..Skiing in the Midwest is so much fun!
After a couple of underwhelming weeks of racing on the World Cup in Europe this winter, I headed straight back to my home in Minnesota. My goal for the remainder of the season was to enjoy whatever race opportunities came my way and make sure I was having fun (something I had lost sight of the previous few weeks). As a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided to sign up for the Mora Vasaloppet 45k race in Mora, MN. The Mora Vasa is the sister race to the Swedish Vasaloppet, a 90k classic race through rural Sweden. I can't say I went into the Mora Vasa prepared, but I knew it would be good practice for marathon racing, considering I was signed up for the Birkie just one week later....
I took it pretty easy that next week leading up to Birkie weekend. This year was unique for many reasons, but specifically, the skate and classic races were on separate days. This meant that for the first time in history it was possible to complete a DOUBLE BIRKIE by participating in both events!
Before I headed to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I made sure to stop by Gear West Ski & Bike Shop. They helped me with a fresh ski grind on a pair of skis that were a favorite of mine, but had seen some damage in Europe. I also picked up a fresh pile of Tailwind Nutrition electrolyte packs. In the 2019 Birkie, I found success racing with Tailwind and have been using the product ever since, particularly during long, hard efforts. After that, I was ready to get up north and feed my fever.
I only skied for about an hour a day in that week, but spent the rest of those days trying to stay off my feet, working from the couch and fueling properly. I was trying to save and store every last bit of energy that I could. On the Friday before the races, I tested a few pairs of skis, did a few quick intervals and then started getting giddy with excitement! I grew up skiing Birkie events with my family, so it's always special to be back there with my entire family participating (minus my brother racing at UNH).
Despite a significantly smaller crowd than usual at the start of the race on Saturday morning, I drove up to the Birkie start and instantly felt a rush of adrenaline. The Birkie Foundation did a spectacular job at enforcing a mask mandate, encouraging social distancing, cleaning facilities frequently and spacing the racers out in the starting pen. It was interesting walking up to the start line and having my skis tested for fluoro waxes for the first time. This fluoro ban is something that is new to the ski world and hasn't quite reached the World Cup level yet, but I strongly support any way we can limit the negative impact on our environment and our coaches/wax tech's health!
Soon enough, it was go time. As soon as that gun went off, all of my nerves were wiped away. I felt controlled and relaxed as we raced across the powerline, through the woods and up to the high point. I was able to lunge for the two sprint bonuses, all the while, slowly sipping on my Tailwind in my water bottle. By the halfway point at OO, the elite women's field had narrowed down to just four. We began catching and passing some of the elite men who were so generous when they stepped to the side to let us ski by. On multiple occasions, I heard male racers cheer 'Go Alayna,' or 'Hey that's Steve's daughter,' or 'Nice work Sonney!' Those encouragements along the course fired me up, made me smile and kept me going as we continued to race up and over the hills. Thank you for making it so fun out there!
With about 14k to go, I knew we were approaching some of the last big hills on the course. Unless I wanted it to come down to a four person sprint at the finish, I had to make a move. Just as we started climbing back to the high point again I started picking up the pace. The funny thing about a marathon race is that you can try to turn the notch up and really start grinding, but you don't feel like you're moving much faster. Although I was working VERY hard, I didn't think my move was going to make much of a difference. So, when I realized it was just Rosie Frankowski and I skiing together, I was surprised and had no idea how much of a gap we had made. With about 10-12k left of rolling downhill, I knew the race wasn't over yet and I'd have to keep working if I didn't want the other women to catch us.
Many have considered this change in course to be easier than the usual race through Rosie's Field and across the lake. However, I found that this year was much more neuromuscularly challenging toward the end of the race, with almost no recovery on any downhills. Which I believe is why I started feeling very delirious by the time Rosie and I caught my brother-in-law, Nick Ross. Nick is an elite runner turned skier and quite the talented endurance athlete (although he could really work on his ski technique a bit more, ZING!). It was evident that Nick wasn't having the race he was hoping for, but that didn't stop him! I can't recall exactly what he said in that moment, but his cheers saved me just as I was starting to see stars and lose feeling in my legs. In the end, it did come down to a sprint finish, but I had been practicing my speed the past few years with my SMS teammates, who just so happen to be some of the best sprinters in the world!
Checking the weather frequently that afternoon, I was beginning to prepare myself mentally for what was yet to come... Sunday morning, I rolled up to the start again feeling slightly less chipper, but just as excited. About 30 minutes before the start of the classic race, snow began to fall. We were expecting this and I knew it would throw an extra twist into the day, but boy did I underestimate just how much snow was about to fall.
So grateful for the boys plowing through the tracks in front of us, it came down to Rosie and me dueling up and over the hills. Over the course of three hours, I'm pretty sure close to five inches of snow fell in those woods. Thankfully, my kick wax kept me going (shoutout to Evan Pengelly for waxing them). Unfortunately, it was so painfully slow from the fresh pow that anytime I'd try to feed or fix something, I'd just about halt to a stop. Which is why, when my glasses and eyes were both frozen over to the point that I couldn't see and I had to make adjustments, Rosie gradually started pulling away from me. I kept fighting through the snow, trying to catch her, but she maintained a tempo that I just couldn't quite reach. Overall, the race was absolutely BRUTAL. Yet so memorable! At one point, I looked around me and was mesmerized by how beautiful the falling snow was and laughed at how much powder I was trudging through by myself.
I had so much fun racing back in the midwest and the ski community reminded me just how much I love this sport. I was able to finish my season with a few more races in Minneapolis the following weekend and enjoy every second I was out on those home courses. Huge thanks to everyone who helped plan, organize, work, time, volunteer and cheer at all of these events. Because of you, I was able to end on a high note that left me happy and ready for another try at reaching my goals. Just after I take a quick spring break to reset...
Professional skier, traveling the world, exploring the culture, racing my heart out.