Planning to do your first Birkie in 2021? Ski the Vasaloppet this winter to qualify!
If you are planning to ski the Birkie for the first time in a future year, consider using the Vasaloppet as a qualifier race first to move up to a faster wave. Read on to learn more.
Every year in February, thousands of skiers from around the world descend on the small town of Hayward, WI, to compete in the American Birkebeiner ski race. The excitement of crossing the International Bridge into downtown Hayward with hundreds of bell-ringing spectators lining the course is amazing, but it takes a lot of planning and effort to get to that point. Not only do you have to make it through 50km of demanding skiing over several big hills on the Birkie course, but also you have to find a hotel within 100 miles, pick up your packet, deal with race-day traffic jams to get to the drop off points, find the right bus at the right time, and navigate the congested starting pens before the race even starts. Once you are skiing the course, you (and your 7000 new best skiing buddies) will have to jockey for room as you speed from Cable to Hayward. If you haven’t skied the race before, it can definitely be a bit overwhelming. I recommend thoroughly studying the Birkie website and Ari's Unofficial Guide to the Birkie so you will know what to expect, then do some prep work to see if you can qualify for better Birkie starting wave.
The Birkie uses a waved starting system, which means your starting position is determined by your previous Birkie finish. If you don’t have a previous Birkie time or another qualifying long-distance race under your belt prior to registering for the Birkie, you’ll have to start in a later wave at the back of the pack (which means 5000+ people have already torn up the trail before your turn to start). Unlike long-distance running races, where passing is relatively easy, skiing is different since there are only certain areas where passing is possible and you are confined to a fairly narrow trail (or in the case of classic skiing, to 2 tracks once you've passed OO). If you are in a later wave, you will probably have to wait your turn at each water station and hill, From my experience, even Wave 1 skiers come to a stand-still at the bottom of certain hills due to the congestion.
For skiers who are faster than 4:30mins/km skating or 6:20mins/km classic, I think it is much better to complete a qualifier race before your first attempt at the Birkie so you can claim a place in a faster wave with similarly paced skiers rather than deal with the frustrations of a later wave start. This is a two-year process, as you must complete the qualifying race one year before your Birkie. You can find a full list of Birkie qualifier races here.
My favorite qualifier is the Vasaloppet in Mora, MN. The relatively small number of skiers at the Mora Vasaloppet means that the start of the race is self-seeded and the course conditions are similar for the first and last skier in the race. Plus, it is a really fun event with all the local residents pitching in to make skiers welcome in their hometown. You can check out my previous post on the Vasaloppet to learn more about that race.
After completing a qualifier race, you can calculate your adjusted PBE (percent back equivalent) to see if you qualify for a better starting wave in the next year’s Birkie. You’ll need to submit a wave upgrade request after registering. The entire process is laid out on the Birkie website. If you register and complete this wave upgrade request before the wave you qualify for fills, you are in!
Here’s an example of a PBE calculation using a 2019 Vasaloppet time of 3hr 7min
Step 1: Find the winner of the qualifying race.
Winner of 2019 Vasalopppet was 2:19:48 (140 minutes)
Step 2: Calculate your number of minutes back from winner.
3hr 7min is 47 minutes back from the winner
Step 3: Divide (minutes back/winning time in minutes)
47/140=34% back from winner
Step 4: Add the adjustment factor
Adjustment factor 13% for the 2019 Vasaloppet based on Table from Birkie website
Step 5: Check seeding table
47 PBE is Wave 2*
*Note: This is a hypothetical example for someone with a 2019 Vasaloppet time and assuming the request was made when there was still space available in the wave.