Monday, March 5, 2012

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!


W_Moser said...

You guys are a total inspiration!
Warren Moser, Shakopee, MN, US

Matt Jorgensen said...

What Santi did is a real inspiration. He's a talented racer and will win the Birkie some day.

YukioMachine said...

I can only dream of having an out-of-body experience that flies me down the trail. Great recap Matt! "Pay-it-forward" will reward Santi soon. Go Santi!

Derek said...

awesome recap. exciting race. Go USA! And I finished my first birkie on the gear you helped me pick out. Thank you.