Monday, March 21, 2016

Kilometer 448

On Tuesday we flew to Oslo and took the train to Lillehammer. We had a couple of days to explore before the Birkebeiner and we thought staying in Lillehammer, the site of the finish of the Birkie, would be a fun way to relax. Lillehammer is the site of the 1994 winter olympics and the town breathes winter sports. The olympic skiing and biathlon stadium is in the hills outside of town, ski jumps over look the valley and there are facilities for Hockey. Of course, ski trails connect everything. Wednesday we went for a great 35km ski to check out the Birkie trail and to explore Sjusjøen, one of the last towns you ski through during the race. Sjusjøen is known for it’s amazing ski trails and it is the epicenter of more than 2500km of trails. The temps were warm and it was nice to ski in t-shirts. The klister skiing was great and the views were even better!

Thursday we went on another nice ski, explored town and picked up our bibs from Haakon Haakosson hall before heading to Elverum (closer to the start of the race, Rena) to meet and stay with Hallvard and Unn, friends of friends of Tyler. Years ago, Tyler’s dad and his friend John stayed with them when they raced the Birkebeiner. Hallvard put immediate pressure on us to best their times.

Brown cheese, coffee and waxing. What could be better?

            Our pre-race workout was exploring Elvrum and drinking coffee and we felt fairly refreshed when we woke at 5:00AM to travel to Rena, where the Birkebeiner began. The Birkebeiner, like the Vasaloppet, is rooted in history. In the late 1100s and early 1200s, factions in Norway battled each other for political control. One of these, the Birkebeiners (which means “birch leg”), was so poor that they used birch bark to protect their legs and feet instead of socks and shoes. The strife endangered baby prince Haakon Haakonsson and to protect him, Birkebeiner soldiers skied him to safety 1206, purportedly resting in Lillehammer, where the race ends, over Christmas. Today, all skiers, from the winners to today’s crown prince, Haakon Magnus (who has skied the Birkebeiner the last two years), wear backpacks weighing 3.5 kilograms to symbolize the burden of the baby. The race travels over exposed mountains from Rena to Lillehammer, which was, or at least represents, the route the Birkebeiners skied. In the end, baby prince Haakon grew up to be the king that restored stability to Norway. I’m afraid our backpacks have no such potential.

            The race is hard. It starts at its lowest point and climbs almost 600 meters over the first 20 kilometers before dropping 200. Another 250 meter climb follows starting at about 27 kilometers and it isn’t until 40 kilometers into the race that the long descent towards the Lillehammer stadium begins. While last year’s race winner double poled, we decided that would be a foolish choice for us. We used a Rex skare blue klister binder with violet klister on top for kick and, in the cold-ish, sugary tracks, our waxed worked well.
            Although there are over 10,000 skiers who ski the Birkebeiner, the race starts groups of about 300 individually so that the trails are not too congested. We started in wave 2, five minutes behind the elite skiers. Despite the difficulty of the course and the cumulative effect of the last nine marathons on our bodies, we both skied smart, well-paced races, starting slowly and then moving up through our group. The later hills in the race were certainly a grind, but neither of us hit walls like we did in the Vasaloppet (we attribute part of this success to the coke and coffee feeds the race gave out with 12 kilometers to go). Tyler had the race of the day, finishing in 3:05:03 for 287th place. Jackson finished in 3:10:27 for 405th. Both of us earned our “merket,” or mark (25% time back from our age group winner), which is so prestigious in Norway that many business executives put it on their CVs. The historic, beautiful race was the perfect cap to our racing experience in Europe.

We got our marks!
            With our bodies beginning to grow weary from the travel and toil, we now head home to Maine. We feel lucky that our trip went so smoothly and are exceptionally grateful to all those who helped us and hosted us along the way. Everyone’s generosity was staggering. The Vasaloppet registration for 2017 already filled up this morning, but with some race cancellations and holes in our schedule, we still have to race 10 more Worldloppets to check them all off of our list. So we suspect we’ll be back. It is definitely bittersweet to see the end of the trip but we are both excited to move on to the next adventures. Tyler has picked up a job teaching at Maranacook through the end of the school year and Jackson is going to spend some time painting commissions before deciding what's next.

the trophy

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Engadin: a tale of two races (and delaminated boots)

Jackson spent the week leading up to Engadin traveling around Switzerland and meeting up with his family, who came from Maine to visit and race the Engadin themselves. He went to Lucerne to walk on bridges and learn about trains and even found time to take pictures pictures of birds.

Swan butts and Swiss Alps
 Meanwhile, Tyler and Jada took the train to Östersund to find more skiing! Östersund was an amazing town and everything was focused on winter activities. Here is a photo recap of their adventures.

We took a day trip to Åre and went crust skiing

Skating and Skiing on the lake in Östersund

On Friday we all met up in S-Chanf, a small town in the Engadin valley and the finish of the Engadin Marathon.

We get really excited about carry the ski bag around

Jackson's dad skiing in the Engadin Valley

Dana skiing close to the finish

One of our better waxing locations
Jackson and Tyler had very different race trajectories during the Engadin. We started together in a pack of 300 other skiers. Everyone is very intense about being close to the front of the pack regardless of how fast they are so we found ourselves packed in like sardines 15 minutes before the start. When the gun went off hundreds of skiers poured out of the start onto a lake that was groomed 10 or 12 groomers wide. With so many skiers trying to skate it was a crazy start and every now and again you would see a skier get tangled with another and fall as if they had been shot by an arrow from the sky. Tyler's race went quite well and he was able to stick with the second chase pack of 20 or so skiers. Near the end of the race Tyler was able to avoid the carnage as everyone jostled for position and he finished 65th in a very tight sprint finish about 6 minutes behind the winners. The result comes in second for the 'highlight of the race' because early in the race he was able to ski next to Dario Cologna for a kilometer or so.

And for Jackson....

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... it was the season of light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” As Tyler mentioned, our Engadin was a tale of two races.
            The start was the most cramped and chaotic we have experienced so far. We could hear the yells of skiers as the fell all around us or were taken out by those on the ground in front of them. It was a battle field of a ski track and self-preservation was the main goal for the first three kilometers. At this I failed. After about two kilometers of double poling and weaving in and out of the mass, I crashed into a skier who fell right in front of me and ended up sprawled across the trail. I hurriedly got up and fell over again immediately, unable to balance. What the heck was wrong? My skis were flopping around underneath me as I made my way over to the side of the trail to check my bindings, but they were intact so I carried on. At that point I was far behind where I wanted to be so I skied with urgency, but this exacerbated the ski flopping and after several more inexplicable near-falls, I pulled off of the trail to reexamine. Ah. That would do it. Somehow, the soles on both my boots had been ripped halfway off my foot, such that the soles were attached to my skis at my bindings and to my feet at my heels.
            This made skier a little harder, but it was early enough in the race that I accepted the circumstances and decided to make the next 40 kilometers a fun adventure. I double poled, I marathon skated, and managed to skate on sections of the trail that were wide and flat and straight. I tried to ski outside the packs of skiers, a poor race strategy, but I was a ticking time bomb and did not want to take anyone out with an ill-timed fall. On the course’s steepest downhill, the race emcee announced, “Here comes American Jackson Bloch” as I slogged down the hill in a snowplow that would give my ski coach Nathan nightmares, and then I wiped out anyway as I tried to navigate the soft snow and sharp corner. But I also gave the fans on the course big smiles and comic relief as I floundered past.

            In the end, I finished in 325th, still among those that I started with in my wave. It wasn’t the race I’d envisioned, but it was fun nonetheless and perhaps a more interesting story. 
Jackson's Family, The Messerli's (Jackson's family friends) and Jada all came to watch the race!

Dario has a fan club

Now we are in Norway preparing for the Birkebeiner, which, thank goodness, is a classic race. We
are very excited for one last adventure!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Vasaloppet

Between Sunday and Wednesday we were very lucky to be staying with Kajsa and Lars, friends of Jackson's family's friends in Stockholm. They were unbelievable hosts and helped us find skiing in an otherwise brown city, pointed out the coolest places to visit and treated us to an amazing dinner overlooking the city. Highlights of our stay included skiing inside the 1912 Olympic stadium and visiting the Vasa Musuem (look this up!)

Skiing in the 1912 Olympic Stadium
New Vattenfall Swedish Ski Team hats!

Outside of Stockholm
Stockholm at sunset

On Thursday we took the the train to Mora to explore before the Vasaloppet. Mora eat sleeps and breathes the Vasaloppet in the week leading up to the main event and there are all sorts of other races that go on. All in all over 66,000 people participated in Vasa races throughout the week! Main street was covered in snow for the finishing stretch, huge tents had been set up for restaurants, registration and vendors and music was playing all of the time. In the days leading up to the race we were able to explore the course, buy a lot of cool gear and try to rest up for the race.

On Saturday both Jada (Tyler's girlfriend) and Christine joined us for the weekend festivities. Jada and Christine both went to Bowdoin as well. Christine is studying for her Masters in Lund, Sweden and Jada has come to join the adventure for the next week!

Exploring the Vasaloppet trail
            We woke up at 3:00 AM on Sunday morning to catch a bus from Mora to Sälen, where the Vasaloppet starts. Although we went to bed at a reasonable time the night before, we figured there was a chance we would be racing for a longer time than we had slept. That’s not the best race preparation. Thousands of others also took the early buses, many already in their ski boots and bibs. We could tell the race would be competitive because elbows were thrown as we jostled for position to get on one of the many buses.
            The stadium was already buzzing, and probably had been for a few hours, when we arrived at 6:00AM. We had used previous results from the winter to move our starting position to the first starting section, right behind the elite skiers, so there were only about 400 other skiers in our pen. But the zones behind us (2-10) were increasingly large and skiers apparently got to the start as early as 4 or 5 AM to claim a spot. When we arrived, people were waiting in hour-long lines to enter their respective start areas. The lines to the porta potties were equally interminable.
photo credit: Vasaloppet
photo credit: Vasaloppet
Finally, at 8:00AM, the banners in front of the elite skiers rose and the race started. We were near the front and began moving instantly, but the mass 15,000 skiers behind us mostly stood still, waiting for some space to open up before them.

photo credit: Vasaloppet
The Vasaloppet is very flat, but there is a 2km hill with 200 meters of vertical gain right at the beginning of the course. Many top marathon skiers are now choosing to completely double pole classic races, meaning they do not put kick wax on their skis and just use their arms and upper body (more or less) to ski the course. This decision weighs the tradeoff between more slippery skis (skis that don’t have kick wax) and more efficient uphill skiing (traditional classic striding). Recently, most of the winners of races have chosen to double pole, so it’s becoming a popular fad and we joined in.
            This decision made the first hill hurt, but the mass of skiers, even near the front where we were, created a large bottleneck and we were able to ski slowly and conserve energy. Behind us, again, most skiers stood still and it took some in the very back over 2 hours to ski the first 5 kilometers.
photo credit: Vasaloppet
In a flat, 90 kilometer race, our main focuses were fueling well and skiing in a group to take advantage of the draft. We didn’t perfect the fueling, but there were enough aid stations and we carried enough gels (Jackson carried 900 calories of GU, gross) with us to feel strong for the majority of the race. Skiing in a group was easy because hundreds of skiers stretched out in front of us and thousands followed behind. Over 90 kilometers, we were never alone.
            It is pretty easy to shut off your brain as the kilometers tick by, but both of us remember painfully hitting a wall about five kilometers from the finish. Those may be the hardest five kilometers we’ve ever skied. Fortunately, fans line the course from about two kilometers to the end, so there is a lot of external motivation to finish well. In the end, Tyler finished in 321st in a time of 4:35:25 and Jackson finished in 340th in a time of 4:37:11, possibly unable to remember his name but his arms still raised in celebration.

Here is a link to see the race data from Tyler's watch. We raced all the way from Sälen to Mora!: 


We were lucky to have Jada and Christine cheering for us at several of the aid stations along the course. Despite the Vasaloppet preparing of 7,000 liters of blueberry soup for participants, we didn’t try any. Two days later, our arms are still sore but we’ve regained full cognitive abilities (we think). Jackson is now in Zürich, where he will meet his family before going to St. Moritz for the Engadin and Tyler and Jada are visiting Östersund, Sweden before joining everyone in Switzerland.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Kilometers 220-262: The Finlandia-Hiihto Marathon

For those who are keeping track we have added four races to our original schedule and two have been cancelled. This along with some of the races being shortened means that we will race a total of ten races totaling 448 kilometers. Three weekends to go and only 186 kilometers left!

Before traveling to Lahti, where the Finlandia-Hiihto is held, we spent a couple of days in Helsinki where we stayed with Anssi, Emmi, and their two kids. We connected with them through a mutual friend and had a really nice visit. They prepared some traditional Finnish food for us, including a cheesy desert called Leipäjuusto (pronounced ???), which is made from the rich milk of a cow that has just recently calved, as well as Karelian pastries, which are sort of like open pockets of rice porridge wrapped in a thin rye crust. After a sauna, we all watched the finals of Finland’s Eurovision Song Contest qualification, a European music competition at which Finland is notoriously bad, which topped off our traditional Finnish experience.
            We spent time exploring Helsinki as well. With a big harbor full of boats, lots of little islands, and a winding, rocky coastline, it reminded us a lot of Portland, ME. The connection to home made our time in Helsinki both very comfortable and reflective, which was a nice way to enter the last month of our trip.
On the move. We have a love/hate relationship with that bag. Anssi and Emmi lent us their daughter's sled to ease our walk to the bus stop.

We travelled to Lahti three days before the Finlandia-Hiihto. The city was buzzing. Groups of important looking master skiers walked the streets in droves and more than once we saw panicked Italian men running around with their skis. We went skiing several times at the World Cup venue, which is also where our race was held. The stadium and grooming are on par with the world’s best, with bridges and tunnels leading in and out of the stadium, and the trails extend over 50 kilometers out into the surrounding forest. The trees are mostly Scots Pines, which lose their bottom branches as they grow older. Snow collects on the branch stubs, creating a striking pattern on the trees and giving the ski trails a unique feel.
Evening ski. This trail was part of the race course!
Beautiful Lahti Forests. Mostly Scots Pines!

We continue to get creative with our wax set-up

As any hard core competitor would do, we started our race morning with a nice walk to get a couple of Espressos. When we had gotten our fix we then went made the 15 minute walk to Lahti stadium to test our wax and prep for the race. We continued to be very impressed with the race organization and our pre-race experience was great. There was a huge gymnasium/exhibition hall for us to store our skis and gear and for us to spread out before the race. The weather conditions could not have been better for waxing for a classic race and we found dialing in our skis to be very easy. For those who are interested this was our choice (fresh snow: dry, fine, untransformed, temps: -6 C warming to -3C, snowing lightly at the beginning and then sun): for glide we went with a Start Green, SkiGo HF Blue and Swix FC100 fluoro powder with a broken structure. For kick we ironed in a layer of Toko green base binder, corked in a layer of Swix v40 and then topped that off with 4 thin layers of SkiGo HF purple kick wax. We both thought the skis were great!

Entrance to the stadium
We couldn't have asked for better ski conditions and we both agree this was our coolest marathon yet. We started in the world cup stadium and climbed over the bridge and up behind the ski jumps before disappearing into the woods for 40km. We passed lakes, farm fields, downhill slopes and wove our way between towering pines. At 41km the race comes back out of the woods behind the ski jumps over looking the town before you descend on a screaming downhill back into the stadium. The tracks were fast, the competition was fierce and the sun was shining. What else could you ask for? Tyler finished in 28th position as the 4th non-Finnish skier (and he beat Jari Isometsa, a Finnish world cup skier from the 90's and 00's who got caught for doping at the 2001 World Championships) and Jackson finished 49th. Jackson was able to race with Riitta Liisa Roponen (currently on the Finnish women's world cup team) for most of the race...until she toasted him in the last 3km!

To see a map of the race and data collected from Tyler's watch click the link below. The time is a little off because the watch was started early.

Finlandia-Hiihto 42km Rac...

Here is a link to a short youtube video of the start and finish taken from a drone:

Jackson being interviewed
After the finish the day only got better. We were very happy that Anssi and Emmi were able to make the drive from Helsinki and they greeted us at the finish with huge cheers. It was really cool to be able to share the experience with them and see that they had so much fun watching! In fact, we may have convinced Anssi to race next year! (maybe...)

Morthen, our Norwegian friend that we met at the Jami42.

We are now in Stockholm training, exploring and gearing up for the Vasaloppet. We travel to Mora on Thursday!