Sunday, February 18, 2024

Three Skiing Strikes and a Biking Home Run!

post by Corrine

Sometimes you strike out. Sometimes you hit one out of the ballpark. Sometimes you do both in the same inning. That’s what this past weekend felt like.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

Once again, for the THIRD time in a row, we did not make it down to the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin with our son Riley. This point-to-point race from Cable to Hayward is North America’s biggest 50-kilometer ski marathon race, with about 10,000 skiers participating in the week of ski races. 

Photo taken from the American Birkebeiner website

Riley and I have each had the race on our bucket lists for a long time. In 2022, we finally decided to do it. We didn’t want Eric to feel left out from this family event, so we convinced him to sign up, too, even though he doesn’t like big crowds. (Our daughter Montana is not excited about cross-country skiing.) 

Because of the crowds, you need to register months in advance, so we all did, Riley in the skate race, Eric and I in the classic. But shortly after signing up, Riley found out he had to travel to a small remote village in Alaska to help on a research project the same week as the race. He couldn’t go. Eric and I didn’t want to go without him, so we bailed.

Photo from the rocket launch program that Riley worked on causing him to miss the Birkie

We all signed up again last year. Everything was looking perfect. Wisconsin had a great winter with lots of snow. Long-range forecasts called for excellent skiing temperatures. But the week of the race, a huge snowstorm was predicted to hit the Midwest just as we would be flying into Minneapolis. Forecasters were saying it could be among the top five snowstorms in the last 100 years. More than two feet of snow was predicted.

Photo from the internet

The day before the race we realized we could fly down, but then the storm would hit hours later. Authorities were saying the city would probably be shut down. Power outages were expected. Blizzard conditions would make travel next to impossible. We didn’t want to get stuck somewhere, or possibly add to the list of people needing rescue, so we cancelled. A couple hours after that, airlines started offering refunds to steer people away from Minneapolis. Eric and I stayed home and skied our own Birkie in Fairbanks. 

The storm was bad but not as bad as predicted. Riley – living in Iowa at the time – made a last-minute decision to drive the six hours to the race. 

The race starts in waves of 200-300 skiers each (skate and classic skiers each have their own set of waves). Riley started in the seventh skate wave – next to the last – since he didn’t have any official race times he could use. But he did so well he was allowed to move up to the second wave this year. A ski racer in high school, Riley was eager to sign up again and see how he could do without having to weave through hundreds of slower skiers. Suckers that we are, Eric and I signed up again, too. Placed in the last classic wave, of course.

Riley at the start of the 2023 Birkie

Unfortunately, we’ve been having an El NiƱo winter, which generally means warmer temperatures and less snow in the Midwest. That’s exactly what happened in Minnesota and Wisconsin – in a big way. Two weeks before the Birkie, that area had next to no snow and temperatures were close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The race finishes by going across a lake, but the lake wasn’t even frozen.

You can see the actual course in the background with groomer working on it.  This photo is one week before the race.  Skiable? Yes.  Fun?  Not in my book.  Especially when skiing in Alaska is awesome right now!

The race directors had stock-piled manmade snow, so instead of cancelling, they made the decision to shorten the race and have everybody do it on a 10K loop. Skiing on a small loop with thousands of other people on manmade snow? No thank you. We all cancelled. For Eric and me it was the third time. Are the ski gods trying to tell us something? Three strikes and we’re out? Maybe we weren’t supposed to do this race? We haven’t talked to Riley yet about next year. Are we dumb enough to sign up again? Maybe the fourth time’s a charm?!

Another Lost Cause?

Heading into this weekend, I had had another goal for several years that I kept striking out on. I had wanted to bike from our house to a cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of town. It’s possible to do this all on trails, crossing only two roads. It just seemed like a cool thing to do. Leave from our house and several hours later be at a wilderness cabin. I had seen Strava posts of others who had done it. I knew it would be between 30 and 40 miles, long but doable. But I would need to time it right, since some of the trails aren’t always in. 

I talked about it with my friend, Nikki, who was totally up for it. Several years in a row we have made reservations for Moose Creek Cabin in the spring, only to have our plans thwarted. Once it was too cold. Once it was too windy. Once it snowed too much right before the trip. Once part of the trail had been plowed for mining work.

This year Nikki and another friend, Erica, have been training to do the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350, a 350-mile bike race from Knik to McGrath. They decided the bike from Fairbanks to Moose Creek Cabin would be a good training trip. That weekend’s forecast was for really cold temps down low and windy conditions. I’m not training for a winter bike race, so I cheered them on from the comfort of home. I didn’t need that kind of suffering. Unfortunately, they bailed halfway through, where the trail crosses the Elliott Highway, partly due to equipment problems. 

Nikki and Erica on one of their cold training rides - photo from Nikki's Strava feed

If they couldn’t do it, maybe I couldn’t either. After so many tries, I wondered if I should I just forget it? Would I get to the Elliott and want to bail, too? Was this just another dream I should give up on? 

Are the Stars Aligning?

When we cancelled our Birkie plans, I started thinking. After our long cold snap, the weather had been unseasonably warm but not too warm. And we hadn’t had much snow the past month. The trails had set up nicely. Maybe this was the weekend for a Home-to-the-Whites bike trip? I quickly checked cabin reservations for Friday, but everything was booked. Not unusual but I was still a little disappointed. 

Then Eric asked if I had seen the Facebook post by an acquaintance who had booked Moose Creek Cabin Friday night but couldn’t use it. What? How lucky was that? Before Eric could say anything else, I was messaging Alyssa to see if the cabin was still available. And it was! Was my luck changing? I immediately told her I would take it.

I texted Nikki but her ITI race was just a week away, so she needed to taper. A big ride was not a smart idea. But she was curious about the part of the trail she hadn’t done and thought she might just do that part after work and meet me at the cabin later that evening. Eric didn’t want to do the whole ride either, so he decided to start at the Wickersham Dome trailhead. That was great for me since I wouldn’t have to bike all the way back home the next day. I could just bike the 16 miles with him back to the trailhead. We would all start from different points but converge on the Moose Creek Cabin. We all planned on being self-supported just in case others didn’t make it to the cabin.

All three of us make it to the cabin riding different routes

A Nearly Perfect Day

I started at about 9 AM and had good trails all the way out. It was warm up high, around 35F, but was quite a bit colder (around zero) down low in the Chatanika Valley. Some sections were a little soft and there was some overflow in the valley but nothing too bad. 

Old bus abandoned in the Chatanika valley

My body, though, didn’t feel great. I was sluggish and had no power in my legs. Between having COVID a month ago, the long cold snap, and ski-training for the Birkie, I hadn’t done a lot of biking. The route has a 5-mile climb up from the Chatanika Valley and I had to walk a lot more than I normally would. Maybe I was just out of shape for biking with a loaded bike. Maybe I was still recovering from COVID. Or maybe it was the heat. Probably a combination. 

I'm hot and have no energy and I'm tired of pushing my bike up this 5-mile hill!

Feeling so fatigued, I hoped that doing the ride wasn’t a dumb idea. But the day was beautiful and warm, and the trail conditions were incredibly good. I was taking longer than expected, but I had plenty of daylight, and if I was lucky, Eric would have all the cabin chores (warm cabin, snow melted, and fire wood gathered) done by the time I got there. 

I arrived at the cabin about an hour after Eric, who had started later in the morning, and although the chores weren’t all done, he had made a good dent in them. It was a beautiful evening. Clear skies and warm temperatures. The sunset was spectacular. 

Nikki arrived a little after dusk after a good ride. She slept outside as part of her final training for the ITI. Eric and I opted for the warmth of the cabin.

Nikki, cozy in her -20F sleeping bag on the deck

I felt much better the next morning. The trail was bomber on the way out. My legs felt better and although I was slow, I was able to ride up all the hills. It was another sunny and warm day. As we got closer to the trailhead, we passed a lot of people out on the trails. Everybody had the same idea to get out and enjoy the spring-like weather. 

Finally, A Goal Accomplished!

I’m so glad I was finally able to accomplish this goal after so many failed times. Conditions and weather could not have been better. And if we hadn’t bailed on the Birkie, it wouldn’t have happened. 

After our third strike on the Birkie, biking the Home-to-the-Whites trip felt like hitting it out of the ballpark. I’m so happy I did it on such a spectacular day! So maybe if we keep trying for the Birkie, it will all come together finally for another perfect day? What do you say, ski gods?

31 miles with 4000 feet of climbing