Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Fairy Tale 1st Birkie by Tom Motzell

My journey began in 1986 when I joined my high school Nordic team. I remember hearing about the Birkebeiner that year and thinking, "That would be something!" The seed was planted.

The next 25 years presented me with college, kids, career...and roughly 60 additional pounds. Who would have thought this was the fertile soil for a seed to germinate!? Sometime in 2010, I learned of a colleague who regularly skied the Birkie. Sometime in 2011, I asked him if he had time for lunch. And sometime later that afternoon, I registered for the Birkie Skate!

All I needed now was ski's, a place to stay, conditioning and a little snow to practice...that's it! In other words, a small miracle to prepare myself by February 25th. ...I must have invoked the 'Birkie Spirit'.

Three days after registering, I shared news of my commitment with a colleague, Dan. His face lit up as he told me he had done the Birkie the past 11 years! Furthermore, he asked if I would be interested in joining him and his friends. I know had a ride, accommodations, and some training partners!

My second encounter with the 'spirit' was at the Gear West fall sale. I was greeted by Caitlin Gregg upon entering the store. The next two hours would be the best purchasing experience I've ever had. After a 25 year hiatus from the sport, their expertise was essential. (Thank you Gear West and all the experts who assisted me that day!!)

The next ‘gift’ remained a mystery until I saw the sign on the Birkie trail reading; "Elevation 1700 feet". Due to the lack of snow in the Twin Cities, most of my training took place at Hyland and Afton alpine ski hills. As a result, I was prepared for the initial 8 miles of uphill climb!

Finally, February 25th couldn't have been a more beautiful day. I finished the race in 3 hours and 45 minutes...better than I expected for sure!

But the 'spirit' still had more to give! Dazed and confused, I somehow stumbled into the employee entrance of the food tent. I was quickly greeted by one of the volunteers who said, "I'm sorry, this is not an entrance" But my deep (empty) stare into the depth of her soul was enough to quickly adjust the outcome. Her next words were, "Can I get you some soup, ...or real food?", to which I replied, "Soup sounds like real food." Before I left the tent, the ‘Birkie Spirit’ embodied in this volunteer had brought me roles, two bowls a soup and a beer. (I will never forget you.)

Upon leaving the food tent, I was discovered by one of my training buddies, Jed, who escorted me to the Moccasin for a post Birkie celebration.

If you are considering the Birkie for the first time, sign up, and trust in the 'Birkie Spirit'

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Consummate "Professional" By Jennifer Beckman

This was my first Birkie as a college graduate, and let me tell you it was VERY different from my previous experiences. For me, the biggest difference between being a college student athlete and a working girl is as follows - while in school I had all the time in the world and no money, now that I'm working (and coaching) I finally have money, but no time! Previously any free time I had was spent on training for skiing. Upon graduation in May I decided that a year off from training was necessary to recharge myself (both mentally and physically) after 4 years of very intense training, and to acclimate myself to being a full-time employee at Gear West.

I've always been a much stronger classic skier so I registered for my second classic Birkie (I've completed 3 races in total). Unfortunately, I signed up so late that I lost my normal wave seeding and had to start in wave 5. I also worked a grand total of 24 hours at the expo in the 2 days leading up to the race. Needless to say I woke up race morning feeling as if I had already raced 54 kilometers. At this point I was VERY happy to be starting in wave 5.

When I saw Luke (my boyfriend who doubles as my personal race support) for the first time at 21 kilometers into the race I said something along the lines of "I'm so dead right now - I should've done the Korte." Nevertheless I persevered, hip flexors and triceps on fire the entire way through. My skis were absolute rockets with perfect kick throughout the whole race - thanks to Gear West Waxing Crew of Brandan, Kyle, Nate, and Ben for doing such an awesome job! I set myself up for disaster and wound up finishing as the 26th woman overall - not too shabby! I can tell you two things:

1) I will NOT be taking another summer off and

2) I will be registering as soon as I can in June!

My Birkie Story By Matthew Liebsch

The 2012 Birkie was one of the deepest and strongest fields in the history of the race. There were elite skiers from France, Switzerland, Finland, Russia, Latvia, Canada and Norway (I think something like 11 Norwegian elites); plus a multitude of strong American skiers. I was trying not to get nervous or catch “Birkie Fever” before the race as my best results always come when I am relaxed. This year it was hard not to get worked up with all the competition and also the fact I had not raced for 3 weeks… the Mora Vasaloppet was canceled this year due to no snow. I watched live results from the weekend before as the European competition skied very strongly in the Madison SuperTour races.

In the 2011 Birkie, the European racers skied very well and took all the podium spots and placed 5 in the top 6. This year, "Team America" had a plan. Brian Gregg and Tad Elliott both shared ideas on how we needed to have the Americans perform better this year. It was discussed that we did too much work at the front of the race last year and that we needed to break things apart before the finish because many of the Europeans have a strong finishing “kick.”

Race morning I was fortunate enough to ride to the start with Santi Ocariz. He was so pumped for the race and he was certain I was going to have a great race. Upon arriving at the start, I tested skis and did the shortest warm-up of my life - about 20 minutes. The snow at the start was slow due to a dusting overnight. I picked a pair of skis that was good, but I was banking on no new snow on the trail south of OO. When I left my cabin outside of Hayward at 6:00 am there was no new snow. I wanted fast skis late in the race.

The start of the race was anticlimactic this year after last years pole explosion. The group stayed together until we entered the woods at 7km. At the time, just like last year, the strong French skier blasted off the front. No one chased initially but a few kilometers later, the strong Canadian racer Graham Nishikawa, bridged to the Frenchman. I watched from 20th place as those two hooked up, trading leads and skiing quickly away from the group.

In past years I would have chased hard and wasted energy. Although both of the skiers off the front were very strong and I was not 100% sure they would come back. I guess I didn’t want to chase as I wasn’t feeling it at the time and I was waiting for faster snow later in the race (unknown to me it had snowed 1/4-1/2 inch of slow sharp crystals on the entire course after I had left Hayward in the morning). Tad Elliott had multiple trips to the back of the pack to ask me to help him chase down the break. I said each time, “No, don’t worry, it will come back.” I was really thinking to myself "… maybe 50/50." At OO Tad was freaking out as we were getting splits that the leaders were a minute up on the group. Again I thought, "wow, this is going to be hard to close." I was still not feeling it and said, “wait until after Gravel Pit road at 31 kilometers and then we will get them.”

On the way, Brian Gregg took a hard pull to reduce the gap. At 33km I gave Tad the nod and I pulled, he pulled, and I pulled once more and we closed the gap in less than 2 kilometers. Finally feeling good, I blasted past the escapees and tired to crack open the race. We were on a gradual downhill portion of the trail so I was unsuccessful in getting away.

As we approached Mosquito Brook road I knew there was only a few hard climbs left on the course, and I also knew attacks were coming. I took the pace up a notch as we climbed Mosquito Brook Hill. As I expected, Tad jumped very hard and I was prepared to jump in behind him. Brian Gregg jumped with Tad and was so close behind him I though they were sharing the same pair of skis! Way to cover the jump Brian! There was a small gap behind Brian and I tried to fit in someplace. That was not a great idea. I managed to place my pole between Lars Flora’s legs. My pole shattered instantly and I skied the rest of the climb with one pole as the entire group raced away.

As I skied along with one pole, it was bleeding time. I asked many spectators, with poles in the woods for a replacement. They did not understand my yells. At last I gave up on yelling and just skied off the trail and grabbed a pole from behind some spectators. I finally had a pole, although it was too tall, heavy, bendy and the strap would not work for me.

My good friend and former CXC teammate, Santi, asked if I wanted his pole. I said “No, I am okay, my Dad has a good pole for me 5km up the trail.” Santi was having a good race and I didn’t want him to ruin his chances at a good finish. We were maybe 30-45 seconds behind Tad.

5 kilometers later as we approached Highway 77 where my my Dad was waiting, I yelled for my spare race pole. He put his hands up in the air. I forgot my poles were with Swix at a different location. I was completely deflated. I thought my chances at the win, a podium, and even a top 6 (the Birkie pays out to the top 6) were over. Before I knew what was going on, skiing close to me ever since I broke my pole, Santi took off his race pole and was giving it to me. I don’t remember what he said, something along the lines of “Go get em” or “Go win this thing” or “Go catch those guys.” It didn’t matter, the mental, spiritual and physical boost (I had a pole I could ski hard on) was all that I needed.

I entered into some race gear not familiar to me… I was floating down the trail, almost out of body. I caught and passed most of the group as we climbed the last big hill on the Birkie Highway 77 climb. As we entered the fields by Wheeler Road I could see Tad up ahead… he had been out of my sight for a while. I was catching him quickly but I was also running out of gas. I sat up and let others pull. We were not making time on him so as we got on the lake I pulled very hard again.

Half way across the lake I was so close to Tad but again was feeling my chase efforts. I knew, if I continued to close the gap, I would have had zero left in the tank for the race up Main Street. Tad wouldn’t have had anything left as he had played his cards already. I knew Lars and Brian were in the group but also some Canadians and Europeans. A worst case scenario was playing out in my head… American catches American, both are tired, and non-American racers sprint down Main Street to take the podium spots.

I pulled up. I said to the others, “we gotta work together to close to Tad.” No one had the energy to chase down the rest of the gap. I think everyone knew it was about conserving what little energy we had left for one more push up Main Street. I went to the back of the chase group with mixed emotions. I was bummed. My chances at a 2nd American Birkebeiner title were over, but I was also thrilled my fellow racer, friend, training partner and American would win the race.

Good friends Matt and Brian Fight to the finish

Somewhere along the last km of the lake, I started to feel good again, both physically and mentally. I told myself, I don’t want to make this a few hundred meter sprint, so I swung wide and jumped very hard with 1 kilometer to go. I knew with the strong headwind, if I could get a gap it might stick. I had a few second gap but as I hit the soft snow on the beach and Main Street my glutes started to cramp. I just keep my head down and pushed as hard as I could. As I skied closer to the line I was almost certain that racers were going to come pouring by me. To my surprise, I held on to wrap up 2nd place! Once I finished I heard from my wife that my great friend, training partner and fellow Minneapolis resident, Brian Gregg, had finished 3rd, out-sprinting a Canadian and Norwegian. I could believe it; the Americans had swept the podium!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Birkie Nostalgia by Jan Guenther

It is hard to describe all the emotions that go into my Birkie experience. For me, the event is so wrapped up into everything I love about the sport of skiing, the three decades (yikes!) worth of skiing friends from Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota and my career of owning a ski business for over 27 years in both Illinois and Minnesota.

I do feel a bit guilty about becoming so immersed in an “event.” But, it is a benchmark of my kid’s growth and their ski interest (thank goodness there is a Barkie Birkie!); of snowfall; of business and the shop energy spiked by enthusiastic skiers; of my fitness and the nostalgia of years gone by. All are mixed together in one big emotional pile.

For the past two years Gear West has added to my “Birkie (retail) Fever” by organizing a now-growing wax service (over 220 skis!) and managing the ever expanding Swix / Gear West Expo wax booth. The fun of enjoying, supporting, educating and laughing with Birkie customers associated with our services fuels my excitement for the weekend and love of this business.

It’s the humor of the skiers – customers and our very own Gear West folks - that I enjoy so much. Such as our Brian Knutson, Master Ski Selector, Wax Person and Gear West owner who pours his soul onto every kick zone that he prepares for his personal classic race ski customers, or the shoe guy, Speedy, who almost “owned” the 8th wave classic age group due to his early morning diligence of skiing in tiny, continuous circles on the manmade Wirth Park loop. Our wax service bus and mail order guy, Tom Carlson, had the fun of piloting the big ol’‘Barth’ bus transporting hundreds of customer’s skis to Hayward, tearing down the Expo Friday night, recovering from a casted broken thumb, and managed to chop 45 minutes off his previous year’s race. Jenny Beckman, our Marketing Director and Co-Head Coach of Orono High school ski team frantically tried to make the credit card machine work in time for the expo start, and was on her feet selling wax, tools and race enthusiasm to all who needed it for 12 whole hours on both Thursday and Friday. Josh Doebbert, the guy who does the behind the scenes web work while secretly training to beat his boss (me!), yet did not because he lost leg strength on the lake (Josh has not worked at Gear West long enough to develop retail /expo leg muscles. Ari, our quiet but ever so knowledgeable retail sales guy and Hopkins Assistant Ski Coach, now-turned-young-father, encouraged his wife to participate with him in the classic race. Sven, our unflappable mail order man had struggled with thyroid problems in previous years and had concern about it this year, along with the responsibility of making sure the correct waxes left the store and made it to the expo. Finally, my dear friend Lynne Cecil (ancient Birkie winner) who threatened to sabotage my skis, petition me into the second wave, and feed me bad donuts, but I secretly know she would give me the pole off her arm just like CXC's Santi Ocariz did for our Elite, Olympic hopeful employee Matt Liebsch - who continues to break poles and have amazing finishes!

The Birkie makes me appreciate life. It’s the good health and fortunes that we all share, which allow us the time, energy and ability to love, laugh and participate in something that makes us so happy.