American Birkebeiner

Race Reporter Philipp doing the American Birkebeiner 2019

America’s largest cross-country ski race is well known all around the globe and has always been on my bucket list. Tired from the two marathons but very excited my travel companions and I started our journey from Gatineau to Hayward. The expected half day on the road and in the airplane turned out to be a nightmare. When we finally survived a massive traffic jam on the way to the airport, mastered US immigration and got a seat in the overbooked airplane the pilot turned on the radio half an hour after scheduled depart only to tell us that the crew who does the load in and push back has deserted us. We sat 90 minutes in the airplane all set to go and waited for the rep-crew to come back. Eventually we made it to the US, 02:00 am, a good start certainly looks different.

Howling with the Huskies

Mikko, the orange horse of our group, has skied two seasons for the Michigan Tech Husky ski team in Houghton – a town on the shore of Lake Superior and well known for its copper mines in the 1800s and early 1900s. The detour was not too bad and so we decided to stay two nights in Michigan before heading to Wisconsin and the Birkie. Included in our stay was a walk on the frozen Lake Superior, a visit to a copper mine, a tough interval session with the Huskies ski team and a good time with our hosts at the local pub.

Cable – start of the Birkie

Population: 650 people. On Thursday it was time to focus on the race and check out the start area. I thought Houghton was small but coming to the start area in Cable is like coming to the start of Vasaloppet or Norwegian Birkebeiner. It’s big, it’s in the middle of nowhere and when you see it the first time you can’t imagine how this is supposed to work out on race day with 10.000 people on skis. The tracks on the other hand, were super wide, well-groomed and overall just delicious. We were staying in Cable with a nice host family who treated us way too good. All I say is a Lasagne and pudding cake. A friend organized our stay, but I’m not sure where all the other participants found shelter though. Everyone I talked to stayed with friends or family. On the organizer’s website I found links to lodging including shuttles to the start and back from the finish. Buses from the parking lots to the start and from the finish back to the parking lots were free of charge and leaving every minute. Speaking of buses, public transport is not really a thing and renting a car is advised. Check your tires your rental is on, we had shitty all-season tires and business was risky.

Hayward – Finish of the Birkie

Hayward is not much bigger than Cable, but it felt like everyone was there. Already on Friday for the Birkie half distance, the atmosphere was pretty good compared to other half distance Worldloppets. We soaked in the Birkie-fever, picked up the Bibs and strolled through the expo area. Getting the Bib was almost like a victory. Compared to European races personal identification was super strict – very American I found. Ski waxing and nervous preparation in the afternoon and carbo-loading with above mentioned Lasagne and cake in the evening ended preparations for my 8th Worldloppet. We were waxing at our hosts – I saw lots of fee-based wax-services but no public wax benches.

All-in from the start

On race day morning we woke up and found 3-5 centimeters of cold new snow covering the trees around our house. Same thing on the race tracks. Not really the fastest conditions ahead. Easy, well organized starting procedures made it easy for all the participants, the only thing not ready were my legs. I was hoping for a slow start due to the new snow, but the pace can only be described as “suicidal”. The 100km the weekend before and a 500$ bonus sprint at 2,5km certainly did not help me in my idea of skiing in the first group. I found myself in the second big group and the pace was nice and smooth. Skiing through the woods I counted 6 feeding stations, all well-equipped and handing out pre-opened energy gels. Not very often that you get gels at every feed station. Most of the climbing was done in the first half of the race, the second half was more downhill than uphill and ended in the center of Hayward. The last 400 meters after crossing international bridge were simply amazing! The crowd was wild and cheering for every single participant. Definitely the best finish straight I have ever skied on. I was satisfied with the race even though the sun was not out 😉

After race procedure

The obligatory Passport stamp collection and lunch with other skiers was followed by a visit in the local pubs. Outside skis were leaned against every pub wall in town and people were dancing in their skiing clothes inside. Of course, we did not want to be rude and followed local consumption habits and customs. The Birkie even has its own beer – The Birkie Brew-ski.

The American Birkebeiner

For sure the same great atmosphere on the racetracks and in the finish area as the Norwegian pendant. If you got a car, navigation was easy, and we had no problems of any kind. Thumbs up for the North American Worldloppet Combo, an adventure that I can only recommend! My next race will be the Engadin Skimarathon in Switzerland until then, ski hard, don’t drink Bud Light and ski around the world!

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