The trail to Norway
After nearly a year of preparation, it is now only two short weeks before I will take my place in the starting pen at Rena, Norway, to begin the 54km trek across two mountain ranges to Lillehammer in the 2019 Birkebeinerrennet ski marathon. Coming from the edge of the prairie in west central Minnesota, I’m sure I’ll be nervous about the challenging terrain that lies ahead of me, but I’m banking on my excitement to experience the race surrounded by an international field of ski enthusiasts to carry me to the finish.
Since my first Vasaloppet USA in 2013, I have always thought it would be fun to travel to Europe to compete in one of the huge international ski marathons there. Indeed, some of the most popular and well-known ski races in the Midwest — including the Vasaloppet USA in Mora, the Finlandia in Bemidji, and the American Birkebeiner from Cable to Hayward— take their names and inspiration from Scandinavian events. While these midwest races are relatively large by US standards, they are dwarfed by their European counterparts. For example, the American Birkie wows US racers and spectators with its thousands of finishers, but the Norwegian Birken has two to three times as many skiers.
The idea of actually skiing in a race in Scandinavia evolved from a fun daydream to an actual event on my calendar last Spring when I received a call from my friend Matt. In his characteristic way of getting right to the point, he said “I just reserved an apartment in Lillehammer for next winter, and I’m signing up for the Norwegian Birkebeiner. Are you coming?” While Matt and I had often talked about how awesome it would be to cross-country ski in a European race, it was always with the “maybe sometime in the future” tone that usually doesn’t materialize into a plan. When I heard he had actually made reservations, I was pretty disappointed and a little jealous because I assumed I’d never be able to take the time off from teaching in the middle of the college semester. So, I reluctantly turned him down. However, when I got back to my desk a few hours later, I discovered the race date fell at the end of my Spring Break week, so I could go! I quickly called Matt to claim my spot on the trip, joining a small group of citizen skiers from west central Minnesota. Among us are an engineer, two physicians, and a math teacher representing a variety of ages, race expertise, and ski styles. With this crew, the journey to Norway is sure to be a memorable experience, even aside from the actual race!
Over the past few months, I have completed my travel reservations, researched some of the best places to ski in Norway, and brushed up my skills at classic skiing (I usually skate, but for this trip to the birthplace of Nordic skiing, I wanted to go traditional). I will be arriving in Norway several days before the other guys to make full use of my Spring Break week, and I plan to spend my solo days touring a bit of Norway while taking advantage of their renowned cross country ski trail systems. My first stop will be exploring some of the 2600km of trails near Oslo. On my second day, I am going to take advantage of the opportunity to watch the the pros at the Holmenkollen XC World Cup race just outside of Oslo. After leaving the capital , I’ll head to Trondheim to try out the trails in a region that consistently produces some of the sport’s top skiers. Then, I’ll meet my friends in Lillehammer for the main event — the 2019 Birkebeinerrennet.
By the time I return to Minnesota, I’ll have spent ten whirlwind days traversing Norway via overnight train, buses, and a crowded rental car getting a taste of the Nordic winter experience. No matter how much I manage to pack into my days in Oslo, Trondheim, and Lillehammer, I know it’ll just be the tip of the iceberg and leave me dreaming of my next Nordic adventure. Hiya!