The 2019 American Birkebeiner Adventure

By Guest Blogger Carlos Navarro

Warm & happy before the start!

Administrator’s Note:  Carlos is the toughest guy I know having run 35 Chicago Marathons, climbed mountains on several continents and never shied away from a challenge.   Carlos never loses. Just once in awhile, he runs out of time.

Several years ago, a work colleague of ours recommended Jim and I join him for a cross-country ski event up north in Wisconsin.  This seemed like a good idea.  Possibly an annual event to balance the summer races and fall marathon cycle.  The only problem with this good idea is that Jim and I live in the Chicago area which now a days doesn’t get the annual snow fall it once did which makes training for the Birkie challenging.

A rational person would say well that’s not for me and let it go.  Well lucky for me Jim, Lori, my brother David and his wife are not always rational people when it comes to jumping into athletic challenges and that is how we get to this year’s Birkie adventure.

I’m going to break this down into three parts: traveling to and from Hayward/Cable Wisconsin from Chicago, the race itself and the time in Birkie land not racing.  

First the race: the American Birkebeiner Classic 55K 

Race day. Saturday Brother David and his wife Kelly who had a bout of rational thought and did not race this year but did come up with their son Nick to provide support and partake in Birkie fever. Saturday morning it’s 30 overcast some snow flurries on a base of 3 feet of snow.  Perfect Birkie weather. Nevertheless, I’m nervous.  My preparation for this race consists of 2 loops of the Argonne 9.5-mile Waterfall Glenn loop and a 10-mile Kettle Moraine loop aborted after 3 miles due to ice. I’m facing a 55K hilly fast winding course and I’ve two real practice loops.  I told you I’m not rational about these things.  We all pile into David’s Volvo wagon and head for the start with WOJB on radio playing Birkie fever songs. Soon enough the songs do their job and calm my nerves.  We get to the start area and its full of energy from all the very fit Birkie racers.  Jim and I were placed in wave 5 (out of 8) which was too slow for Jim and too fast for me.  We are dressed appropriately which means that when one standing around not moving one gets cold.   Soon enough they call our wave and off we go at 9:35 AM.

The first 15K are crowded with a winding gradual elevation increase of 10M.  Jim is clipping along at a 6:36 min/K pace.  I’m doing 8:10 min/K.   This first 15K has us cross High Point at 12K which is just that the highest point in the course.  I haven’t fallen yet.  

16K – 25K OK.  No falls I’m getting the hang of this again my pace however slows 8:32 min/K.  Jim continues to fly along at 6:36 min/K.  

26K – 40K Continued up and down with a lot of long fast downhills.  I fall twice not too bad.  No blood. Even with the two falls I clock through 40K at 8:22 and Jim is at 6:44!  I’m gaining on him 😊!  

15K more to go and I’m starting to feel good about this year’s Birkie.  Reasonable performance all things considered.  The thing about a race like the Birkie is that you end up spending a good amount of time with the same group of fellow racers.  Are you picking that up, racers not just cross-country skiers.  These people are just one level below Olympians.  Yup.  That is an example of the kind of thoughts that go through your head after hours out on the trail.  It’s how I justify my pace.   Then it happened.  Just as I’m starting to feel good about this race, I fall. I fall hard at the end of a fast winding run and I cracked a rib.  Hmmm.  Shake it off and keep on going.  I see David and Kelly on the course. Wow.  What an unexpected boost.  Now I start to count down the kilometers and when I get to 50K I frame it as only a 5K more to go, it will be easy because the last 1.8K is over a lake which means flat.  I figure by now Jim is done. I was wrong he was done a long time ago.  When I was at the 45K point he was crossing the finish line.  Wow he is fast.

52K – 55K – Hayward Lake!  Almost eureka. I want to think that I’m keeping my pace going but I feel I’m slowing down a bit.  Turns out I was right.  I averaged 8:32 for the last 15K.  Jim on the other hand realized he might not break 6:00 hours so he stepped it up.  How he was able to do the math while on the trail is beyond me.  He averaged 6:28 Min/K for the last 15K.  OK I’ve 2.8K more to go and I’m giving it all I have.  Crossing the lake, I see David, Kelly, Nick and Dennis Kelly’s dad out there about half a mile from the finish cheering me on.  Wow again.  At this point I’m giving it all I got, and Nick is running next to me cheering me on.  Either he is very fast or I’m very slow.  On to the streets of Hayward up and over the American bridge across the finish line.   Done!  I finished in 7:51 137 out of 149 in my age group.  Jim finished in 5:58 he hit is goal of sub 6:00 hours.  Amazing given what he went through last April, you know the golf ball in the head episode.  

Birkie Land Time not racing

Friends and exhaustion make any food taste great.

The race now behind us its time to enjoy a good meal with friends and family.  Dave drives us all back to Kelly’s cousin’s amazing cabin, nothing like a hot shower after 55K and we head out to the Garmisch for dinner.  It’s become a tradition of sorts that after the race we eat at a table at the bar which is perfect.  Great conversation lots of laughs, excellent cheeseburgers made better with cold beer and fries.  Its at this point that we start to make plans for next year’s Birkiebeiner.  Yup with more time dedicated to practice I’m sure I can break 6:30 maybe even 6:00!  One can always dream.   Jim hit his goal of breaking 6:00 hours not quite up to his record finish but truly an amazing time given his limited practice for this race.

Back at the cabin after the dinner we had a nice conversation with Mike, Bill, Ralph and Clay who are friends of Jeff who is a friend of one of Kelly’s other cousins.  The common thread across these guys is that they are all excellent cross-country skiers they are all avid fishers and their love of the outdoors be it mountain climbing biking or skiing.  Turns out that Kelly’s dad is also a serious fisherman.  More great conversation.   I’ve heard said that runners are generally nice people.  I think what’s more accurate is that people in general are nice and that people who are active are even nicer.

Traveling to and from Cable Wisconsin from Chicago

Cable Wisconsin is 435 miles away which is normally a 7-hour trip.  Jim and I did it up there in about that time on Friday.  The time went by catching up on family Ridgeline tour adventures (Jim’s) and work (me).  The drive back home was a different story.  We caught some serious snow whiteout weather which turned the northern first four hours into six hours.  We had Lori’s amazing Infiniti SUV which made a tough drive doable.  Clearly the drive would have been easy in Jim’s Ridgeline.  Happy to report that all parties made it home without incident.  Sore stiff late and happy to be home.

In summary what makes the Birkie adventure worth doing each year is more than the race.  Don’t get me wrong the race is part of it but it is more a barometer to checkpoint one’s athletic health each year to see how one is doing; am I getting slower or faster given all that is going on in one’s life.

I want to thank my buddy Jim for being a key part of the reason I did it this year.  If he hadn’t been poking me about my practice or lack thereof and driving me up to the icy trails of Kettle Moraine I might have done the rational thing and said no.  I’m not prepared for 55K.  I can tell you all of us flatlanders who went up to Birkie land are happy that we did.  I got a chance to catch up with Jim, we renewed friendships with Bill and Jeff and made new friends with Mike, Chad and Ralph and got to hear the those wonderful Birkie fever songs again.

Out of gas at the end

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