On the day of the American Birkebeiner 50-kilometer ski race, Eric and I crossed the finish line within seconds of each other.
We were taking an obligatory selfie when the a reporter interrupted to interview me on winning my division. Unfortunately, he was unable to interview Eric, who also won his division.
Here is the interview.
Many of you who haven’t seen our Strava posts may be super impressed, or scratching your heads, or both. Corrine and Eric won their divisions at a national race?
Well, we did win our divisions, but not at the American Birkebiener. No, we stomped the competition at the first-ever Fairbanksbeiner! And since Eric and I were the only ones competing, we won!
The American Birkebeiner
The American Birkebeiner (aka the Birkie), the largest ski marathon in North America, is a point-to-point 50-kilometer ski race between two small Wisconsin towns, Cable and Hayward. Every year, over 10,000 skiers descend on northern Wisconsin to partake in the festivities. Our son Riley and I have long wanted to do the race, and it made sense to do it while he was still living in Iowa — within driving distance of Wisconsin — getting his PhD. Eric was not excited about the crowds and hype, but he was up for going along and experiencing it as an exotic cultural event.
We signed up to do the race last year, but then Riley had to come to Alaska to work on a rocket project for a PhD project during the same time, so we had to put it off for a year. This year, plans were falling into place. We had a cabin to stay in about 30 minutes from the start of the race. Eric and I were going to fly into Minneapolis on Tuesday before the race. Riley and his fiancé Sam would drive up from Iowa City after school on Wednesday, and then we would all drive together to Cable on Thursday. But then….
The Epic Storm
I kept watching the midwest weather, and the forecast was for a few inches of snow a few days before the race. Perfect for Eric and me since we planned to classic ski. But as the time got closer, the forecast got more dire. Until it became extreme. This was the forecast the day before we were planning to fly out.
Wow! Driving impossible? Up to 25 inches of snow? Blizzard conditions? Just as Riley and Sam would be driving the four hours to pick us up. The day before we were to fly out, we changed to an earlier, red-eye flight so we would get to Minneapolis before the brunt of the storm. Then we talked with Riley. Unfortunately, he and Sam couldn’t leave Iowa any earlier.
Eric and I finally decided that we could probably get to Minneapolis, but we might get stuck in a hotel while the whole city shut down. And Riley would probably feel obligated to drive through the storm to come get us. All to just do a little ski race? It seemed a bit stupid and irresponsible. So, we cancelled. We were bummed, but it was the right decision.
I decided to take my already scheduled time off work, as I needed a mental break, but most of Alaska seemed under some sort of storm watch, so doing something else fun was not going to happen. Instead, I got caught up on my CME (continuing medical education) and finished a quilt top. (I would include a photo, but it’s for someone who follows my blog, and I told her she couldn’t see it until it is finished — it still needs to be quilted and the binding done. Sorry, Lori, you will have to wait!) Eric spent time with trails advocacy work, working on our taxes, and working on his various newsletters and other volunteer work. Not as much fun as the Birkie, but at least I had a little break.
Meanwhile, the storm hitting Minnesota was big but not as epic as first predicted. The roads got cleared quickly so Riley decided to drive up Friday, race Saturday, then head back home. It was too late for us to get there, though. I followed the Birkie activities on social media and was having severe FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Especially about the Giant Ski Race — a fun race where six people clip into 25-foot-long skis and go head-to-head with another team for 50 yards down Hayward’s Main Street. I definitely want to get a team together to do this if we ever get there.
Still in Fairbanks, Eric and I decided that since we had planned to do a big ski, we might as well do our own Birkebeiner, but it would be the Fairbanksbeiner! We thought that if we did almost all of the trails at Birch Hill, then drove to UAF and did almost all of those trails, it would be about 50K. Perfect! Over the week we had about seven inches of new snow, but we thought that if the groomers got out Friday, we might have a chance of doing our race.
We checked Friday afternoon and most of the trails at Birch Hill had been groomed. (Eric had put in a request with groomer Bill Husby when he skied with the SCUM on Wednesday.) Over at UAF, the trails had been rolled but not tracked. We figured since the weather looked good, groomer Jason would probably put in tracks on Saturday morning for all the people who would want to get out skiing. And that would work out well, as we wanted to do the much-less-hilly UAF last.
So, our race was a go. I wanted to start the same time our wave at the official Birkie was supposed to start, but with the time change that would have been at 6:45 a.m. The gate at Birch Hill doesn’t even open until 7 a.m. So, we started a little later, though not by much.
We wanted to treat it as a “race” by skiing solidly with breaks only to eat and drink (and of course to drive from Birch Hill to UAF). I had hoped that my ski time would be five hours. Eric didn’t have any time goals, just ski hard and finish.
Alas, with an inch of snow overnight and another half-inch while we were skiing, it was slow going. Starting at Birch Hill before anyone else was there, we had to open up most of the tracks. On gradual downhills, we had to do a lot of double-poling. But it was a beautiful day, and we saw almost nobody. (We did see Birch Hill groomer Tom Helmers out on the PistenBully and thanked him for grooming.) We finished up about 11 a.m. and headed to UAF. There, we saw several people on the trails, including a couple of people we knew, but there was only time to say a quick hello. After all, we were racing! And still in the lead!
We had a great day out there, although we both started flagging the last 5K. We ended up skiing 32.5 miles (52.5 km). We got it done in just over six hours of skiing time and then celebrated by having a late lunch at Lemongrass Thai Cuisine restaurant.
Riley had a good race, but he just barely made it. We had all figured it would be a zoo at the start, but it was even worse than Riley imagined. Cars were backed up bumper-to-bumper for five miles to get to the parking lot for the shuttle buses to the start. He had to rush to get to the changing tent, put on his boots, drop off his drop bag, and then barely make his wave start. And that was after he left his hotel 3 hours before his start time! (We’ll keep that in mind if we try to do it next year, the 50th anniversary of the race.)
The race starts in waves of about 300 skiers per wave. Elite skiers start at the front and then subsequent waves follow them at intervals. To move up in the waves you need to have a good time from a previous Birkie or other qualifying race. Riley didn’t have any recent race times, so he had to start in the next-to-last wave (wave 7 for the skate skiers).
The skiers are put into corrals to the side of the start area, holding their skis and poles. When their wave is ready to line up, they are released and there is a mad dash as people run with their skis and poles, trying to get a start position toward the front of the wave. Fortunately, Riley managed to get near the front of his wave.
Riley is a good skier and in shape, so he overtook a lot of the people who had started in front of him, many of whom were recreational ski racers, just wanting to have fun. He said he spent much of the first 5K in a massive double-pole sprint trying to get through the masses of skiers taking up the width of the course.
Then he had to pass a couple of thousand skiers over the course of his race, often having to do mini-sprints to get by people. And the course has lots of short steep little hills (think the Black Loops at Birch Hill), where getting around people is hard or not possible and the trail turns to mashed potatoes from all skiers in front digging in hard to climb.
Riley said his race was exhausting. He bonked with 15K to go but still managed to finish with a time of 3 hours and 10 minutes. That’s impressive, especially starting at the back. He can probably break 3 hours and wants to try again next year, when he will have a much better wave start.
Here are his thoughts on the race:
My experience at the 2023 Birkie was wild, painful, and fun! I haven't done a ski race in over 5 years and so started in skate wave 7. There were clearly others in the same boat and we all knew that getting a starting position near the front of the wave would be crucial. However, I was not expecting a race before the race. When the officials let us into the staging area it was a sprint, similar to a Le Mans style bike race, to get a prime starting position. I managed to snag a position in the second row, but my heart rate was certainly elevated and it wouldn't come down for quite some time. Our wave started 5 minutes after wave 6, but even so it was only a few minutes before we caught up. I looked up and was met by a wall of skiers spread entirely across the trail and stretching several hundred meters ahead. It was decision time. Should I sit behind and wait for gaps to open or follow some of the others skiers who were furiously double poling along the side of the trail? For better or worse I went for the latter. The next 3k were basically an all out double-pole sprint mixed in with some skating when a gap opened up. The rest of the race wasn't nearly as crowded, but I still had to constantly work my way around other skiers. At about 15k to go that initial effort came back to haunt me and I blew up, but managed to limp my way into the finish.
I've done some big ski races before, but nothing that compared to the Birkie. From start to finish there was nearly always a string of skiers as far up the trail as I could see. Even though the race was painful, it was a blast to be part of.
So, I guess that means once again Eric and I will try to get down there and do the American Birkebeiner. Maybe if we train hard, we can win our division: Fairbanks Skiers over 60 Who have Tried Twice Before to Ski the Birkie!