Date: February 20, 2015
Total time: 6 hours 31 minutes
Distance: 51 km (31.7 miles)
What is the American Birkebeiner?
The American Birkebeiner, or Birkie, is a ski race that spans from Cable to to Hayward, Wisconsin. This year, the total distance was 51 km for skate, or freestyle, skiers, like me, and 55 km for classic, also known as striding, diagonal or traditional, skiers.
The Birkie is an insanely hilly course with 1,398 meters, or 4,587 feet, of elevation gain.
About 10,000 cross country skiers participate in races during the weekend of the Birkie including the Kortelopet, or Korte, which at 24 km is about half the distance of the Birkie and loops back to Cable.
The Korte is also an insanely hilly course. It may be shorter, but doesn’t level out like the Birkie course does so it is still an awesome challenge.
But the Birkie is more than just a race that is held on one day each February, it is the glue that holds the Wisconsin and US nordic ski community together. There are other ski races, but there is only one American Birkebeiner. If you meet another skier, the Birkie is an easy topic of conversation as even those who haven’t seen the event have most likely had friends or family compete.
In addition to the big race, the Birkie weekend is a celebration of the nordic skiing community. Hayward’s Main Street is a charming downtown that has something for the every visitor year-round including unique shops, a great bakery and a good selection of craft beer. During the Birkie weekend, downtown buildings are lit up with colored lights. Snow is brought in to cover the street, so finishers ski right down the main drag while they are cheered on by supporters until reaching the finish line.
This year, the Birkie staff built a temporary wooden bridge to bring skiers and fans up and over Hwy 63, a major road that travels through the heart of downtown Hayward. In past years, this road was closed to traffic during the race, which resulted in long traffic delays. Although the bridge added one more climb to the end of a challenging race, it seemed to improve the logistics of the event and offered a pretty cool spectator view. For racers, it provided a downhill from which to rocket down Main Street to the finish line.
Some of the highlights of the Birkie weekend are:
- Barkie Birkie Skijor – races with dogs
- Elite Sprints
- Giant Ski – teams of six people who share two skis in a race down Main Street.
- Barnebirkie – ski race for kids 3-13
- Junior Birkie – longer ski race for kids 6-18
- Nikkerbeiner – fun ski with participants wearing old-timey clothing and using equipment that may have been used during the first Birkie in 1973, including wooden skis and bamboo poles
- Family Fun Ski – fun 5 km or 10 km race that Birkie family, friends and even event participants enjoy
- Adaptive Ski Events – for participants with disabilities
- Spaghetti Dinner – hosted at a local church
- Birchleggings Breakfast – for those who have skied 20 or more Birkies (including my dad)
Birkie Elite Race
Like most major race events, Elite / Pro skiers begin in the first waves. They ski up these challenging hills at a pace that is inconceivable to my non-elite brain. Check out this video from the American Birkebeiner to see them in action.
- Skate Female Winner: Holly Brooks – USA – 2:34:51
- Skate Male Winner: Sergio Bonaldi – Italy – 2:12:21
- Classic Female Winner: Natalia Naryshkima – USA – 3:19:20
- Classic Male Winner: Ole Christian Mork – Norway – 2:54:22
Finishing My First Birkie
Disclaimer: I was kind of glad that I didn’t know exactly what was coming during my first Birkie, or my first Korte for that matter. If you wish to ski this race in the future, maybe skip to the end of the blog where I tell you that I’m happy that I did it.
The Night Before
My family and I participated in the Family Fun Ski 5k. It was great for the kids to taste the race flavor and for those of us skiing the Birkie, it was a chance to shake the rust off during taper week. Then we hit the Spaghetti Feed at the St. Joseph Church and walked back to our lodgings through the pretty lights of downtown Hayward.
In my room, I triple-checked my gear. I noticed the #1 sharpied onto the top of my bib and realized it was because this was my first Birkie — everyone on the course would know it too. I spent some time reviewing the cut-off times and set my alarm for 5 a.m. I had no idea how long it would take me to complete the race, so I told my family it would be between five and seven hours after my 9:30 a.m. wave start.
Pre Race Rituals
My family and I were staying downtown Hayward race weekend, which meant my brother, dad and I boarded a bus at 6 a.m. to travel to the race start in Cable, near the old, now abandoned Telemark Lodge.
Skiers can put gear into an official race gear bag that is transported to the finish line for pick up. These bags are much larger than ones you will find in running races and could accommodate an entire backpack, boots, pants and an overcoat. But you have to continue on past the finish line and pick it up at the end of the race. I opted not to pack a race bag this year, because the pickup site was the opposite direction of our lodgings.
Once the bus reached the race site, we walked about ten minutes until we reached the heated tent city at race start. Because I didn’t bring any warm clothes to wait in, I had toe warmers crammed into my boots and hand warmers in my pockets. I had a disposable plastic bag with some pre-race nutrition and hydration. We huddled in the tent and chatted while we waited for our race waves to start. Some skiers had brought cardboard to stand on to keep their feet warm as the hand full of chairs in the tents were occupied.
My brother’s wave was first at 9 a.m. then my dad’s wave began at 9:20 a.m. I hit the portable line one last time before my race wave at 9:30 a.m., then realized that my sock was bunched up in my boot. I quickly ducked back into the warm tent to fix it. I hit the start line while a volunteer was yelling, “Last call for skate wave seven!”
I was just in time to clip on my skis, start my Garmin watch and take off.
Birkie Race Start
I started the race feeling very good. I didn’t have any sore spots, my fingers were cold, but I knew this was temporary. I stayed in the back of the wave start and gave those in front of me plenty of room so I didn’t ride up on their skis. The first little stretch of the race is nice and flat — a great way to warm up.
Then, I looked up to see the power lines. Words cannot fully describe the site of hundreds of skiers climbing this series of rolling hills. The trail was a bit soft from earlier waves and about two inches of light fluffy snow had fallen that morning. Trail conditions weren’t as difficult as the prior year when I had skied the Korte, but there was still a lot of powder on the hills making it difficult to skate up them. I was still able to skate up the majority of hills in the beginning, but on steeper hills, the crowd formed three lines and we all did a bunch of herringbone walking up. I think my weightlifting base left me in better shape for this than I was in previous years, but I still was starting to feel the climbs in my back and hips even at the beginning of the race.
When I approached the top of the power lines, I began to hear the distant sound of drumming and bells which is one of the happiest sounds I have ever heard because it meant that the first aid station is near. This event really wouldn’t be the crown jewel that it is today without the unconditional support of these volunteers and supporters.
After the powerlines, the course turns into the woods where the hills just keep going. Most of these were pretty steep and with the Korte skiers still on the trail, I was surrounded by a lot of skiers which meant walking up some hills. Around this time, I began to see faster skiers from waves eight and nine passing us (or attempting to on the clogged up hills.) First time Birkie and Korte skiers who haven’t qualified for an earlier wave by participating in another ski race all start in the back — even if they are fast. This means that they have to fight the deteriorated trail conditions and need to get around all of the skiers who are slower but started ahead of them. For the most part, everyone’s really nice about all of this.
Practice Falls Pay Off
One of the memorable climbs is The Wall at 7 km. Shortly after this is, in my opinion, the most difficult downhill descent. Its not the steepest and doesn’t have the sharpest turn at the bottom, but with the increased traffic from the Korte skiers, you end up with four deep luge-style tracks with piles of sugar in between. I decided to go down on the left. As I descended, I needed to avoid a skier who had fallen so I veered right and my ski tip caught an edge on the snow. My sunglasses flew off of my head as I landed face first in a pillowy blanket of snow. I looked behind me to see the carnage of people falling left and right further up the hill.
I was a bit tangled up when some nice man said, “You lost your glasses, let me get them for you.”
He had to wait for a few skiers to go by, then he grabbed my glasses from the middle of the hill and brought them back to me.
“Thank you sir,” I said. “Did you fall too?”
“No,” he said. “I walked down this hill.”
This was a much softer fall than the first time I fell here during my first Korte. A shirt full of snow can actually be quite refreshing when you’ve been climbing hills for an hour. Plus with all the practice falls I had taken over the course of the season, I had gotten quite good at it.
Shortly after this fall, I reached the second aid station, which has a Mardi Gras theme. It feels like a celebration with friendly volunteers who will give you beads along with your energy drink if you want them. Then there is a sign pointing Korte skiers to the left while Birkie skiers continue to the right. I could recall feeling quite wiped out by this rest station during the Korte last year, but this year, I was still feeling pretty good. I continued up the Birkie trail, where everything suddenly felt very quiet.
Bye, Bye Korte Skiers
The rest of the course was uncharted waters in my mind. The hills just kept coming — mostly upwards. The congestion was much lighter and I was able to skate up most of the hills, but still opted to walk on some of the steep ones.
After climbing what felt like forever, I heard a guy on my left give out a shout. I spun my head to see if he was hurt, but then when I looked right, I saw a sign that indicated that we were at the “Highest Point of Elevation 1730 ft.”
We had reached peak elevation only a quarter of the way through the race. But it’s not exactly all downhill from there.
Getting Laughed at by Snowmobilers
I had been warned about Heckler’s Hill. The Birkie trail has a few steep hills with sharp turns at the bottom of them. Northern Wisconsin also is a winter playground for snowmobile enthusiasts. At Heckler’s Hill, a few dozen snowmobilers gather to heckle the skiers as they cruise down the hill and try not to crash. When a skier crashes, the crowd goes wild and they often will rate the fall like like the skier had just taken an Olympic dive.
Honestly, I found the crowd to be pretty jovial. I pretty much snowplowed down the hill, stayed in control and threw my arms up at the end having not crashed. The crowd gave me a little cheer and I continued on my way thinking “I’m sure glad they weren’t sitting on that earlier hill.” Then as I skied away, I heard the roar of the crowd indicating that someone had taken an epic fall behind me.
When you spend six plus hours in a ski race, you begin to recognize the faces of some of your fellow skiers, particularly if they match your pace. I found myself leapfrogging with a couple of skiers, one of whom was a gentleman who is a right arm amputee. And a total badass. After we passed each other a couple of times, I skied next to him and asked how many races he had done. He said that this was his second (or was it two before this?) and I mentioned it was my first. He wished me luck, and we continued the long slog.
Another person I leapfrogged with was a woman who I estimated to be a bit younger than me wearing a green hat. She was wearing a wave eight bib, so I knew she was moving at a faster pace than me having started ten minutes after my wave start. She mentioned that she had a sore back, and I could relate. I was starting to feel like my back muscle was making a fist. Several times, I would pass her going up a hill, but then I would stop at the top to stretch and she would continue on in front of me. After a rest stop, we’d see each other again and commiserate.
Before we hit the Double O halfway point, she said, “This is my first Birkie, and I’m pretty sure it will be my last.” And at that point, I agreed. I felt so sore and beat up from all of those hills.
I saw the girl with the green hat for the last time right before Bitch Hill (mentioned again below) and she was smiling and looked invigorated. I didn’t catch her name and can’t recall her bib number, but I sure hope she felt great after the race and is considering signing up for another one.
One time, I stopped to stretch at the top of a hill and a lady in pink skied up to me and stopped to take a breath too.
“How are you doing?” said the lady in pink.
“My back is pretty sore, but I’m holding up,” I answered.
The pink lady reminded me that we were making all of the cut off times. She said that she had skied the Birkie the year before and almost was pulled off the course, but that the second half was so much easier than the first half.
“Once you pass Bitch Hill, the last 10 km is pretty flat,” she said. “I always feel like the race is almost over at that point because the last stretch is so much easier.”
This made me feel much better.
“Someone once told me that if your back and hip flexors are sore, just stick your butt out more,” said the lady in pink.
“I have a lot of time today to work on technique. Thank you,” I answered.
Then I watched as she stuck her butt out and moved up the next hill. It was a pretty good tip and gave me one more move in my toolbox to survive the race. This wasn’t the first on-trail technique tip that I’ve received and I’m sure it won’t be my last.
Halfway Home – Hwy OO
The volunteers at Hwy OO may be some of the best people on earth. By this point, I was beat up, my spirits were down. I looked down at my watch to see that it had taken me three hours to get to this 22.8 km marker. Yea, my goal was just to finish the race, but I still was kind of hoping I could finish it with a little more style. The volunteers were all cheering and saying things that I wanted to hear like “The worst is over!” and “It’s all downhill from here.”
All downhill? False.
The worst is over? Kind of true.
The trail that continues from OO has hills, but they are less relentless than the first half. Some of them are even rolling and you can glide down and carry some momentum back up the next one.
There was another steep hill that had aid workers parked on top letting us know that there was a sharp turn to the right. Halfway down this hill, I saw there was an even bigger gathering of snowmobilers than Heckler’s Hill. I was not informed that I would have to try not to fall down TWO hills in front of spectators. I stuck my left ski in the sugar on the left of a luge and put my right ski on the icy surface. It was a good strategy to decrease my speed around the corner while I shouted to the crowd, “This sucks! This sucks!” and “Thanks for coming out!”
I didn’t fall. Once again, I continued on the trail only to hear the crowd roar with laughter about thirty seconds later.
The Birkie Trail
If the hills don’t take your breath away, the beauty of the Birkie trail sure will. During my race, the trees were flocked with snow and large snowflakes fell from the sky. The trail is absolutely beautiful and runs through Northern Wisconsin’s pristine forests. Once in a while during the race, I would look up and just soak it all in.
That said, usually when you talk about litter on a ski trail, you are talking about leaves, sticks and pinecones. During the race there is actual litter on the course. Empty energy gels, discarded bottles, protein bar wrappers, toe warmers, you name it.
After seeing several toe warmers exploded on the trail and trying to figure out how these things fell out of people’s boots, I saw one stuck to a water bottle. Mystery solved. It’s kind of a great idea, but it would be nice if folks threw them away at one of the eight aid stations.
Most of the second half is a blur for me. At one point, I was taking a break half way up a hill and a man said, “Almost there. Just hill 42 and Bitch Hill and it’s smooth sailing.”
Did he mean hill 42 at the 42 km mark or the 42nd hill, I thought. Weren’t there like a thousand hills? How will I know Bitch Hill when I see it?
I went into the Birkie course pretty blind, but everyone knows about Bitch Hill. It isn’t the steepest climb or the longest climb on the course, but its location is enough to make or break your race. ( Check out the video interview with 2015 Freestyle / Skate Winner Holly Brooks where she says she dropped her competition on Bitch Hill )
As I approached the hill, I saw signs signalling the “Train was coming” and to “Keep chugging along.” When I reached the top, there was a group of people cheering us on. One of the volunteers recognized that I was wearing my Madnorski Race Series hat and said “Hey Madnorski! See you back in Madison.”
Bitch Hill isn’t even the last hill. The course is flatter for the last 10 km, but there were still a few hills left to climb.
I had been warned that the lake was one of the hardest parts of the race. It’s flat, it should be easy right?
When you hit the lake, you lose the protection of the trees so the wind hits you hard. On this particular day, it was a head wind.
For the past 30 minutes, I was gutting out every glide. I had nicknamed each leg “Beer” and “Steak Dinner” to remind myself what I was skiing towards.
I skied with my left-right mantra of:
Beer. Steak dinner.
Beer. Steak dinner.
Beer. Steak dinner.
Beer. Steak dinner.
And so on…
I hit the lake and immediately to my left, there was a crowd of supporters offering me shots of Jägermeister. I passed on the offer and continued down the course. After a few minutes, I noticed that my contacts were gummy behind my sunglasses. I realized that this was due to the fact that they were beginning to freeze in my eyes.
Then the bottom right of the quadricep muscle on my left leg above my knee began to completely seize up.
“I’ve never cramped there before,” I thought.
I’m sure it was partially due to fatigue, but the blast of cold air directly on the muscle was not helping. I stopped, massaged it a bit, stuck a fun-sized snickers bar in my mouth (as is my dad’s strategy to get over the lake) and continued the “Beer. Steak Dinner.” march with my sights on the finish line.
I reminded myself, “I can ski there faster than I can walk there.”
My contacts kept freezing, I struggled to keep blinking.
Beer. Steak Dinner.
Beer. Steak Dinner…
Then, finally, I crossed the shore of the lake and saw downtown Hayward. I immediately spotted my family at the curve before the bridge. Seeing them and hearing their voices as I got off that dreadful lake was easily one of my top ten life moments so far. I herringboned up the bridge…you know…allowing my family time to walk up the spectator side of the bridge to keep cheering for me. Then I tucked and glided down the hill onto Hayward’s Main Street.
After nearly falling from a couple of dirty snow pedestrian crossing strips (watch out for those future Birkie skiers,) I crossed the finish line. I told the volunteer at the end that yes, it was indeed my first race and she hung a huge shiny medal around my neck.
I handed my skis to my family and didn’t pass out. After slamming some more Nuun and chocolate milk, we walked back to the hotel while my legs screamed.
“Will you do it again?” my brother asked.
“I don’t know. There are other races, you know,” I said.
But then, after the longest, hottest shower, I fully realized that I had done it. And I was still standing. And even though the day was harder than the day I ran a marathon, I could more easily improve my ski technique than my run technique and hell, I was less sore than after the marathon. I didn’t even need an ice bath.
I’m going to sign up again next year. There are certainly other nordic ski races, but only one American Birkebeiner.
Post Race: Beer. Steak Dinner.
We all piled into cars and headed to Club 77, this great Wisconsin Supper Club with a copper bar and a ton of style. My dad encouraged me to wear my first timer medal, so I did. When else in life is it OK to wear a medal to dinner? Other skiers recognize you as a first timer and stop to chat. Got to love the nordic community.
I basked in the glow of my family and the day’s accomplishments. My dad completed his 21st Birkie and my older brother completed his 12th, which is particularly impressive because he lives in Arkansas and has a non-traditional ski training regimen. Not to mention that does the race wearing blue jeans.
The beer was good, the steak was even better.
So, how do I think I did on my first Birkie?
Well, I finished the sucker.
I could have trained more.
I think continuing a weight lifting regimen until two weeks before the event was beneficial.
My technique still needs a lot of work.
I dressed well, wearing just the right amount of layers I chose the right glove / hat / neck gaiter combo. I knew it would be hilly, so I dressed like I would for a 25-32 degree ski, even though it was colder.
I pretty much nailed course nutrition. I ate half a honey stinger at the first several rest stops and ate a GU Gel at OO then another at the final rest stop. At the second to last rest stop I hit an orange slice and a Nilla wafer. I drank water or Nuun or both at each stop and hydrated before the race with Skratch. Maybe more hydration would have helped with the cramping, maybe not.
I think I did a good job waxing my skis as they glided pretty well the whole race.
I’m glad I could stop and stretch and get blood back into my muscles, but I lost valuable time doing so.
I need to get better at staying relaxed on the skis.
I was still able to V1 or single pole up most of this hills towards the end, but not all of them.
I have a lot of room to improve by next year.