PSIA Nordic Team member Greg Rhodes put his personal skiing abilities to the test two weekends ago in Wisconsin, while enjoying a free-heeled trip down memory lane and into nordic skiing history – all thanks to the American Birkebeiner, also known as the Birkie.
The largest cross country ski events of the year in the U.S. and North America are all during the Birkie Weekend: the Birkie (51km skate and 55km classic races), the Korteloppet (29km skate and classic), and the the Barnebirkie and Junior Birkie (events for kids under 13). Here, in Rhodes’ own words, are the highlights of a race that was first held in Norway in 1932, and began its storied history in the U.S. in 1973.
The Experience: Being at a ski event that has over 10,000 participants from 49 states (Oklahoma was the only state not represented this year) and 36 countries is something that all skiers should experience. I have been attending the Birkie as a spectator or participant since I was about five years old. My father passed away this past September and some of my earliest memories of skiing come from heading to the Birkie to watch my parents participate in events. I reconnect with family friends every year at the Birkie – college teammates and people I have met over the years through skiing. We all gather every year at the Birkie for a big “XC Family Reunion.”
The Race: It was great – maybe perfect – weather and snow. After last year’s Birkie having to be canceled due to lack of snow (for only the second time in the race’s 44-year history), this year’s race had great snow with temperatures in the mid-20s. There was actually some fresh snow on Thursday, which made the trail a little soft, but with a lot of grooming and some cooler temperatures at night, the trail set up very well for race day.
Highlights: This was the first year that they ran the Korteloppet (Korte) on Friday, and the Birkie on Saturday. The Korte is a 29km race for people who are not ready for the full Birkie. This is similar to having a half-marathon at the same time as a marathon. With the Korte on Friday, this gave these skiers a race day to themselves so they could shine. Their course also changed, so they started at about the halfway point of the race (which is referred to as “00”), and skied into the town of Hayward to finish on Main Street, like the Birkie does. With the Korte on Friday, I got to take the time to support athletes I coach and family members who were racing that day. I got to help them at the start with kick waxing their skis, helping them warm up, then giving the feeds (hydration and food) at special locations along the course.
What I Would Have Done Differently: The biggest item I find when I look back on my training logs from years’ past and this year is I would have done more smaller races throughout the winter leading up to the Birkie. My training was not great, but adding in races throughout the winter can help with motivation, keeping training intensity high, and keep me mentally prepared for the Birkie. The years I have done the best, I have competed in at least three to four shorter races (ranging from 15–42km) from December through February. These races are valuable for the overall training and race preparation.
The Teaching Connection: Technique is key. One thing that helped me get through this year’s race with less-than-ideal training was technique focus. Having good technique and focusing on this during the race allowed me to be the most efficient I could be. When we teach students of any level how to ski, we are focusing on technique and it does not matter if it is a beginner or an elite-wave Birkie skier – being efficient is key. As I was skiing, I was focusing on ankle flexion, weight transfer, and initiating my poling from my core and not my arms. These are key points I was focusing on with Cert I candidates the week before the Birkie as well.
Additional Info: The Birkie skate and classic races have over 8,000 participants from 49 states and 36 countries. The Korte has over 4,000 skiers, and this year they had a special start for U20 athletes so they could have a championship-style event. Thursday’s Barnebirkie and Junior Birkie has about 2,000 skiers. It is an entire long weekend of skiing and community, and the overall experience of an event in the U.S. that has a very European feeling.