Today is the day.
Today is the day that represents why I started this blog in the first place: Couch to 29k.
In April of 2020, I signed up for the Kortelopet. I threw myself into training to help get me through the COVID quarantine. From body weight workouts and yoga (which I WILL start doing again), to a short stint of run/walking, to long-distance cycling, and now to cross country skiing, I have been training for this day.
My Dad has been my coach through the whole skiing portion of my training. He sets kilometer goals for me, he offers me tips and advice to improve my technique, and he was my roadie, cheerleader, and witness for the virtual race.
In the last two weeks before the event, I went up to Hayward to ski on the Birkie trail now that it has warmed up from the cold snap back in mid-February. While I was up in Hayward staying with my parents, my dad put on the movie Miracle.
This movie has become his pre-race ritual movie. Last Birkie, Dad was quoting the epic speech at the end non-stop because it was the 40 year anniversary when the USA Olympic Team won against the USSR team. At the end of the movie, the coach gives his players a pep-talk and my Dad has the whole speech memorized.
But this morning, I tweaked the speech to fit me a little better as I am neither a man nor a hockey player.
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
And that’s what you have here tonight.
That’s what you’ve earned here, tonight. One race.
If we ski ten times, we might fall down nine. But not this ski. Not tonight.
Tonight, we skate with ’em.
Tonight, we stay with ’em, and tackle them-K’s because we can!
Tonight, we are the greatest skiers in the world.
You were born to be a skier — every ounce of ya.
And you were meant to be here tonight.
This is your time.
Their time — is done. It’s over.
I’m sick and tired of hearin’ about what a great ski team the Soviets have. Screw ’em!
This is your time!!
Now go out there and take it!
Before the race.
I woke up again at 7:00 with the game plan to leave here by 8:10pm. After breakfast and a couple choice motivational Youtube videos, we were off on our way to ABR in Ironwood, MI.
ABR has a complex maze of trails which are all well marked but look a bit intimidating to navigate when looking at a map. So Dad (or “Coach”) was my guide through the whole thing. So I broke up my ski excursion via the different loops that I took to hit 26K.
Popple Flats (Start – 11.9K)
I started out feeling a bit shaky-legged. Maybe it was the adrenaline or the fact that I skied yesterday and Tuesday in really soft snow, but getting out to the Popple Flats was hairy.
There was a large group of causal skiers ahead of me so I had to do some creative maneuvering to get through the crowd. Once I got out to the Popple Flats, I hit a nice flat section and started seven laps of this loop.
Coach Dad told me a story while we were skiing. In 1981, the Birkie didn’t have snow and so they trucked in snow and made a 2.5K looped course that went through the Colosseum at Telemark Lodge. The elite skiers had to ski approximately 21 laps of the course (for a full 54K Birkie) while the rest of the racers (e.g. non-elite skiers and locals) had their race postponed until the beginning of March. The next day after the 2.5K loop race, a winter storm dumped 1 foot of snow and it made the non-elite and local Birkie really nice! This was my Dad’s first Birkie race.
Skiing the same loop seven times does get a bit mentally draining, but now I know the loop really well. Thankfully Dad was there to keep track of my laps, because I would’ve forgotten.
Memory Lane (11.9K to 16.9K)
There was a stiff southern wind while we were at ABR which made Memory Lane a bit interesting. This was where I started to feel fatigued because prior to this, the longest that I skied was 15K at Balsam Branch.
We did two laps of this for a cool 5K distance. Once I hit 16Ks, the words of Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings came to mind: If I take one more step, it will be the farthest from home that I’ve ever been.
The two-week long cold snap really put a damper on training. And I’ll be the first to confess that I didn’t take care of my nutrition as much as I should have, but instead of regrets, I have learning experiences. And that’s okay.
River Trail (16.9K to 21.4K)
The entire River Trail starts from the parking lot and loops around the western edge of the map. I was rather intimidated of this trail at first but now I can see the beauty.
The one bee in the bonnet about this trail is that there is a heckin’ big climb towards the south end of the map.
I was stopping a lot on this trail as I was really fighting the wall of exhaustion. I kept repeating my marathon runner friend’s (Jess’s) mantra: think about the mile you are on, and not about the miles left. I had as many kilometers left as I had left. There was nothing to change that. I could only lean into the suck, dig deep, and find some true grit.
Dad and I talked strategy here because we wanted to make it back up to the parking lot while I still had some energy left in my legs. The climb back up to the parking lot isn’t terrible, but after 20Ks ANYTHING is terrible. Dad also told me that when I was younger, I had a meltdown on this trail on a rather moderate incline because I was out of my depth, I was lost, and I thought every hill was a mountain. So this was my redemption. There were no tears on this trail (but just wait…), but I did tell my Dad that he was not allowed to unstrap me from my skis until I’ve gone 26K or I’ve passed out. He agreed to my terms.
I crawled my way back up to the parking lot and I had my first fantasy of wanting to quit. The car was just right there! But I still had about 5k to go.
I thought about my 50 mile bike ride back in July when I hit those last five miles. Those were the hardest miles in my life and these were honestly the hardest kilometers of my life.
Cherry Dairy (21.4k to 25k)
We had to decide whether we wanted to do Cherry Dairy twice or three times. I kept going back and forth on what I wanted to do (besides stop). We did Cherry Dairy twice and I was struggling. I ended up cursing a lot. I fell down a few times as my balance started really failing me. I stopped to call my husband to get a pep talk, but he didn’t answer his phone. And that’s when the tears came. I was irrational. I was approaching a “bonk” and I wasn’t thinking straight. I left a tear-filled voice mail telling him that I was angry that he hadn’t answered his phone. I felt betrayed. Abandoned.
It wasn’t until after I finished the race that I realized the reason why my husband didn’t answer his phone.
He was at work! Like a grown adult! Of course he wouldn’t answer a phone call at 12:58pm. He is not allowed to have his phone at work! So I sent him an apology Facebook message. I need to make a shirt that says “Don’t trust anything I say when I’m oxygen-deprived from racing.”
It was here that I had to take an unfortunate stop. From 7:30am until now, I was pounding the water and I didn’t think I’d make it until the end unless we went back to the parking lot so I could go to the bathroom, and that’s what we did.
Let me tell you, getting back on those skis after taking them off was so damn hard. I could’ve just stopped. I wanted to stop. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was ski back out there and do another 2.2k. But I also knew that I could never face my students or my husband or my sister or my friends if I quit a measly 1.3 miles from the finish line.
So I went back out there. My legs were heavy. My brain was oxygen depleted. My stomach couldn’t decide if I was starving or ready to puke up my guts. But regardless of all of that, we went back out on Cherry Dairy one more time.
The pep talk from Dad was a bit random. Here’s out it went (fair warning: the language is stronger than what I usually prefer on my blog).
” Do you know what we gotta do?” Dad asked, “We gotta kill the mother fucking bear!”
“You know, like from the movie The Edge. They have to pep talk each other and kill the mother fucking bear. Now what are we going to do?”
“Kill the mother fucking bear?”
“Exactly! Say it louder.”
I smirked, “Kill the mother fucking bear!”
“KILL THE MOTHER FUCKING BEAR!” I shouted.
And of course — because that’s how the universe works — a couple who were classic skiing on the adjacent trail saw us as we passed them and they gave us chagrined looks. This was the most rebellious moment of the day.
Deer Trail (25K to 26K)
Upon making it back to the parking lot for a third time, we had one final kilometer to ski so we did one lap on the Deer Trail. Around this time, I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was exhausted, of course, but now finishing was a sure thing. Dad called this my “victory lap.” So I handed him my medal that was sent to me in the mail and I told him to put it on me when I finish. Dad put it around his neck for safe-keeping and as we skied the last lap, I thought how far I’ve come.
I always looked at the skiers during the Birkie as untouchable. As in “I could never do that.” But then my sister did it last year and I knew that I could do it and I had to do it too. Skiing is in my blood. My whole family skis. I skied the Barniebirkie (a ski race for ages 4-14) as a kid. And now I can count myself among those people. I am a skier.
Dad’s pep talk with my sister during her ski races was “You can do this. You’re an athlete!” That’s exactly the same pep talk that I told myself as I came into the finish “line.”
As I skied in, I used my best imagination to concoct the finish line in Hayward. If you’ve never been on Main Street for the Birkie finish, it is impossible to describe. But imagining it … that’s another story.
I imagined the near ear-splitting chimes of cowbells. The smell of grilled food coming from Anglers. The hoppy aroma of beer from the Angry Minnow beer tent or the Lion’s Club beer tent. I imagined my entire family — Mom and Phil in his coyote fur hat, Britt and Miguel, Nat and Chris, Zack and Vince (my sister’s husband and my husband) cheering Me and Alyssa as we finished together hand in hand. The announcer’s muffled voice as I passed the First National Bank and approached the Post Office — the finish line — would call out my name and my city as I came into one of the finishing chutes. My imagination was good enough for this year, but I do look forward to the day when I can finish on Main Street with all of the pomp and festivities that go with the Birkie.
Instead, as I finished, Dad and Brenda cheered me on and Brenda took my picture. They parked right next to the trail so they had front row seats to my finish. Dad put the medal on and we all hugged.
I’m feeling pretty good right now as I type this (aside for feeling a bit sore). But the thing that has been on my mind the most is what will happen to this blog. I’ve accomplished my goal. I’ve skiied my first Korte in incredibly challenging circumstances (COVID, inconsistent training during the cold snap, finding the time, motivation, and dedication to prioritize my training as a teacher during COVID … the list goes on).
But as I thought about the title to this blog: Couch to 29K, I’ve decided that I technically didn’t achieve the namesake of this blog. I went Couch to 26K. The 29K distance is the traditional distance for the in-person race. COVID precautions shortened the race for only this year to 26k.
So this isn’t good-bye. This is “until the next post.” Korte 2022 is exactly 364 days away. I still have a promise to uphold to myself. And this time, I hope you all can come to the finish line to see it.