March 6th - Tour du East
During the month and half since my last update I've had 5 straight weeks of racing through Eastern Canada and the USA.
The big tour started in Ottawa for the annual Eastern Canadian Championships at Nakertok Nordic. With a portion of the AWCA team off to the Olympics(way to go Jess, Graeme, Emily and Heidi!!), the smaller crew still made their presence felt with many Academy athletes on the podium throughout the weekend. I continued my streak of 5th place finishes with a 5th in the Individual 15km Freestyle, and then knotched my first NorAm podium of the year in 3rd with the 20km Mass Classic. I had quite the battle with teammate and friend Mike Somppi in the 20km as we both attacked and attacked to try to get away from each other in the final 7 km of the race. We were perfectly matched in endurance it came down to a very close photo finish (with Mike taking the silver by 1 inch, well done buddy!). With the weekend of races over, the Canadian "B" Tour group was selected for races in Scandinavia, and unfortunately I wasn't chosen (for blogs on the "B" Tour check out Alysson's recaps at ...HERE ). Again it was a time to pick myself up and fight on.
The remaining AWCA members packed up our rental vans and drove down to Craftsbury, Vermont for a set of SuperTour races (the American equivalent to the NorAm series). It has been a couple years since my last races in the USA and I had forgotten how much fun these races can be. The American colleges have full attendance and it is quite the festival atmosphere. I got to catch up with all of my old American racing buddies and hammer against some fresh competition. We raced a 10km Freestyle Individual (where I came 5th) and a 20km Classic Individual (and guess what, 5th again which brings a total of 5X 5th place finishes in the last month). The 20km Individual was a good treat as it is a format that we in Canada don't ever get to race. Luckily I had plenty of company on the course, forming a strong group of skiers as the 15 second start gaps rapidly closed up. I had a great time racing with lots of college teams' flags course-side and plenty of face paint cheering us on.
After a great team pizza night to celebrate the weekend of races, the group again packed into the vans and drove back to Ottawa. At this point I said goodbye to my AWCA teammates, choosing to remain in the East to chase more races. It was a good opportunity to get some space from the Canadian circuit and have some fun racing in the USA. Thankfully I had several friends in the States to help me plan my next three weeks, and found families that would adopt a traveling athlete with open arms. I made a quick 2 day pit stop in my home town of Thunder Bay to see my parents (and borrow their car!) before I drove down to Minneapolis to race in the next set of the SuperTour series.
When I arrived in Minnaepolis/St.Paul I was able to stay at my friend Jeremy Hecker's home. The Heckers are an awesome ski family who are regulars at the Lappe Ski Club in Thunder Bay and Jeremy was actually one of my coaches at the AWCA last season. I settled in easily with them and prepped for another weekend of action. This weekend's races were a 15km Mass Classic and a 10km Freestyle Individual. It was a fun course with lots of twists and turns for the mass start, lucky there were few crashes and I was able to battle to the finish with the leaders to place 4th. The Individual Skate the following day went okay, but I only placed 8th. I chose to hang around Minneapolis a few more days to recover and do a bit of training in the area. I couldn't believe the amount of trail systems here in a large city, definitely competition for Ottawa for the best urban skiing!
After saying goodbye to the Heckers I drove to the Minneapolis airport to pickup my friend Zoe Roy who flew in from Canmore. Together we drove up to Hayward, Wisconsin to race the American Birkiebeiner. This is the largest race in North America with 10,500 people entered. While most people treat this race as a tour, there is still a large 200+ group of Elite racers who come to compete as part of the FIS World Marathon Cup series. This would be the largest and most prestigious race I have thus far competed in. Zoe and I were very lucky to get into the Elite start as registrations close months in advance, but thanks to our friend(and three time champion) Caitlin Gregg we were added to the list. We only had to pay off the registration ladies with hugs, thank yous and a case of Bud Light!
As Birkie weekend approached, I truly began to understand the level of hype this race has in the Midwest. My hosts, the Jackson Family, are die-hard Birkie fans and helped clue us clueless Canucks in on the approaching festival. Every year Hayward(with a population of 2,534) plays host to over 10,000 skiers plus an extra 20,000 spectators!!! The quiet main street gets turned into a snow covered raceway with booths, vendors, lunch tents and jumbo screens lining the store fronts. There is face paint and hamburgers every way you look. Birkie morning dawned cold and windy, and with a hefty snow fall of 14" two nights previous, the race morning was a bit daunting. The horde of racers descended on the dark and empty Telemark resort(formal Birkie headquarters) and the start line in the field nearby. As I was entered in the Elite Wave I luckily had a front row start to the mass of racers itching to get going, as the wind was making an already chilly -19C even colder. The race began with a bang, and we were off.
The first 10km of this 52km marathon was very hard with several World Loppet skiers pushing the pace very high(the fastest start in some of the slowest conditions I was later told) and I struggled to stay in the lead group of 20 men. Eventually I was broken off the leaders along with a number of SuperTour guys and a hefty dose of World Marathoners. We formed up into a solid chase group and continued on. The kilometers trickled by and the temperatures barely rose. I had underestimated the cold and before I knew it my water belt was frozen solid, and my little stash of Energy Gels froze into ice cubes. In an event this length, which generally lasts over two hours with little to no trail side support crews, this was a bad situation to be in. I conserved my energy within the pack and made it to the 23km feed station where one the Jackson girls saved me with a waterbottle of Gatorade.
As the race went on I really started to get nervous, as this group of guys was 12 people strong and I was unsure about my chances in a mass sprint to the finish line. As a comparatively weak sprinter, I knew I had to make my move soon. I worked my way to the front of our pack with 6km to go, and on a longer rolling climb I attacked off the front to try and break away. Luckily I caught the group by surprise as the guys splintered into groups to chase me down. I was able to break away from most of them except for an American and Italian. Together we hammered the remaining kilometers towards Hayward, and started the lake crossing. The last 3km of the course involves a trek over the frozen Lake Hayward, with blowing snow and a nasty headwind. Luckily my American race-mate was up to the challenge and we broken away from the Italian and even reeled in a lone pair of skiers that were far in the distance. They were the remains of the lead group that had broken away at the start of the race. With a mad dash the four of us sprinted into Hayward and up Main Street into the heart of Birkie Festival. It was quite the experience to be greeted by that many spectators and it has turned into my one of my favourite highlights from this year's races. I ended up in 15th position, and 6th North American across the line.
Tired out from a long race, Zoe and I drove up the Thunder Bay the following morning, where she would fly home to Canmore. I spent the next week at my parents home and recovered with plenty of home cooking and catchup time with my family. My racing wasn't completed yet, as the Sleeping Giant Loppet was approaching, and I was intent on winning the coveted 50km champion title. This is an annual race that I have entered for many years while growing up in Thunder Bay, and while it is smaller then the Birkie, the locals are just as focused on it.
Again race weekend approached and Mother Nature was in a frosty mood. The temps weren't expected to rise above -20C and the organizers decided to shorten the courses to keep the racers and volunteers safe. The 50km loop was shortened to a double lap of the 20km course and the 35km classic race was cancelled althogether. This new shorter and almost completely flat course would prove to be very difficult. As the race began I knew that my strength on hills had now been removed from the equation, and instead I focused on a strategy of attrition against my race-mates (most of whom are long time friends and teammates from Lappe, Big Thunder, NDC and Lakehead University). I made repeated attacks off the front of the pack to tire the group of 20 guys out, while I knew a true solo breakaway would be foolish in the headwind, I needed to completely tired everyone out before we approached the finish line. Thankfully my strategy worked as one at a time the group broke apart behind me, and I approached the final kilometers with only my buddies Bob and Andy in tow. Knowing these two boys' prowess in a sprint finish to the line, I attacked with everything I had from 2km out in an attempt to shake them. Thankfully this worked and I was able to get across the line for the win before they were able to rally back and sprint me down.
I am now back home in Canmore, and have a few days of recovery before I leave again for Newfoundland and the Canadian National Championships. This will be my last race series of the year and I am looking forward to a solid couple weeks of rest come the end of March. I wanted to send a huge thank-you to those who have made this last month and half of racing possible; especially the Hecker Family, the Jackson Family, the Birkie organizers, Caitlin Gregg, Salomon Nordic, the Sleeping Giant Loppet committee and my parents for a great visit at home.
A special thank you to all those who have helped me get this far.
- My wonderful parents, Scott and Bev Hamilton
- My amazing girlfriend Alysson for always being there and keeping me sane.
- Sisters Katherine and Alanna for putting up with me raiding their baking after long hard workouts
- My caring grandparents Peter and Gene Kramarchuk, and Jack and Eleanor Hamilton
- Nancy and Michael Kleiman, and Geoff Wright, who are pretty much family
- Blair, Cathy and the whole Schoales household
- Tom and Eleanor Marshall for helping support Alysson and I with bountiful food boxes from the Okanagan.
- Scott Sullivan, Seija Grant and Matt Schoales, for all the fun we had as kids which kept me skiing.
- All my great coaches over the years; Eric Bailey, Timo Puiras, Adam Kates, Lisa Patterson, Kim Armstrong, and Marc Metsaranta
- Alan Cranston and everyone at Fresh Air Experience
- Peter Crooks and the crew at Kamview
- John Soychak and Landale Landscape Management
- John Sims, Kevin Schlyter and Mary Tribe for many of these photos.
- Leo and Bev Brace, Len and Marlene Rocco, Bev and Bob Elvin, and all may other neighbours who have encouraged me over all these years.
- Ian and Anne Mettam, who always have words of wisdom.