North Korea to Mongolia on Skis…..

North Korea to Mongolia on Skis….. 

(This report was written for the Alaska Dispatch News and can be ready on their website too HERE although this post will include more pictures!)
Over the past 6 years I’ve been away almost more than I’ve been home. Chasing the World Cup and my Olympic dream often necessitated living out of a duffle bag. Yet, despite my extensive travel schedule I had never been to Asia.  This year, I decided, it was time for that to change.

When you think of Asia you most likely do not think of it being a Nordic skiing hotbed.  Yet, if you were to pull out a map and locate the next two Olympic venues you would notice something funny.  The 2018 and 2022 games are a relative “stone’s throw away” from one another when considering world geography. Just two years from now winter sport athletes will converge in PyeongChang, South Korea and four years later, Beijing, China. Yes, you read that right, Beijing, home to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Needless to say, the combination of upcoming Olympic interest and China’s prominence in international news headlines combined with my appetite for adventure sent me to the 2016 Tour de Ski China.
Food is always an adventure in a foreign place
The Tour de Ski (TdS) China consisted of 5 races in 3 venues and competitors from nine different countries including China, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Finland, Canada, the USA and Venezuela.  The first stop on the Tour was a city called Yanji which was oddly reminiscent of Sochi, Russia.  The hotel and surrounding area was 80% new, 10% active construction zone, and 10% dilapidated.  The five-minute walk from the hotel to the race venue featured piles of garbage, old tires, and pyramids of black coal, ripe for burning in the conveniently located power plant with fumes that wafted over to the gravel pit-turned-skate sprint course. Of interest at the race venue were Chinese soldiers handing out Red Bull, drones flying 5 feet overhead during the races, and horse-drawn sled rides. The other notable fact about Yanji is that it’s 20 kilometers from the North Korean border and we missed the supposed Hydrogen bomb by a mere 72 hours. All of the schools in Yanji were evacuated due to “seismic activity” we later read in the English version of the China Daily newspaper.

The Yanji sprint venue
Warming stations inside of the non-ventilated “warming hut”
The highlight of the second venue, Changchun, was most definitely the Chinese Vassaloppet, a long distance classic ski marathon inspired by the original event in Sweden.  While the Swedish version trumps in participation, the Chinese prevail in grandeur and jaw-dropping awe.  Magnificent snow sculptures, some as tall as five story buildings lined the race stadium.  It was difficult to maintain composure and focus when double poling past fire-breathing monkeys, lines of elephants, and a dove with the wing span of half of a football field!  The sculptures were carved to perfection and when asked for a design, one of the workers pulled a crumpled napkin from his back pocket. I’ve been to Olympic stadiums and raced marathons around the world and believe me, this one was one to write home about.

A highlight of the trip was being surprised by my Czech friend Petr & Adela who came for the Chinese VASA. They knew I was going to be there but didn’t tell me and just showed up! 
Our final race venue necessitated a 17-hour bus ride from Changchun to Xiwuqi in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia (just south of Mongolia the country).  Most of the land we traveled through was arid and flat but I was pleasantly surprised to see at least three solid hours of wind turbines generating some of the energy for the 1.3 billion Chinese.

Xiwuqi hosted the final two races of the tour including a sprint race where I literally wore my warm up pants over my race suit because it was -15F and windy. While the ski races were a blast, the real highlight were the camel races. I felt as if I stepped into a National Geographic photo shoot with locals dressed head-to-toe in bright colors.  The camels were covered in thick coats of fur and looked very regal, yet were very wild. We watched relay races that included passing a spear from one teammate to the next. We even saw a man get bucked off a camel as if it were a rodeo. Of course I had to try too…

Camels looking very regal… .
With one of the locals 🙂 
A shot from the podium
At the completion of the races the excitement didn’t end. We hung around Beijing to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. We had crystal-clear weather for both occasions after Beijing’s horrendous air quality made international news over Christmas.  Time after time we were told how incredibly lucky we were.

The Great Wall 

 Having fun in the Forbidden City! (We had been to a Kung Fu show the night before….)

Hype without the pressure… Mount Marathon 2015

Eventhough I’m not racing this year somehow I have a ton of Mount Marathon obligations… I don’t mean this in a bad way but I suppose it just goes to show how much this race permeates Alaskan culture and illustrates how hard it is to get away!
The past couple of weeks I’ve been telling people that I won’t be at the race because “it’s hard to watch a race you really want to be a part of” but over the last couple of days I’ve changed my mind – I can’t stay away.  This year’s running is going to be too exciting to miss, even if I have to stand on the side of the mountain as a spectator/cheerleader extraordinaire.

The “out of town guests” team Salomon left to right Emelie Forsberg, Kilian Jornet, me & Ricky Gates
What’s all this hype you might ask? Well, first there was the premiere of the 3022 movie, the documentary that followed last year’s race. The premiere was two back to back shows at the Beartooth, complete with athlete panel and embarrassing ice breaker games & schwag.  The movie (compliments to Max Romey and Natalie Fedak) was given 4 stars by the local paper and consequently, three more sold out shows were added. And…. then three more, towards the end of the month…. ! (Wow!)  If you want to check out the website do so HERE but I’ll warn you, it’s not available online due to future film festival plans 🙂

With Jeebs at the Premiere

3022 got more stars than Avengers: Age of Ultron or Cinderella?!?!?! 
While I cringed at the close ups of my bad bangs (sorry but bad hair is relevant and embarressing) Max and Natalie did a fantastic job explaining the lore of the mountain and told the story of the racers. Also, for a race that is extremely hard to spectate, the cinematography was awesome and you really get a feel for all 3022 feet of the course.
Monday night’s Q&A compliments of Salomon and Skinny Raven
3022 on Alaska Public Radio: 

Max in the studio…. 
The latest KTVA story on Eric Strabel and Denali Foldager – not Strabel (!) “Love Story” 

The wedding cake – complete with a piece of Mt. Marathon on top – whatever happened to the bride and groom? 
Today’s ADN article about the lottery process to get into Mt. Marathon: 
ADN preview of the women’s race: 
Watch for our segment on KTVA’s show, Frontier showing Sunday morning and replaying Sunday evening…. 
Me and Clint (and let it be known that I’m a proud graduation of the “McCool School!”)
By now you probably get the point. One could literally waste hours upon hours reading all this stuff, making predictions about the race, etc, etc.  There are certainly worse ways to spend time 🙂 There is a reason Mt. Marathon is the “Olympics or Super Bowl of Alaska.”  I just love the fact that a mountain running race, of all things in the biggest sporting event in AK aside from the Iditarod!  
True to my theme of “branching out” Rob and I are taking off on a 2-day packraft trip early tomorrow morning.  The river, Clear Creek, has been on our to-do list for at least five years and tomorrow we’re doing it! It’s literally been years since I’ve been in my boat so I hope I remember how to do it!  Rob got me a new skirt for my birthday this past April so I’m excited to put that to use. (Spray skirt that is!)
On Saturday I hope to be all over that mountain cheering at the top of my lungs, finding another use for Olympic clothing (hello patriotic red, white and blue) and handing out water. It’s going to be a different year but I look forward to watching others put it all on the line. 
In other brief non-Mount Marathon news we celebrated our official “cabin warming” in Hope on Solstice. This project has been “Rob’s Olympics” the past five years and he did an amazing job!  We still live in an 800 square foot shack in Anchorage but Hope sure turned out nice!  
Solstice crowns & bunny ears! 

The backside of the “Hope Hamptons” compliments of Matt Waliszek’s camera…. 
Cheers to an exciting, SAFE race for everyone who has the honor of taking the 3022 challenge. And to the rest of you, Happy Fourth of July, however you may choose to celebrate it. 
Sincerely, 
Holly 

11 Marathons is enough for me…

Eleven Marathons is enough for me…. 

As some of you know this past winter I traveled the world competing in ski marathons. Over the course of 5 months I competed in 11 ski marathons sprinkled throughout 10 countries. My final race took me all the way to Siberia and the season went three weeks longer than usual. Needless to say, I was tired – I am tired and consequently there will be no Mount Marathon 2015 in my future. 
Here I am post finish line last year…. not my best look… 
Believe me, I am disappointed. It’s bound to be a flag-ship, exciting year with Internationally ranked “celebrity” competition (Emelie Forsberg & Killian Jornet) plus the move of Allie Ostrander to the senior race. Course records seem to be falling right and left this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some blazing times in Seward with the depth of competition in both the men’s and women’s races. 
Over the years I’ve harnessed a very personal, palpable relationship with Mount Marathon. I credit the race and my 2009 trip to the ER with my move towards becoming a professional athlete.  For the past seven summers it’s been the poignant date in the summer months.  Somehow there is “pre-Mount Marathon” and “post-Mount Marathon” each year.  In the past few years the race has resulted in the disappearance of Michael LeMaitre, traumatic brain injuries, cuts, scraps and bruises.  And – for some reason, people still fight for the opportunity to hurl themselves 3022 feet up & down the mountain. For these reasons, I suppose it makes sense Mount Marathon holds the nick-name, “the Olympics of Alaska.”  
2009 where it took nearly an hour to start in IV… 
I don’t feel like I need to make excuses for my absence but I realize that it’s easier to offer a full explanation behind my decision. I know the effort that is required for me to be safe and competitive in this race….. One needs to be seething with motivation, and your/my killer instinct needs to be sharp and ready to go. I’ve been in that zone in the past and I just don’t have the energy (physical, emotional, mental) for it this year.
Post race ice cream bars, 2011
So, good luck to everyone that plans and hopes to race this year!!! I’ll miss it dearly but I know it’s the right call for me. In the meantime, if you have the Mount Marathon fever or are alternatively curious to learn more about the race and/or get an inside peak into the minds of race competitors don’t miss the premiere of 3022ft Everyone’s got mountains to climb – a full length documentary made about last year’s race at the Beartooth!  There will be two showings June 24th complete with schwag and an athlete panel. 
Ciao! 
Holly 

Spring powder, peaks, family & friends….

Well, the hiatus, procrastination and silence is over!  Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in my blog…… when things go well, I generally post more often. When things don’t go well there is often a period of silence. I’ve tried to break this habit as there is always something to say, even if it’s a simple lesson learned but easier said that done. 
My last FIS Marathon Cup race in Russia was over a month and a half ago and needless to say, it did not go well. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired in a race and/or skied so poorly.  The two weeks leading up to the race I wasn’t physically sick but could barely get out of bed. Maybe it was a low-level virus that took its toll or maybe it was just the 5-month accumulation of international travel, living out of a duffel bag, and racing too many 50ks! All said and done I raced 18 races, 11 of which were marathons in 10 different countries. In hindsight the racing, combined with the travel was too much but live and learn, right? 

 3rd place in the FIS Marathon Cup 

So far my spring (and early summer now) have been dedicated to recovery and spending some time doing things that I’ve put on the back burner for a while now. The past five years have been a big push towards my competition goals and they have required a lot of dedication, commitment and sacrifice. Don’t worry – they haven’t been without fun too! But, I’ve done some fun trips this spring, just returned from an extended trip down to Washington to see my family, and am now enjoying setting up my routine here at home. 
Here are a few pictures for a quick update: 
Birthday presents: roses and personalized license plate decals 
In lieu of Hawaii or a tropical beach I opted to stay in Alaska for my spring vacation. 
Luckily the weather was on our side and so where the conditions 
 We had an awesome group which included Katie & Justin Libby & Zoe Roy
The accoms weren’t too shabby either! 
My Salomon Q115 where the perfect ski for the killer conditions! 
Rob soaking up the last rays of sunshine and powder before being picked up by Talkeetna Air Taxi! 
 
School visits – this time Teeland Middle School in Wasilla 
 Perfect Spring Alaskan Days 
 Preschool graduation? Caps and gowns? What is the world coming too? 
 Talking about my marathon season on KTVA’s Daybreak 
The boys! 
 Beach bike ride on Fat Tires – why not? 
Keynote at the Girl Scouts Young Women of Distinction Luncheon
A successful climb up Tikishla
High school graduation parties! 
 Alaska with friends
 More of Alaska with friends 
 Floral explosion in Seattle 
 A dedication of a new stone wall and structure at my Dad’s garden in Seattle, Kubota Gardens 
 Family hiking trip in the North Cascades. Four days of rain but it was gorgeous and we made it to the top of Castle Peak which is my dad’s 99th peak in his quest to climb the top 100 peak in Washington! (w/400 feet of prominence. He’s already completed the top 100 “Bulgar List.”)
Rob & his sister, Heather. Their first outdoor trip together in 13 years!?
Dad pointing at the top of Castle…. this is the only good look we had the whole time. Otherwise it was foggy with nearly zero viz… 
Then we went to Shaw Island to help my brother on his next “tiny house.”  He’s helped us in Hope and it was our turn to return the favor in the form of roofing, wiring, and insulating. 
Two fire fighters on Shaw Island: Scott shows Rob some of the Shaw Island volunteer fire fighter regalia. Scott keeps a pretty fun blog which you can check out HERE if at all interested. 
And more recently a new set of wheels compliments of Kendall Toyota of Anchorage. I upgraded to heated seats which I used today – June 2nd! 🙁 
That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll get back to writing about something with substance rather than just posting pictures…. but no one ever complains about pictures. 
What’s on tap for the summer you might ask? School!  I’m taking 2.5 graduate classes towards my Masters in Counseling Psychology. I have one course remaining this fall + internship (which is a substantial 600 hours!) then graduation. More on this later. 
 This past winter was a true test of endurance in many ways: physically, emotionally, mentally & logistically. I know I’m brushing over the synopsis here but perhaps I’ll feel more inclined to write about it in detail later. Thanks so much for the cheers, support, and words of encouragement.
Until then, enjoy your June, wherever you may be. 
Ciao! 
Holly 🙂 

Khanty in photos…

I made it to Khanty! 
… and there is an important race tomorrow but it might resemble Alyeska’s slush cup a bit… 
It’s called the “Ugra Ski Marathon”
 And it’s not really freezing at night……. It could be a shin-deep slush 50k suffer fest out there tomorrow. Unfortunately there is no salt in sight. 
 On the way here you could buy Putin Paraphernalia in a vending machine if you wish…. 
After 18 hours of travel! Yikes! 
 That’s for me! 
 Russian biathlete ladies, complete with gun iphone case…. 
 Kilometer 20 earlier in the week, before the rain started
 Building a stadium in the middle of….. ???
More building 
 Lots of high level Russians will be in attendance including men’s Sochi 50k Alexander Legov… 
 The accoms…. 
 Borscht for lunch! 
 Boots with the fur 
 The first few days of the trip were pretty quiet. Luckily I made some new friends from the Mongolian Paralympic team! 
With Batmunkh (pronounced “com-bolt”)  We trained together for the whole ski Thursday!
And then we had a gift exchange. I am bringing how the beautiful painting that I am holding and I traded some athlete cards and Alaska smoked salmon (not pictures but they DID receive it) 
 Two strong legs, one strong arm & a great spirit! 
 New Carbons! (Thanks Salomon!)
 It’s quite barren and flat around these parts…. 
And here is what we found in the city….. 
 The Internets decent so I can’t complain! 
 Apparently the race will be televised in Russia although I haven’t been able to nail down any of the details. 
Phones with translation apps come in handy for on the go communication! 
When jogging, watch out for uncovered man-holes. Reminds me of somewhere else I’ve been (Sochi!)
Last ones a “fast” one? 50 k’s to go and then three days of traveling home and I will be done! 
Check back for a race report to see what happened….. 
h

Raclette to Rhubarb Pie to Siberia….

It’s “travel Monday” and I’m enroute to the last ski race of the year. Here’s what’s on tap for the day:

 

4:30am wake up
4:45am “hike” to the tram
Tram to the airport
Fly Zurich to Berlin
Fly Berlin to Moscow
Fly Moscow to Khanty-Mansiysk
Shuttle to hotel, arrive 1:45am, Tuesday…. I hope! 
Last week I was in Chamonix, France. Sounds awesome, right? I’m guessing it conjures up ideas and pictures of sunshine and powder skiing in your mind. But… it wasn’t quite like that. Instead Chamonix was grey, rainy, and had no snow for Nordic Skiing. Thus, I spent much of the week horizontal, in bed resting up for my solo adventure to Siberia. I went on slow jogs, ate Raclette with my host family, and wandered through French artisan shops filled with stinky cheese, lumpy sausages, beautifully colored macaroons, and endless tourist trinkets. The weather wasn’t even good enough to make the 55 Euro trip up the Aiguille du Midi cable car for the famous view of the French Alps and Mount Blanc so perhaps I’ll have to return someday for Chamonix to redeem itself.
Highlights of the week included:

Team Victories, Kilts & Stinky Cheese

First of all, Happy Birthday yet again to my awesome husband Rob (March 30th) and a special thanks/shout out to my incredible sponsor, Salomon & Josh Korn for helping me get a pretty kick-butt birthday present for him. I hate missing special occasions while on the road but these skis certainly help soften the blow….. 
We haven’t seen each other since the American Birkie in February and while we’ve gone this long before, I’m pretty “home & husband sick!”
Following the Norwegian Birkebeiner I spent an awesome week with Anders Haugen (from Alaska) and his girlfriend, Christine.  The week that I crashed on their couch was literally the week that Anders relocated to Trondheim, Norway and I’m so grateful & thankful that they let me stay. The three of us had a blast together and the joke was that we were a little family considering the fact that their apartment was tiny. We were in close, close quarters and had to get used to it quite quickly! Every night I would turn the couch into a bed with sheets and every morning, we would convert it back to the group living space. It’s funny how Europeans have different standards for living and space – everything is functional over here and it works. It made my desire for a bigger house seem a little bit frivolous in my head but hey, part of that is cultural right? 
The skiing in Trondheim was pretty minimal but I’m happy that we got out for a couple of quick skis. Anders (who also used to race for APU!) skied with me and it was fun to have a training partner! I was nervous as I only had my best race skis and the coverage was super minimal. Somehow I made it through the week without any huge assaults to my skis. 
Time spent in Scandinavia isn’t complete without a trip to IKEA! While I saw stuff I wanted, I didn’t dare buy anything as I don’t have ANY space to carry anything. Alaska has no IKEA and they don’t ship to AK either so Alaskans are usually starved for affordable furnishings. I did take a free catalog for ideas though. 
This was my frist trip to Trondheim and I’m really glad I got to see a bit of the city. As a World Cup racer I’ve been to Olso and Lillehammer quite a few times but it’s fun to break the mold and see a new place – and better yet, with local guides! 
This night we went to a beach bonfire to celebrate Max Olex’s birthday. 
The next day Anders and I returned from skiing in the Trondheim World Cup stadium and Christine had made waffle batter because, DUH, it was “National Waffle Day.”  I had a waffle with brown cheese and jam (my fav) and one with jam and sour cream/cream fresh which is also very traditional. Also, did you know that many Norwegians eat tacos every Friday night? That explains the “taco kits” that are plastered all over every grocery store.
And…. I continue to do school work while on the road. This time I was doing a case study for my abnormal psychology class. Lugging around the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders) has been a bit of chore as it’s a huge book but I’m happy to say that I’m chipping away at grad school…. 
We went out to Thai food ….. 
And Anna Barnwell of Alaska joined us! So fun to have a small group of Alaskans living in Trondheim. Thanks for treating me to dinner Anna! 
“The Family!” 
Next stop, Valadalen Sweden for the Arefjellsloppet & Swix Ski Classic final with Team Santander. We came into the race weekend with a measly 61 point lead over Team United Bakeries and there was a lot at stake in the race.  The course which was originally planned to be 75 kilometers point to point was changed due to low snow. It snowed hard two days and the day before the race which essentially made the race possible. 
Valadalen Reception and dining hall. We were spread out in little “stugas” or cabins throughout the property. Needless to say, it was “cozy.”  
 A traditional Scandinavian fire with hot coffee and tea…
Santander Team Leader, Nils Marius getting pumped for the 30k citizen race the day before…. 
With Johan Olson, the Swedish World Champion & the newest member of team Santander AND NNF!!!
Tord Asle AKA “Aviator Man” had an awesome race and finished the day in second overall, scoring valuable points for the team. 
If you want to watch the race check out the LIVE CENTER HERE.  It’s pretty sweet that Swix Ski Classics is able to have each race, in entirely LIVE online and on TV in much of Scandinavia! You don’t even have to visit an illegal site like you do for LIVE World Cup – BONUS! 
I did not have such a good race, in fact, I dropped out of maybe only my second race ever. I started the 47k classic with the field of elite girls and low energy right off the bat. I had been exhausted in Trondheim the week before so perhaps the signs were all over the wall but….. I decided to drop and save my energy for Russia, the race where my points would really, really count. Normally I would be torn up about a DNF but in all actuality, I’m proud of myself for making a smart, calculated decision. In the past I’ve gone so far as to check myself out of the ER to finish a race and in reality, being that stubborn isn’t always the right answer.  I skied about 10k of the course and then skied up to Nils Marius to get drink bottles to help out the team. 
 
While I didn’t have a banner day personally, the team DID! We eeked out the victory over United Bakeries by TWENTY SIX POINTS. When the team scores 3556 points in a season 26 is NOTHING. It came down to the last placing, the last sprint…. it was crazy. I’m trying to think of the North American equivalent in sport – maybe making one last free throw in the last. .25 seconds of an NBA final? Needless to say it was crazy, crazy awesome and I’m so happy that our team came out ahead on the right side of that tiny margin!  The picture above is the team at the venue after we confirmed the victory. The picture below is our team after going up on the stage to receive the top team of the year award.

And yes, I know that I’m holding up a dorky #1 finger in both of the pictures. I was just so psyched!
The final Swix Ski Classics banquet is a formal affair and many people wear black dresses, coats, and ties.  Every year Santander wears something fun and festive. This year it was matching kilts – a tribute to Team and Nils Marius’s year spent “studying” abroad in Scotland. I felt a bit like Brittney Spears circa 1996 (Opps I did it again!) but it was really fun and I think in mass, we were a hit!
No party is complete without speeches and toasts from the hotel bed!  Here is Team Chief Magnar Dalen delivering some words from the pulpit!
During the banquet they called up “Swix Ski Classics Legends” which were people who had won over 5 SSC races. Lots of kilts up there including Anders Auckland leading the charge with 12 victories. Jorgen and Jerry Arhlin where representing as well! Needless to say it was an awesome night and fun to spend it with lots of new friends. The only regret is that we didn’t have a set of bagpipes for Magnar because that really would have established our look! 
Afterwards we drove from Are to Trondheim, and then flew “home” to Oslo. Being a Norwegian team many of my teammates were home but my adventure, of course, continues….. That night I met up with Knut-Eric Joslin, a former Dartmouth skier working on his PhD in Economics in Oslo. He hosted me for the night and let me crash on his couch. (Thanks Knut-Eric!) The next morning I got up and booked it straight to the Russian VISA center in Oslo to pick up my passport and Russian VISA. I’m SO SO happy to say that it came through, finally. In all I most definitely sent over 150 emails, made countless phone calls and even shed a few tears to get it. The directions are confusing as all heck (!) and getting a VISA outside of your own country when you cannot give up your passport for weeks at a time because you need it can be difficult. I owe a huge thank you to Andrey Kascha, Alexei Sotskov, and Yacopo Cararra for helping me obtain it. Thanks guys! 
Thanks goodness! 
Where in the world am I now? Good question. After a crazy Monday travel day which included 2 buses, 2 airplanes, 1 train, 1 tram, and 1 shuttle bus I’m Chamonix, France with my friend Anouk from the French National Team. Anouk has been awesome offering me a place to stay for years and I’m finally taking her up on it. 
It’s a funny time of year though because she’s done with her season and essentially home so she has tons of business to take care of while I’m still living out of my roller bag and trying to prepare for one last 50k.  Yesterday we made a small attempt at going Alpine skiing. It’s warm here and raining in Chamonix. Of course this meant snow at higher altitudes but the avalanche conditions are horribly dangerous right now. Ironically we skied a super short run on one chair lift (after taking a gondola) in freezing rain yesterday. We didn’t last long and I’m left with the impression that I have to return to Chamonix when a) I have more energy and b) during better conditions. 
Otherwise, I’m sleeping as much as possible, strolling through stinky cheese shops, and trying to get some school work done and catch up on email. Next stop, SIBERIA! Happy Early Easter to all of you and check back soon. The Marathon of Marathons is almost over 🙂 
Sausages, cheeses and wines through a store front window. 
Holly 

Birken backpacks & Cooking dinner for Norway’s (potential) next Prime Minister!

Another week has passed in my “marathon of marathons.”  The Norwegian Birkie, called “Birken” is the 9th long distance ski race I’ve competed in this winter.  As an ambassador and huge fan of the American Birkie I was extremely curious to see what the Norwegian Birken was like and how it compared.  It’s safe to say that they are two completely different races for a host of reasons and both are completely awesome. 
Fun to be on a team with girls from 3 different countries!  Kerttu Niskanen, Me & Laila Kveli pre- Birken modeling our perfectly weighed 3.5k backpacks! 
The Stange Family! Erik, Emily, Henrik & Greta 🙂
A huge thank you to the Stange family for hosting me in Lillehammer for the week.  (And thanks to Ben Popp, ED of the American Birkie for connecting us!)  Erik is a former high-level ski racer and we have lots of mutual friends. I had a blast with him and his family. They fed me, gave me rides, loaned trail maps, and were awesome company. They had great Internet, a queen sized bed (!) laundry, and a wax bench so I was in heaven. 
Thanks to Andrew Young of Great Britain for providing some rides to training.  If you look closely you can see that the steering wheel is on the right side instead of the left side of their van.
After a long stint of traveling and racing alone it was fun to rejoin Team Santander for the Norwegian Birkie.  I didn’t have to worry about waxing, accommodations or transportation which was a huge relief.  Many of these marathons (especially the point to point ones over mountain ranges) are logistically difficult and having a team to help was awesome! 
Plus, I had a new teammate and roommate for the two nights we slept in Rena (the small town where the Birken starts!)  Kerttu was coming off an impressive 4th place in the 30k Classic at World Championships in Falun so it was great having her on our team!
 
Kerttu weighing her pack after loading it with the necessary “survival gear” and rocks for added weight. 3.5 kilos is a lot more than you might think! 
Backpacks, rocks… 
 The finish line scale was out all week…. maybe as a scare tactic? As such, all the skiers in our house were obsessing over getting just the right weight, not too little, and not too much. If you’re found without some of the necessary gear or your pack is too light you face disqualification! 
Team bread delivery from Baker Hansen! 
Jorgen Auckland: Bread for breakfast, bread for lunch.  There is no gluten intolerance on THIS Norwegian Team! 
Birken weather report
Race bib modifications and dinner preparation occur simultaneously. 
Rena is a small town and as such, it’s hard to accommodate the thousands upon thousands of people that come to participate and help out with the race. Thus, many ended up boarding buses at 4am in Lillehammer to ride to the race start in Rena.  Many of the pro team opt to stay in Rena and for us, that meant renting a private house for the weekend.  The family moved out, and we moved in. 
While I heard of other teams bringing along cooks our team didn’t have such a thing. In fact, that cook turned out to be ME! I enjoy cooking and am not intimidated cooking for large groups of people (thanks to years as a coach and perhaps training camps on Eagle Glacier where we take turns cooking for the entire camp!) It didn’t set in until later that not only was I (along with help) cooking for the team but the guest list which included Norwegian TV, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, and Jonas Gahr Store, the leader of the Norwegian Labor Party and arguably the next Prime Minister of NORWAY! All of these aforementioned people spent the night at our team house AND raced the next day. Standard protocol in Norway. (Can you imagine Barack Obama and Bill Gates racing the American Birkie??!!) Yes, slightly different I know but I had to draw a comparison!
 Naturally I had to get a selfie with Jonas Gahr Store 
The day before the race was heinous with overcast conditions and temperatures around 32 degrees making waxing really difficult. We trained in late morning and attempted to ski the first 10k of the race following a couple thousand skiers who did the “open track” or more informal “race” the day before the real deal. 
However, the following day, race day was AWESOME. Oh, it should be mentioned that last year’s race was cancelled due to high winds across the mountains so this year we were lucky with sunshine and low wind conditions! 
Johaug, skiing by herself on a perfect Birken Day…. Photo, Swix Ski Classics
For more race photos check out the Ski Classics Facebook page HERE
Although it’s better, I’m still struggling with elbow tendinitis spurred on my racing the Marcialonga with a “blank ski” AKA, no wax. The double poling on hard, artificial snow wreaked havoc on my arms.  While it’s a lot better than a month ago, I haven’t been able to train classic as much as I’d like and consequently, my confidence for classic racing isn’t quite there. I was happy that the Birken featured tons of climbing and opted for lots of kick wax on my skis. Unfortunately that also meant they were slow on the flats but so was I.  However, I met my goals for the race which were to have fun, enjoy the day, ski within my current capabilities, and maintain good technique.  While I wasn’t blazing fast it was good enough for a respectable 11th place for women overall and 3rd in my age group. The added bonus is that my elbows survived and I didn’t completely blow up.  I have two more marathon races this season and each of those will require a 110% effort so I’m glad I didn’t completely “drain the tanks.”  
That night we had a small party:
Alaska meets Norway! So fun to have dinner with new and old friends from both countries!  Left to right, Tora, Cathinka, Espen, Anders, Ragnild, Chris & Anne Marit
The next day I moved North…. 
Traditional Norwegian food at a road stop part way through the 6-hour drive with Anders from Lillehammer to Trondheim
Before racing the Birken myself and spending time around it, I didn’t realize the social status and professional ramifications of racing the Norwegian Birken.  I didn’t find out until after the race that many Norwegian’s motivation over the 54 kilometers is to earn their “Merket” or a Diploma that stats their accomplishment. The Merket is a percent back standard from the winner’s time(s) that amateur racers strive to achieve. The standard is gender and age specific.  Achieving the Merket is a big, big deal – such that people literally put it on the their CVs. In some Norwegian Professional Industries (like Finance) it is almost a rite of passage. This year, even Norway’s prince, the namesake Prince Hakon achieved his Merket which made front page news. Here is Anders with his!  Also super cool is that Espen (the brother of Anders) made the Merket from the 26th/last wave of the race! Huge congrats to both of them! 
Anders with his “Merket” (pronounced “Marka”)
Homemade Norwegian brown cheese, “Brunost”from Anne Marit (her mom, actually) and my third place age group award for the Birken 🙂 

This brings me up to today. I am currently in Trondheim staying at Anders and his girlfriend, Christine’s apartment. They are so nice to let me infringe on their space and I am incredibly thankful for their generosity and friendship.  On Thursday I will meet up with teammates from Santander and drive two hours to Are, Sweden for the final ski classics race. Snow is minimal and the race course is TBA but the race is going to be an important one for Team Santander. After a difficult weekend result wise at the Birken we are still leading the team competition but only by a few points over Team United Bakeries. It’s most certainly going to be a battle to the end! 
Thanks for checking in and have a fabulous week! 
Good luck to everyone at Supertour Finals in Sun Valley – miss you all!  Go APU!
Cheers, 
Holly 

Holmenkollen with friends!

Despite awesome home stays, chasing new opportunities and doing my best to hold onto the red bib traveling is exhausting, there is no doubt. While a life “ski racing in Europe” sounds glamorous  (and it’s sure, in some ways, it is) it can be quite tiresome. Now is perhaps one of those times. Daffodils line the sidewalks outside of grocery stores, Easter’s right around the corner according to the calendar, and skier conversation has turned to spring destination plans.

Engadin Sun & Red Bib

This past weekend was my third trip to the Engadin ski marathon and the beautiful valley it runs through….. 
My first morning in the Engadin Valley didn’t disappoint! 
 The annual St. Moritz night sprint.  The “prologue” is a short 650 meters and the “race” which for girls consists of semi-finals and finals isn’t much longer. It’s a small windy track and it’s almost impossible to pass. Therefore, fast starts are a must. I was third out of the tracks and third overall. Happy to be on the podium with some quick girls, Lucia (Germany) & Tatijana (Switzerland) 
 Looks staged but it isn’t! 
Ski with Team Gregg
 Valley “Roseg” with Kent, Inge & Tony
 Inge & Kent

Dinner with the Gregg clan and stories from Falun 
Congrats to Caitlin on a historic bronze medal in the 10k – fun to see and hear about it in person!

Also fun to run into my APU teammates Tyler and David who did the race as well! 

 And my Swedish (former) World Cup friend Lisa Larson who is taking the year off and working as a ski tech at a ski shop in Pontresina! 
Making schnitzel in a small Swiss kitchen 🙂 
There are certainly people in the ski industry that like to have a good time! (Schnapps dispenser in an unspecified location!) 
Thanks to Salomon for the race support – ski testing, race wax and (attempted) feeds. I say attempted because the race was too fast and too hectic to get them! 
Stefan helping me test! 
 The night before… 
 Six girls on the podium (left to right) Anouk, me, Ritta Liisa, Caitlin, Aurelie & Antonella. Or, France, USA, Finland, USA, France, Italy…. 
Not the race I was looking for but JUST ENOUGH to get the red bib back! Now I lead by a tiny 4 points…… everything will come down to the FIS Marathon Cup Final in SIBERIA of all places, April 11th. (Chad Gregg, photo) 
This year I really felt the altitude (nearly 6,000 feet) when we hit the hills. Having come directly from Poland I had 5-6 days in Switzerland before racing which is NOT the altitude window that you want. Either it’s best to come 10 days before or the night before to have the best performance. That said, logistically it was impossible to plan a good altitude entrance to the race. And, I didn’t want to wait until the night or day before to come to the Engadin for obvious, beautiful reasons! 
The race itself was fast and furious, per usual. I remember my first trip to the Engadin a few years ago and my finishing comment was that I had never been in such a violent ski race – ever.  Thousands of people, men and women start at the same time and ski into a headwind for the first 10k.  The first ten k is literally a game of half skill, and half luck. Over half of the women that finished on the podium broke poles and the luck part of the race is a) avoided crashes around you and b) catching a good draft with the top pack of men.  Once you’re in a pack it turns into a constant battle for position and older men that you might be skiing with are constantly trying to “get in front of the girl” or beat out their buddy. There was talk about an all girls wave that would begin before the masses this year but it didn’t happen. The concern was that girls in later waves would catch the draft with the men and cross the finish line with a faster time than the girls in the elite wave.  The solution (I think) is to make it so that the women’s winner has to come out of the elite women’s wave. Make it big enough so that it’s inclusive, and start us 20 minutes before the Elite men and 14,000 other people. The American Birkebeiner has a women’s wave and it’s great to have a women’s race. All of a sudden the tactic becomes skiing rather than loosing the other women, battling with the men, and keeping your equipment in one piece!  
That said, the Engadin is a great race in perhaps one of the most beautiful ski areas in Europe. I highly recommend adding it to your “ski bucket list.” 
Me & Chelsea with Tony…. still wearing Seahawks gear but this year he left the full get up behind. A HUGE thank you to Tony W. for helping out with logistics and mobilizing a big USA crew each year for the race! 
Here is a photo of Tony from last year and yes, he skied 42k like THIS:
It was hard to leave St. Moritz….. really hard. The skiing was perfect, the sun packed a punch. And I was exhausted. But we rallied… to sit in the worst traffic jam that my Swiss ride Elias, had ever seen. We got back to Chelsea’s apartment (Zurich “home base” and gear storage) super late and I proceeded to spend the next 3 hours unpacking, packing and doing laundry.  Then I slept for 3.5 hours before hiking to the tram and then to the airport to catch my flight to Oslo. I don’t know what I was thinking when I booked the ticket 10 days ago but the itinerary was WAY too ambitious and exhausting. Actually, what I was thinking was that I would go to the Russian consulate in Oslo first thing Monday morning to work on applying for my VISA to get into Russia. In reality, my “invitation” is still not ready and Monday turned out to be a Russian holiday anyways.  
To make a long story short, the Russian VISA application is extremely difficult when you’re a) outside of your own country and applying from another and b) when you cannot afford to give up your passport for week (or months!) at a time because you’re constantly traveling and need it. I’m still in the process of trying to obtain it and I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck! 
And as always, thanks for the cheers & following. 
Sincerely, 
Holly 
PS. GOOD LUCK to all the Alaskan Junior Racers competing in Truckee, CA at the 2015 Junior Nationals! 
P.P.S. Graham Longford, AKA “@klisterhead” on twitter wrote a really fun description of the Marcialonga back in January. He did an amazing job of documenting INCLUDING photos mid-race. It was fun for me to meet Graham after depending on his European-based World Cup tweets for such a long time. Check it out below if interested….