Kaitlyn: The American Birkiebeiner is the largest cross country ski marathon in North America and attracts over 10,000 skiers for the 24k and 51k events. The race is held in rural northern Wisconsin, beginning in the tiny town of Cable and ending in Hayward. Alex and I made the journey for the first time, while Dan Yankus was racing his 6th Birkie 51k. Alex registered for the 50k freestyle race. Thanks to a good time at last year’s VASA 50k, Alex was able to get into the elite wave.
Freestyle skiers take off in 10 waves and wave placement is determined by previous Birkie races. With no previous Birkie finishes, I was placed in wave 4. My valiant efforts to improve my wave placement were fruitless and I knew my biggest challenge would be navigating through thousands of racers.
Alex: The week leading up to the race was stressful as Kaitlyn and I had to move into a new house in Traverse City. Fortunately training the week before an “A” race requires less time. Unfortunately, I still didn’t get to go out to train a few days that week so I was lacking a bit of speed work to keep my top end form going.
Kaitlyn: The atmosphere of the town and the expo was electric. It was amazing to see so many excited skiers taking over these tiny towns. We stopped by the finish line in Hayward the day before the race and checked out the finishing stretch on a snowcovered Main Street.
The morning of the race I watched Dan and Alex take off in a very competitive elite men’s field and made sure I had a good starting position in my wave of over 500 skiers.
Alex:Basically, the day before Birkie I tested my only two pairs of race quality skate skis to pick the one with the best base structure and flex. I have a ski for cold/soft snow and a ski that rocks on hard/warm snow. Birkie was something in between, and both skis felt different, but performed roughly the same in my glide testing. I picked the cold/soft ski as it felt smoother.
The start was relatively stress free since the elite wave only had about 200 skiers and it was very wide. Getting a good position there was not essential.
Kaitlyn: After the cannon sounded, I found myself in a small group of 10 skiers that dwindled to three within several kilometers. It was bizarre to be skiing almost alone on the freeway wide trails, but I knew it would not last long. Within 3k, we began catching wave three skiers; it became progressively thicker and I was soon surrounded by an endless mob of skiers. I had space to dart in between the slower skiers in the flats, but it was a slow march up the hills and a dead stop at aid stations. I was expecting this and willed myself to be patient and conserve energy. The stream of racers was endless as we caught skiers from waves one, two, and three over the course of the race. With 25k to go, I still felt fresh from the controlled effort and finally had more space to hammer. I ended up finishing 31st female out of a field of 700+ women. I calculated that I passed roughly 1500 people over the course of the 51k race.
Alex: Before I knew it, the race had started and I double poled cautiously for a while to prevent any other skier from stepping on and breaking any of my equipment. Within a couple km, there was already a relatively large lead group that had a significant gap, and I had only just caught up to the chase group. As I was starting to figure out, my skis were lacking speed on the downhills, so if I was getting away uphill, I would get caught by everybody downhill. I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own so I sat on the back of the lead group to conserve energy for later in the race. After the halfway point, people were starting to break down, and I was only warmiing up. I was ready to start pushing the pace. That is when I started getting out front to shed some people from my group. I eventually dropped them all and started picking off stragglers from the lead group.
Kaitlyn: Each wave had different colored bibs and I got cheers from spectators and skiers through the entire course as I was one of the first wave 4 skiers. Overall, the atmosphere on the racecourse and camaraderie of the skiers was very impressive. Although having to ski out of wave 4 compromised my time and overall place, it made for a true Birkie experience. I definitely caught Birkie fever and am hoping that I can make it to race next year.
Alex: My legs could barely hold me up for the last few km, but I managed not to fall in front of the huge crowd at the finish, so that was good! I ended up with a solid 28th place. I am hoping to improve on that next year. There was definitely a lot to learn about the flow of things at Birkie.
The Birkie is certainly an amazing event. To catch a bit of the Birkie spirit and energy, check out the video from the finish line here.