Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Birkebeiner

The weather forecast was too good to pass up.

I’ve wanted to participate in the iconic 54 kilometer Birkebeiner cross-country race for years. If cross-country skiing is Norway’s national sport, the Birkebeiner is its biggest festival, attracting thousands of participants. In previous years, all the slots got sold out months in advance of the event.

Every year, I’ve had some excuse. My skis are too old and crappy. I only run/bike/backcountry ski anyway, I’m not a cross-country ski racer. I don’t want to sign up for months in advance to ski the Birkebeiner in bad weather. In 2007 and 2014, the weather was so bad the race got cancelled - what it that happens again?

This year, the stars aligned. I finally bought new cross-country skis, and had enthusiastically put in a couple of long training sessions on them. The Birkebeiner, for some reason, has nose-dived in popularity, so much so that there were many available slots the week before the race. And then there was the weather: Big sun, all day. All the signs in the universe were telling me to just do it!

So that’s how I ended up on my balcony on Thursday night, skis set-up on a make-shift waxing bench of two chairs, waxing my little heart out. Long-time readers might remember my waxing woes from the 2014 Holmenkollmarsjen; I was determined to start the Birkebeiner with The Right Wax. I studied Swix’s guide obsessively and bought a few more tubes of kick wax as back up, to cover every range of temperatures I could plausibly meet, from -10°C to +10°C.

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My waxing bench. This is totally how the pros do it.

I even planned to cart a whole variety of waxes with me over the mountain. After all, the race requires you to carry a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kg (symbolizing the weight of the infant king for whom the race commemorates) throughout the race. Since I wanted to use one of my small running vests, I had trouble making the weight requirement even after adding a rainbow of waxes and all the obligatory bad-weather clothing.

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Obsessively weighing my backpack. 50 grams below the requirement, have to find something more to add!

To push my backpack over the weight requirement, I ended up with some rather unorthodox items. There was a 750g plastic bag containing assorted coins and small rocks, including the rock I carried for the last 25 K of Oslo Ecotrail last year. And then there was a small bottle of plum schnapps. 

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This is not obligatory equipment in the Birkebeiner. I carried it anyway.

After a fitful night’s sleep at a hotel in Hamar, I rolled out of bed and wolfed down eggs and toast at the breakfast buffet, which conveniently opened 2 hours early that Saturday for the Birkebeiner racers. The following hours were spent in a whirlwind of logistics: getting to the bus stop to the start at Rena, getting on line to pick up my bib, marking my skis and backpack with race stickers, changing my shoes and braiding my hair. By the time I had handed in my luggage to be transported over the mountain and applied a final layer of kick wax, I only had 10 minutes to go before my start and no time to get nervous.

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Racers line up at the start at Rena.

I was starting in wave 13, aeons after the elite skiers. My wave was open to everyone, whereas earlier waves were only for those who had participated in qualifying races. The people lining up around me ran the gamet from faster-looking guys in full lycra to older woman with a few pounds extra, not counting their race backpacks. I lined up in the middle of the field, not sure where I would end up in this mix.

The sun was shining, and I chatted with a girl lined up next to me who seemed very nervous. “You can do this!” I encouraged her, silently also encouraging myself. “It’s going to be a beautiful day! Just enjoy yourself and ski!” I only hoped that the sun wouldn’t melt the snow too much, changing the waxing conditions.

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Lined up at the start. I sure am glad I remembered my sun glasses!

The gun went off, and the mass of people in front of me started moving forward. There were 8 sets of tracks heading off into the forest, and despite thousands of skiers already having used them that day they were in OK shaped. 

I soon realized that I was going to be passing people today, and after the initial chaos I moved towards the left sets of tracks where the pace was faster. I tried to check myself, reminding myself that there was more than 50K left of this race. I soon settled into a comfortably groove, letting skiers in front of me set the pace until I decided to jump passed them. The first 12K of the course are gradually uphill, but rarely steep enough to push me out a gliding diagonal stride.

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The sign says 52K to finish. I found this funny as it seemed ridiculously far.

 It was relatively warm out, and soon I was passing people who had stopped to change or rewax there skis. Happily, my kick wax was working perfectly, although I was too warm. I decided to wait for the first aid station and see if I still felt like taking off my shell jacket then.

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Big sun, all day!

This turned out to be a good call. As the course climbed, the terrain grew more open and occasional chilly gusts of wind cooled me off. I marvelled at the number of people sitting along the course, spectating the race. Whole families had skiied up, dug benches in the snow and were merrily grilling hot-dogs over camp fires while watching racers go past. I idled wondered how many of the spectators would be there if the weather weren’t so great.

At each aid station, I had a volunteer refill the soft flask I was carrying. I was trying to minimize the volume of drinking water I carried, since whatever I drank during the race wouldn’t count towards my overall backpack weight at the end of the race. Still, refilling the bottle at every end station turned out to be pretty clumsy. I had forgotten how the combination of ski poles with velcro straps and gloves numbs your fine motor skills!

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Views from the Birkebeiner course.

An hour in, the first big climb was over, and there was the blissful relief of whizzing downhill and across a flat section. Unfortunately, I was losing time to people around me on the flat section. Try as I might to double pole powerfully, I still can’t seem to muster the force that many others can.

I fidgeted with my bib continually. It’s designed with a loop around the neck and a drawstring that goes around the waist, but my torso was too short for it so it often rode up. I wished I had thought to secure it with some safety pins. As I poled, the cuff of my glove pushed my watch strap up and down, rubbing my wrist raw. I tried to pull my glove cuff over my watch, but it didn’t help and soon a glove/watch blister formed.

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Double-poling along a flat section. (This photo from the race organizers has a weird exposure - it was still sunny out!)

The course continued to climb gradually. It was a gorgeous day to be out and I was enjoying it, until I hit a low point around 30K. It was then I realized that I was getting tried, and that I still had more than 20K to go. I identified the source of my fatigue as not enough calories, and consumed the magical double espresso gel I had hoarded for just this. It was hard to eat enough with poles and everything, and I guess I should have had some snacks between the hotel breakfast at 6 am and my 9 am start.

To cheer myself up, I started to examine the bibs of those around me and realized that most were marked as being from wave 10. That meant they had started a full 20 minutes ahead of me! I’m beating you by 20 minutes, I silently crowed at another racer, and you. and you!

After Sjusjøen, the last 20K of the race are mostly downhill. Some of the downhills were steep, and the trail was dived into two sets of icy tracks from people snowplowing. Signs indicated that slower skier should hold the right track. I jumped into the left track and whizzed by some people snowplowing, barely braking. Why ruin the free speed? Still, I soon ended up in line behind someone snowplowing in the left track. Then a skier in the right track fell over, and suddenly there was a pile-up going on in front of me. Ok Molly, use your backcountry skills! I thought, and jumped out of the trail, neatly skirting around the pile of fallen skiers.

I continued on, feeling cocky as hell. When I ended up behind another snowplowing skier, I decided to try my jump-off-the-trail manoeuvre again. This time, it didn’t go so well. I hooked my skinny cross-country skis on something and went down hard on my face. Sun glasses filled with snow, I jumped up and skied on, nursing my scratched hip and my bruised ego.

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My scratched up hip (photo taken at the finish).

The final stretch of the race whizzed by, and I hammered the final uphill, trying to give everything I had. So I was entering Birkebeiner stadium, and poling the final stretch to the finish. I crossed the finish line, hardly daring to believe it when my watch claimed I had skied the 54K course in 4 hours and 33 minutes. My original goal had been sub 5-hours - I beat that by a long shot!

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Poling the final stretch to the finish.

While I’m still not a cross-country racer by any means, the Birkebeiner ski race was a good test of fitness and I’m glad I got to ski over the mountain on such a beautiful day. Now I just have to learn to double pole powerfully!

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 - The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, March 3, 2017

The loop

Imagine a tangerine sky lit by the slanted light of the sun, just skimming the horizon. Layers of pillowy clouds reflect the light, turning the scene into a Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds-eqse expanse. Those ephemeral moments around sunrise, when the sky slowly morphs through a spectrum of color, will never cease to mesmerize me.

Regular readers might image me to be somewhere high up in the mountains or deep in the forest at this point. But alas, a car zooming by breaks me from my reverie and I am brought back to the reality of my bike commute. 

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Sunrise on the commute

Several days a week, I ride my bike the 16 kilometers each way to and from work. After about 5 kilometers, I pass by a station that measures the number of cyclists passing by each day. In the summer, the number is easily 500 or more. In the winter months, it dwindles to maybe 50.

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On a particularly ill-fated morning, only 29 people had passed the bike counting station before me.

I’m lucky enough to have a bike path, cleared and salted throughout the winter, available for most of the distance. Since I only have to think about cars at the few places where the bike path crosses the road, I’m free to wear headphones. I listen to tons of podcasts, but sometimes I think listening is too active of a term. The podcasts buzz in the background; sometimes I absorb the information, tucking away fun facts for later. Other times I zone out, allowing my mind to wander above the chitter-chatter of the podcast hosts. Having completed this commute, at last count, 113 times each way, I can navigate on autopilot.

Although I enjoy exploring new places, the repetitive nature of commuting has a certain aspect of discovery. There’s the changing of the seasons, of course. In the winter in Norway the amount of daylight changes rapidly from day to day. In January all of my commutes are in the dark; by February usually bookended by either sunrise or sunset. There are also incremental changes in the scenery. A sign that has been knocked over over the weekend. The progression of roadwork; new paint on a building. 

And my body feels different every day. My relative state of fatigue seems to reflect onto the terrain around me, steepening the hills on some days. Other days I grind along, mashing my gears and regretting not selecting a less strenuous mode of transport. But somehow, if I manage to get out the door and onto my bike, I always get where I’m going.

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Self-portrait on fresh snow

On the commute, I often see the same people over and over. Those who stick out the commute through the winter are mostly men. Some are serious and concentrated, other smile with some inner joy as they pedal through the world. I like to think I am the latter most days, although I do consider myself a woman on a mission.

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Regretting my decision to ride one rainy February morning.

A bike commute can encompass every shade of being. Some days I sleep in, and jump out of bed and into my bike clothes, shoving breakfast in my backpack for later before blearily rolling my bike out the door. Over the course of the next forty-five to fifty-five minutes I wake, enjoying fresh morning air. Other days I have to bargain with myself to ride my bike. The ultimate trick up my sleeve is the delicious bakery at the top of the highest hill on my commute. On the days when I lack motivation, the promise of a cinnamon roll or croissant at the bakery might just do the trick. 

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The reward of a cinnamon roll carried me to work.

The more I commute by bike, I hope, the more it will become a natural extension of me. A loop so automatic I will stop questioning the ice and the rain and snow and just keep pedalling. Someday.

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Rain on wet ice make for unpleasant riding.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Snapshots from Japanuary

Among skiers, Japan as a ski destination is kind of a holy grail. People gush about how much it snows, how there’s powder all the time. It’s the most amazing place they’ve skied, everyone says. I went to Hokkaido for the last two weeks of January, pursuing the myth of Japanuary. Having high expectations is a dangerous game, and although I had a great time, I want to be honest.

Skiing in Japan, like all places, has its ups and downs. There’s powder, but there’s also competition for it. There’s amazing tree skiing, but the runs are short because the resorts don’t have big vertical fall.


Look, I jumped! Both my skis were in the air!

The terrain was insanely fun, if you are willing to punch a couple of trees. Most of skiing in Japan was mastering the art of squeezing between increasingly tight trees to find an original line. Audun had a little too close encounter with a tree in Rutsusu on the first day, and managed to break his wrist. We spent 4 hours in the emergency room in Kutchan, where they get so many tourists that they actually had translators on hand.



With Audun resting up his arm, I explored the enormous Niseko resort with friends Vibeke, David, Hilde, Solenne and Lars. In Niseko, almost everyone is foreign. Most of the people working in shops and restaurants are Australian. It is, in fact, the least Japanese place I have been in Japan. There’s also an enormous amount of competition for the powder, especially anything that’s remotely life accessible. 

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David digs the view of Mt Yotei from the backcountry of the Niseko resort.

If you’re willing to earn at least some of your turns, it's much easier to find untracked snow. With the help of Hilde, who had skied in the area before, we managed to find the promised powder and enjoyed great turns. The Niseko resorts cover about half of a round, volcanic mountain. If you climb up to the top of the mountain and ski down the backside, you can be in for a treat.

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Skinning back to Niseko from Goshiki onsen

It only took a couple of days for Audun to decide that skiing with one arm in a sling was a good idea. Honestly, if you are not skiing, there’s not a ton to do in Niseko other than visit onsen, hot springs. (We spent some time in onsen as well, unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos).

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The one-armed telemarker in action

The snowfall seems to vary locally in Hokkaido, and we observed that a ski area called Kiroro was getting a lot more snow than Niseko. It turned out to be more than worth the 1 hour drive to ski all day in thickly falling snow. The world was our playground in Kiroro. That is, after we had stood in line to get the required backcountry passes. There are lots of rules about going off piste in Japan, and they vary from resort to resort. Coming from Norway, where the very idea of restricting an area from skiers is laughable, it was sometimes hard to be patient.

Good things come to those who wait!

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Hilde blasts through the pow in the thickly falling snow in Kiroro.

Another problem I encountered was the ‘everything was better last season’ mentality. According to most of the people we talked to, this was a bad snow year in Japan. When we said things like, “Well, there’s still a lot of powder compared to Norway!”, people would shrug it off and continue to insist that this was the worst snow year ever, and that everything was terrible. I guess this is true of most places - you remember the epic days and forget mediocre ones.


Vibeke smiles in anticipation of POW!

 On our friends' last day, we skied in Niseko again, for once in bouts of sun. Despite competition for the powder, we found of own little powder paradise - albeit with some traversing - in the Annapuri area.


Powder and bamboo shoots.

After our friends left, Dad arrived. We started by taking him to Kiroro, which upheld the standard from our previous visit. And now we knew how to get in line for the backcountry passes as fast as possible!

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Dad gets aggressive in Kiroro.

The next day brought high winds, and we feared that many of the lifts would be closed. Audun decided to rest his broken wrist again, while Dad and I decided to go skinning on the backside of Niskeo mountain. The strong winds and low visibility virtually limited us to skiing below treeline. Despite the adverse conditions, the snow collected throughout the day and we got in some laps in deep pow in the trees.

Our last day in the Niseko area, the weather had cleared off and we hoped that the storm had deposited lots of snow at the Rutsutsu ski area. Unfortunately a lot of it had been packed by the strong wind. But it you bypass the ‘Danger! Keep out!’ signs and are willing to skin out afterwards, good things can come your way...


Ready for an adventure!

Next we travelled to the Furano region, for a new host of mountains to explore. We rented a Japanese style apartment on the outskirts of Furano town, and were delighted when we realized we could go skiing right out of our back door!

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Skinning through the trees in Furano

It was a beautiful, but very cold day in Furano, and although the snow was good, the terrain just out of our back door wasn’t steep enough for much fun. We got a map and some advice from an Australian working in a ski shop, and decided to try a ski tour in the Tokachi mountains the next day. This turned out to be a total bust - the wind had collected the snow on the west-facing aspect near our apartment, but blow it off the main, east-facing aspects of the Tokachi mountains. What I can’t recommend enough, however, are the onsen (hot springs) of Tokachi. Fukiage Onsen is hands down the best onsen I’ve been to in Japan. There were amazing outdoor pools, built out of natural stones, with all different temperatures of water.

Despite the disappointing skiing in Tokachi, we now knew that all the good snow was on the west facing slopes near our house. We just had to find the right slope. After pouring over our topo maps, we picked out a route that looked promising, up some slopes near Ashibestudake. It was a total gamble - we didn’t even know if we were allowed to ski in the valley we were headed to!

The gamble paid off. Big time. It turned out a group of Americans was being guided on the same mountain as we planned to climb. They were being driven in on scooters by some locals, packing down the flat skin into the valley into a manageable trail. In addition, we could trade off with them breaking trail. And in this serious deep snow, breaking trail was hard work.


I’m smiling because I don’t have to break trail, so everything is easy.

It was totally worth all the work. Although we didn’t make it up to the top of any mountain due to low visibility and potential avalanche danger, our descent through the trees was the best of the trip. Waist-deep powder, completely unmarked, all for us. No worrying, just point your skis downhill and fall with them.

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Audun cruising through the pow

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Dad finds an open glad in the trees.

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Audun didn’t let his broken arm stop him jumping off stuff.

Suffice to say we went back the next day. Unfortunately the temperature had risen, and powder had compacted. It wasn’t the same magic as the day before, but we still got in some good turns.


Heavier pow, but still so. Deep!

On our final day, a big storm rolled into Furano, and we decide try our luck with the lifts. The snow that fell added to the already deep powder, compacting into extremely heavy, almost cement-like snow. It was hard to move forward off of the groomed pistes. At one point, I was actually stuck in waist-deep snow for a couple of minutes, kicking with all my might to get out. In the end, we had to contain ourselves to the pistes - there was simply too much snow!

Sayonara for now Japanuary - you were wonderful!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What's up 2017?!

My crew of merry friends rang in the New Year with the traditional activity (swimming in an icy lake) once again.

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Sigmund exits the ice.

It was windy, and fresh snow had covered over the hole that had been dug in the ice the previous day. Luckily we mark the swimming hole with sticks, so it was a quick job to recover it!

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The worst part is after you get out of the water - walking on the snow to your towel is sooo cold!

The snow that covered the swimming hole also yielded the promise of skiing after a Christmas of rain and ice. We put in some laps behind the cabin where we were staying, and were rewarded for our hard work breaking trail with powder runs. New year, fresh snow!

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This is the definition of fun skiing. 

As it turns out I’ve got a lot already planned for 2017! Here’s what there is to look forward to, adventure-wise:

This weekend I’m headed for Hokkaido, Japan for two weeks to ski the famously abundant Japanese powder, woohoo! 

For the first half of 2017, I’m shifting my main training focus from running to biking. I, along with a group of friends, will be riding Jotunheimen Rundt in early July. This bike race, touted as ‘Norway’s hardest cycling sportive’, is a single-stage, 440km loop of the Jotunheimen mountain range with 4609 meters of climb. Ouch. Did I mention I’ve never done sportive before? It’s probably going to take at least 20 hours, making in my longest race yet. On the bright side, I will use the bike training as an excuse to find some interesting and mountainous long bike rides around Scandinavia.

Still, I’m not about to quite running! I’m planning to run in smaller amounts, just like I've typically biked a couple days a week even when I was running a lot. I will try to race a spring 10K, probably Fornebuløpet in Oslo, at the end of May, before I once again compete in the Birkebeinerløpet in early June. I’m not expecting to PR in any of these events, since I will mostly be riding my bike, but I’ll do my best to get close to my old times.

After (hopefully) finishing Jotunheimen Rundt, I hope bounce back fast enough to run Tromsø Skyrace - but the extreme, 55K version this time. Since there’s only a month between the two events, I’m counting on having generally good fitness from riding bikes and mental fortitude rather than specific training for this one.

Next, in mid-August, Audun and I are getting married! (Read about the proposal here.) We’re going to tie the knot surrounded by friends, family and beautiful mountains on the west coast of Norway, in Sunnmøre. Then Audun and I are planning a unique mountain biking honeymoon. We’re planning a bikepacking expedition on the Jotunheimen trail from Gjendsheim back home to Oslo. With all the international travel I’ve been doing in the last couple years, I’m looking forward to focusing on more local adventures. Norway really is an incredible playground to explore!

My final plan for the year is Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, a 3-day, 116 km stage race around Monte Rosa through Italy and Switzerland. I’ve only visited this region in the winter before, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in summer dress. Expect spectacular alpine vistas and a lot of pain as I tackle my longest race ever.

Here’s to an adventurous 2017! What do you have planned?

- The Wild Bazilchuk