From my last attempt at the Birkebeiner, I remember the start being a pretty low key affair. I’m pretty sure I showed up with only one pair of skis (which means I couldn’t leave them in the start lanes while I was testing them), and getting a spot in the first couple of rows was no problem. I had asked for and received an Elite wave start, so I was pretty much at the pointy end of the race from the gun (at least until I drifted backwards). How things change in four years.
I once again had received my Elite wave start, so I followed a pretty similar approach to staking my claim to a starting place. However, when I arrived at the starting pens just after 7 (for the 8AM start) there were about 100-150 very eager Norwegians waiting to put their skis down – not something I remember from 2007. So I did what I could and followed them in when the pen opened; I managed to grab a spot about 6 or 7 rows back. I didn’t count how many tracks wide the start was because I didn’t really want to know.
When the melee of ski placing had cleared, I realized there was another pen in front of us with bib numbers stuck in the snow next to the tracks. They were for the people racing in the FIS Marathon Cup class. A class I didn’t know realize existed until right then. Oops. That would have been a good thing to know about and get into. So, between the FIS Men, the FIS Women and the early-arriving Elites I was primed with a start position somewhere in the mid-200s. Less than ideal, but I thought I would work my way up. After all, I came back from a face-plant less than a K into the Engadin last weekend, and getting back to the front there wasn’t much of a problem.
Really, I was just a bit off when it came to taking care of the logistics this weekend. From not finding out about the FIS wave, to forgetting the insoles for my boots and then showing up at the start with two right gloves, I was almost, but not quite organized. No catastrophic mistakes, but these were all issues that I should not have had. Fortunately housing the night before and transportation up to the race were taken care of by Christian (thank you!), so I only had to get myself into Oslo on Friday. I left myself plenty of time to take the bus, get lost and still figure out where I had to be in plenty of time.
As for the race itself? It was kind of a mixed bag. Conditions were fantastic. I skied (seriously) on a thin layer of binder and Extra Blue. 54Ks on Extra Blue in late March – it’s hard to ask for much more than that. The start was shrouded in fog, but we emerged after barely a K of skiing into brilliant sunshine and a cloud-free sky. It stayed that way until the finish.
The start was amazing. The only races I’ve started more than a row deep in the last long, long time have been narrow, seeded mass-starts. And even in those it’s been a long time since I had more than 50 guys in front of me. This was different. I skied around 4 or 5 crashes in the first K, and only had to climb over one person. I was pretty happy to stay on my feet with all my equipment. The first 3-4 K were an exercise in switching tracks and moving up whenever possible. It must have been 10-15 minutes before I had anything resembling clear tracks. By that time the leaders were long gone and I had none of the tools required to make an effort to chase them down. Instead, I settled in for my first 3 hour ski of the year.
I went through various periods of feeling okay, pretty good, really good, pretty bad and awful. Which seems about right for a 3 hour effort. I started getting the occasional cramp and muscle spasm a little over 30K in (which, in my pre-race plan is where I had figured I might start to struggle hanging with the leaders…); this made the last 20 or so kind of … interesting. Sugar and caffeine definitely helped me on the energy front during the last 20K, but every time I took a gel I had about 5-10 minutes of really bad stomach cramps that made any sort of double poling impossible. I used those times to walk along and look around a little. I thought about taking my camera out of my bag, but decided that I wasn’t ready to turn the day into a full-on tour, so I only have my memories of the scene, no documentation.
For a race that crosses the mountains through the middle of nowhere, the Birkebeiner has a lot of excitement around it. And by excitement I mean people watching and cheering. I don’t think they were ever packed as deep as they were at Holmenkollen a couple of weeks ago, but there was a lot of noise out there. And a few fires. The first time I’ve smelled smoke while racing since I was at Saint Paul’s School in the late 90s. And bonfires smell different than pipe tobacco.