In the northwest corner of cheese country, surrounded by the land of lakes and hot dish, sits the home of America’s greatest cross-contry ski race…the American Birkebeiner.
|Start of the American Birkebeiner (Tom Kelly photo-USSA) I’m number 525!|
|One of the many packs of skiers taking on 51km in the middle of Wisconsin (American Birkebeiner photo)|
I’m a Birkie newbie. I had heard a lot about the infamous race, an event that even boasts its own full-length soundtrack CD. However the race itself is only one part of the Birkie, a week that includes ski expos, the Barkebirkie (dog skijoring), a Giants Race (6 people, 2 pairs of giant wooden skis), the Elite Sprints, a number of modified ski marathons of nearly every distance, and the Barnebirkie (children’s race)-also known as the cutest ski race of all time. That doesn’t even include the numerous un-scheduled events such as pizza at the Rivers Eatery in Cable and the after-party at the Sawmill Saloon.
|Thousands of clothing bags piling up near the finish zone of the race|
After wrapping up the SuperTours in Craftbury, VT, Anne Hart and I took one look at the weather forecast out east and hightailed it to Minneapolis in search of snow. In case you haven’t heard, winter never arrived in Vermont this year. We spent an extra week in the Twin Cities before the Birkie enjoying plentiful skiing, a few trips to the PowerHouse to up our strength game, and even jumped in the Mayor’s Challenge 5km skate race at Wirth Park. We owe a HUGE shoutout to ENDURANCE UNITED for setting us up with some speedy and festive skis for the Valentine’s Day race. Annie and I took 1-2 with the help of their speedy wax job.
|Racing in Minneapolis|
|Valentine’s Day Special|
|And the best thing I ever ate….|
From Minneapolis we drove the Anne Hart’s family cabin in Cable, Wisconsin, mere minutes from the start of the Birkie Trailhead. The 51 kilometer ski race draws 10,000 competitors each year from the elite level to the first time racers. The terrain winds through seemingly endless forests over undulating terrain. Surrounded by trees and the greatest ski fans you can find, the course climbs the iconic Powerline, FireTower and Bitch Hills before crossing an open lake to finish on main street in downtown Hayward, Wisconsin.
|Previewing part of the Birkie trail and getting in the zone with my bib 🙂|
|Beautiful morning views from the Hart cabin|
|Found some Bozeman/BSF friends at the Birkie!!!|
I have only ever done one other ski Marathon in my life. As a freshman in college I skied the Rangeley Marathon in Maine, but considered that more of a tour than a race. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from the Birkie. This year’s Birkie was part of the Worldloppet Marathon series so I had never raced against much of the international women’s elite field. I crowdsourced a lot of advice beforehand and practiced everything from ripping sport gels of my bib to intervals with a water bottle carrier.
|I did some serious taste testing before choosing my fuel for the race|
A other few tips I received..some good, some bad, some just silly:
1. Up your snack game in the days leading up to the race aka eat a lot
2. Wear your pajamas inside out the night before the race
3. Warm up like you are starting a 5km race
5. Don’t lead
6. Feed at least twice
7. Don’t drink coffee the morning of the race
8. Finish your first water bottle by 25km
9. If you are off the pack, take the shot-ski at the top of Bitch hill
10. If you feel good, go for it!
On Thursday, Annie and I jumped in the elite sprints, a point to point 500 meter (-ish) race that flies over a bridge and finishes on main street in downtown Hayward. I made it through to the semi-finals before getting knocked out but had a fun time cheering Anne in the final where she finished 3rd despite a little spill on the bridge.
|Fun times in the elite sprints downtown (American Birkebeiner photo)|
|Up and over the bridge! (American Birkebeiner photo)|
|Anne Hart on the sprint podium|
|Race face (American Birkebeiner photo)|
Toeing the start line of the elite wave for the Birkie, I was ready for anything and set to sprint from the line. Turns out no one else really wanted to hammer the first 20km so I settled in the lead pack for a fast but relatively relaxing first half of the race. I spent a lot of time watching and learning, trying to figure out the best places to feed and being ready for anyone to make a move up front.
|I think I’m somewhere at the back of this train of women around 25 km (American Birkebeiner photo)|
By 35 km, the lead pack had dwindled to about 12 racers but the pace still felt relatively comfortable. Heading into the final series of hills, defending 3X Birkie Champion Caitlin Gregg made her move, quickly stringing out the pack of racers behind her. I was in the back of the pack but gave chase along with a handful of other women. We bridged the gap to 3rd but with over 10km to go and unknown terrain ahead I wasn’t sure I could catch Caitlin on my own without completely blowing up. I had never raced this far before and knew if I skied smart I still had a shot at the podium. I skied with 4 other women, all from Europe for the last 10km trading leads and playing a game of cat and mouse. Coming into the last 500 meters my legs felt awesome and I was ready to sprint. I caught and passed 5th and 4th place and with 100 meter to go put in one final surge to catch 3rd! Holly Hart (Annie’s mom) put together this fun video highlighting the race and finish!
|Crossing the finish line on Main Street for 3rd place and second American!! (American Birkebeiner photo)|
|Happy skier 🙂|
Needless to say, I caught the Birkie fever and I am excited to chase that top step of the podium in future years! Hats off to Caitlin Gregg for an impressive 4th Birkie win. I also owe a big thank you to Anne and her mom Holly for some AMAZING cheering (see video link above) and for hosting me in the midwest for almost two weeks! Thanks also to Salomon and Caldwell sport for great race support and skis. The Birkie was an awesome way to wrap up the SuperTour circuit before heading to Germany and Italy for two weeks of OPA Cup racing! Update to follow 🙂
|Finished off the Birkie week with a Fast and Female Champ Chat with Kikkan, Anne, Caitlin and others!|
|Kikkan being incredibly inspiring as per usual 🙂|