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Welcome! My name is Michael Somppi and I'm a competitive cross-country skier. I developed this blog so sponsors, family, friends and fans can keep up to date with my life as a full-time athlete. You can expect regular blog posts about racing, training, and life in general. Check out other sections of my blog by clicking on the tabs above.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

North America's Largest Loppet

The American Birkebeiner: 9183 skiers registered between the Birkie and the Kortelopet races - a new record for North America’s largest loppet. 48 states and 20 nations present. One of the most competitive elite fields to ever contest the Birkie’s main event, the 50km skate. High stakes on the line with a prize purse of $39,000 including $7500 for the victory. 39 years of tradition. Should I go on?

It’s a big event and in 2012 I was a part of it for the first time. The event fit well into my race calendar this season and with it being only a 5 – 6 hour drive from my house it seemed sensible to give it a try. I’m sure glad I did! The party atmosphere surrounding the event was awesome! The city of Hayward really does have Birkie fever and it’s known to be contagious.

I was fortunate to have accommodation in the Telemark Resort with teammates Brent and Nish. The resort is located only a couple hundred metres from the start line so our early morning start (8:25am Elite wave start) was no biggie. Thanks boys for letting me share the room!

I'm Bib 210 on the left, skiing near the front a few km into the race (Photo courtesy of Mark Milford, Brett Morgan, Darlene Prois, and Kelly Randolph)

The race itself felt a lot like a road bike race. I managed to get up near the front shortly after the start and hung out there for the first 11km until Nish and Bennoit Chauvet (French World Loppet racer) broke away. I drifted back into the pack, not wanting to help reel in my teammate, and waited. A few Americans started to work together to pick the pace up around 30km and soon enough Nish and Bennoit were in sight again after leading by over a minute. Now the race was on. Everyone got a little antsy and as I was trying to make my way closer to the front of the pack, Tad Elliot attacked and broke away. Frustrated, I positioned myself closer to the front of the pack determined not to miss any more moves. A few kms later our pack splintered as attacks were made on the final climbs and I was able to cover them, sticking with the chase pack.

Skiing onto the lake our chase pack was whittled down to 5 guys and a thought crossed my mind, “hey, I’m in the prize money! Top 6!” I could see Elliot in the distance and it looked to me like he was fading, skiing alone on the open lake. I got excited and took the lead of our group in an attempt to reel him in. Rookie mistake. Skiing at the front took too much of my energy and when Matt Leibsch made a move I was unable to match the pace. A small gap opened between him and the rest of us. I mustered my strength and put in a burst. I got right behind him and dropped the rest of the guys momentarily but was unable to hold it and dropped back again. I came off the lake in 3rd place feeling exhausted and expecting someone to blow by me any second. Sure enough, Brian Gregg did just that. I wish I had had the mental strength to push myself to stay right behind him at that moment. As it was, I let him get a few metres ahead of me before I was able to find a second wind and give a hard finishing kick.

I gave everything I had and surprised myself by pulling up beside Brian right at the finish line. I threw my foot out in the best lunge I could muster and winded up 0.2 seconds behind. After skiing 50km I missed the podium by 0.2 seconds. Don’t worry, I’ve gone over all the “what ifs” I can think of. I am really happy with how I felt racing and 4th place in the Birkie is great, but I can’t get over the bitter taste left in my mouth after missing the podium by such a small margin.

Coming down the finish stretch as fast I could in an attempt to pass Brian in the red suit before the white banner in the distance. You can check out a video of the finish by visiting http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/20689510.

A big thanks to Randy and Nathan for wax support and feeds! Thanks to the 2000+ volunteers for making the 2012 Birkebeiner an event to remember. I had a great time and will definitely be back in the future.

The top six men in the Birkie 50km skate.

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