The top women finishers in the Birkie—with one exception—share a common feature in their hometowns: ski trails. They come from Minnesota, Vermont, Idaho, Alaska and Europe; places where cross country skiing is not completely obscure and, well, possible more than a couple days a year. The one exception? Seventh-place finisher Ali Crocker. She’s spent the winter training in somewhere that sounds like the punchline of a joke: Toledo, Ohio.
I’ve met Ali through orienteering when she lived somewhere near snow in Massachusetts. (She’s set to fly to Kazakhstan this week and compete in the Ski World Orienteering Championships—Ski WOC—she was recently ranked the 10th best ski orienteer in the world based on ski-o races in Europe in January where she took three top-3 finishes.) Last fall, Crocker moved to a post-doc position at the University of Toledo which puts her, oh, an hour from the nearest groomed snow. Which is usually only a short loop on a field blown by a single snow gun.
It’s not that she doesn’t have the chops for skiing. Crocker was a top NCAA skier at Dartmouth and U-23 participant, but moved to England after graduating to get a D-Phil (what those cheeky Brits call a Ph.D.) in Astrophysics. And there wasn’t much snow in Britain, so she took up orienteering. (She’s really good at that, too, representing the US at World Orienteering Championships.)
“Moving to Britain was scary,” Crocker said. “Up to that point I’d been an avid skiing student-athlete and I thought I was ready to drop the athlete part.” That lasted a month. “I got dragged in to a cross country running race, and then I found myself on the team, and then someone took me orienteering, and I absolutely loved it.”
She found it more interesting than running, and went orienteering every weekend in Oxford. When she moved back to the US for a post-doc at UMass Amherst, she started running orienteering races, and made the national team. “It was a good place for orienteering,” she said, “and within reach of all the Northeast Ski-o goings-on.”
Now, we should point out that ski orienteering is a relatively small community. There are maybe 100 moderately competitive ski orienteers in the country, and most are in the Northeast or California. In other words, it makes cross country skiing, by comparison, look huge.
Having moved to the Midwest, she decided to get in to the Midwest skiing scene, even if it wasn’t really close by. Her first event—other than a 10k on manmade snow in southern Michigan—was the City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis. She attended that mainly because they had—for the first time—a ski-o race the day before.
So Crocker drove across the Midwest.
Not surprisingly, she won the ski-o. “This was our first experience with ski orienteering,” said Loppet race director John Munger. “In trying to plan we asked the orienteering organizers what time the first competitor would arrive in Uptown for the finish. He told us it would take about 45 minutes. Ali arrived 16 minutes early—the groomer was still working.”
Not all that surprisingly, she went out and won the Loppet the next day, five minutes ahead of the next woman in the race. “I really didn’t know what to expect as I didn’t recognize many of the women lined up in the first wave, so I was mostly skiing my own race, happy with the pace and skiing with a group of ten guys.” At some point a spectator told her she was the first woman, which she didn’t know. “It was really neat finishing on Hennepin in Uptown, battling against some of the guys in my pack,” she said.
“She crushed the Loppet,” Munger said. “We have new respect for Ohio skiers.” Crocker won $1000 for her troubles, enough to pay for her gas—and buy a plane ticket out for the Birkie.
On the way out she’d stopped overnight in Wisconsin. The drive back she did straight. “[It] was epic.” Crocker said. “I hit snow around Madison, which lasted through South Bend, when I guess I overtook the storm front.” She got home at 4 a.m. “Next year I will definitely look for carpool buddies, or fly,” she said.
As a silver lining, she found out when she got home that her performance was good enough to get in to the Elite Wave. She’d asked the Birkie to move her up from the 9th wave, and even had Caitlin Gregg vouch for her, but the Birkie was reticent put too many women in the Elite Wave since it was starting out in front of the men for the first time.
Crocker did have some marathons under he belt. “Over the past few years, I’ve manage to be in france for work during the winter, so on the weekends while I was there, we headed down to the Alps to do ski marathons.” One of them—the marathon de la Clarée—was just like this year’s Birkie, with the women starting ahead of the men. The first year she came fourth, and the second year made the podium. “It was really neat to come in the top 3, winning some Euros, and getting interviewed in French.”
Training over the next few weeks consisted of a lot of time on the wheels. “Rollerskiing in Toledo is surprisingly okay,” she said, but “really, really flat.” She lives by a 10k bike path that’s fine for double poling, but only can find a couple of hills in her neighborhood. The worst part, she says, is that she’s training alone. “I miss having [fellow Ski WOC participant and Birkie Elite Waver] Alex [Jospe] around as a rollerski buddy … it’s oodles less fun to do alone.”
She had expectations for the Birkie—that it would be nice to finish in the top 10. But her sights are mainly set on the next week, when she’ll join five other Americans at the biannual Ski WOC in Eastern Kazakhstan.
Which happens to be on the other side of the world. “It will take two days to get there, working against the time change,” Crocker said. “And only one to get back. It’s almost exactly twelve hours different, so I’m note even sure how the jet lag will work.” And the ski-o team is departing three days after several of them skied a marathon.
The Birkie went well. She didn’t finish in the money, but she didn’t expect to. And skiing most of the race with the top pack is not too shabby.
“It was my first race, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “It was amazing to see so many people really excited to ski race in my own country. The only previous time was when I did the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet six years ago.” She switched around in the pack, almost got dropped a few times and then caught back up. “There’s a lot that can happen in a marathon.” Around the 40k marker, the top women had to “figure out who was going to win,” and the rest of the women got strung out. Crocked fought past one near the lake and finished less than half a minute out of the money.
Before flying back to Detroit, several ski orienteers took their map boards (while in foot orienteering you hold the map in your hand, with skiing you wear a silly-looking contraption on your chest to be able to use your poles) and navigated the trails at the north end of the Birkie course. “It was perfect terrain for ski-o on the kettle-moraine topography. And the little trails that were just classic groomed made it similar to European-type ski-o courses,” which are often mazes of narrow trails. “We need more of [this type of terrain] in this country,” she said.
On Wednesday, Crocker will be back at the airport to take a much longer flight to participate in an activity even more obscure in the US than cross country skiing.
Is she planning to come back to ski the Birkie next year?
“For sure! I really can’t wait to give it another go.”
And she’ll be spending a lot of time training on flat ground in Toledo. On rollerskis.