Birkie 2020 - Blue Skies and Fast Trails
2020 marked my fourth Birkie, and it was my favorite year so far! It couldn’t have been a nicer day with blue skies and temps climbing into the 30’s. If you could order the perfect conditions for a late winter day in Hayward, WI, this would be it.
My wife and son dropped me off at the Cable parking lot about 7:30 in the morning, and I arrived at the Start with plenty of time to change, drop my bag, and take my spot in the first starting pen with the rest of the Wave 1 skate skiers. Two minutes later, the gate went up and we were off — but not for the 50km Birkie. The first "sprint" of the day is a 50 meter footrace to the second starting pen. Luckily, everyone took it easy this year, and I didn't see any injuries as we jockeyed for position. The ten-minute wait in the second pen is a good opportunity to chat with other skiers, and the Birkie always attracts a diverse group from around the US and the world, so it's fun to hear a few of their stories. This year, I met a guy who had made his way to Hayward from Sweden, and he told me about all the races on the World Loppet circuit he’s skied in recent years. Another racer completed his first Birkie before I was born, and after today, he will have done his 40th. (I can only hope to still be in this Wave at that age — he was fast!) After one more sprint into the final starting pen, we finally clipped into our skis at our starting positions. A few minutes, later we were on our way to Hayward, just 50km to go!
I started about two-thirds of the way back in my wave and skied a comfortable pace up the power line hills. I really tried to take my time and to remember all the skiing ahead (it's hard to rein in the adrenaline and excitement that first 10km or so). When I made it to the Fire Tower aid station, I looked at my fitness watch and realized I hadn't hit the start button. But, based on the start time and the kilometers I'd already covered, I could tell the pace was fast. Before the race, I told my family that I’d be to OO at 10:15. Due to the great trail conditions, I was so far ahead of schedule my wife arrived just barely in time to catch a glimpse of me crossing the bridge and to call out a quick "Yay! Justin!" as she was still walking up to the trail side. From there, I continued down the trail, thoroughly enjoying the fast section of trail that follows OO (my favorite section of the course). Another 29 km to Hayward....
Earlier this week, I prepared two sets of skis for today based on the weather forecast and the wide range of wax recommendations. On my cold skis, I tried Rex HF Blue with 77 powder, and on my warm/plus skis, I used Fastwax HF 30, structure, and Swix FC7X powder. After testing both pairs on Friday afternoon in conditions that were similar to those expected on the Birkie trail, I chose the warm option. I knew the forecast was for quickly warming temps, and I decided that I'd aim for better skis toward the end of the journey. It turned out to be a good choice! For the first half of the race, my glide was similar to those around me, but as the trail warmed on the second half, my skis really improved. From OO to Lake Hayward, I was gliding better than all those around me, and I was able to make my way through the field. As I came through Mosquito Brook, my wife and son were there to cheer me on -- a surprise as it we had not discussed it ahead of time! At this point, I was still happy with my pace, but it seemed that everyone else was pretty fast, too. It’s difficult to know where you are in relation to the rest of the pack when you’re in the race, so I just focused on keeping my form decent despite some fatigue and on saving a little juice for the remaining big climbs. Finally, I crested the last rise and dropped down to the lake, with it's view of Hayward's water tower like an oasis on the horizon. Only 3km to Hayward!
This was my first time crossing Lake Hayward actually feeling decent. In my first three Birkies, I was basically in survival mode after Mosquito Brook. It was a much different experience today, and I could take in the view as I came down the International Bridge. Main Street was absolutely packed with spectators on account of the beautiful weather, and the cheering crowd was so energizing. My mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, wife, and son all made the trip to watch me, and it as really great to know they were waiting to see me me traverse those final blocks through downtown Hayward. I even had enough left in the tank to pass a few more skiers in the last 200 meters to the Finish Line!
After 2 hours and 40 minutes of skiing, I crossed the finish line in 530th place, and I was happy to see I had managed to improve my positioning at each checkpoint. Thanks to the Birkie Foundation, volunteers, and area communities for putting on another great event!
While Birkie 2020 is in the books, it’s not the end of my ski season quite yet. In two weeks, I'm off to Switzerland for the Engadin Skimarathon! Watch for future blog posts to follow along!