A pilgrim–thats what I felt like as I made the trip out to my first-ever American Birkebeiner. As I got closer and closer to the start of the Birkie I was joined by more and more fellow pilgrims. I started the trip alone, flying out to Madison, Wi, where I met up with my friend Zoe. We made the next stage of the pilgrimage together, the almost 5-hour drive north to Springbrook, which is just south of Hayward, where the Birkie finishes. There we joined up with Chelsea, Ollie, Matt, and Alex, and were later joined by Zoe’s brother as well. On the day of the race, the numbers grew at a frenetic pace as we got closer and closer to the start. We drove to Hayward, during which time we listened to the Birkie radio station, which played the Birkie song. It consisted almost entirely of the word “Birkebeiner,” said faster and faster as the song went on. It was perfect! We loaded onto a school bus packed with racers, which took us north to Telemark Resort. Bus after bus after bus unloaded, and the lodge was so packed with people that it was hard to move around without stepping on sleeping master blasters. Or maybe they weren’t sleeping, but instead just visualizing the course and hoping that this would be the year they’d move up the the 3rd wave, or earn their 25% club pin. In the midst of the excitement I drastically underestimated how long the line at the porta-potties would take, and sort of ran out of time to warm up. I grabbed my skis and bag and joined the teeming masses as we slipped and slid down the icy trail to the start. It felt sort of like I was going to battle–the kind of battle depicted in some old movie by a cast of thousands. It was exciting! It was the peak of the Birkie Fever.
And then we were off, and it was just a ski race, not a battle. It was the widest ski trail I’ve ever skied on. Fifty kilometers of it. Also the most spectators I’ve ever seen at a ski race, especially given that it was about zero degrees. My race went pretty well. I skied with the lead pack for the first 15 k or so, and then just sort of lost touch as we were passing groups of men from the men’s elite wave. I was a little bummed about this, but really it may have been for the best. I actually felt stronger in the last 10k than in the whole middle half of the race. The finish was my favorite part–right down main street in Hayward, with cheering crowds lining the street the whole way! This was awesome, I had no idea that this many people could be this excited about a ski race outside of Scandinavia! It really gave me a whole lot of newfound respect for the midwest. After the race, as I was confusedly looking for my teammates and trying to get warm in a bar, a local elderly couple bought me a hot cocoa, just for being a racer. I chatted with them–they had a summer house in Hayward, but always came up from Chicago to watch the Birkie, just for the excitement of it. They later bought the whole team a pitcher of beer.
I’m hoping to go back to race the Birkie every year. Eventually I want to be one of those old lady’s in the “birch leggings” club (meaning you’ve raced at least 20 times), coming back year after year regardless of whether not I’ve been training very much.
Wow, this has turned into a really long blog post. I apologize! But you see, I’ve been sitting in the Chicago airport for 6 hours and still have a few more to go, and so I’ve just really been relishing having something to do.