist that had enshrouded the starting area at Tingstadjordet. It was great weather, the sun was coming up and I was going to have to find a use for the shades. It was starting to get warm in the tracks and I deliberately held to the tracks on the left to keep more in the shade and get better grip for my moderately hard grip wax.
The gradual climb was demanding a lot of diagonal technique with some double pole with kick interspersed. Grip was pretty good, though I could have focused a little more on technique to get more out of the glide phase. The climb continued through forest over Dølfjellet (820m over sea level) at the 13km mark before descent and a well earned rest down to Dambua (760m) at 15km. Glide was ok, though many complained afterwards of slow conditions. We were catching some of Wave 11 & even Wave 10 in front of us. However, many had started to breakthrough from Wave 13 too.
From Dambua we climbed into more open terrain above the tree line. Technique varied between double pole with kick & diagonal stride. On such a long haul variation is important to give key muscle groups a rest, something I was to discover in the later stages. The wind became stronger on reaching the summit, but was not problematic as some had experienced. The summit of Raufjell is about 885m over sea level at the 20km mark. 34km left, but at least the worst of the ascent was behind us. The next 6-7km was composed of a gradual descent to Kvarstad and I flew past Nysætra at a cruising speed of 40km/h. We were now out of the wind being back into the forest again. The atmosphere was starting to ramp up with people having camped out overnight lining the tracks. They were beginning to get into the swing of things and were making a day of it. The atmosphere was starting to elevate the nearer we got to Midtfjellet and cow bells were to be a constant accompaniment over the next 20km.
Generally the final mountain of the three is what I experience to be the toughest part of the race, and today was to be no exception. Previously I had started in later waves and experienced that many of the less gifted participants had started to hit the wall at this stage. This is where I tend to give encouragement to those suffering, knowing only to well what goes through the mind of someone on the verge of a complete physical & mental breakdown (see Holmenkollen skimarathon (sic) blog). A few words of encouragement can mean all the difference to a struggling individual and can actually pep one up to make that trip down to the cellar for those final reserves. However, Wave 12 was different to previous years in that most seemed to be avoiding hitting the wall, at least until some time later.
My time at Kvarstad was 2h 31m, only 16 min outside ”Merke” (trophy time). Not bad I thought. However, on the climb up to Midtfjell I found that it was me that was in need of my own words of encouragement. It was at the bottom of Midtfjell when my problems arose. I knew that something was amiss when Karianne appeared and accelerated past proving that she was after all a master of the uphill. My lactic acid equilibrium was beginning to get seriously imbalanced in my right quad muscle. Regretting not having stocked up on Ringer electrolyte I made sure I got my fill at Kvardstad drink station in addition to a quick banana. This was equivalent to closing the stable door after the horse had bolted and I began to slow down as anaerobic threshold was breached. Too rapidly lactic acid had started pissing out into the bloodstream and the next to go was my left calf muscle. The agony was beginning to increase and I haltered further with a reduced diagonal stride until this too became unbearable. When the right calf muscle began to deteriorate I went over to double pole with kick in order to get over Midtfjell. Despite battling against the cramp, the pain, and grimacing like a constipated trucker I was managing to just interact with the spectators who were having a whale of a time. From time to time as I struggled by, I’d put in a request for a Mexican wave which would be duly obliged. At least someone was enjoying themselves, and it was taking my mind away momentarily from the cramp.
I knew in advance that if I made it to the top of Midtfjell I would be in the clear. Furthermore, Halgeir from the team would be waiting to dish out the magic elixia which was going to turn me from Olive Oyl into Popeye. Halgeir had arranged to spot us drinks for the team beforehand. I knew that he was going to be positioned at Midtfjell (910m over sea level) at the 34km mark, approx 6km from Sjusjøen. I shifted into the right hand tracks in preparation of what was to come. As we approached the races highest point, I caught a glimpse of a yellow beanie. It was Halgeir. He handed over a half litre of luke warm coffee-cola mix which was a true godsend. This was 500m before the penultimate drink stop and I was able to consume the nectar on the short downhill stretch and bypass the pit-stop.
Now reinvigored I knew that approx 6km of double poling was all that stood in my way before the final descent from Sjusjøen. Double poling was a relief as it meant I could alleviate the cramp in my legs. The left quad & hamstrings were doing ok, but the other muscles were contracting as and when they liked, triggering sheets of pain that left me cursing under my breath.
At Midtfjellet the party really comes to life with hundreds of people camped in on the sidelines having a great time. Signs encouraging friends, relatives, colleagues and participants were everywhere. As were bivvys and barbecues cruelly billowing out sensory aromas of all kinds to ravished skiers. Volunteers on the side lines were taking it on themselves to feed participants in need of revitalisation with offers of bananas, chocolate and various energy drinks. The later Waves at the back tend to get offers of aquavit on their way in to Sjusjøen, not recommended on the steep descent considering the battering the tracks normally have taken after several thousand participants.
1km before Sjusjøen I heard people shouting my name from the masses on the sidelines. I looked to the side with pain scarred on my face to see 4 cheerful faces egging me on. Not quite sure who they were (Arnhild?) I smiled and thanked them for their support. Whoever, they were I was surprised that they’d recognised me disguised with shades and club regalia. It must have been the constipated trucker look that gave the game away. Regardless, this heartwarming gesture was taken onboard and proved to be a big help. I stocked up on the last round of energy drink at the final pit-stop Sjusjøen. From Kvarstad to Sjusjøen I’d lost nearly 15 min vs time for “Merke” (trophy qualification) and signed in at 3h 46m.
The End Game
The descent from Sjusjøen can be quite hairy depending on what state the tracks are in. The final part of the race involves considerable time spent in either the hockey position or in double poling. Starting in the later Waves, one normally encounters the less gifted skiers rolling around with cramp eating sugar snow. This obstacle course makes the descent particularly challenging. Fortunately conditions today were reasonably good and on this occasion there was only 1 skier struggling after a wipeout. He was easily negotiated even with the severe cramps I was receiving. My aim from here on in was to simply gun it and avoid ploughing (braking speed) altogether. In any case the lactic acid build up in my legs had made ploughing virtually impossible. The first few kms of descent were handled relatively easily with speeds of up to 50km/h, some 20km/h behind those using powder for glide! With 7km to go, the downhill gets quite rapid and the tracks disintegrate. Many in front (chicken!) had previously ploughed the tracks into sheets of ice. Up until this point I had asked people in front to politely keep to the right as I flew past at an accelerating rate, but on this stretch there were no options available. The two people in front were ploughing for all they could and with me behind in hockey position and rapidly bearing upon them, something had to give. At the last minute I opted to plough through gritted teeth as seering pain shot through my legs in another violent cramp attack. On negotiating a tight bend on a sheet of ice at 90 degress, I managed to slip through past the chickens and double poled for all I was worth to try and steer out of further trouble.
I began to count down the km left signs, and with about 1500m to go I could hear the stadium and speaker over the tannoy. I also knew that the cameramen would be lurking at the top of the hill on the way into the stadium to capture my misery and pain-staken grimace. I made sure my start number was available, freshened my breath, combed my hair and licked my eyebrows to get into a photogenic sense. I then promptly ruined it all by doing an impression of bambi on ice on a relatively flat stretch and got a faceful of snow. The shades had to be removed in order to see where I was going as they were now full of the white stuff. There was a risk of a rather than less cool picture being taken near to the finish. Fortunately I’d gotten away with it this time and no paparazzi had been on hand to capture my face in the snow. Of the 4 final pictures taken all show a rather discomforted skier grimacing away in pain, definitely not a smile.
Making it into stadium at the end of the Birkebeiner is always a treat as the crowd roars people in. I crossed the line and celebrated with my usual victory roar in return. I’d crossed the line in a time of 4h35m, slightly outside my goal, but in a time I could be proud of. On analysing the results I saw that I was only 35min behind merkekrav (Trophy time!): doable next year? That would be really something to hit the Merke. To go from nothing to the skiers ultimate in 3 years would be a fantastic achievement, especially for someone that didn’t start skiing until well into adulthood. During the last couple of years I’ve improved by 10-13% p.a. and a similar improvement would put me within striking distance. However, a start in Wave 12 would not be adventitious. Of the 800 or so that started in Wave 12 this year only a handful made the Merke. I would also need to use powder glider, improve diagonal stride and get my act together to start at the front of a wave, plus get off to a good start. Reviewing my last few calamitous starts I’d really need to pull my finger out of my arse.
After the race and a quick beer and shower it’s always fun to scan the results board and meet up with people in Håkons Hall. I met Simon, Engelski junior XC coach, who seemed pleased and notably impressed that I’d been able to predict his time in advance. Thanks to the new XC Ranking system I was now a ski prophet and was able to impress all and sundry by not telling them to bother with the race as I knew their times in advance. I also met up with vmjarl in Håkons hall. Vmjarls is the Norwegian equivalent of Michael Fish, BBC weatherman and legend. He was a bit disappointed with his time being 19 min outside Merke. Still for someone 20 yrs my senior he has one hell of a motor, as regularly proved during our rollerskiing intervals during the Autumn. Merkekrav for the 65-69 group was 4h32m this year, giving me a potential alternative route to attain the sought after Merke. If I could try and maintain current physical condition for 20 years, why I would almost breeze the Merke in 2031. In any case I am sure vmjarl was well chuffed as this time he had hit the spot with his weather prediction for the 15000 race-goers, meaning that those not hitting the Merke needed to find another scapegoat for their failure.
Goals for next season are still being formulated. My intention is to skate-ski out the rest of season. Skarverennet in 2012 is tempting, a skate-ski race of 38km, with a brutal start. Grenaderen will be there again. If I meet my goal of sub 7h in the Grenader, Merke in the Birkie should be within touching distance and could even take care of itself.
For the record:
Marius 3h 27m
Anne twin Berte 6h06m
Elvis 3h 05m
Gunnar 4h 41m
Culture minister Anniken 5h58m
British Team athletes
Andrew Musgrave 2h58m
Simon Platt 3h29m
Rosamund Musgrave 3h5419m
Fiona hughes 3h33m