Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Beyond the Edge of Reason

As I lined up with some 25 hearty runners, some 4,000 miles from where I was supposed to be, it wasn’t hard to question the sanity of this endeavor.

The thermometer here dipped to below bitter all week, dropping to -44 on Friday, and -40 on Saturday morning. I knew racing under such conditions was somewhat whacky, but the Birkie was semi-cancelled and I had to do something to keep from going more crazy.

After some last minute instructions, the race officials informed us that the reading at the university trails was -32 F. No doubt this one would hurt.

The two lap course wound through the UAF ski trail system, with about half of it on packed ski trails and half on narrow, single track snowshoe trails that ranged from well-worn hard pack to very soft, rough, and unstable snow. Right away, I jumped into the lead group as the first kilometer was on a 12 foot wide ski trail. Then we cut into the single tracks and I was suddenly in 2nd place, perhaps too much too soon. Chad and Kevin are still in their 30s and quite capable of 33 min 10k. I just tried to hold it steady and keep in contact, but within a couple minutes the pace was too much and I was thinking about letting Kevin by. Suddenly that became moot, as I caught an edge on the narrow track and tumbled down. By the time I got up they had 30-40 m, and they weren’t going to come back.

Meanwhile, masters runner Simon (a very talented Brit who doesn't train that much) was just a few meters back, so I got into a new rhythm by 2k and just tried to keep from going too anaerobic. However, the next three kilometers were the toughest, with lots of hills and a kilometer of broken trail.

Although the Arctic freeze bit into my face over the first kilometer or two, forcing me to adjust my balaclava every minute or so, nothing else was cold. No doubt I had dressed well, with 4 layers of pants and 6 layers on top, in a combination of polypropylene and lycra. Relatively warm but it did feel somewhat restrictive.

At the end of the first lap (22:57) Simon had dropped back and I could no longer hear him, while Kevin was in sight at times, but far ahead maybe 45 seconds.

From beginning to end, the 2nd lap was easier. I didn’t want to strain, but would stride out on the occasional downhill section. I was actually warm by then, and if anything I felt too confined with too many layers. But there was no time to drop a layer. I was battling on the hard slope of oxygen debt as I wound through the forest, alternating between stunted black spruce in the boggy areas and white birch on the hills, hoping to hold on for a few more kilometers.

Snowshoe running can feel a bit like running in a swamp in slow motion with these awkward contraptions on your feet. I could feel my energy reserves waning, but no one was behind as I made the last climb with less than a k to go, which allowed for a 46:43 finish, enough for 3rd overall.

It wasn’t the Birkie, but the Classic good cardiovascular outlet to prepare the upcoming races, which feel like an afterthought.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Another Birkie Weather Bust

My best laid plans to race in the American Birkebeiner, North America’s largest cross country ski race were waylaid by poor trail conditions. The race, which traverses 51 km of hills and trails from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin, boasts 9,000 participants each year, and it is effectively (if not unofficially) the US national marathon championship.

This winter has been most mild in the upper Midwest, and in the weeks leading up to the race only a few inches of snow covered the ground. All was set until Wednesday the 21st (3 days before the race), when temperatures hit 51 degrees, which effectively ruined the trails on the 2nd half of the course. Rather than cancelling, the race directors decided that there would be enough snow have a shortened version on the 23k Korteloppet (literally “short race”) course.

How inconvenient, the truth.

I’ve done two Birkies, and was hoping to make the third one a charm. I completely revamped my race schedule, and decided to delay gratification until late February and March. It was hard to set aside a couple of the races, but had some great marathon-type workouts on my own. Although last March’s marathon crescendo may be hard to beat, February’s training was perhaps the best string I’ve had 14 or 15 years. Everything felt perfect, and I was ready to take on the crowds and trails at the Birkie.

On Wednesday afternoon I was wrapping up my final half day of work before travel, when I got an email from my friends—had I not checked, I may well have gone. But after thinking about it for a few hours, I decided to cancel this year. The appeal was the full 51k my goal was just to get through that first 23k when the trail would be packed with both Korteloppet and Birkie racers. The real fun would begin after the Korteloppet finished at County Road OO, aka the Double O.

Now with a little time on my hands I went back to the Birkie history page, to look at weather related impacts. The Birkie was established in 1973, and the scheduled distance has ranged from 50 to 55 km since then. The first indication of a weather problem was in 1981, when warm weather and rain forced a re-route of the elite race: racers did a 48k loop; course, and the citizen’s race was held two weeks later after an early March snowfall.

In 1983, 84, 85, and 87 the course was shortened to 48k to 50k due to low snow cover at the start area, but the race went on otherwise as planned. Then came the 90s.

In 1991, the race was only 46k, due to lack of snow in the open areas. Ironically 1996 was a long and bitter winter in the upper Midwest, but temperatures on race day exceeded 50 degrees, making for some very slow skiing. In 1998, much like this year, they had to cut the race in half, to 25k. The bottom fell out in 2000, when the race was cancelled outright due to lack of snow. Things looked bleak in 2002, when there was little or no snow on the trail until just four days before the race, when a miracle dump of 8 inches fell on the trail, allowing for a 46k race.

It would be interesting to look at snow cover data from the 1950s and 60s, but the trend from the early 80s on certainly seems to be on of less snow, warm temperatures, and drastically foreshortened courses (one cancellation and two half-length courses from 1998 to 2007).

Well, maybe next year. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my birthday in 30-40 below temps in Fairbanks, while I plan for Tour of Anchorage, the Sonot Kazhoot, and hopefully another marathon in March.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Skate Revolution's Western Front Part III, 1986-7

1986-87 – Skating to Full Circle
Like the previous summer, I enjoyed some of the best running in my life and ran all-time personal bests at several distances. However, by August I actually started to think about skiing, a first, and mixed in a couple of hill climb races. I also set out to purchase some dryland equipment. Up to that point I had only done a handful of preseason dryland workouts (ever) and didn’t know where to begin. In 1985-86, skiers and hockey players were about the only customers of these new contraptions, called Rollerblades, so I bought a pair and began rollerblading with ski poles.

In September, a friend suggested a three day USSA ski clinic in Steamboat Springs, and upon arriving, learned that at 28 I was the oldest participant by several years. Half the coaches were also younger. No biggie there. Our mentor was Torbjorn Karlsen, a young US Ski Team coach by way of Norway. Feeling a little out of place there at the Scandinavian Lodge, I quickly learned that the rollerblades were a bad purchase—that they don’t simulate skating well enough and lead to bad habits.

Torbjorn’s opening speech—hell, it was a sermon—was an eye opener for certain.
“Skating, skating, skating,” he admonished in a still thick Norwegian accent. All you Americans talk about, read about, and do is skating. Skating is faster, it is new, and it is exciting, but you must get back to classic skiing.”


Then he informed us that FIS has brought back classic technique and that from now on, all FIS and USSA race series would include classic events as well as skating.

4 Time Gold Medalist Gunde Svan at the Olympics

Anybody want to by a pair of these really neat new Rollerblades?

Through the clinic he showed videos and gave dryland demos, talked endlessly about weight shift, riding a flat ski, and getting into proper alignment with your nose, knees and toes. He gave more sermons on training, and generally brow beat us into thinking about committing to become better skiers. He explained the different techniques in detail. And they now had official names to stop the confusion. The diagonal skate, which resembled the herringbone hill climb, was called the Diagonal V, marathon skate kept its name, the alternating double pole, which I had learned painstakingly in 1985 was now called V1, and the new double-sided double pole was called V2.

That clinic was of the best things I’d ever done as a skier, and all I did is show up! Out of about 15 skiers at that clinic, three or four went onto stellar Olympic careers, including a 14 year old Pete Vordenberg, who now head coach the US Ski Team.

On the last day up to our ears in theory and inspiration (in addition to classic skiing, Torbjorn was very big on volume training), we worked on skate techniques in a parking lot. Finally, I had opportunity to learn the newly named V2. Although the learning curve was not as excruciatingly slow as V1, it didn’t come easy.

Former US ski team member and then assistant CU coach Toni Jorgensen had to have had a Steamboat Mountain of patience to work with a n’er do well 28 year old citizen skier who couldn’t quite get the timing down. I was trying to V1 off of each side, but the pole plant timing is quite the opposite.

Rather than planting the lead ski and poles simultaneously as in V1, V2 requires the skier to compress off of a glide and shift their weight to the opposite ski before the double pole plant.

Compress the knees
Shift weight and begin glide on new ski
Double pole and follow through while gliding
Shift weight and begin glide on opposite ski
Double pole and follow through…

We spent a good 45 minutes to an hour with not much headway before Toni figured out what I was thinking, and said “No, no, no. Remember your marathon skate, V2 is a lot like marathon skating, but you’re just shifting from side to side instead of gliding off that one ski.”

I got it!

And at that instant I also realized that I would have made a lousy, terrible country swing dancer.

I went home all excited about training and racing. A few weeks later we moved up to Summit County, where I trained harder that I had ever before, skiing or running. And I also started mixing in some classic skiing for the first time in two years, usually 45 min to on hour recovery sessions once or twice a week.

The work paid off improvements continued in the early season races, all freestyle. By the beginning of 1987, with all the techniques at my disposal it seemed that I’d arrived as a Nordic skater and skier. I did one last tune race before heading to Biwabik Minnesota for the World Championship team tryouts. At a low key 5k citizen’s race in Vail all elements seemed to click as I cruised to an easy win (pictured below); my skis were riding flat, transitions were smooth, and I shifted gears and techniques with ease. I had never felt better, more in shape, and more prepared.

Knowing that this was an entirely new level of competition, I was just hoping to have a good series of races. Within the first kilometers of the opening race, a 15k classic, I realized that something very important was missing with my training. My classic skiing sucked! I finished well behind, and somewhat disheartened, thinking that I’d wasted a good deal of money for the plane ticket and motel. Fortunately, the 10k and 30k skate races went much better and I went home not so discouraged.

First thing I did when I got back to Colorado, however, was to drive to Boulder, to look for better pair of classic skis. Lo! Right there on the rack of the cities’ most popular Nordic ski shop was a pair of Fischer RCS Klister skis, medium/soft flex, for the whopping price of $50. The salesclerk kind of snickered when he said that nobody is buying classic anymore and that everybody is talking about skating. I just smiled and snickered inside, knowing that classic was back but that Boulder was so cutting edge that it was behind…

From then on, I trained closer to 50-50 classic and skating, and found that classic offered much more than just recovery days. You actually accrue greater aerobic benefits with classic skiing while enduring less muscle fatigue. An added bonus, was that I soon found that the previous two years of skating and thinking about balance, ankle flex, weight shift, and timing, had resulted in a better understanding of the dynamics of skiing. Without even practicing I had taken a huge leap in classic technique and had become a more complete skier.

I still couldn’t do any of those country dance moves, even if a free vacation to Scandinavia was on the line, and could barely carve a rudimentary telemark turn, but track skiing and racing—classic or skating—were just fine.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Training Week February 5 - 11

The goal for this week was to get one last push at volume and pace, while not over doing it for the upcoming stretch of marathon training. I had planned to train each day this week and to get to about 10 hr, but was quite tired on Thursday, so took the day off.

So I'll be heading into the three marathons feeling very fit. I didn't quite get the higher volume (several 10 - 12 hr weeks) this year, but was extremely consistent at 8 or 9 hr/week for most of the past two or three months. Feel fit, healthy, and just want to have some fun out there anyway.

Monday 1 hr ski, classic (very easy)

Tuesday - 1 hr ski, skating, including 8-10 bursts of 15 - 20 seconds for acceleration; include double pole up White Bear hill (big climb)

Wednesday - 2:00 ski, skating, with 1:10 at 30-50k pace (~3.5 min/km), snow was a little slow and it was very windy

Thursday - rest

Friday - easy ski 50 min, classic

Saturday - 5 min warmup; 9k snowshoe race, with 3k laps of 15:40, 15:10, and 14:57, plus start and finish for final time of 46:47, for 1st OA (that's two wins in a row for snowshoe racing--the last one was in 2005--ought to quit while on a streak); 10 min cool down. That was tiring! Coolest part of the day, the family did the 3k portion and came in 1,2,4!

Sunday - 2.5 hr ski (skating) at UAF. Easy effort for about 1:50 to 2:00, then we pushed moderate to hard for about 30 min. Jammed my elbow twice, so I'll skip skiing today. Went for family ski in the afternoon, where we did 10k classic on White Bear Loop. That's the longest the kids have skied at one time and it's a very tough loop.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Training Week January 29 - Feb 4

After feeling excessively tired at the end of last week, I took it a little easier this week. No anaerobic training, no races, and an extra day off. By the end I still got some decent hours in, so it was still a good pre-taper week.

Monday - rest

Tuesday - Easy 50 min, classic

Wednesday - Ski 1:50, freestyle, include 10k and 7k at 30k effort.

Thursday - Easy 40 min run; 30 min skate PM

Friday - Easy 50 minutes, classic

Saturday - Easy 3 mile run AM. In the afternoon I did Mug Cup #2 on the Tanana River, trying to keep up with mushers and skijourers. Approximately 10k at lactate threshold effort (28:03), with warmp and cool down. I think it was the 4th fastest out of 22. The race was good alternative to the scene at Birch Hill. Those races are well and good, but I wasn't up for it this week. We really need more low key events here, like our Distance Series or the Oosik Classic.

Sunday - 2:50 ski at UAF, including about 40 min at marathon pace effort. Things went fine until I took an awkward fall on Smith Lake at about 2:30. Felt like my knee went numb and I could no longer ride a flat ski so I cut the workout short about 10 minutes. It hasn't bothered me since.

Total: 8:20

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Winters Day

Rather than a long essay, here are some of Mikko's pictures from Satuday's "Mug Cup," a 10k skiing, skijoring, mushing adventure on the Tanana River.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Hoary Marmot Day

While the rest of the US, excepting Hawaii of course, celebrates groundhog (Marmota monax), we in interior Alaska have to settle for the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata). No doubt they will not make an appearance because they are in deep hibernation now. I suppose we could root one out of its den to see if it could see a shadow, but it would probably curl up and sleep some more, or perhaps go into shock.

Whatever the outcome, Groundhog's Day signifies a number of thresholds for us. Winter is now half over, with the solstice 6 weeks behind us and the spring equinox 6 a little over weeks ahead. We have 7 hours of daylight and are approaching 10 hours of usable light. At this level, you no longer really crave the sun. And speaking of which, at our household we actually get to see the sun rise over the hill for the first time since late October. Soon its light bathes our north-sloping property for several hours a day.

This is also the time of year when temperatures moderate. It actually arrived a couple weeks early this eary. Ten days ago, we were in the depths of yet another cold snap. A week ago Thursday, it was -12 below at noon, and I figured that would be too cold to coach Jr. Nordics, but lo! at 4:30 in the after noon we were at +2, and by 6:30 we had +6. We've since basked in 20s and 30s--freaky for this early in the year.

No doubt that we'll have have another six weeks of winter. Hope so, because like Joe Namath once you get through mid-January you can't wait till tomorrow, because the skiing gets better every day.