January 1st has generally not been the right time to reflect on the past year of endurance training and racing for me. The big races of the cross country ski season come in late February or early March. This means that generally on new years I'm in the middle of the season, and not ready to review the year until after the World Championships of US adult skiing - the North American Birkiebeiner - in late February. In March is when I naturally look back and start to think about the year ahead. But this year shook out a little bit differently, and now is a good time to look back.
2016 started pretty much as usual. The big excitement for the start of the year was the first winter at our family's new house in Hayward, Wisconsin. A Christmas day snow storm brought excellent ski conditions starting right from the beginning of the year, some of the best skiing I've seen since college. On the Saturday after new years I got out for an epic, memorable 55k classic ski looping out-and-back in both directions from the OO trailhead on the Birkie trail. During this ski I felt like I was remembering a lot of the joy of the sport which I had forgotten over several years of putting in most of my kilometers on short artificial snow loops. I had progressively put more and more energy into running, and particularly trail running in those years, but this ski, and the season following it, really reminded me that there is nothing else like cross country skiing. We ended this big day on the snow with a well-deserved pizza feast at the Rivers Eatery in Cable.
A couple of weeks later we were back in Wisconsin to kick off the racing season in barely-above-zero temperatures at the Seeley Hills Classic (22k). Despite the weather, I picked the right wax, wore enough clothes, put in a reasonable effort and was happy with the result. After some food and a rest I got back out on snow for another 15km loop with some friends. A week later I was back on the race course again, this time close to home looping around the 5k loop at Hyland in the inaugural Three Rivers Ski Rennet. I remember feeling very apprehensive before the race - it wasn't that cold, but it was chilly and windy and I wasn't feeling that much like racing. I was seeded into the second starting wave rather than the first, which would normally be discouraging, but in this case it was pretty cool cause it meant I got to battle it out at the front of the group which was super fun. I felt great physically and mentally on the race course and finished happy.
And then, of course the Birkie. It was a year of firsts. First Birkie staying in our new place, just off a half kilometer trail which took me right to the shuttle bus - and the same trail that the race organization pointed people to for wax testing the day before the race. First Birkie where the temperature was above zero at the start, and aside from my first Birkie when there was about a 50 degree temperature swing start to finish, it was probably the warmest its been since I've raced this race. Actually it was a total meltdown, and it was awesome. People here in the midwest seem to be pretty uncomfortable with klister and a lot of people afterward raved about using their hairies and skin-skis. But for me this was a return to my east-coast roots. I was a little out of practice - it took me some time to find the right wax on Friday, but that just meant popping in and out of the house to re-wax, but when I tried regular Swix Universal klister I knew I was good to go. And the race went great. I felt super strong all the way to Mosquito Brook (42km) where I started to unravel a bit. Crossing the lake (last 4km) was horrible. I need to figure out how to make that lake crossing go well. Maybe I should take a shot of Jagermeister from the folks that are always out there? In any case, I hung in there for my best Birkie result ever, just about 15 minutes out of the cutoff for the Elite wave.
That result was a surprise - I've never thought I'd be in contention to get myself into the Elite wave of the Birkie, even in classic. But 15 minutes in a nearly-4-hour race feels doable. So that fired me up in a way that made the winter feel like the beginning of the training year, not the end. I pretty much jumped right back into training without much off-season, got out for a couple more skis before the snow was gone, even went for some early spring roller-skis.
Even still, I was pretty deliberate about planning a running-race season. Last year I think I raced too much in the spring so by mid-July I was feeling kind of burnt out (I had raced 9 times by that time). This year I kept it to just about one race per month.
March: O'Gara's Irish run was a nice kick-off for our newly minted YWCA USATF-mid-distance team, and a good shakeout to the running season for me.
April: Trail Mix 25k was rough - I had been excited for redemption from last year when I had a great 10 miles and then struggled with stomach issues and had to pretty much walk it in. This year I started way too fast, pinned it just above threshold and crashed hard about an hour in. It was a tough, miserably hot April day. I may have had enough of this race...
May: I broke my rule and raced twice, but the first was just a mile - the TC 1-mile. That was pretty awesome: bested my track 1-mile time from last year by a couple seconds, and had a fun evening with my YWCA teammates. Then a week and a half later I raced the CityTrail 10-mile. That race went great - I even put together a race report!
June: Didn't race at all. I struggled a little bit with a calf injury, and biked more as a result - this culminated in an awesome ride up and down the Maine coast when we were in Portland for a wedding. I think all the biking was actually a huge revelation, and actually made me feel stronger when my injury subsided and I got back to running.
July: Spent a week in the mountains in Colorado, and then made it to a mid-week trail 7mi at Lebanon Hills. Another great effort, and the Endless Summer Trail Series is always a great party.
August: The dog days of summer - by this time I had the rest of my running season mapped out - St Paul Trail marathon at the end of August, Twin Cities Marathon in October and a big vacation to Seattle to race Deception Pass 50k in the beginning of December. With those plans made, I buckled down with the training, and then had an almost-perfect trail marathon in St Paul. I took it out easy and stayed relaxed when it started to rain - had a ton of fun passing people who weren't prepared for slippery singletrack downhills, and pulled through 20mi at 3hrs in. I struggled through those last 6 miles but still finished happy and with a big trail-marathon PR.
September: No racing, but some super serious marathon training. My long runs - 16, 18, 20 and 22 mi - each included 3x long - 1, 2 and 3 mi - half-marathon-pace efforts in the middle. These were some of the hardest workouts I've ever completed and by the time I finished the last one, I was *really* ready to taper, which in retrospect wasn't a great thing.
October: Twin Cities Marathon - my first road marathon. Somehow, I really got myself pretty keyed up and carried a lot of tension into it which sapped a lot of my energy. I felt pretty strong for the first half but started to feel it around 15 mi and spiraled down into a serious struggle in the last 5 miles. In retrospect, I think I didn't really absorb the hard training until a few weeks later. But I really love the TCM course, and it was so awesome to see so many friends out on the course.
November: Back to the trails before Deception Pass 50k. Tried to put in as much vertical as I could. After feeling a little bit disappointed in how Twin Cities went, I tried to renew my focus on having fun, and intersperse some nice hard workouts in. This was a great month of training.
December: Before I knew it, the year was almost over, and our pre-holiday vacation to Seattle was here. We spent a few days sightseeing and then headed up to Whidbey Island. I cranked out as near to a perfect long race as I can imagine. Going into this race, I was totally at ease. I felt confident in my fitness and in my ability to navigate technical trails and hills. I was excited but relaxed, and that is the mindset that I perform my best in. To help remind myself that this is all just for fun, and to not take myself too seriously, I grew an awesome mustache. I had so much fun out on those trails, and I felt amazing doing it. In the past, when I've heard of people talking about finishing a marathon or ultra feeling strong, I've not really related. Before this race, whenever I've finished a long running race, my legs have been pretty much shot, cramping, aching and I was just really ready to be done. But not in the last few miles of Deception Pass. As I worked my way to the finish I kept mentally checking in on how my legs were feeling, and they were kept responding with strength. What an incredible feeling. My goal main goal in this race - aside from finishing - was to run a faster 50k than I did last fall - better than 6:48. My dream goal was to break 6 hours. I finished in 5:56.
So, it was an awesome year. I continued a steady progression in training hours and trained more than I have in the past 6 years both in terms of hours and also in terms of total distance. Over the past few years, I've been running more and more, and I nearly made it to 1000 miles this year. And possibly even more indicative of improved fitness, my overall average training pace has steadily increased as well. Not only was 2016 my biggest training year since college, it was also my fastest.
We closed out the year back in Hayward where I got out for my first long skis of the year. On New Years Eve I skated a 40km loop on the Birkie trail, and we bookended the year fittingly with another awesome table full of pizzas at the Rivers Eatery.