Just A Birkie Story- Not a call for help
by Jeff Bolte
A dislocated elbow on Memorial Day 2012 called into question the ability to ski at all by the time the season arrived. Healing progressed well and if ever there was a year to enter the Prince Haakon 12k, this was it. The Korteloppet deadline had passed and it did not feel like the elbow would have been ready for 23k anyway. Recovery issues had really limited the time on skis this season.
The skis for Prince Haakon were Fischer RCS Cold classics. Kick zone prep started with Toko binder going on with heat. The kick wax of the day would go on at the car before I'd get on the bus. Its "only 12k" so a cold application should hold up if it was layered well. Glide wax was Fast Wax High Flouro Tan. On race day it was 23 degrees at the parking lot with 27 predicted. Fresh snow was down with new snow falling. Swix VR 45 went on over the binder (for the warmth to come)followed by a colder wax on top. The skis took the wax well from being in the warm car.
On the test loop near the start line, I had zero grip for kick. Something's wrong here and they're calling the Haakon skiers to the first of the three start pens. There was killer glide in the track. I got the VR 45 out of my pocket and tried like mad to cork it in to the cold skis. The wax just glopped up. The good arm won't spread it with more pressure on the cork. There was no time to get into the heated tent and get the skis warm enough to take the wax. The glopping application continued. With no follow up test I penned up with the Haakon wave skiers.
I had no idea what I was getting in to except knowing there would be pack skiing. What was known is that Haaken is not an "easy" course just because it is short. No worries there. I hung way back in the wave at the start. The flags went up and we oozed out of the start at walk speed with skis tip to tail. I was a beginner once so I get it. The track on the trail acts exactly the same as the test track except I have a solid kick. The walk pace adds up to a lot of little strokes when it lasts all the way to the Power Lines 2.5k down the course. The walk pace was spread three skiers wide across the trail with no room to pass up hill, down, or flat. Being rude to achieve the pass is not fair to the other skiers that do not yet know about race etiquette and passing. It was what it was, and it was slow. This is not going so well. I was going to fly when I got loose!
At the Power Lines I jumped out on the fluff and shot past a bunch of the field both uphill and down. It was a short flight.
The triple wide walk resumed on the Birkie Classic Trail as the elevation gain began. This stretch had a couple of tougher down hills with the proverbial "luge runs" in them. At the top, the inexperienced skiers stacked up like penguins on the edge of the iceberg waiting for one to fall or get pushed off the edge. Knowing the drill and how the skis behave in luge runs, I butted in and flew down the hill while the spectators spectated. I have not forgotten that I was the spectator when I first encountered a luge run on Noquemanon 2009. Down hilling in a pack was not completely new to me either, just leave some room to bail out if needed.
As the Haaken course joined the Korte trail there was a gentle series of rollers and shallow grades for most of the first kilometer. I hammered the double pole to move along down the skate deck or in track as room allowed. I'd had enough of the slow stuff! The skaters were suffering with that new snow and my double pole pace hung in there with them on the flats.
I never did break free of the casual touring skiers so I had to hold the proverbial lid on it in track most of the time. All I wanted was my own touring pace of around 8-10 k per hour.
Many of the skiers around me were in way over their heads when it came to the tougher hills with turns in them as the 13 kilometer marker was passed. My trip wasn't squeaky clean either. I had to hit the rough lumpy stuff outside the track along the edge of hills four times to avoid fallen skiers; eventually joining them on the ground three times. I ran clean in the rough stuff past the first fallen one so I could do this as often as needed, right? A chain reaction crash began on a gentle hill out ahead of me. All I could do was bail out right into the messy stuff. I went down as a ski tip buried. Outer edges bit in twice more trying to turn at speed in the rough stuff. I avoided the fallen skiers but I went down too. No, it's not a case of starting a hill with a fallen skier lying on it. They had cleaned the tough part or they were running good but fast almost at the bottom.
Most of the touring skis I've been on do not run reliably straight out of track when evenly weighted and skied flat on a polished surface. A typical snowplow will run faster than the skier's comfort zone so the hill skis the skier. Skis wobble and edges catch regardless of technique. The speed is beyond anything in which the new skier has felt in control. Been there, done that, fallen flat, I get it.
So how did the kick wax hold up? Remember, it's "only 12 K." On Friday, the radio had the correct wax recommendations for all brands. These were based on in track skiing, which is what one would expect. I probably ripped all the kick wax off in that sharp, fresh snow out of track on the Power Lines hills. There was still a kick but it was really precise in the polished track. The kick works because basic drills are part of every recreational trip. Having skied a lot of K's on just the Toko binder, I know it works alone in a reasonably wide range of temperatures. The binder would ice up on the climbs just a little if it was a ski up or a herringbone stroke. However, there were some maneuvers in the luge runs that put additional wear on that kick zone which concerned me. Had the VR 45 been layered with heat, the wax maybe holds up with all the out of track time in fresh snow. There wasn't room to do anything but go easy so a tiny little kick was sufficient. Being in the "Tail End Charlie wave," the entire trail was showing wear. If there was track, it was rock solid and lightning fast.
Starting maybe 200th th among the 260 classic skiers in the wave, I finished 124th with a hideous time of just under 1:50:00 for 12k. Looking back, skiing from the front of the pack I'd have been somewhere behind the rabbits. However, it would not take us sub-rabbits long to catch the wave of Korte classic skiers out ahead and return to the slow stuff.
There's a bib and a finisher's pin on the wall. It was my fist Birkie event: Prince Haakon. I had fast skis, a workable kick wax, and skiing skills were at their peak for the season. All that stuff made no difference; I couldn't use it! The clown show in ski "racing" rolls on - squashing my Prince Haaken puppy. Trouble is, I'm the one at the wheel driving the Clownmobile.
As for race events in 2014, I still love the idea of a long, supported event and expect to enter some.
As for Birkie week 2014, I'll be around as a spectator and participant. Look for me in the wooden ski event with another prize from my racing past, bib # 1313.