9,000-Strong Nordie Showdown

A few days ago I returned from my first trip out to the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin. The experience of skiing on such cold and dry snow was something to behold. Even when the West Coast does get a nice storm (as we are now) it’s rare for the snow to come so dry. I am not sure if this is purely a function of the temperature during snowfall, or if Sierra snow always comes down wetter due to the humid air coming directly off the Pacific.

In any case, this is one event that every Nordic should do at least once in their career. The northern Midwest has a tradition of Nordic skiing that I have not seen anywhere else. There are about 9,000 participants in all the events (54km skate, 50km classic, 23km skate, 23km classic) and most of those are from the Midwest. That says something about the popularity of Nordic skiing in the Midwest, but there is more! When you drive to one of a few massive parking lots for a shuttle to the start, you can hear about the course conditions from the local experts in North America’s only known sportscast for a Nordic ski event.

I was lucky enough to start in the elite wave with about 200 other men. Those spots fill up quickly. Once they are full it’s a done deal and there is not any way to get in. Even you don’t think of yourself as “fast,” always apply for a better wave start. The Birkie recognizes Great Ski Race results as valid because of the large field. If you have any racing ability at all, you need to get moved out of the last Wave 10 up to somewhere in Waves 1-6, depending on ability.

I had a relatively slow start but I was quick to catch up with a pack of fairly quick guys. Drafting off of fast skiers on the downhills is critical since the course loses 1400′ in elevation from start to finish. The high point is at 13km but the first 22km does not have any enormous net loss or gain and then the course takes a series of long rolling downhill until 38km.

I stayed with my pack of guys finishing around 100th place until about 44km or so. I didn’t get truly get dropped from the pack of 10 but the pack continued to spread out more and more. Once I got to Lake Hayward I had used up a lot of energy and I just had a hard time keeping my pace up in the headwind. There is about 500 meters going down Main Street in Hayward but aside from that the final 3.5km is all on the lake and it is tougher than any hill on the course. I lost a lot here. Even if you have lost places coming up on the lake, a racer has to pull it together for the lake and draft on someone to be successful.

I finished in 128th overall and 120th among men. Frankly, I was fairly confident I could place in the top 100, so it is a little bit disappointing. Many of the other skiers in my travel group pointed out that the race is extremely tactical because of all the drafting and that Birkie experience counts for a lot. What does that mean? I need to come back next year, naturally.

I have posted a photo from the middle of the race. I am not sure of the exact location. I made a point of posing for the camera while recovering in the finishers pen and if I can find the picture on the interwebs I will have up here on the blog.

This race is not one to miss. Ask a Birkie finisher for some advice if you decide to go this. It’s a complicated race to train for and plan for, but it is well worth the effort.

The frost beard begins to grow.

About Michael

I am running, skiing, and exploring the Sierra Nevada. I first learned to ski at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I returned to Los Angeles to work for two fire seasons on the Little Tujunga Hotshot Crew (USFS). This is my second winter in Tahoe.