Birkie training on the Inca Trail
A week-long hike with two Olympians can't hurt, right?
For the last couple years I've been stuck in the fifth wave of the Birkie. I have nothing against the fifth wave, but I can't help but remember my old glory days when I was in the first wave gunning to finish in the top 200 skiers overall. Although my chances of qualifying for the elite wave are probably long gone, there's still a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be gained from moving up even one wave at the end of a great effort at the Birkie. But moving up requires training, and training can get dull if you don't shake up your routine every now and then.
The older I get the more I find I need new and different training methods to keep my interest and improve my Birkie time. Last summer, I got the opportunity to hike the Inca Trail in Peru with a couple of Olympians. This grueling expedition is going to be the fitness base (and secret weapon) for my 2012 Birkie. I don't know whether this training will effectively move me up in the final standings, running the Inca trail is nevertheless an experience I highly recommend.
My predicament started 10 years ago when I had an issue with my gall bladder that caused me to give up on skiing for almost a decade. I was in the middle of one of my best training years, but I got sick and just couldn't achieve the race results I'd been hoping for. Some 700 hours of training went up in smoke.
I ended up moving to Lima, Peru, and worked as a gourmet restaurant critic and promoter among other things. This job required me to go to one of the top restaurants of Peru once a week and sample seven or eight of their signature dishes. Although that might sound like a dream assignment, it got a bit grueling for a Wisconsin boy raised to always clean his plate. Even inviting five or six friends along to the promotions didn't save me, and I saw my race weight of 170 pounds shoot up to a rotund 230 or so.
Two years ago, I returned to the U.S., and the Birkie was the first date I circled on the calendar. I jumped into the 2010 Birkie on only a couple months training and managed to finish right around three hours 40 minutes, only a few minutes short of qualifying for the 4th wave. Truth be told, the warm weather and the great trail conditions of 2010 really bailed me out.
In 2011, I had a much more solid base of training, but the slower conditions kept me around 3:40 and out of the 4th wave once again. I wasn't frustrated like I would have been back in my 20s since I was now more motivated by the health benefits of skiing rather than to achieve speed. I was getting tired of stagnancy, however, and ready to do something radical to boost my fitness.
Around May, Peru's first winter Olympian, a cross-country skier named Roberto Carcelen, called me up and invited me on an expedition on the Inca Trail. He said a fellow cross-country skier, Martin Koukal, an Olympic medalist and 2003 world champion from the Czech Republic, would also be coming along. Carcelen knew me from an interview I'd done with him back when I was working with a publication in Peru. My wife and I had already been planning on going to Lima for the summer to show off our new baby to the extended family, so I jumped at the chance to hit the Inca trail with him. A few short months later, I found myself getting off the airplane at the Cusco airport ready to hike through the Andes with a couple world-class athletes.
If you ever want a reality check as to where you stand as a Nordic skier, spend a week with a world champion. As a skier and marathon runner, I'm usually one of the more extreme individuals in casual company. But in the presence of an Olympic medalist who had also climbed Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain the world, I felt positively tame.
At one point, Carcelen casually reflecting on his ski racing to date. I happened to mention that when I was having gall bladder issues, I could hardly ski up a hill without doubling over and getting sick. In fact, I became accustomed to dry heaving while in a tuck on every downhill.
Koukal perked up at this, and in his thick Czech accent said, "Being zick is not zo uncommon on ze World Cup,"
Yeah, well, getting sick when you're racing for a gold medal is one thing. When you're just trying for 30th place overall at the Blue Hills Ascent, it's a little ridiculous.
On another occasion we found ourselves descending an extremely steep and windy mountain road. Carcelen nudged me with a smile and called out to Martin "What do you think about roller skiing down this?" I laughed, as the suggestion struck me as suicidal.
But Koukal didn't think twice before saying, "Yez, it is not zo difficult."
"You'd roller ski down this?" I asked in disbelief.
"Yez. Why not?"
I'm sure if we'd had a pair of roller skis, he would have jumped on them right then just to show us.
"What if you hit a rock or missed a turn," I pressed.
Martin just smiled. "Then you get zmashed like potato!" he said.
Training as tourists
The great thing about training in Cusco is the altitude. At over 11,000 feet, you're pretty much getting in shape while sleeping there. Simply going for a walk to the nearby ruins is enough to get your heart rate up to race pace, but that's O.K. because the spectacular ruins distract you from your labors.
On the outskirts of Cusco is an Inca fortress called Sacsayhuaman, or "sexy woman" as tourists have come to call it. You could spend a good four or five hours trotting around these ruins, which would be a great training day by anyone's approximation. There are dozens of ruins like this throughout the sacred valley of Peru, and each one is as large and spectacular as the more famous Machu Picchu.
A few days after our arrival in Cusco, we set off for Cachora to begin our hike on the Inca Trail. The first day was a 20-mile journey to the base of Choquequirao, a set of ruins most notable for how difficult it is to get there and because of that, it is a site largely free from the throngs of tourists you find elsewhere. I set out a couple hours ahead of my Olympic companions, only to have them come running by me early in the day. I snapped a couple pictures of them and as they trotted off into the distance, reflecting once again the large a gap between training for the Birkie and training for the World Cup.
The first 13 miles of the journey were pretty flat and the walk through the Andean foothills was pleasant with spectacular views. The last 7 miles, however, was an almost vertical climb that left me pretty broken by the time I stumbled into camp. In all, the trip took me 10 hours. I felt justified adding that time on my feet to my yearly training total.
After a great night's sleep at a campsite with the best view in the universe, we spent the next day hiking around Choquequirao. Koukal defiantly slept, confident he'd catch up with everyone on the trail. And he did.
I spent about five hours hiking around Choquequirao with Koukal intermittently trotting by.
"Hey Martin," I asked at one point. "What do you think of this place?"
"Bunch of rocks," he shrugged. "I am more interested in ze training."
I guess that's the kind of single-mindedness that's necessary for Olympic success.
Our expedition continued on for the next four days, with me hiking seven to 10 hours to complete each leg. By far the toughest day was crossing the Yanama pass, a snow-covered monster at about 16,000 feet. That was the only time on the trail I got nervous, but I kept within my abilities by resting after every 50 steps or so. When you're a mere mortal, you have to be very careful at extreme elevation like that. Carcelen and Koukal ran right over the top, of course.
Time on feet assessed
Our trip ended with a tour of Machu Picchu. In my time living in Peru I had been to the ancient Inca city about 15 times. Everyone who visited me in Peru wanted to and see it so I served as their guide. But Machu Picchu never gets old and I look forward to going there again.
When I added it up, I'd accumulated about 50 training hours for the week. For those of you who keep a training diary, you'll know that a 500-hour year is a very solid base for an athlete, so getting 10 percent of that in one week was a good bump for me.
On one of the last days, Koukal approached me with some advice. "You did pretty well," he said, "but I think you needz to looze a little weight."
He was right. But believe me, I ended our Inca Trail hike a good deal thinner than when I embarked upon it.
It may seem improbable that exercise you do eight months prior to an event could effect your final results. But I have no doubt that my Inca Trail training is going to help me. Back in my 20s, I always felt better heading into the Birkie after running Grandma's marathon the previous summer. Obviously you need to maintain a regular schedule of exercise throughout the year, but I think one or two major training weeks can really help.
It's pretty rare to be able to find a week to put everything else aside and just focus on your fitness. Frankly, it's just as difficult to find a week to take an extended vacation in a place like Peru. But fitness travel is a natural concept for cross-country skiers. Those of us with Birkie fever are already inclined to make 10-hour weekend road trips in search of snow or to take part in marathon ski races. Why not take that impulse just a bit further to the Peruvian Andes?
A couple months ago, Carcelen sent me a video of Koukal wining the Czech Republic roller skiing championships, and I couldn't help but think that his training on the Inca Trail did the trick. It's yet to be seen how much the expedition is going to help my Birkie results, but I know that the first time I went roller skiing I managed to go for three hours without suffering much.
I'm still by no means an elite skier, but I'm certainly looking forward to racing this year. The thrill of moving up a wave at the Birkie cannot be bought. I'm actually grateful for the decade hiatus that requires me to scale the Birkie ladder once again.
Recently Carcelen called me up and said that Koukal has committed to training on the Inca Trail again in 2012. I checked with my wife about heading back to Peru, and she readily agreed we should. If any of you are interested in coming along and getting a few pointers from some Olympians or having a beer with me, don't hesitate to get in touch.
Walter Rhein is the author of Beyond Birkie Fever, a memoir which includes an interview with the late Birkie founder David Landgraf. Rhein also writes occasionally for CyclovaXC.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.