Rune Rocks the Norwegian Birkebeiner

 No question, Rune had a great ski season this winter, with strong finishes across a variety of distances, culminating in three age-group podiums at World Masters and a 10th place age-group finish (out of 453 men in his age group) at the Norwegian Birkebeiner.  I always want to hear more details about a race like that, and Rune obliged!  Here is his story, with Augustina's awesome photos.


World Masters in Canmore was hard, really hard. 
 There is a reason why the race distances are drastically reduced after age 60.  The 30k and 10k classic races were back to back on Sunday and Monday to start off the week, which definitely took its toll on my 57-year-old body.  Canmore is at approximately 1,400 meters above sea level (since the races took place in Canada, I am sticking with metrics), which I don’t think is enough to be considered significant altitude, but altitude affects people differently, and from experience, that is enough altitude to have some effect for me. Whatever the reasons were, I should not have felt as much lactate as I did in the dinky little hill 1k after the start, which was designated as a double pole-free zone!  

My experience in the past has also been some level of increased benefit after training/racing even at relatively modest altitude (Worlds in McCall Idaho 2008 being one example), and I believe this was again the case: I felt great getting on the snow in Norway a few days after the end of the races in Canmore.  With hundreds of miles of perfectly groomed trails in gentle, open mountain terrain, the trails at the Sjusjøen area above Lillehammer offer some of the most spectacular skiing possible.  If it weren’t for the upcoming Birkebeiner race, I would have put some serious mileage on my skis the week before the race, but getting a little smarter with age, I knew to limit the workouts to no more than a couple of hours a day and to be careful with the intensity.

Logistics are a big challenge at the Birkebeiner race and in previous years, I have had an arrangement to stay at a farmhouse right next to the start in Rena the night before, thereby avoiding the 4 am bus ride from Lillehammer on the morning of the race.  Unfortunately, the owner of the farmhouse called two days before the race to let me know that her son had come down with Covid.  So it was Augustina to the rescue (as usual) and she was kind enough to drive me to Rena the morning of the race.  Now, it wasn’t all in vain, as she got to see the start of the women’s elite class (which included Therese Johaug!) standing right next to the start line.

(Augustina's new best friends, Heidi Weng and Marit Bjoergen!)

Waxing is challenging enough in any classic race.  Add in the changes in elevation from 280 meters above sea level to open mountain terrain at 1,000 meters on top and the waxing conditions can change drastically.  Fortunately, I was able to arrange with one of the local experts to wax my skis.  He also assisted the official Swix waxing team the day before the race and it was pretty interesting to overhear a German skier arguing with him about the wax selection.  The German was convinced that the forecast called for some klister option, to which my friend replied, “You will not make it across the mountain with klister; your skis will stop.”  Whatever he did to my skis, they were fabulous!  

I started in Wave 1, which this year was a mat start instead of a gun start as in previous years. This is important because your official time doesn’t start until you cross a mat, approximately 200 meters after the start.  I lined up in the back and took my time to start skiing.  By the time I crossed the mat, the field had already stretched out and I was able to ski at my own controlled pace.

The first hour or so is mostly uphill. nothing hard but a steady climb to the top of the first of three mountain tops.  The kick was great, and I felt really good, having no problem steadily passing skiers in the wave.  In previous years, I have at times overshot on the kick and as a result had subpar glide compared with other skiers around me.  It was therefore such a boost of confidence to find out in the first long downhill that not only was the kick great, my glide was as good as or better than any skier around me!  After Kvarstaddammen, there is a series of hills up to Midtfjellet, the highest point of the course, before a long flat stretch to Sjusjøen.  These hills have always been the most painful part of the course but instead of dreading the hills as I would typically do, this year I was looking forward to them, which is the sign of having a great race. 

The part of the Birkebeiner race I dislike the most is actually the downhill section from Sjusjøen down to Lillehammer ski stadium.  The speed can be blistering fast, which is fine if I am the only skier on the course, but with a pack of skiers around you, it can get pretty scary.  Fortunately, I had been able to advance enough in wave 1 that I had lots of distance around me going down the hills and could ski more aggressively than I would in a pack of skiers.  

I felt great all the way to the finish line and finished in a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes, enough for a 10th place in my age group.  I set a goal of finishing top 10 in my age group the year Covid hit, so I was super happy about having reached my goal.  

I have found that there is a direct relationship between heart rate and how well I feel in a race. At 57, my max heart rate is around 170. The 10k in Canmore felt like a level 5+ race but my max heart rate was only 156, barely a level 3.  The Birkebeiner race felt like somewhere between levels 2 and 3, with an average heart rate of 150 and max at 165, with 1 ½ hour of the race at or above my lactate threshold, for those of you interested in these kinds of facts.