McKeever double poles entire Birkebeiner for remarkable win
Thursday, Feb 14, 2013 06:00 am
Ask a cross-country skier to double pole 55 kilometres, mostly uphill in soft snow with absolutely no kick, and they’ll laugh in your face.
Unless that skier is Brian McKeever.
In what some called the worst conditions in 25 years, McKeever and Erik Carleton finished first and second, respectively, in the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival in Edmonton Saturday (Feb. 9).
Canmore’s Heidi Widmer was the fastest female on the day (3:50:14), while another Canmorite, Karen Messenger, won the 55-km-with-pack category, hauling 5.5 kg of extra weight along the way.
The temperature rose to zero on race day and blowing snow filled the track set, creating tough waxing conditions. Ice build-up plagued several skiers, who frequently had to stop and rewax. McKeever chose skate skis and relied almost entirely on his upper body for the 55-km race – including more than 1,600 metres of elevation change over the course – a testament to his remarkable fitness.
Combined with the fact McKeever is legally blind, it’s an incredible accomplishment.
“You need an incredible amount of strength to climb those hills,” said Erik Carleton, McKeever’s guide on the IPC tour.
Carleton finished second. Atop a pair of waxless skis, he, McKeever and Jon Arne Enevoldsen broke away from the pack in the first half kilometre and never looked back.
“It was the most challenging conditions you can have. I wasn’t having much luck with grip wax and there wasn’t much time to play with wax,” Carleton said. “Snow conditions were variable. At first I had no grip and as I started to get grip, I built up ice on the skis.”
Carleton led for a good section of the race, but once the ice build-up kicked in, McKeever made his move.
“Brian reeled me in. We skied together for a while and then he pulled ahead,” Carleton said.
Messenger is accustomed to 7.5 or 12.5 km biathlon races with stops for shooting, but ended up beating the entire field, men included, in the longest race of her season. Carrying a pack full of rocks, a bag of flour and a stuffed unicorn, Messenger finished the race in 4:14:50, more than three minutes ahead of Barret Dunbar and nearly five minutes ahead of Chris Jeffries.
“It has a steady climb and you had to strive for good technique up all these hills,” Messenger said.
Messenger skied most of the race by herself, often passing skiers stopping to scrape down their skis. She had decided to go with no wax at all and sand down the base on her skis. It wasn’t perfect, but it kept her moving.
It was also her first time carrying the pack. She said she didn’t notice a difference until kilometre 40, where she felt it in her legs.
“Around then, I realized it was the hardest race I’ve ever done,” Messenger said.
Widmer is a sprint specialist, so 55 km was by far the longest race of her career. She and Alberta World Cup Academy teammates Annika Hicks and Marlis Kromm made the trip, and expected hard, fast conditions. Widmer expected to finish the race in three hours, not nearly four, but she still had a good time.
“It’s fun racing in a gong show,” Widmer said. “It’s definitely different than how we usually race, doing laps, so doing a point to point race was cool. The terrain wasn’t demanding, but it was consistent. You were even working on the downhills, some people were saying it was the worst conditions ever.”
The longer distance made it hard to pace, however, Widmer stuck to her gameplan for the win.
“I skied the majority of the race in Zone 3 (heart rate zone), and in the last 10 km I wanted to make it hurt. I wanted to see how hard I could push myself. I learned a lot about my body after that course.”
Most completed the loppet for fun, but the Canmore racers used the race for training. Carleton and McKeever will use the Edmonton and world-famous Vasaloppet in Sweden to prepare for the IPC world championships in Sweden and a paralympic test event in Sochi. The duo should be medal contenders in both races.
“Loppets give us a good training effect for the races after that,” said Carleton. “It’s great to push it for a few hours. It gives you a boost through the shorter races.”
The duo have a score to settle with the Vasaloppet. Last year, they were sitting in good position when McKeever broke a pole and Carleton ran out of gas. This year will be different, he said.
“On a good day, we can be in the top 50. On our best day, we can be with the leaders. With loppets, it’s a matter of getting the skis right. If you don’t have the glide, you won’t be able to keep up,” Carleton said.
Messenger has two more loppets planned for her season. She’ll compete in the Gatineau loppet in Ottawa, then fly to Europe to compete in the Vasaloppet and Norweigan Birkebeiner, which is another pack race and origin of the ski marathons.
The Birkebeiners was a rebel party in Norway formed in 1174 and the pack race draws its origins from their history. The group skied two-year-old Haakon Haakonsson, heir to the Norweigan throne to safety from Osterdalen to Trondheim through mountains and forest terrain.
“The Norweigan Birkiebiener and Vasaloppet will be a lot hillier. I’d like to see what it’s like over there,” Messenger said.