Fever Preview #5: Hayward Elite Talk “Birkie”

February 25, 2010

Three Elite Wave Racers with Hayward and Birkie Experience

John Bauer (photo: Toko)
John Bauer (photo: Toko)

John Bauer has lived in Hayward five years and has raced the Birkie for six.  As a 2002 Olympian in Salt Lake,  Bauer placed 12th, 19th, and 33rdin the distance races, and 5th in the relay.  He has been a member of the Rossignol team for 20 years, and tough he is still strongly competitive, his family has taken over a large part of his life which used to be filled with ski training and racing.

“With kids, I haven’t quite figured out how to train and recover quite like I used to. . . .so I haven’t done as many races as I would have liked this year.”

“I’ve been racing,” said Bauer, “but I’m definitely not expecting to win – I’d love to, I love skiing and I’ve always been geared to that, but then you can’t do that forever, so you have to change your focus.”

Instead, Bauer says he tries to “still keep the skiing fun without contending. . . I’m still competitive with myself, more than anything.”

Brian Gregg

Brian Gregg has lived in Hayward for four years, done the Birkie as many times, and though he says that he spends a surprisingly small amount of time on the trail in the winter (due to his racing and travel schedule) he does get to know the trail very well by running on it in the summer time.   In order to freshen up on his memory of the course, Gregg says he has “been in Hayward the past 3 weeks focusing on my Birkie preparation and have skied the entire course several times.  I incorporate my intervals so that I have the chance to ski key portions of the course at race speed.”

Gregg’s results have been 19th in ‘07, 5th in ‘08 and 4th in ’09.  When asked if his next goal was the podium or a win this year, Gregg replied, “A strong field is racing this year. Bryan Fish and CXC do a great job making sure we have the fastest skis on the course so that will help.  I am healthy and feeling strong and the podium is my goal.  I will be racing to win but a lot can happen over 50km.”

Kristina Owen is also a member of CXC who lived in Hayward for two years before recently moving back to Houghton, Michigan.  While living in Hayward she trained almost every day on the Birkie trail, starting from “OO”, and that was when she began to enter the race as well.  In her first year she was a solid 8th place, but last year she took 15th, a result she wasn’t thrilled about.  This year she will be trying to “redeem” herself, and though she couldn’t specify an exact finish place, she said she would “like to be in the top group.”

Kristina Owen leads Evelyn Dong and Rebecca Dussault through "OO"

Race Course Conditions

Owen skied some of the trail last week and is excited about the conditions, “It’s awesome this year. . . .  It’s in good shape, it’s looking good.”

Bauer agrees, and is glad that this year the conditions will provide for a very fair race.

“The track this year is really hard, really firm. We’ve had really good snow, but we’ve also had a little rain with that, and so the whole trail is pretty compact, very, very firm. . . . And in that way it should be a consistent experience for everyone skiing, from the first to the last.”

Birkie start: Get there on time - and try to relax a little!

Sage Advice

Bauer said that the word of caution he would give to racers with less experience would be to not get overly excited.

“It’s a long race, so I would say don’t get too riled up at the start. The Birkie start is, in my view. . . notoriously chaotic.  A lot of people go too hard, and it’s a long race. . . it’s too bad, so many start out [too fast] and they really slow down, and that’s not a fun way to struggle in at the end of an event –  cramping and things like that. . . ”

Though it is hard to pace in a mass-start race like the Birkie, Bauer says that the way you ski will help you conserve energy.

“In the typical event, I ski relaxed and there are so many transitions where I can catch people, from keeping the speed going a little bit better than others. ..  That’s what you really have to focus on in the Birkie trail more than anything – the trail isn’t that hard – yeah, it’s hilly and for some it is a challenge, but from my perspective it’s about some of the climbing, but it’s also about skiing smart and skiing the transitions really well and keeping the speed up. And that’s hard if you’re skiing in a crowd, if you catch someone and have to slow down because they’ve already hit the hill. . .  but if you can ski transitions well it’s the key to this race.”

Gregg has these tips to share with the less experienced racer:

1) “Getting to the start takes longer than you think.  Give yourself plenty of time.”

2) “Also, the snow is cold and dry so wax colder than you think.  Make sure you have some Toko Cold Powder in your   wax box.”

Gregg also refers to a handy online tool, which allows a person to view a simulation of the race course, called “Race my Race.”

Owens adds:

1)“The high point is at 14 kilometers and after that you’re mostly going downhill, which is a nice psychological thing to know.”

2) “Remember that it’s a long race and that it’s much easier to pick people off then to go out hard and blow up.”

After bonking in both of her previous races, Owen says that she is going to do one thing different in her own preparation this year:

“Eat. Eat so, so much the days before, and I’m going to be so much better at making sure I hit all my feeds, and eat a few Gu’s out there, and just fuel.”

Favored –and not so favored – Sections of the Course

Gregg says his  favorite part of the race is coming into Hayward’s Main Street, because “The contrast of the quiet open lake to the roar of spectators on Main Street is pretty cool.”

For Owens, the best piece of the course is “Coming down mosquito brooks – it’s a rolling downhill. . . you don’t realize you’re losing so much elevation, but you are, and you just feel like a rock star.”

Owens also adds that she enjoys the famous “Bitch Hill”, because even though she is racing hard she still enjoys the “Bitches of Bitch Hill” who stand on the side and play loud music, dance, and give out hugs and pins.

Owens points out that, though many racers talk of this part of the course with dread, the hill is actually more of a psychological wall than anything.

“Theres about one big hill every five kilometers and they all have names, but [Bitch Hill] is the one everyone talks about.  It’s ‘cause it’s at the end – the ones at the beginning – going up to the high point – those ones are actually a lot bigger, but you’re fresh so they don’t hit you as hard.”

A strong climber, Bauer says,  “I particularly enjoy the start, once we enter the woods and get off of the powerline, from about 5km to the “OO”, the 23 kilometer point, that’s my favorite section.  There’s a lot of climbing leading up to “OO” and the pace picks up there . . .”

Bauer said if he had to choose a least favorite section (a tough decision, because he thinks the whole trail is great) it would come after the hills, with the lighter piece of track that led to Mosquito Brooks.

Owen’s least favorite part of the course is Duffy’s Climb,  “It’s right before you hit Hayward. It’s the last hill. . . but no matter what, it’s close enough to the finish where you’re going just about as hard as you can – it’s painful!”

For Gregg the hardest part is Lake Hayward because, he says, “It is wild that you can see the finish but are still 3km away.”

Birkie spectators cheer in the finishers

The Birkie Weekend Fever

Gregg’s favorite part of the weekend is the race itself, but he says he also enjoys “everything.”

“The craziness of the expo at Telemark and standing in line to pick up your race packet is fun.  Every year my family comes to race and cheer and we go to the pasta feed at the Catholic Church in Hayward.  Some pasta feeds try to just make money, these church ladies are competitive in their desert making…which is awesome.  We all stay in the cabin at Cresthill and it is fun to get ready for the big race as a family.”

As far as the major influx of people into the little town, Gregg says he doesn’t mind a bit.

“Living in the small quiet community of Hayward it is fun to see the town explode with cross country skiers and all the excitement about cross country skiing.  The long weekend sees the real big surge, but race is part of the community all year.”

Bauer just likes to stay focused on the main event.

“It’s really about the race. Mostly you’re thinking about what you have to do, but there’s so many distractions.  It’s mostly about getting to the race on time, getting to the start and not breaking  a pole, but there’s so much excitement and so many people. . .”

Distractions aside, Bauer still enjoys the throngs of people who spill into town for the event.

“I don’t know how it’s possible that many people can come into town, so the energy of that crowd is pretty fun!”

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