Date: February 20, 2016
Distance: 24K /14.9 miles
Although I had signed up to ski the American Birkebeiner, or Birkie again, as the change cut off approached a month ago it became clear that this was going to be a Kortelopet, aka Korte, year. For a variety of reasons, I knew I wasn’t going to be prepared for a 51K ski race, so the 24k race sounded just right.
My Dad and Younger brother were both skiing the Birkie this year, so we all boarded a school bus at 6 a.m. to travel from Hayward, Wis. to the race start in Cable, Wis. My race wave wasn’t set to start until 9:50 a.m., so I was happy for the company.
All of the skiers were concerned with trail conditions due to warm temperatures this year. My dad has now completed 22 Birkie events. There was one year that it was so warm and the course received so much rain that they needed to cancel it.
As I drove up from Madison on the Thursday prior to the race, it was raining so hard in Eau Claire and Rice Lake that I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough snow to even hold the race this year. Thankfully, when I glanced at the radar, I noticed that the storm was swirling around the Birkie trail, but the trail itself didn’t receive much rain. Also, the closer that I got to Hayward, the more snow I started to see.
The temperature was about 34 degrees when we started the race. My dad and brother started their races a few minutes before my wave start, so I wished them luck before taking my turn in the starting pen. Surrounded by other people with green bibs, we looked around at the mushy snow beneath our feet with concern.
Luckily, as soon as I hit the trail, I was impressed with how firm the state deck was. The groomers had done an amazing job with the trail. Plus, prior years the I’ve skied the Korte or the Birkie, there has been a lot of loose snow on the trail which makes it more difficult to pick up your skis as you are heading up hill. This year, it felt like we were gliding on top of freshly packed snowmen.
For much of the first 5K of the race, you are skiing the “Powerlines” section, which is a wide course with hills followed by even bigger hills. Once you begin to reach the top, you hear drummers, volunteers who are cheering you on to the first aid station. It is a hell of a way to warm up in the first 5k. I felt a lot stronger on this stretch than I ever had before.
As I approached the first, truly sketchy downhill prior to the second aid station, I noticed that there were about 40 people waiting on the top of the hill. Some skiers were popping out of their bindings and walking down. I decided to join in the walk, particularly considering my track record on this hill during both the 2013 Korte and the 2015 Birkie. The hill had been turned into three lanes of carved out mushy moguls and was littered with fallen skiers. Honestly, I felt pretty good about my choice to walk it.
Right after the second station there is the split where Birkie skiers go to the right and Korte skiers go to the left. There’s a huge sense of relief for both the Birkie and the Korte skiers to have less congestion on the trail at this point. There are rumors that they might hold the Korte on a different day from the Birkie next year, which I think might be a good idea. It is an amazing experience starting all together in Cable, but there are first year skiers who have a difficult time fighting from 9th wave through other waves of skiers to set a good time for their proper placement. I had been climbing a steep hill when there were some young 9th wave skiers passing, so I moved way over to the right to allow them room. Suddenly, I was knocked over because one of them had chosen to pass me on the right near the tree line, stepping on my skis in the process. He apologized and I’m sympathetic, but it’s kind of the last thing you want to deal with when you’re trudging up a steep hill.
The Korte trail is really beautiful. It is more narrow than the Birkie trail but it is hilly and fun. Conditions were still pretty good midway through the race . At some point before the third rest stop some teal bibbed Prince Haakon 13K skiers join the Korte skiers on the course. This adds a bit of congestion to the trail until right after the third aid station when they turn off to head back to their finish line.
With about 10K left in my race, the trail started getting very mushy and slow. The last 5 K of the Korte is quite hilly making it the most difficult stretch of the trail. Because I hadn’t skied the Korte for two years, I was a bit surprised when we skied past the original finish line. I didn’t realize that the course had been extended another 1-2k. But I felt pretty good at that point and it was pretty flat, so it was a fun ski. I reached the finish line and jumped back on a bus to head to Hayward to catch the end of the Birkie and watch my dad and brother finish their races.
All in all it was a really great race. It was fun to spend time with family and I shaved some time off of my previous two Korte attempts. The lessons that I have taken from the Madnorski volunteers have been a huge help. I was in a lot less pain this year which can be directly attributed to better form. It was fun to be able to spot other Madnorski skiers on the course and in Hayward.
My fiance even had the chance to come spectate this year. I hope perhaps now that he’s been exposed to the Birkie fever, he’ll join us in a ski event next year.
And next year I will plan to train more and ski the Birkie again, although the Korte was lovely this year.