Birkie: Skate vs. Classic
Last year, I returned to classic skiing after 20 years of mostly skate skiing. It was a challenging year learning new skills and developing previously unused muscles, but by the end of the season, I felt the effort was worthwhile.
I first got into ski marathons with the MN Vasaloppet in 2015, and my first Birkie was in 2016. I have always skated, and I probably would have continued only skating had I not had the opportunity to go to Norway last year to ski the Birkebeinerrennet, which is only offered in the classic technique. Since I was training so much for that classic event in 2018-2019, I decided to ski the Birkie in the classic style as well.
Links to the a couple stories from the 2019 Norway trip:
Deciding which style to choose for the 2020 American Birkebeiner was difficult since I had good experiences with both classic and skate Birkies in the last two seasons. Here are some of my thoughts on each race:
As is always the case with classic, wax is twice as much work since you must think of both glide and grip. Before the 2019 Birkie race, I waxed a pair of skin skis and a pair of regular classic skis with grip wax to be ready for any condition. The day before the race, I spent some time testing up at Birkie Ridge, and both seemed to have decent kick and glide, which didn't make my decision any easier. Since there was snow in the forecast, I decided to go with my traditionally waxed Salomon S-labs because I had noticed that they felt better on new snow. Overall, I was happy with my decision. I had good kick the entire race, and although I had to deal with some icing, it didn’t hold me back too much.
On the morning of the race, my wife drove me to the Birkie Ridge parking lot where I got on a bus to the start. I was running a few minutes behind when I arrived at the starting area, and by the time I’d used the porta-potty, dialed in my kick wax at the test loop, and dropped my warm-up clothes, I only had about five extra minutes when I reached the starting pen. A little too close for comfort, but I felt good and was ready to start.
As the race began and we headed on down the trail, I noticed things were just a bit more relaxed in Wave 1 of the Classic than in Wave 1 of the Skate. It still felt competitive (the pace was much faster than a typical Saturday ski with friends), but it was much less chaotic than the skate race start. I think it came down to the fact that everyone knew it was going to be a long race, and there was no sense in sprinting away from the start line.
The classic trail is longer at 55km, and the pace is slower, so at my speed I knew I’d be out for nearly four hours. In my previous two Birkies, I'd recorded a pace of about 3:35/km in the skate race. My classic pace was bound to be slower, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the difference would be until I got out there on race day. It turned out to be 4:15/km (19% slower). That extra hour on the trail is the most challenging part about the classic race, and in my opinion, it's the biggest difference between the skate and the classic events.
The starting schedule had the Wave 1 classic skiers leave 10 minutes before the men's skate race begins, which meant that I got to see the Elite Wave skaters pass by. From my place on the the classic trail, there were just a few trees separating the classic and skate tracks, and the skate race leaders passed us at well under three minutes per km, which made it seem like we were being passed by a high-speed train. I’m always impressed when I read about the pace of the elite racers, but it was fun to see just how fast they’re moving from that unique vantage point. They were gone in seconds, with a bright green hat leading the way to Hayward.
On the climb up to High Point, I found myself skiing alongside a Birchlegger. We talked for several kilometers, and as we climbed he shared a few stories about races from the past and gave me some good, practical advice about the course. Before I knew it, we were over the top and just a few kilometers from the halfway point. The Birkie skate trail and the Birkie classic trail join at OO, which means that all the extra distance comes in the first half of the race. Those five additional kilometers on the classic course allow the hills to be slightly more gradual than those on the skate trail, and I found most of them were strideable.
As I approached OO, I could hear the cheering before I could see the new overpass. When I arrived, I saw that my family had all made it there to cheer me on. After making it through the big hills of Birkie Ridge, it was great to hear all the support, and it gave me the boost I needed to continue on down the trail.
Video from Erin of skiers coming through OO in 2019, including Olympic Gold Medalist Kikkan Randall.
After the classic and skate trails joined back together, I found myself mixed in with a group of Wave 2 skate skiers, Wave 1 classic skiers, and the occasional Elite skier having a really bad day. The two inches of new snow on the trail was really slowing down the skate lane, and many skaters were voicing the opinion that the classic race was the better choice for 2019.
For the second half of the race, it doesn't matter whether you are skating or classic skiing, there's no way to avoid the 39k Hill, Sunset Hill, Highway 77 Hill, and all the other Hills on your way to Hayward. I found it was helpful to get out of the track to get some extra grip when climbing the final hills, and I also had to do quite a bit of herringbone to make it up the steepest sections.
The final stretch across the lake might be flat, but with 52 kilometers behind me, it was all I could do to keep my pace while double poling across the lake. Finally, the International Bridge came into view, and I was done!
Just as the classic trail is designed for classic skiers, the skate trail is custom-built for freestyle skiing. The hills are steep, the track is wide, the corners are just barely manageable, and it is a ton of fun to ski!
For my first Birkie in 2016, I was able to start in Wave 1 since I had a good time from a qualifying race. Up to that point, I had heard many stories about the Birkie, but I hadn't participated in any of the events, and I didn't really know what I was getting into. When I first arrived in Hayward, I couldn't decide if the vast number of people flowing through the streets, sidewalks, restaurants, and hotels was fascinating or overwhelming, so I decided to reserve my judgement until after the race.
Even before the start, I realized the Wave 1 skiers around me were really serious about the race. When the time came to advance from the on-deck pen to the start line, the group charged forward in an effort to get a good spot. Since it was my first time, I thought it best to watch from a safe distance and found a spot about three-fourths of the way back while I waited for the start. It turned out to be a good plan, as I likely would have gotten plowed over if I had been closer to the front. From my position, I was able to ski the entire race without passing or being passed too often, but I can see the reason why the faster skiers wanted a good starting position toward the front since the hills can can get backed up. If you are able to ski a really fast time, the front of the race is the place to be.
When the gun went off, Wave 1 left the gate at what felt like a sprint and headed for the first test -- the Power Line Hills. I’d been warned to take it easy for the first few kilometers; everyone told me to remember there’s a lot of race left and you want to be able to finish strong. I tried to follow their wise advice, but I got caught up with the crowd and I climbed up to High Point at a 3:40 pace -- much faster than I had planned. I knew my heart rate was way above what I usually consider sensible, but I kept pace with the people around me and the kilometers ticked by.
Most of the skiing I do each year is by myself or with a small group of friends. In contrast, the Birkie skate race is two-wide, tip-to-tail, high-speed skiing for the entire 50 kilometers. With over 5000 skiers on the trails, I found myself skiing most of the course among a group with pretty similar skill and speed. In the 2016 race, seven skiers finished within 10 seconds of my time. This is the only skiing event in the US where that many skiers come out to race, and there's a shared sense that this is the big race of the season for most of the skiers on the trail.
In the Birkie Skate Race, the hills are excruciating, the downhills are somewhere between fun and dangerous, and you have to keep your mind on the race every second. Overall, It’s a feeling that I haven’t experienced anywhere else while skiing, and it's quite intense.
I don’t know if it was due to my own adrenaline or the energy from all the fellow skiers and cheering crowds, but in the two Birke Skate races I've done, I've managed to outpace my expectations. I always leave Wisconsin thinking about the next season and excited for the next Birkie!
The Classic and Skate are both great races. After quite a bit of deliberation, I checked the box for the Birkie Skate Race on my 2020 registration. Maybe I'll alternate every year.... If you haven't given both races a try, consider getting a different experience and trying out the other race next time--I don't think you'll regret it!