Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist or a statistician, but I did drink a lot of gin while writing this. Pop a Dramamine, because nausea is a side effect of reading precisely how mediocre I am.
Disclaimer to Disclaimer: Are there more important things happening right now? Yes. Am I going to ignore that right now? Also yes.
So, I was pondering how much scarier fast zombies are than slow ones this morning. I mean, A slow zombie? No problem. But fast zombies? I still remember the first time I saw “28 Days Later” in 2002 with the sprinting zombies. Yikes.
Right then, my phone vibrated and, speaking of sprinting, told me that Grandma’s Marathon has been canceled. Damn. My daughter signed up for the half this year and I was going to run my 14th edition of the marathon. They’re going to hold a “virtual event” so you can still get the all-important T-shirt. I have a T-shirt hoarding problem. But Marie Kondo better keep her damn hands off my T-shirts. I will address this problem in my own sweet time. *looks lovingly at 1983 New England High School Cross Country Championships shirt*
But this begs the question: Do I enjoy running? Do I actually like xc skiing? Or do I only like them because of my annual events? My Grandma’s Marathon? My American Birkebeiner ski marathon? (Don’t even think about whether they’ll cancel next year’s Birkie. *dry heaves*) Of course, I like to run and ski, even without a race. But the Grandma’s cancellation leaves a big gap in my head. For decades now, one of these two events is out there about six months in the future, waiting.
But you know what doesn’t suck? My annual look back at my year in fitness. So, strap in for an episode I call: Fat Guy In A Little Coat. Wherein, I try to answer this question: How does a chubby guy in his 6th decade run his 3rd fastest Grandma’s Marathon and ski his 3rd fastest American Birkebeiner in the same year?
Fat Guy in a Lycra Suit
How did I run my 3rd fastest Grandma’s Marathon? This is an easier question to answer than the one about skiing. There’s a pretty direct correlation between my running volume and my fastest marathons. So, my fastest race was 2002, followed by 2013. This year I ran 498 miles between January 1st and June 15th. This ties for second in running mileage. My three highest volume years are my three fastest.
Grandma’s Marathon: Fastest marathon year to the left
Within the cohort of my 4 biggest volume years, there’s a direct correlation between my weight and finish times. As long as I ran near 500 miles to prep, my weight (from fastest to slowest) was 171, 172, 176, and 180. My BMI trips from overweight to normal at 174 for my height. Of 13 editions of the marathon, I’ve been overweight all but 3 times. In 2003, I weighed 172, but weight isn’t everything, as I ran well under 400 miles to prep and that was my 6th fastest.
Two more things stick out for my top 3 marathons. The volume of intervals I did is higher for the faster ones. Also, faster marathons had more races in the leadup to the marathon. You have to train fast if you want to race fast. One thing stuck out on these two topics this year: hills. A lot of intervals this year were done on hills. And I didn’t bury myself and make my eyes bleed. I just ran them, I didn’t go out and hammer them. I don’t want to say I enjoyed them. But just running repeated hills was a lot easier than flogging myself through Yasso 800’s for four months. The racing I did included a mad event called Last Runner Standing that Andy and Kim Holak put on at Spirit Mountain. One 4.2 mile lap starts at the top of the hour every hour and you go until you can’t start a new lap. 660 feet of climbing per lap. I managed six laps before I quit for 4000’ of climbing. This was just two weeks before Grandma’s. I worried that was stupid at the time, but now, it seems like a good thing. I just ran up hills. My headspace was pretty relaxed all spring, and look what happened.
So, I ran within 6 minutes of my fastest almost 17 years later. So, the lessons learned (again) seem to be, in order of importance:
- Run a lot. Like 500 miles worth.
- Lose weight. Normal BMI is skinny for me.
- Run Hills. Seems to pay off and wasn’t so mentally draining.
- Run Fast. This means races and intervals that aren’t hills.
Yeah, Grandma’s is canceled. But this is still a path to summer fitness.
Skiing isn’t as simple as running. Did you ever notice there aren’t world records in skiing? There’s no 50k world record because there are too many variables. There’s fitness, wax, skis, and technique all in the mix. It’s complex, but I still want to figure out how I had my 3rd best Birkie this year. I measure that by using “percent back.” This is a measurement of how fast I went compared to the winner. On pure time, this was actually my second fastest year of 16 tries. But percent back allows a year-to-year comparison regardless of fast or slow conditions. Percent back is also how you get your wave assignments. You wave is determined by your best result in the previous three years. This year I had to have a good race to keep my Wave 3 start because my fastest previous result was three years old. I damn near made it back into Wave 2 this year (58.5%) but at least I salvaged my Wave 3 with a 61%.
(BREAKING NEWS: I did NOT salvage my wave. Just after I wrote the above, the Birkie released the Wave Seeding Chart for 2021. My 2020 race result puts me into Wave 4. This Year of the Rat really sucks. They must still be trying to shrink the waves because of the new start venue. Previous year Wave 3 was 58.5% to 71.5%. Now, that entire band falls outside of Wave 3 seeding (46.5% to 57.5%). That’s a dramatic change. Stings to ski my third best race and go back a wave.)
How is a fast (for me) Birkie possible when I was as fat as I get? I put on 15+ pounds after Grandma’s and became a superhero I like to call “Maximum Shmo.” I raced at 192 pounds. Maximum Shmo doesn’t work in the running world, but somehow gets away with it on skis. “Fat Guy in a Lycra Suit” shouldn’t work.
American Birkebeiner: Fastest skiing year to the left
The biggest thing that sticks out is I skate skied more hours prior to the race than I ever have before. Well, in 2017, I skied 51.5 hours vs. 47.9 hours this year, but naturally that was the year they canceled the Birkie. So, this year was the most ever. Strange, since Yellowstone was problematic having low snow levels and taking a shuttle up to the Plateau for a once-a-day ski. I was also out sick on my couch in January with no skiing for two weeks. I did have a lot of time off in December and January, so that helped. It just didn’t feel like a lot at the time. Maybe I do like to ski. (My 4 highest volume years are all in the top half of the 16 years I’ve raced.)
Another outlier was that I didn’t do a single interval during all those miles. Not one. Just skied. Like the Dumb Runner satire on the internet: Old Guy’s Marathon Training Plan Just a Bunch of Running.
Two other things that are remarkable. The Birkie Trail itself was the best I’d ever seen. Hard and fast. But we all had the same conditions, hence the percent back measurement. Also, I had new skis for the first time since 2004. I skied every race from 2004 to 2019 on the same pair of Fischer Skatecuts. I have new Fischers this year, but a new pair of skis doesn’t mean they’ll be better. So, good trail and new skis were unusual, but probably not significant. My skis have always run well and this year was no exception. Probably thanks to Mr. Fluoro wax, not because they were new. It’ll be interesting to see how the new rules against pure fluoro will change how my skis run. This year, my skis got faster and faster all the way to the end.
Rollerskiing isn’t a magic bullet. But I added skate volume and rollerski volume together and it’s pretty dramatic that the overall volume for my best Birkies is a lot higher than for my slower Birkies.
Another new thing was that I took the DXC Birkie Bus to the race for the first time. I slept all the way there. And once at the race, had a warm spot to wait. Really short walk from our parking spot to the crappers. Didn’t even need to do the bag drop thing. Left my gear on the bus and got it after the race. Bus was a nice place to put on dry clothes after the race, too. I’ve never really thought that the night of sleep before a race really matters. The several days prior, sure. But the night before, you get what you get. Lowering my expectations for the race night sleep helps me ignore jitters if I don’t sleep well. I’ll do the bus again. Mostly because it was fun and convenient and took another car off the road. But I doubt the napping helped my performance significantly.
Here’s where hills come in again. Because we had a decent snow year, I went to my favorite trail a lot: Magney. Magney is hilly. I skied more at Magney than I have in several years. It’s hard for me to search my training log for names, so I can’t really quantify it. And I can’t really quantify elevation easily. But I’ll say this: the Birkie hills felt smaller to me this year than they ever have. I didn’t say easy. I just felt like I got over them easier. Good skis, good trail, but still, they felt easier. I credit Magney and the hills. I read somewhere once that it took 100 V1 strokes to climb Bitch Hill at the Birkie. One year, I counted, and it was 100. This year, I did it in 70. Not science, but at least it’s something. For the record, it takes me about 140 paddles to climb out of the hole after Elys Peak at Magney. So, thanks Magney and to the City of Duluth for the good grooming out there.
As an aside, during the winter, I tried to quantify how “hilly” each of our trails were. Here’s what I came up with from my fitness trackers. I have a little issue with the Birkie Trail’s numbers. My Garmin says one thing and that’s a lot less than the Birkie Trail advertises on their website. I’m curious what everybody else gets for total elevation on their fitness trackers. (My numbers aren’t perfect, skiing different loops, etc. but it’s a rough take in a “meters of elevation gain per k” measurement) (Another caveat: sometimes my Garmin and Strava don’t match, even though they both come from Garmin)
Boulder (11k of skate trails) 6 meters/k
Snowflake (all 13.1k) 14
Lester (all, including playground) 18
Magney (3 laps + Skyline lot up/back) 21
Grand Avenue (2.3k loop) 22
Birkie (Garmin) 947m 19
Birkie (what they advertise) 1398m 28
If I believe my Garmin, and I’m not sure I do, than Magney could be hillier per k than the Birkie (21 vs. 19). But not if I go with the advertised Birkie elevation gain (21 vs. 28). Magney and Grand Avenue are as steep as it gets in Duluth, if you’re trying to get vertical in prep for the Birkie.
So why can’t I break into the top 2? Well, part of it might be that my fastest races were both over 15 years ago (2005 and 2003). But I’m encouraged by the fact that my motor stays pretty much the same through the passing years. Mediocre, but consistent, at least. I’m not giving in to Father Time yet. Two things stick out from those fast years. I did a notable amount of strength training sessions, even though I didn’t ski near as much as I have lately. And, I was Skinny Shmo on the two fastest years (under 180) vs Maximum Shmo (over 190). Strangely, it seems there’s no middle ground. (I only count one race in the 180-190 range.) My slowest 8 of 16 Birkies, I was Maximum Shmo. Maximum Shmo only makes it into the top 8 races 3 times. It’s more important for my overall health to note that I have an insulating blanket of winter fat 11 of the 16 races. I’m only Skinny Shmo 5 times. And none of those were down to BMI of normal. So, I’m always overweight at the Birkie.
Other things that are notable in my two fastest years were ski races prior and intervals. So, just do all the things! Simple. Here are the Lessons Learned for skiing based on a surprising good year.
- Ski A Lot. Greater than 40 hours of skate skiing prior to the race.
- Lose weight. I’ve never been BMI normal for Birkie. Always overweight.
- Ski hills. Grand Ave and Magney. One manmade, one natural. That’s handy.
- Do more weight training. It’s a strength/power sport. And good for old people.
- Ski fast. Race a lot and do intervals. I avoid it because it hurts. Wimp.
The good news is that my Lessons Learned going into this year for the two big events (well, no Grandma’s) are pretty similar.
- Ski a lot.
- Lose weight.
- Ski hills.
- Do more weight training.
- Ski fast.
- Run a lot.
- Lose weight.
- Run hills.
- Run fast.
Also, let’s take a step back to look at the whole 2019 calendar year and whole ski season. For a calendar year, it’s pretty easy to compare using my database. This was my third biggest year of volume of training (hours) all the way back to 1983 when my records started: 267.6 hours. Biggest year was 2016 (313.1 hours) when I hired a coach to help me train for the 2017 Birkie. So, obviously that Birkie was canceled. #2 was 2015 at 303 hours. Pretty sad that only two years since 1983 have been above 300 hours. Good junior skiers are doing twice that much. Pros do three times as much. Day job is getting in the way of my hobbies. It’s good to have a bronze finish for volume for the year, since I slumped for a couple years in 2017 and 2018. I track my weight every day. These two slump years correlate to two years of gaining weight. I need to keep my weight down. So, it’s good that training a lot and losing weight are my number one and two lessons going forward. The two lessons complement each other.
2019 Overall Training Volume stopped the 2-year slump
Ski seasons are harder to assess because they cross over calendar years. But the 2019-2020 ski season was good. (I crunched the numbers and was within 5k of the record, so I went out and skied one last time at Snowflake today.) I skied 806.8k for the year in 2019-20. The most I’ve ever skied. So it wasn’t just good. It was the best. My second earliest Duluth First Tracks were this year (November 15th on the manmade at Grand Avenue) and finished out as an April Fool today. That’s 5 calendar months of skiing. I live in the right place.
If you’ve read this far, I have two things for you. First, you are a sick twisted person. Second, I hope you stay healthy and take this time to think about what essential means for you. For me, among other things, essential means having public open space to recreate in the outdoors. Fitness and sanity are out there. That’s vital, even without training for a race. I used to think old timers were full of crap when they’d say they didn’t care about results. They were just happy they could keep running and skiing. Now I realize they were on to something. Does that make me an old timer? Don’t answer that.