Monday, February 21, 2011

MitoCanada Inspiring Success at the Canadian Birkebeiner (February 12, 2011)

By Blaine Penny

Kirk and Blaine at the start. (Photo by Marg Fedyma)
I am a big believer that you definitely give a little more when competing for something bigger than just an individual result. 

Just getting to the start of the Birkie seemed like a feat in itself. The week leading up to the event was a long week for all 3 of us (Brendan, Kirk and I) topped off by a late Friday evening drive to get to Edmonton (due to a Charity Gala I attended to promote MitoCanada as part of a Michael Bernard Fitzgerald concert at McEwen Hall). We arrived after midnight and checked into our “Express” hotel.  Totally bagged, we all just wanted to sleep in the next morning and drink copious amounts of coffee. Racing was so far from our minds.

With a 6 am wake-up, quick breakfast at the hotel, we were off to the start line to try and figure out the grip wax for the day.

The temperature was +2 degrees in the morning with a predicted high of +6, which meant it was going to be a beautiful warm day to ski, but tough waxing and likely KLISTER. For those who have experienced xc skiing with klister, you know it can be fantastic, but also hit and miss when skiing a long course with variable condition and temperatures (like the 55 km Birkie.) After talking to a few people who were wax testing and helping wax skis, a purple Swix klister was the goods. 

As if skiing 55 km wasn’t enough, the Birkie tradition was to replicate the great feat during the civil war of 1206 where 2 Birkebeiner Warriors skied the young 12 lb Norwegian Prince to safety. Yes, our version is a backpack with 12lbs!

GO! Kirk and I started in the front row to avoid the start line carnage and quickly settled into a nice groove of double poling across the lake in the beautiful sunshine. Before we knew it, we were a few kilometers in and as we skied through the opening for an 8’ high elk fence gate, I thought to myself that it was a whole lot easier to have the gate open than to have to jump it like last year. (Someone forgot to open the gate last year – serious carnage with 1,000 skiers hucking their skis and poles over the fence and then climbing over after them!)

Our wax was working pretty well, and the conditions were nice and fast with a rock solid track. As good as I have seen for Birkie grooming and conditions overall.

At about the 5 km mark, I looked around and was surprised to see that we were skiing along in about 4th or 5th spot (with over 1,400 skiers in the event), and many who chose the Birkie Lite (sans 12 lb pack).  Most of the younger competitive skiers tend to do the Birkie Lite, so I was quite surprised to not see more skiers around us – or maybe we started too fast.

In a long ski like the Birkie, there is definitely an advantage to skiing in a group and getting a bit of a draft to rest. Kirk and I were leading a group of 4 and at about 20 km the other 2 skiers fell off. We decided to just keep it steady and no t push too hard in fear of bowing up.

It was pretty uneventful for the next 20 km and then our wax started to slip quite a bit. Fortunately we could muscle our way up and over the hills and it didn’t slow us too much. With 5 kilometers to go we decided to ski it in together and give one last push to make sure no one overtook us. I spent most of the last 5 km reflecting on my son Evan who has Mitochondrial Disease and is a quadriplegic, and so many others who are suffering like him. I felt so alive, happy, sad and fortunate to have the option to be able to do things like this.  We crossed the finish line together to win the Birkebeiner, pumping our hands in the air and feeling proud of our ski and for MitoCanada.

The MitoCanada racing suits did garner some attention and I was approached after the race by a researcher from UofA who researches mitochondria and was asking what we were all about. Very cool!

My friend Brendan came up with the great idea of ordering MitoCanada racing suits for the WMC, and soliciting corporate sponsors to put their logos on the suits.  In no time we raised $5K and had the suits designed and ordered. Unfortunately it has taken the vendor longer than anticipated to deliver and the bulk of the order is just clearing customs as we speak. However a few suits did make it through and were debuted in the Canadian Birkebeiner last weekend in Edmonton.

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