Before the memories and the spirit of the Birkie fade too much, here’s a look at my experiences at the American Birkie and the Madison Sprints. Gordon also recently posted a video-blog where he interviewed me about these events, so I apologize if this written blog seems repetitious – I definitely made different comments between the two formats, but you can choose which you prefer to view, or read/watch them both for the sake of the photos and video clips.
First: the Madison Sprints.
The weekend before the American Birkibeiner, the US Supertour race circuit conveniently made a stop nearby in Madison, WI. The Madison Sprints include a skate and a classic sprint, which are held as part of the Madison Winter Festival, and entail trucking snow in to cover the streets that circle the capital building. Fortunately the snow is used for a lot more than just two ski races – beyond the elite sprint races that the GRP participated in, there are also high school ski races, a cyclocross race, and on-snow equipment demos that use the loop of snow.
The snow was laid out the night before the first race, so we weren’t able to preview the course until the morning of the race. While most of my teammates had been to Madison for these sprint races before, I had not, and I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical about the idea of double poling the classic sprint on skate skis. As it turned out on race day, double poling was completely feasible and definitely the way to go for all of the top women and men.
The Madison Sprints used a slightly modified format from normal sprint races, due to the small field sizes and the narrow course. The quarterfinals were 4 heats of 4 people, for a total of 16 qualifiers, where 2 from each heat moved on to the next round. However, on Saturday for the classic sprint, there were only 16 girls signed up to race, so we went straight to the semifinal round with only 8 qualifiers. For the skate sprint the next day, 17 people were signed up, so we raced quarterfinals through finals, and the men had quarterfinals on both days. On the second day of racing, the skate sprint, basically all of the women who’d raced the classic sprint heats were suffering from extremely sore backs from the intense double poling. It wasn’t something any of us were used to, exclusively double pole sprinting, but luckily we were able to laugh about the common misery of our sore backs as we prepared to race the skate sprint.
For the GRP, 4 of the 5 guys qualified on the classic day and 5 of 5 on the skate day. Top finishers were Dylan McGuffin in 4th on the classic day, and Tim Reynolds in 6th for the skate sprint. The guys races looked extremely intense because the sprint was short for them – 1 minute 39 seconds on the skate day – and the qualifier times were close enough that any skier in the heat could win it, depending on tactics. For women, Maria, Clare and I were all in the B-final of the classic sprint and took places 5 through 7 for the day. In the skate sprint, I made my first Supertour sprint podium with a 3rd place finish and Clare was right behind in 4th while Maria was in the B-final.
Here are photos from the Madison Sprints – thank you to Suzanne Wolf for hosting Gordon, Clare and I during the week and for sending me these photos!
The day after the sprints, we packed up and drove to Hayward, WI, to a nice little cabin on a lake a few miles outside Hayward. The next few days we spent skiing sections of the Birkie trail. Tuesday Pepa dropped us off at about the 2k mark on the trail, and I classic skied with Maria to the pick-up spot at 23k at “OO”, and Maria pointed out many notable features of the course. Wednesday we skate skied from the “OO” road crossing to about 45k to take a look at that part of the trail. I was impressed with the Birkie trail “ski highway,” for its width and the nice rolling terrain. On Thursday the team drove in to Hayward for the afternoon “Elite Sprints” on Main St, where Tim and Clare were our top finishers in 3rd and 4th in their respective races.
The Birkie morning itself was about as chaotic as expected, with frantic rushing around the house to gather every piece of equipment and clothing, a wrong turn on the way to the start and then convincing the parking authority to let us through anyway, quick ski testing while dodging people on the 400m warm-up loop, and running to the start at almost the last minute. Comparatively, the Birkie itself was somewhat relaxing and straightforward!
Actually maybe not so relaxing… the start of the Birkie was moderately fast-paced, as the leading women broke the group into a pack of 12 by the time we reached the high point. Nicole DeYoung, Caitlin Gregg, and several of the Europeans were typically leading. The pace never seemed unsustainable, it was just crucial to be paying attention to the front and move around people if any gaps formed. After the high point, we settled into a nice flow of skiing along the rolling terrain. The only thing that prevented the skiing from being quite relaxing was the accordion effect – people in the back of the pack would have to do little sprints over the tops of the hills to keep up, and then at the bottom of downhills everyone would stack together and the people at the back would need to slow down.
It was a great start to the race to be comfortably in the lead pack, but it was even better when I looked around and saw that Maria and Clare were also in the pack, and out of the 12 women we were the only ones with teammates!
By about 41k into the race, at the top of Bitch Hill, the pack had dwindled to five women, and we stuck together all the way until just before the finish when the sprinting started. Throughout the race it was fun to ski in the pack behind accomplished European skiers and Birkie veterans, comfortably keeping up with them but also admiring how well and confidently they ski. For future years, I’ll have a little better sense of what can happen at the finish, because even after 50k it almost came as a surprise when we reached the 1k-to-go sign.
The Birkie was a very enjoyable racing experience for me, and I’ll definitely plan to race it again in the future. Here are pictures of the Birkie and the awards ceremony – unfortunately not many, because everyone involved in the race tends to be absorbed in racing or supporting the athletes, not taking pictures. For those of you who haven’t followed the results, they can be found here: http://www.birkie.com/2013results. For the GRP athletes, I (Caitlin) was 3rd, Clare was 8th, Maria was 11th even after breaking a pole, Bryan was 15th, Patrick 20th, Gordon 25th, Dylan 29th, and Tim 37th.
Also, this is a link to the 10 minute video-recap of the women’s 2013 Birkie: http://vimeo.com/60717863 I’m not sure what this video is like to an outside observer – perhaps you’ll find it interesting to see the attrition of the pack, or maybe it will instead be repetitive and not very captivating until the finish – but for me, it’s quite fascinating to relive the 50 kilometers of racing and to see glimpses of skiing that remind me what was happening and how I was feeling at any given moment.
The following photos are from the Birkie website, taken by Kelly Randolph, Mark Milford, and Darlene Prois: