Monday, March 23, 2015

Birken backpacks & Cooking dinner for Norway's (potential) next Prime Minister!

Another week has passed in my "marathon of marathons."  The Norwegian Birkie, called "Birken" is the 9th long distance ski race I've competed in this winter.  As an ambassador and huge fan of the American Birkie I was extremely curious to see what the Norwegian Birken was like and how it compared.  It's safe to say that they are two completely different races for a host of reasons and both are completely awesome. 

Fun to be on a team with girls from 3 different countries!  Kerttu Niskanen, Me & Laila Kveli pre- Birken modeling our perfectly weighed 3.5k backpacks! 

The Stange Family! Erik, Emily, Henrik & Greta :)

A huge thank you to the Stange family for hosting me in Lillehammer for the week.  (And thanks to Ben Popp, ED of the American Birkie for connecting us!)  Erik is a former high-level ski racer and we have lots of mutual friends. I had a blast with him and his family. They fed me, gave me rides, loaned trail maps, and were awesome company. They had great Internet, a queen sized bed (!) laundry, and a wax bench so I was in heaven. 

Thanks to Andrew Young of Great Britain for providing some rides to training.  If you look closely you can see that the steering wheel is on the right side instead of the left side of their van.

After a long stint of traveling and racing alone it was fun to rejoin Team Santander for the Norwegian Birkie.  I didn't have to worry about waxing, accommodations or transportation which was a huge relief.  Many of these marathons (especially the point to point ones over mountain ranges) are logistically difficult and having a team to help was awesome! 

Plus, I had a new teammate and roommate for the two nights we slept in Rena (the small town where the Birken starts!)  Kerttu was coming off an impressive 4th place in the 30k Classic at World Championships in Falun so it was great having her on our team!

Kerttu weighing her pack after loading it with the necessary "survival gear" and rocks for added weight. 3.5 kilos is a lot more than you might think! 

Backpacks, rocks... 

 The finish line scale was out all week.... maybe as a scare tactic? As such, all the skiers in our house were obsessing over getting just the right weight, not too little, and not too much. If you're found without some of the necessary gear or your pack is too light you face disqualification! 

Team bread delivery from Baker Hansen! 

Jorgen Auckland: Bread for breakfast, bread for lunch.  There is no gluten intolerance on THIS Norwegian Team! 

Birken weather report

Race bib modifications and dinner preparation occur simultaneously. 

Rena is a small town and as such, it's hard to accommodate the thousands upon thousands of people that come to participate and help out with the race. Thus, many ended up boarding buses at 4am in Lillehammer to ride to the race start in Rena.  Many of the pro team opt to stay in Rena and for us, that meant renting a private house for the weekend.  The family moved out, and we moved in. 

While I heard of other teams bringing along cooks our team didn't have such a thing. In fact, that cook turned out to be ME! I enjoy cooking and am not intimidated cooking for large groups of people (thanks to years as a coach and perhaps training camps on Eagle Glacier where we take turns cooking for the entire camp!) It didn't set in until later that not only was I (along with help) cooking for the team but the guest list which included Norwegian TV, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, and Jonas Gahr Store, the leader of the Norwegian Labor Party and arguably the next Prime Minister of NORWAY! All of these aforementioned people spent the night at our team house AND raced the next day. Standard protocol in Norway. (Can you imagine Barack Obama and Bill Gates racing the American Birkie??!!) Yes, slightly different I know but I had to draw a comparison!

 Naturally I had to get a selfie with Jonas Gahr Store 

The day before the race was heinous with overcast conditions and temperatures around 32 degrees making waxing really difficult. We trained in late morning and attempted to ski the first 10k of the race following a couple thousand skiers who did the "open track" or more informal "race" the day before the real deal. 

However, the following day, race day was AWESOME. Oh, it should be mentioned that last year's race was cancelled due to high winds across the mountains so this year we were lucky with sunshine and low wind conditions! 

Johaug, skiing by herself on a perfect Birken Day.... Photo, Swix Ski Classics
For more race photos check out the Ski Classics Facebook page HERE

Although it's better, I'm still struggling with elbow tendinitis spurred on my racing the Marcialonga with a "blank ski" AKA, no wax. The double poling on hard, artificial snow wreaked havoc on my arms.  While it's a lot better than a month ago, I haven't been able to train classic as much as I'd like and consequently, my confidence for classic racing isn't quite there. I was happy that the Birken featured tons of climbing and opted for lots of kick wax on my skis. Unfortunately that also meant they were slow on the flats but so was I.  However, I met my goals for the race which were to have fun, enjoy the day, ski within my current capabilities, and maintain good technique.  While I wasn't blazing fast it was good enough for a respectable 11th place for women overall and 3rd in my age group. The added bonus is that my elbows survived and I didn't completely blow up.  I have two more marathon races this season and each of those will require a 110% effort so I'm glad I didn't completely "drain the tanks."  

That night we had a small party:

Alaska meets Norway! So fun to have dinner with new and old friends from both countries!  Left to right, Tora, Cathinka, Espen, Anders, Ragnild, Chris & Anne Marit

The next day I moved North.... 
Traditional Norwegian food at a road stop part way through the 6-hour drive with Anders from Lillehammer to Trondheim

Before racing the Birken myself and spending time around it, I didn't realize the social status and professional ramifications of racing the Norwegian Birken.  I didn't find out until after the race that many Norwegian's motivation over the 54 kilometers is to earn their "Merket" or a Diploma that stats their accomplishment. The Merket is a percent back standard from the winner's time(s) that amateur racers strive to achieve. The standard is gender and age specific.  Achieving the Merket is a big, big deal - such that people literally put it on the their CVs. In some Norwegian Professional Industries (like Finance) it is almost a rite of passage. This year, even Norway's prince, the namesake Prince Hakon achieved his Merket which made front page news. Here is Anders with his!  Also super cool is that Espen (the brother of Anders) made the Merket from the 26th/last wave of the race! Huge congrats to both of them! 

Anders with his "Merket" (pronounced "Marka")

Homemade Norwegian brown cheese, "Brunost"from Anne Marit (her mom, actually) and my third place age group award for the Birken :) 

This brings me up to today. I am currently in Trondheim staying at Anders and his girlfriend, Christine's apartment. They are so nice to let me infringe on their space and I am incredibly thankful for their generosity and friendship.  On Thursday I will meet up with teammates from Santander and drive two hours to Are, Sweden for the final ski classics race. Snow is minimal and the race course is TBA but the race is going to be an important one for Team Santander. After a difficult weekend result wise at the Birken we are still leading the team competition but only by a few points over Team United Bakeries. It's most certainly going to be a battle to the end! 

Thanks for checking in and have a fabulous week! 
Good luck to everyone at Supertour Finals in Sun Valley - miss you all!  Go APU!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Holmenkollen with friends!

Despite awesome home stays, chasing new opportunities and doing my best to hold onto the red bib traveling is exhausting, there is no doubt. While a life “ski racing in Europe” sounds glamorous  (and it’s sure, in some ways, it is) it can be quite tiresome. Now is perhaps one of those times. Daffodils line the sidewalks outside of grocery stores, Easter’s right around the corner according to the calendar, and skier conversation has turned to spring destination plans.

This past week I was in Oslo to apply for my Russian VISA, cheer on teammates at Holmenkollen, and stage for this weekend’s Norwegian Birkebeiner. 

Let me just say that the VISA process has been pain staking and that is perhaps, an understatement.  I've sent no less than 150 emails, made countless phone calls, and people made personal visits to the VISA center on my behalf before I even arrived.  It turns out that applying for a VISA outside of your own country (and) when you cannot give up your passport for weeks or months at a time is complicated. Phone calls (if you can get through) and emails (when they are returned) create more confusion as answers aren't always the same and "conclusions" are confusing. That said, the VISA center has my completed application and my passport, along with the Russian VISA is supposed to be available later this week for pick up. I'll believe it when I see it - however I'll have to stop by literally on my way to the airport (with 150# of gear in tow) so I really, really hope it works out. If not, I'll have to throw away the plane ticket and start again! 

A huge thank you to Andrey, Alexei & Yacopo (pictured below on my left) for their help in the VISA process. If I make it there these three are largely to thank! 

Minus the VISA work, the rest of the week was great seeing my former US Ski Teammates...... but I couldn’t help but feel a bit abandoned as conversation focused on travel itineraries and how excited they were to go home. This is most definitely the time of year that a bit of homesickness begins to creep into your skin and it’s important to stay focused and live in the moment rather than wishing you were somewhere you are not. When and if I ever start to feel sorry for myself I remind myself that I have what a friend calls, "first world problems" and that my life is insanely awesome. I am SO lucky. 

Here are a couple more pictures from the week: 

 Warm conditions called for salting the course. Check out this sweet adaptation to the Piston Bully!

Pete was in town after racing the VASA. 

When in Norway, the cheese slicer is a staple...... & not just one

 A typical scene in Oslo - people getting on public transport with their skis

Friends enjoying the sun 

Mexican night at Astrid's! Me, Liz, Astrid, Emil 

 Pano from the top of the Holmenkollen ski stadium athlete room and waxing facilities.  This past week the Holmenkollen ski stadium was at it's best - nothing like the zero-viz fog of World Championships 2011!

30k Feed zone during the women's race 

 Dash Hoff & EBJ "commuting" to the 50k....

Trailside snacks, served with coffee

A great aspect of Holmenkollen is how accessible the course is. Outside of the grand stands it's free to attend and many Norwegians make a weekend out of it. Many World Cups, World Champs, and Olympic races you sometimes feel like you're out there alone. That is NEVER the case at Holmenkollen! 

A tired Brian Gregg gives a thumbs up! 

Now THIS is a cool app. I think it exists all over Norway. You can look at any ski area and see where the groomers are in real time. The colors represent how long it's been since the trails were groomed last!  You can chase fresh tracks and corduroy to your hearts content! No wonder they're good classic skiers here.... 

Super fun training ski out on the course pre-50 & 30k days... 

 In the finish pen with Sadie & Diggs!

 Liz and Matt post 30k. Liz signing some autographs

Me & Kikkan spent the 30k doing support. I was a cheer leader running from spot to spot and Kikkan worked at a feeding and spare pole station. When you aren't racing it's still fun to be intimately involved :) 

Everyone always looks forward to the Holmenkollen heart shaped waffles!

Thanks so much to Astrid Jacobsen for opening up her awesome home to me for a week in Oslo. While it was a busy stint for her with Drammen and Holmenkollen it was fun to get a small peak into her life in Norway. We got to know each other two summers ago when Astrid came to Alaska to join the annual women's training camp. She spent a week + doing dryland (hence, the Bomber Glacier picture below), a week on Eagle Glacier, and then some time visiting my cabin in Hope and a fishing trip on the Kasilof River. 

International friendships are most certainly a highlight and one of the best things about being an International ski racer. This year, spending time away from the World Cup I've actually gotten to spend some quality time with friends I've made over the years. 

Not only is Astrid an incredible skier - she skied to an amazing THIRD PLACE in the Holmenkollen 30k - but she's insanely well rounded too. She's currently enrolled in medical school (yes, you heard me right... ) and does a lot of work for her local community.  Two years ago she co-hosted the first ever Norwegian Fast and Female event. One of the nights I was there she went to a 3 or 4 hour board meeting for her ski club, Heming, two days before her race. 

Johug, Bjorgen & ASTRID! 

If you haven't been following FIS Cross Country on Facebook be sure to check them out. This year Jeff Ellis and crew have been doing an awesome job with their "Inside the Fence" videos.  Here is the last one of the year called the Magic of Holmenkollen: 

After a busy week where I didn't even race (!) I moved from one household to another. I am currently staying in Lillehammer with Erik Stange and his awesome family. Erik and his wife Emily are American and moved to Lillehammer four years ago. They have to kids and a great part of each day is reading Greta a book before bed. Last night we read Madeline which I absolutely love. 

Erik was an elite ski racer back in the day so he knows what it's like to chase the dream and live out of a duffel bag. He said that letting me stay here is like repaying a "karmic debt."  I had never met Erik before coming to stay in his home but we have one degree of separation and know a lot of the same people. Needless to say, there is no lack of conversation. 

The next report will be from the Norwegian Birkebeiner.  Can't wait to check it off the "skier's bucket list!" 

Thanks for checking in. More soon, 
Holly :) 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Engadin Sun & Red Bib

This past weekend was my third trip to the Engadin ski marathon and the beautiful valley it runs through..... 

My first morning in the Engadin Valley didn't disappoint! 

 The annual St. Moritz night sprint.  The "prologue" is a short 650 meters and the "race" which for girls consists of semi-finals and finals isn't much longer. It's a small windy track and it's almost impossible to pass. Therefore, fast starts are a must. I was third out of the tracks and third overall. Happy to be on the podium with some quick girls, Lucia (Germany) & Tatijana (Switzerland) 

 Looks staged but it isn't! 

Ski with Team Gregg

 Valley "Roseg" with Kent, Inge & Tony

 Inge & Kent

Dinner with the Gregg clan and stories from Falun 

Congrats to Caitlin on a historic bronze medal in the 10k - fun to see and hear about it in person!

Also fun to run into my APU teammates Tyler and David who did the race as well! 

 And my Swedish (former) World Cup friend Lisa Larson who is taking the year off and working as a ski tech at a ski shop in Pontresina! 

Making schnitzel in a small Swiss kitchen :) 

There are certainly people in the ski industry that like to have a good time! (Schnapps dispenser in an unspecified location!) 
Thanks to Salomon for the race support - ski testing, race wax and (attempted) feeds. I say attempted because the race was too fast and too hectic to get them! 

Stefan helping me test! 

 The night before... 

 Six girls on the podium (left to right) Anouk, me, Ritta Liisa, Caitlin, Aurelie & Antonella. Or, France, USA, Finland, USA, France, Italy.... 

Not the race I was looking for but JUST ENOUGH to get the red bib back! Now I lead by a tiny 4 points...... everything will come down to the FIS Marathon Cup Final in SIBERIA of all places, April 11th. (Chad Gregg, photo) 
This year I really felt the altitude (nearly 6,000 feet) when we hit the hills. Having come directly from Poland I had 5-6 days in Switzerland before racing which is NOT the altitude window that you want. Either it's best to come 10 days before or the night before to have the best performance. That said, logistically it was impossible to plan a good altitude entrance to the race. And, I didn't want to wait until the night or day before to come to the Engadin for obvious, beautiful reasons! 

The race itself was fast and furious, per usual. I remember my first trip to the Engadin a few years ago and my finishing comment was that I had never been in such a violent ski race - ever.  Thousands of people, men and women start at the same time and ski into a headwind for the first 10k.  The first ten k is literally a game of half skill, and half luck. Over half of the women that finished on the podium broke poles and the luck part of the race is a) avoided crashes around you and b) catching a good draft with the top pack of men.  Once you're in a pack it turns into a constant battle for position and older men that you might be skiing with are constantly trying to "get in front of the girl" or beat out their buddy. There was talk about an all girls wave that would begin before the masses this year but it didn't happen. The concern was that girls in later waves would catch the draft with the men and cross the finish line with a faster time than the girls in the elite wave.  The solution (I think) is to make it so that the women's winner has to come out of the elite women's wave. Make it big enough so that it's inclusive, and start us 20 minutes before the Elite men and 14,000 other people. The American Birkebeiner has a women's wave and it's great to have a women's race. All of a sudden the tactic becomes skiing rather than loosing the other women, battling with the men, and keeping your equipment in one piece!  

That said, the Engadin is a great race in perhaps one of the most beautiful ski areas in Europe. I highly recommend adding it to your "ski bucket list." 

Me & Chelsea with Tony.... still wearing Seahawks gear but this year he left the full get up behind. A HUGE thank you to Tony W. for helping out with logistics and mobilizing a big USA crew each year for the race! 

Here is a photo of Tony from last year and yes, he skied 42k like THIS:

It was hard to leave St. Moritz..... really hard. The skiing was perfect, the sun packed a punch. And I was exhausted. But we rallied... to sit in the worst traffic jam that my Swiss ride Elias, had ever seen. We got back to Chelsea's apartment (Zurich "home base" and gear storage) super late and I proceeded to spend the next 3 hours unpacking, packing and doing laundry.  Then I slept for 3.5 hours before hiking to the tram and then to the airport to catch my flight to Oslo. I don't know what I was thinking when I booked the ticket 10 days ago but the itinerary was WAY too ambitious and exhausting. Actually, what I was thinking was that I would go to the Russian consulate in Oslo first thing Monday morning to work on applying for my VISA to get into Russia. In reality, my "invitation" is still not ready and Monday turned out to be a Russian holiday anyways.  

To make a long story short, the Russian VISA application is extremely difficult when you're a) outside of your own country and applying from another and b) when you cannot afford to give up your passport for week (or months!) at a time because you're constantly traveling and need it. I'm still in the process of trying to obtain it and I'll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck! 

And as always, thanks for the cheers & following. 

PS. GOOD LUCK to all the Alaskan Junior Racers competing in Truckee, CA at the 2015 Junior Nationals! 

P.P.S. Graham Longford, AKA "@klisterhead" on twitter wrote a really fun description of the Marcialonga back in January. He did an amazing job of documenting INCLUDING photos mid-race. It was fun for me to meet Graham after depending on his European-based World Cup tweets for such a long time. Check it out below if interested....