Racing the American Birkebeiner has been a long-time goal. The "Birkie" is, after all, North America's largest and most prestigious cross-country ski marathon, and I wanted to find out why. The main event, a 51km race from Cable to Hayward Wisconsin, attracts a wide range of cross country skiers, including a highly competitive field since it is part of the FIS Marathon Cup Worldloppet Series.
The organizers do such a great job that many American skiers keep this race on their yearly schedule, and for some, it may be the only skiing they do all year! I talked to several skiers who had moved to warm climates, but still made the yearly trek to Wisconsin for the Birkie. I traveled with XC Ottawa teammates Craig and Wayne, which made figuring out the logistics of this point-to-point race much easier (Wayne has raced the Birkie 9 times). We stayed with Wayne's cousin's family and friends, experienced Birkie skiers with entertaining stories to share and good advice on racing the course.
We awoke to -21°C on race morning - we expected a cool start (but not that cold!). I actually can't remember racing a loppet warmer than -15 deg lately, so I wasn't worried. I started in the elite women's wave (50 women), 2 minutes behind the elite men's wave (200 men). Twelve waves would leave after us. With a generous start area, I was able to stand on the front row right beside Italians Lara Peyrot and Cristina Paluselli, who are leading the Worldloppet series. We had lots of room and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. I glanced back to see Wave 1 - 1000 skiers tightly packed and held back by a gate - ready to pounce toward the start line 8 minutes after the elite women left.
The start horn sounded, and we were off! The first 2km were pretty flat, and I was skiing comfortably and felt pretty good. I knew right away that I had very fast skis - thanks to a winning Vauhti combo and Wayne and Craig's wax expertise! At 2km the climbing began, and my quads locked up after about 20 seconds. "This is so weird" - I though - it was a feeling I get at the end of a long hilly race - not the beginning! I'm not sure why - maybe I hadn't recovered from the Keskinada (5 days earlier), or maybe I didn't get a good enough warm-up - whatever the reason, I let a train of women go by, slowed down, and hoped things would get better!
The course rolls up to a high point at about 13km. Since none of the hills were too long, I adjusted my technique to try not to use my quads too much on the uphills, and tried to relax them as much as possible on the downhills. I eventually started feeling better (phew - that could have been a long day!). The only problem now was that I didn't have anyone to ski with. It felt odd being in such a big race all alone on the trail! Somewhere around half way, I could hear the first Wave 1 skiers approaching - I glanced to the side and saw Craig. I said something like "how's it going?" and he promptly fell down! I couldn't figure out what happened and hoped I hadn't caused his fall.
Then Caitlin Compton of the Subaru Factory Team joined me, and we skied together for about 2km, and caught Atomic's Camilla Brinchmann. Now this was getting fun! We were catching elite men and Wave 1 skiers were passing us, so the race was more exciting. Caitlin was very strong and she eventually pulled away from us. I could tell that Camilla was tiring so I pushed hard at the next feed station and got away. I was feeling pretty good, really enjoying the winding course, and appreciating the many spectators (some in costumes), supporters, and volunteers. The Rossignol team had numerous feed stations set up so I didn't have to rely on my single bottle.
The finish of this race is great - down the main street in Hayward, lined with spectators cheering loudly and ringing bells. I ended up 12th woman. A top 10 finish would have been nice, but a look at the results showed a pretty strong field ahead of me, so I was happy with that.
The Birkie is a big deal in the area. Pictures of all past race winners line the walls of Telemark Resort. A local radio station broadcasts live from the finish all day, and several newspapers cover the race and print an entire results list. I was amazed at the number of skiers vying for the prized purple and gold race bib, awarded to skiers who have completed 20 Birkies. I don't think I'll ever get the purple and gold race bib, but I hope to return to race the Birkie again.