This past weekend Wyatt and I ventured out to Hayward, Wisconsin for the American Birkebeiner, the largest ski race in North America. The 50km point to point race serves as a stop on the Word Loppet tour, which means it not only attracts the top domestic racers, but also a dozen or so of the top ski marathoners in Europe. This year was no exception, as I found myself at the start lined up right next to Martin Koukal of the Czech Republic, a former World Champion in the 50km.
Wisconsin was being hit with the cold weather that has been hitting most of the country this winter, and as we lined up awaiting the starting gun, we struggled to stay warm in the frigid single digits and brisk headwind that we faced. But, soon enough the gun went off and we were on our way!
Last year I had a top ten in the race, and I had hopes for another strong finish. However, by about ten kilometers in, I was struggling to keep up with the brisk pace being set by the Europeans at the front, and I soon found myself losing contact with the lead pack of about 15 skiers.
Though dissapointed to not be at the front, I regrouped mentally, and worked to relax and ski efficiently so I could have a strong second half of the race. By then a second pack of about a dozen or so skiers had formed, including several of the top Euros who also hadn’t been able to latch on to the lead group.
I skied in this group for some time, most of the time keeping near the front. Posted behind me for much of this part of the race was an Italian who had been third the previous year. Despite being out of the running for the win he still decided to use the “tricky” psyche-out tactics that the Italia marathoners are notorious for, a combination of stepping on your skis and poles as much as possible. After becomming tired of his antics, I eventually forced him to take the lead, and then did my best to return the favor. Apparently he did not appreciate this and after a few minutes he looked back at me, stared me down for a few seconds, and then motioned for me to take the lead.
And with that I decided to make a move and break away from the group, as I ramped up the pace and left the pack behind. One frenchmen from the group was able to match the move, and we then skied the remaining 20km together, picking off a few stragglers from the front along the away. I ended up crossing the finish in 14th place (& 4th American), which, though not quite looking for, was still a solid finish that I could be happy with!
My day was not quite done however, as I was met at the finish by an official from the US Anti-Doping Agency, who informed me I had been randomly selected for anti-doping control. It was actually a kind of nice perk, because I was immediately escorted to a warm room where I could change and rehydrate as I prepared to give a urine sample. It was my first time being subjected to a USADA test, so it was very interesting to experience the testing process and see the efforts we make to keep sport clean in this country.
Anyway, it ended up being a great weekend, and I’d highly recommend anyone who loves Nordic skiing to make it to the Birkie at least once. Thank you to Peter Hanson and family for helping me with the transportation and housing which made the weekend possible! And congratulations to former Far West racer Matt Gelso who finished as top American in seventh place!