4 hours, 17 minutes, and 47 seconds after starting the Birkebeinerrennet in Rena, Norway, I glided across the finish line in Lillehammer. I had traversed 54km skiing across a scenic mountain range, survived treacherous downhills, and competed against 8617 other cross-country skiers from around the world. My entire body hurt and I was completely exhausted, but I was happy because I’d made it, and I knew that I’d given it my full effort.
My day started at 4:15am when Matt drove Dave and me into Lillehammer to catch the bus to Rena. I sat back in the comfortable coach seat and tried to rest a little longer in hopes of saving a bit more energy for the race ahead. The bus ride takes over two hours, up and down, one little village to the next. The long roundabout route is a good reminder that this is a country where skiing really is the quickest and best way to move around the mountains. In fact, Birkebeineren means birch leggings, and this race is held every year to honor the warriors who saved the baby prince Haakon in the winter of 1206 by skiing over these same mountains wearing the birch as armor.
After arriving at the start area in Rena and making my way through thousands of skiers waiting to begin, I found the test track and put one final coat of kick wax on my skis to match the conditions. My skis still felt good, and as I watch the elite skier waves take their starts, I was ready to get going myself.
Every skier in this race must carry a backpack, and each pack has a number indicating a skiers starting wave (based on your qualifying time). Soon after finishing my ski testing, I spotted a stampede of wave 8 backpacks going toward the start, so I joined the crowd and took my place at the line. Just a few minutes later, the gun went off and my race was underway under over cast skies in a sea of racers. There were about 4000 skiers who had started ahead of me and approximately the same number would start within the next hour.
The first few kilometers of the course are difficult. There is a grueling climb that starts right from the gun, and while I climbed I had to navigate tight crowds as the number of tracks decreased and the trail narrowed. After about three kilometers, the skiers sorted into evenly paced groups, and I could focus on climbing. The climbing is not steep, but it is unrelenting, gaining about 50m for each kilometer of forward progress. I found the angle to be difficult but rewarding because it was steep enough I needed to use the diagonal technique (I couldn't double pole), but gradual enough that I could glide with each stride. At the top of the first climb there is a downhill, which turned out to be my favorite kilometer that I’ve ever skied. It was a steep downhill with a gradual S-curve and, although it was really fast, it was tracked in a way that I never felt in danger of falling. I even took the opportunity to glance up, and I could see rays of sun piercing through as the clouds started to clear up.
At the bottom of the hill, the fun was over and it was back to work. Eventually, I could see the top of the first mountain. There were lots of spectators there to cheer us on with the obligatory Heia!, Heia! (Go!, Go!). This is not a casual cheer or a mere saying of encouragement in Norway. They lean right in close and demand that you pick up the pace as you climb the mountain. It worked, and soon I was over the top! I took a few seconds to look around as I skied through the food station, and I noticed the clouds were completely gone. At some point, we’d climbed out of the forest into an mostly open area where I could see for miles across the beautiful mountain range. I devoured three cups of sport drink and one piece of lefsa, then it was time to go. From this point in the race to the finish, my memory is less precise due to the mind-numbing exertion. I remember mountain views, climbing, eating, climbing, a short downhill, long uphills, and more lefsa...but the details and order of events are lost to the race. I poured all my focus into my technique and efficiency because there was still a long way to go to reach Lillehammer.
As I started the second mountain climb (steeper than the first but not quite as long), my mind was trained on Sjusjøen, where according to the elevation map, the course began a steady downhill to the finish. After what seemed like a very long time, I could see the final timing station in Sjusjøen ahead. I was excited because I knew I’d made it through the most difficult portion of the course.
As it turns out, however, the map is not entirely correct. What looks like a gradual downhill is actually a series of alpine-like drops that honestly scared me (and I’m not usually afraid on a ski trail) and flat sections that required double poling. The trouble was that I’d nearly spent the last of my energy getting to Sjusjøen, and there really wasn’t anything left in my tank at this point. Somehow, the last kilometers ticked by, and finally, I could see the stadium. I crossed the line and saw Matt and Ben cheering for me. I made it! I was done!
After catching my breath, the three of us drove back to Sjusjøen to cheer on Dave, who started in a later wave than I. It was fun to get the chance to spectate at this amazing event, too!
The winner of the race crossed the finish line sometime while I was still plodding through the mountains. It’s fun to be on the same course at the same time as the best skiers in the world, but as a citizen ski racer, I know I can’t compete with the professional teams. My result put me right in the middle of my age group, and I was happy knowing that I held my own against good racers in a country where skiing is a way of life. I race because I like the feeling of pushing my body to its physical limit. I race against myself and try to better my past times. I race because it’s taken me to beautiful locations and nice trails, and I race because of the memories I’ve made while enjoying these experiences with good friends. The Birken delivered on all those points.
The next morning, I got on the train to Oslo and began the long trip home. My seat happened to be next to a group of Swiss who were the organizers and officers of the Engadin Ski Marathon in St. Moritz. They had just hosted a successful race the previous weekend and were on a trip to the Birken for fun (and to maybe pick up some good ideas to further improve their own race). They were an outgoing, talkative set, and they spent the two-hour train ride convincing me to visit their scenic valley in the winter, recommending I bring my whole family and we all participate in their ski races. (They were good marketers, and I have to say, I am definitely intrigued by the idea!) I, in turn, did my best to tell them about the beautiful lakes and woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I suggested they make a trip to the American Birkebeiner. By the time we reached the airport, we had both promised a future trip to each other’s part of the world. I guess this is just the cycle of ski racing. As soon as you finish one, there’s another that has must be added to the list!
My week in Norway was everything I hoped it would be. I skied many great trails, explored new cities, spent time with friends, and completed a challenging ski race. Now, it’s time to go home. I’m on my way back to my own little part of those Minnesota woods, and I can’t wait to see my wife and son again.
Also, thanks to my wife Erin for taking care of Little A so that I was able to go on this amazing trip and also for helping to edit this blog.
Bonus feature: SkateBirken
The day before the classic Birkebeinerrennet that Dave and I skied, our friends Matt and Ben took part in the SkateBirken. Dave and I enjoyed cheering them on at the finish! From their reports, they also had a great experience!