Chad Knezel, a 44-year-old CPA, reached out to me for advice on kick wax, as he prepared to ski his first American Birkebeiner (54-kilometer classic). Knezel describes himself as active in basketball, jogging, tennis, golf and cross-country skiing; and competitive in none. Most of his training has been on waxless skis, and on golf courses.
I have finished nine Birkies on classic skis, won an age group prize, and am always willing to share what I’ve learned. Our initial gripping exchange led to this question and answer: my advice for a Birkebeiner rookie.
Rookie: Should I carry water/Gatorade with me or will the supplies at the food stations be adequate?
The Active Pursuit: The supplies at the aid stations (eight of them) should be all you need, but I take a bottle with me just in case I get bogged down and dehydrated. In previous races, I’ve finished without touching that bottle, but the security blanket is comforting.
Rookie: Should I carry food (energy bars, fruit) with me or will the supplies at the food stations be adequate?
The Active Pursuit: Similar to the above. I like to have energy gels and a bar with me. You may reach a point where you just run out of gas and being able to refuel on the spot could be the key to making it to Hayward. No reason to feel naked out there.
Rookie: How early before my start time should I arrive at Telemark (so I am not sprinting to the start gate but also not standing in the cold for hours)?
The Active Pursuit: My wife mocks my early-to-the-start-line compulsion. I like at least an hour, and 90 minutes is even better. No matter how much time I have, I find ways to fill it – loading my drop bag, adding a layer of wax, one more trip to the portable. Going about things in a calm, un-rushed fashion helps tamp down the pre-race jitters. Plus, the Telemark Lodge and the warming tent are great places to feel the Birkie vibe.
Rookie: Prior to the race, should kick wax be applied based solely on the current air and snow temperatures, even if the forecast calls for a transition in temperatures early in the race?
The Active Pursuit: I generally have my skis waxed for the race ahead of time, then tweak the kick wax at the start. If you anticipate a change in temperatures, layer the wax for the colder start over wax for warmer temps later in the race, or alternate the warmer and colder waxes. I find corking in kick wax is another way to relieve stress.
Rookie: What wax supplies should I carry with me (how many different wax tubes, cork, other)?
The Active Pursuit: I carry a cork, small scraper and three or four kick waxes – one on either side of the wax-of-the-day, and one super soft wax, at the top end of the temperature range, in case nothing else seems to stick. The aide stations will have wax and usually somebody nearby to get you through a kick-wax disaster.
Rookie: When nature calls, how does the trail handle 13,000 skiers? Are there facilities at every rest station? Only some?
The Active Pursuit: You’re in nature, put it to use, with as much discretion as possible. But yes, there are portables at the rest stations, for matters that require a seat and paperwork. Bring your own reading materials.
Rookie: Is there a bottle neck at the bottom of every downhill due to the large number of skiers? In other words, does every downhill require a full out snowplow?
The Active Pursuit: Not in my experience. With the separate classic track through Highway OO, you should be able to ride the rails on some whoop-inducing downhills. Let ‘em run.
Rookie: How many lanes of classic trail are there in the first half of the course (prior to joining with the skate skiers)? How many lanes in the second half?
The Active Pursuit: There are nine sets of classic tracks from the start through 600 meters. The number decreases through the first few kilometers, down to three to OO, and two from there to the finish. They are all on one side of the course. Try to get a feel early on when to cut a corner across the skate lane. You can save some distance, but the extra effort may not pay off. Be patient early. People will jostle for those tracks, unnecessarily burning up energy they will wish they had going across Lake Hayward.
Rookie: What is your advice for newbies in terms of layering, over dressing, under dressing for; hands, feet, head, torso, crotch?
The Active Pursuit: Let’s start with the most important, a wind brief as an under layer. From there it really becomes a matter of personal preference. My typical Birkie outfit has been two light, wicking jerseys and a vest to keep my core warm and block the wind; thin tights under a pair of XC ski pants. I’ve come to really like those light-weight neck gators, or a balaclava with my hat, if the temps are in the teens. One pair of ski socks should be fine. I also like to wear a thin glove-liner under my ski gloves. Clearly, I’m all about layers. Nothing bulky. Bottom line: Pick clothes that you’ve been comfortable wearing in the past for running in winter or ski training, and don’t worry about being cold at the start. You’ll be toasty once you start climbing the hills.
Rookie: What is the most common thing newbies forget to bring on race day?
The Active Pursuit: Patience. It’s an old adage but a good one: “You can’t win your race in the first kilometer, but you can lose it.” From the start, be watchful and relaxed and mind your poles. Don’t worry about giving up places to the hard chargers. Find your rhythm, and look for space and clean lines. Anticipate that people will fall or do crazy things around you; so keep an eye out for your escape routes. Once things settle down, breath deep and soak in the spectacle. It is remarkable, breathtaking. Take a drink and/or food at every aide station and slow down or stop to do it. It’s amazing what 15 to 30 seconds of regrouping will do for you physically and mentally. When things go bad, focus on the amazing adventure you’re sharing and how you’ll tell the story.