Norway Birken Adventure - Rena to Lillehammer

Birken Norway
Rena to Lillehammer
54 KM – Elevation gain approx 3500 feet
Up to 17,000 registrations
March 21, 2015

Ann and I had planned to ski the Birkebeinerrennet (translation Birkebeiner race) for over 25 years, but we were delayed with our family and careers.  Chris Bean, Robert & Lisa Nadler are all long term ski friends from college, so when they called to finally make our trip a reality we jumped at the chance.  Some might argue that the Vasaloppet is the most historic race as it too stems from historic events in 1505 and is a huge race, however to Ann and I, the legend and incredible Birken race was always the original and the big one.   Imagine that the Boston Marathon with all its history were actually run on the plains of Marathon to commemorate Pheidippides announcing victory in Athens.  As long time skiers it was time to go. 

Legend of the Birkebeiner Race

The race has been skied since 1932 with huge numbers of Norwegians participating each year.  The race honors the 1206 rescue of and 18 month old prince Hakon from an opposing army.  Two of their best skiers are given the task of skiing the baby king to safety over the mountains in a brutal storm.  It is legend and desperate times so the exact story is probably not perfect, but it is clear that Hakon as a grown king later unites all of Norway ending 1000 years of civil war and this ushers in Norway’s medieval golden age.  The famous drawing of the skiers with shield, spear and baby child is
appropriate as they did in fact ski with one long pole which could often be used not only to ski, but also as a spear or other implement (we saw poles with ladles and many other innovations in the museum). The race now regularly draws over 10,000 with up to 17,000 start numbers.  A lot of Norwegians have now carried the baby king to safety.
You have to plan early for these big marathons.  The Vasa sold out in 83 seconds last week and we were uncertain we could get into the Birken race last spring.  However, we found a package that was a terrific location near Sjusjoen called Nordsetter with a nice lodge some logistics, 3 meals and the all important entry, so the 5 of us signed up and booked inexpensive flights.  It always seems easy when you say yes, but we knew it was going to take some planning.  It pays to be a CSU coach if you have to figure out a race of this magnitude as we know how easy it is to mess up logistics, training, health and ski racing.

We decided to stay the first day in Oslo but we should have gone earlier to watch the Holmenkollen as the world cup was in town.  Also, you can ski right from the subway with skis on the train. We did go to see the jump, ski course, museum and more as it’s unique to see a famous venue on some hills just outside of Oslo.  It is an easy subway ride from the center of town as long as you don’t mind sitting next to folks taking their skis and poles out mid day ski.  Business people yes, tourists yes, shopper of course and yes I see the wax is purple klister from the guy next to me.  The first advertisements I see as we get on to the train are about ski racing.  We are at the home of Nordic skiing.   That sort of helps as we lug huge duffle bags, ski bags and Birken packs through the various train stations.
 I have two great friends from school that I had not seen for some years.  Kjell Sobak and Don Skantze.  Kjell was a silver medalist (and 4th) in Biathlon in the Olympics and he won the Vasaloppet.  He also taught me a ton about skiing long ago when it was all a mystery. He knows exactly how to deal with young Americans who could run fast in fall XC, but were still not quite there in XC skiing.  Kjell, what do we wax?  His stock answer.  Read the tube.  We all had a terrific dinner right near the parliament and Kjell gave the 5 of us a private tour of the city which was just fun. You can see Robert and Lisa showing that these sculptures had nothing on US skiers.  From there we went by train and bus to Lillehammer, which had its own challenges even though the trains are superb.
We skied for 4 days before the race.  I realized long before the race that while we were all skiing pretty well in classic, it was not going to be my focus to shave off the last minutes in this race.  Just too many moving
parts and especially this trip was our chance to see so much  skiing and ski history in Norway.  So we skied a ton.  You can ski across these long gradual classic striding hills on perfect tracks with views and beautiful scenery literally forever.  50K, 100K, I am not sure, but I imagine there ware `1000s of Ks so ski if you’re really just kept linking up loops.  There is a GPS on every piston bully in Norway and the app shows you very efficiently what tracks were set in the last hours or days.  While you ski there are signs at each intersection that point to the next town and tell you whether there is food and they had huge maps for those of us without a clue. 
One day we skied to a town called Hornsjo and a neighboring hotel 12 km away for some hot soup and a return ski back.  We were dropped off 2 days prior to the race at the 29K mark and skied to the big ski town Sjusjoen, which sits at about 3000 feet, then up over a small windswept Mt Lunkefjell where Ann found evidence of Ski O, then back home to Nordsetter.  The day before the race we were driven back up to Sjusjoen and skied the final 13km all downhill to the Birkebeiner Stadium- the main venue for the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.  Like the uphills, the downhills are long and gradual, so it is much different from anything we ski on at home.  You must carry the baby king!  Birken requires an 8 pound pack with shirt, windbreaker, pants, hat, mittens and buff, plus whatever else makes up the weight.  Top racers get them pretty skinny, but we wanted to change clothes and carry wax and food, so our packs were a bit larger and we adorned them with various patches, while two of the packs featured dolls of the baby king. 

The big day starts with a bus pickup at about 4.30 AM as it is 2.5 hours to get around the mountains, past Lillehammer, down the Fjord (more of an inlet from the ocean vs. the huge cliffs along the coast)  in a huge line of silent early morning buses and over to the next Fjord heading to Rena.   Now we have to ski back.  The race organization is phenomenal.  We arrive in front of at least 50 swix benches, irons, waxes next to warm drinks and porridge at the venue and of course a lovely tent with a raised wooden floor.  Such luxury.  Of course we argued for days about the changing wax as it was frozen slush down low and powder over hard pack up high.  Then it snowed the night before the race, but not at the start where there is an immediate 14KM (you
reading that correctly) uphill.  Not wanting to be short of kick, we put on the lightest coat of klister possible and covered with blue and violet range stick wax.  Our mistake was both in the klister and warmer wax.  You can actually double pole in the fast frozen tracks and live pretty well for a few Ks with less kick, then go with great skis for the rest of the race which were in the highlands.  Toko green stick base binder and blue or extra blue (viola) would have been a bit better as we were a little slow on the double poling in the high dry powder, but hey with 3 giant hills (14K, 6K, 8K aka low mountains) I was happy to have kick.

Starting long after the Elite waves, we skied up the track the first K and watched the race start.  Therese Johaug (aka number 2 in the world only to Marit) immediately skis off the front and by herself sets a record. But in the men’s race Sunby admits that a non world cup skier cup skier blows his doors off double poling the entire race and leaving him by 10 seconds with 2 KM to go.  "It must have been your skis” says the announcer.  No he says, despite my kick wax, my skis were flying and I caught him on the downhills, he was just much stronger in double poling.  There are just a lot of great skiers in Norway.  We started in waves 2, 11, 13, 14 and 18.  Alas, I was stuck in 14 with Ann in wave 13 as I had skated the American Birkie last year and they discounted my 2 year old time.  At least I could ski up to Ann and say hello to someone in the race.   A quick calculation shows that the beginning of the snake was finishing before the last wave had started, so this spectacular wave of skiers was over 54 km long.  Wow.  I also calculated that if I included my wave 14, I skied past 1850 skiers and had 3 beat me from my wave and one from wave 15 so I certainly exceeded my seed if nothing else.  The rest of our team was actually placed almost perfectly which is the case for most Norwegians.  The race is 6-10 tracks wide, most of the racers are skiing technically well and all the skiers go at the same pace due to their superb seeding.  (I was the renegade
fast skier stuck back as I had not followed their seeding rules, but I just wanted to try the American Birkie skate last year).  Robin Anderson was on our plane & she was the top non elite women’s wave as they have a second top women’s start soon after the men begin.

What I most remember about the race is this vivid image of thousands of skiers winding far up these long hills in a huge snake across the open country side with bright white low mountains and unusual terrain.  It is unique site in a breathless terrain. However, it was a deceptive and exhausting race.  Maybe because I had to change tracks so much, or went a bit too hard, I had nobody to draft at my speed or it was just the long super skiable hills?  You did get some really nice long downhill rest sections and long double poles, so I was a little surprised how tired we all were going up the final climbs.  My short stops for food and drink to sneak past another 50 turned much longer munch fests at the feeds and after 35K as I was just shuffling, but my energy returned after a long flat double pole and at the end it was much easier as the last 13 K are mostly downhill sections to the finish.  I know I could have skied the race a bit faster, but it was just such an epic event with perfect weather, skiers and tracks.  My only minor complaint is that with 8755 mostly
good, aka serious racers who carry goo, they can drop a lot of goo.  I mean 10,000 goos that are mostly in the tracks!  Ouch, you get good at picking up a foot here, there and everywhere.  They have an environmental campaign to reduce litter, but it needs work. 
While endless analysis with my friends suggests a more perfected race could well have been much faster, it is not realistic to think even with my top race and the absolutely perfect luck, I could have taken more than say 10 – 20 minutes off my time.  (wax, less pre-race ski, travel, more training – less work, no drafting in the wind, endless passing, goo packs, bonking for 20 minutes, slowing down on the downhill, forgo my inhaler, did I spill jelly on my skis and maybe the sun was in my eyes).  Regardless, we all skied well, but my 2nd place in master’s nationals at Craftsbury was replaced by 268thplace in my age in the Birken and even 20 minutes faster is still a ways back.  We mostly did make the 25% age group, yippee.  Wow do they have depth.   Ann was 39th and got a mini
trophy.  I was very happy to see her finish as the final downhill was really fast, a bit icy with some ruts and you ski downhill about 4 abreast.  Ann had a partial tear of her medial collateral ligament on Jan 7, so her recovery is astounding. She was just thrilled to ski into Olympic stadium after such an epic journey and was very emotional at the finish.  You could not have asked for a nicer day and better scenery and yes I did look around a lot.  Then a bus ride took us to the famous Hakon hall Olympic hockey venue seating 11,000, showers, ski vendors and the like.  Note I
found electric braking roller skis with a trigger on you pole handle and a fold up 3 pound wax bench that would fit in a ski pole tube.   

Sunday featured another pre- 4 am wake up to make the 5:10 AM Lillehammer - Oslo airport train, but our group was still chatting about the race so the travel, though so the trip was not so bad.   I could go on with stories and details, but it is a terrific place to ski and race and I would highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.  If you are going to the Birken feel free to ask other details.

Coach Bob

A Race Too Far

The last of the NENSA Marathon series was the Sugarloaf Marathon.  I was totally psyched about going up again this year after I had such a good time skiing it last year in really good, and unexpected, conditions.  With more snow and colder temps heading into it I figured the skiing might be even better. 

On Friday a stalwart group of CSUers piled into Tom Simon’s car (Mark Daughty, Robert Faltus, Andy Milne and myself) for the trek to Pat’s Pizza in Auburn for an excellent pre-race dinner (and cheap too!) and then  the Wilson Lake Inn and then the morning schlep up to Sugarloaf from there.  Robert, being the shortest, got relegated to the cheap seats in the back from whence a zinger would be hurled into the conversation every now and then, lobbed like a grenade of ridicule.  That kept the conversation going non-stop for 3 hours as we entered the land of no cell phone service.  I was trying to find out the results of the EHS races in Rumfaaad and its tough up there even though we were driving right past the road to Rumford!

After a reasonably restful night, more so than usual the night before a big race, we headed off to Sugarloaf in the early dawn light.  There was much less snow in Farmington than in my back yard, but as usual driving up the road to Sugarloaf, it started piling up those last few miles before the touring center and it was clearly powder snow upon our arrival.  Now, one of the best features of the Sugarloaf Marathon is the very low schlep factor.  On a scale of 1 – 10 this race is a 2.  Not bad.  Lodge is right there, the stadium is right there.  No muss, no fuss, walk up, drop the skis, go register.  No logistics planning needed whatsoever.  Clinton was already there, having just done the surgical strike by arising at 3:45 for the long drive up from Boston for the race!  Other CSUers were trickling in such as Drew Messinger and Cici Cruz-Uribe up from that hotbed of Nordic skiing, Falmouth, MA, Jody Newton and Gray Holmes and Ari Ofsevit.  CSU made up a significant portion of the field, once again!

I hustled out the door to test my skis, but perhaps more importantly, to test myself.  A week ago, while taking photos at the Westonloppet I tweaked my piriformis or something in there somewhere and was having trouble skiing all week.  Yup, it wasn’t feeling any better and so I went in and Tracey Cote, the Colby coach, switched me to the short race.  I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get a chance to chase Nirmegh (NWVT) or Tom or Mark or Robert.  Last year had been so much fun, but sometimes when you get older you get smarter, at least about some things……  This gave me a chance to get up on the bridge into the stadium and watch the start of the long race with Sugarloaf in all its glory arising behind the stadium.  (See photos posted a week ago.) Fabulous mountain for sure!  Everyone took off, some faster than others and as they disappeared into the woods for lap 1 I went down to get ready for my race.  We took off as some of the faster marathoners were already lapping through.  At the start I was presented with a couple right turns and my butt was not happy going in that direction.  This might be a long short race!  I wasn’t effective at V2 or alt V2 either.  Well, there is always double pole, so I threw that in where necessary and on we went.  V1 was good and going around left turns was good so at least I could go up hill ok.  I settled in.

I’m happy to say that the skiing was truly fabulous with firm powder snow.  Plus, no wind, it was in the mid-20s and so not freezing either.  Hey, we deserved this after the conditions we’ve skied in all winter!  My first no buff race in a long time!    Basically, the story of my race was that I couldn’t hang with anyone so I just cruised along trying to wake up from lack of sufficiently strong coffee.  At this point I thought how happy I was to have moved to the 2 lapper as I was systemically tired.  Andy went by on the long uphill towing a whole group along, including Ari.  They were looking strong and I just moved over to get out of the way and they were gone before long.  The high speed descent was a bit interesting given my injury with its sweeping right bends that normally you step turn around, but that set off alarm bells in my gluteal area and I ended up just steering around it, which in the perfect snow was just fine.  At this point I noticed that Raul Siren was lurking behind me.  Raul and I have had some great races together going back 20-25 years and so now I had a reason to step it up and try to stay ahead of him. 

The Sugarloaf course they now use is really fun and the 2ndhalf of it has lots up smaller ups and downs, many corners to try to maintain speed on and nothing that will kill you aerobically or otherwise.   It wasn’t long and then we were off on lap 2.  On the long uphill Elisa Bradley and Izzy Caldwell caught up.  I was able to hop in behind and hang with them most of the way up the hill before they too disappeared, gapping me where I couldn’t effectively V2.  Once again, on the long fast downhill alarm bells clanged from my butt muscles and then onto the fun part of the course.  I was not moving very fast, but just fast enough to stay ahead of Raul.  When marathon skiers went by I’d hop in for as long as I could to gain, if not a draft, at least some motivation.  I felt and skied better on lap 2 and before long tackled that final nasty little climb into the stadium and I was done.  Not a very inspiring race, but it was great skiing.  I watched Gray and Jody come in and then grabbed my warmups and camera and headed out onto the course to watch the rest of the gang on their 4th lap.  Andy came by still towing Ari and a few others.  Looks like Andy did all the work, but then Ari sprinted around him at the end.  Greg Harkay came up the hill having an excellent race, then Mark came by looking very relaxed and smooth and clearly having an excellent race with Drew right on his heels.  Mark managed to stay ahead at the finish.  A bit later Brett came up the hill and I told him Robert was right behind.  He had thought Robert was further back and so that motivated him to pick it up to the finish.  Robert was chasing but was unable to close the gap by the finish.  Steve Moreau was having a fabulous race in what I believe he said was his first marathon!  Nice!  Cici then came up the hill looking pretty strong.  And then I waited for Tom.  Where was he?  I waited some more but decided maybe I should ski back.  As soon as I got back Clintonwas coming around the corner for his finish looking pretty good for a guy who got up early and drove from Bostonto start his day!  And then more waiting.  Did Tom drop out?  No, finally, he came over the bridge and around the corner into the stadium, totally wasted.  Tom had visited Bonk Cityand dragged himself over the line, barely. 

Inside several CSUers scored prizes for placing in their respective age groups and several scored a Swix hat for being endurance warriers, having completed at least 4 marathons in the NENSA marathon series.  And like that, the season was essentially done.  We piled back into Tom’s car as the sun popped out for a while, feeling very spring-like, and headed for Boston.  Andy graded papers, Mark drove, Robert lobbed one-liners from the back of the bus until he fell asleep from a days hard efforts, I resumed trying to download results of the EHS relays and reading out the awesome CSU results and Tom and Mark bantered in the front.  For a couple of us it had been one race too many.  For others an excellent day.  For all it was one of the best days of skiing of the year in a year with a lot of good ski conditions.

Long day.....

Sugarloaf Marathon Photos

A few photos of CSUers at the Sugarloaf Marathon.  The conditions were unbelievably fabulous for March 21st!  Powder skiing and not cold or windy.  What?  Really?  Yes!

Many good results, several CSUers marching to the prize table and several getting nice raffle prizes too.  Thanks to the Colby Nordic Team (with ex-CSU Jrs. Chris Burnham and Calvin Wight) for putting on this great event!  Results are HERE
50 km start



Gray and Jody


Tom and Clinton
Part of the Gang - Like herding cats

J2 Championships

Last weekend wrapped up the U16 Championships, in Fort Kent. I went as head coach, with Kathy, Maddy, Peter Rayton, Hilary Greene, Hiram Greene, Ryan Toupence, Kiersten Toupence, and Chris Li as my awesome team.  We all took a bus to get there (more on that later), and had a wonderful few days up in the County. That's Aroostook County, for those of you who haven't experienced it.  Fort Kent did a great job with the event, and the racing was fast, furious, and fair.  The Massachusetts Team did pretty well, but the CSUers on the team truly shined. I was very proud to watch all that hard work from the previous 11 months pay off.  Even those who didn't quite meet their outcome goals learned a ton, and appeared to be having a wonderful time.  Each race is just a stepping stone for the next, regardless of the outcome.  

This is the view from the bus in the parking lot in Boxboro, before we drove north. Everyone is happy and smiling and excited.

Up north.

Skate race
The first races of the weekend were the 5k skate races, on Friday afternoon.  Conditions were good, slightly transformed snow that made everything really fast, and the Fort Kent courses are great, rewarding fitness and good skiing.  The kids rose to the challenge, and posted some good results - for the girls, Hannah snuck onto the podium in 3rd, Madeleine took 7th, and Violet leapt into 16th as a first-year J2. Emily, Lydia, and Ella all broke into the top 50, which is great for first-years.  Rebecca managed to pull her quad muscle, but still finished in 55th, displaying great resiliency. Katherine held her own in 72nd, followed by Lucy in 78th and Natalie in 92nd. Chloe unfortunately had an asthma attack, but we had a good discussion on how to help ward those off in the future.  Tough conditions for asthma with the cold air. For the boys, James led the way in 6th, followed closely by Oliver in 8th and Jacob in 12th. Jackson was rebounding from a cold, and still managed 23rd, and Connor popped a top-40, finish 39th! Sam skied well, finishing 54th, followed by his compatriot first-year J2s with Kevin in 77th, Thor in 83rd, and Isaac in 92nd.  Lots of very fast skiers at this race!

Classic race
Saturday morning was pretty chilly for the classic race, but it warmed up nicely by the afternoon, leading to some lounging about in the sun, as the girls took my words to heart, and got off their feet between the two races.  It was so nice to be waxing with hardwax (Toko red, for the interested waxing nerds) in mid-March!  In the girls race, we didn't have the same calibre of results as in the skate, with Hannah, Madeleine, and Violet all slipping back a few places.  Emily and Rebecca finished right next to each other in 35th and 36th, though!  Lydia skied to a consistent top-50, and Katherine had a great race, moving all the way up to 54th, followed right behind by Ella in 55th - Ella had never classic skied before this year!  Chloe got a handle on her asthma, and managed to finish the race comfortably ahead of her pal Lucy.  Emma also finished the race, despite her wrist hurting, and Natalie skied very well too.

On the boys' side, the CSUers showed that they've been paying attention to the how-to-classic-ski manual, putting James in 2nd and Jacob in 5th!  Impressive results, but their teammates also performed well, with Oliver in 20th and Jackson in 23rd, followed by Sam in 51st, and Kevin and Connor in 62nd and 63rd. Thor moved up to 76th, and Isaac closed on one of his competitors.

Skate sprint
In the afternoon, the skiers raced a 1.2km skate sprint. This was a one-and-done sort of deal, with waves of 4-5 skiers (there weren't full contingents of midwestern skiers, so some of the later waves only had 4 skiers instead of 5) starting every 30 seconds.  Your overall time is what counts, but having a wave start does give you some sense of how you're doing.  I'm getting tired of listing all the results, because you can look them up, but I have to give a shout-out to the boys for putting three in the top 10! Jackson took the silver medal, Jacob was 6th, and Oliver 10th! We continued to show better results all the way down the list, and I was really impressed with the speed, power, and finesse these guys and gals were demonstrating.

In the girls race, Hannah just snuck into 10th, and Lydia and Emily both popped great races, making the first page of the results. Lydia's first top-30! It was exciting to watch so many of my Massachusetts skiers leading their waves over the bridge and into the woods. Lucy and Chloe also both deserve a shout-out, leaping up the results list into 56th and 58th, huge improvements over the distance races! Emma not only finished the race, but also put on a good show, leading her wave for most of the race, and moving way up the results list.

The final race of the weekend was the relay. This was mixed-technique, mixed-gender, going classic-girl, classic-boy, skate-girl, skate-boy.  This is always my favorite event to watch, and our teams skied great. The first team, consisting of Madeleine, James, Hannah, and Oliver, skied into 2nd place overall! Very exciting.  Our second relay team also busted into the top 10, in 8th place (Niku, Jacob, Violet, and Jackson).  Our other teams skied really well, and I loved watching and cheering for everyone.  I saw some really gutsy skiing out there, with the athletes laying it all on the line and seeing what they've got to give.

In the overall, we had some stellar results, as you'd guess from the consistency that these athletes demonstrated over the weekend.  Three top-20s for the girls, with Hannah (5th), Madeleine (18th), and Violet (20th)! Emily's consistency got her into 35th, followed closely by Lydia in 37th. Wait, I wasn't going to report all the results.  Go look it up! For the boys, I've got to give a shout-out to James (6th) and Jacob (7th), for their super consistent skiing all weekend.  Oliver (13th) and Jackson (15th) also made it into the top 15! Boys overall.

For all the results, go here.

Coach Maddy enjoying lunch in the sunshine.

James: more excited by a silver medal, or bagged lunch?

Coach Kathy watching the sprints from VIP positioning.

Three CSU gentlemen in the top 10 for the sprint.

I didn't know that rooms could get this messy.

When you do the room check at night, they're generally all empty until you find all 42 kids in a single room, having a dance party. Watching this room empty out was like watching a clown car.

Team Massachusetts!

Silver medal relay team, made up of CSUers!

So then we tried to go home, and the bus couldn't quite handle the snow that was falling. We got stuck on a few hills, tried repeatedly on one of them, and ultimately got stranded in Presque Isle (after four hours of driving) in a mall, with the bus stuck in the parking lot, waiting for a tow truck to un-stick the bus, and some plows to clear the roads a bit. We were worried we'd have to spend the night, but luckily it stopped snowing and the roads were cleared well enough for us to safely make it home. Huge thank you to Patti, the owner of the mall, who kept it open an extra 3 hours while we waited out the storm. Not only was she super friendly and helpful, but she bought us all Chinese dinner as we waited. She's what we call a travel angel.

The boys found some all-natural snacks.

One of the attempts to help out the bus.

A rousing game of duck duck goose while hanging out at the mall.

All in all, it was a great trip up to the County. I saw some great racing, I saw people learn how to deal with not-such-great racing, and the weekend was run superbly by the organizers.  I could have done without the 5:30am arrival at my house, but hey, we play a winter sport, and sometimes weather happens in winter.  Everyone made it home safely, and a good time was had by all.  Thank you Team Massachusetts for being so awesome, and good luck at EHS!