Ari Ofsevit is the assistant ski coach at Newton North High School in Newtonville, Massachuessetts. He first wrote this Birkie Guide in 2010 before the big race and while he may be on the East Coast, he, like so many, is a big fan of the American Birkie. This is his updated version for 2011.
Let me first point out that I am in no way qualified to write a guide to the Birkie. I’ve only skied it five times (hundreds have 20 under their belts, er, special-colored bibs), I’m not from Northwest Wisconsin, heck, I don’t even cheer for the Packers (but I do drink beer). Still, it seems no one has posted any type of Birkie guide that I know of. Since it’s a race that a lot of out-of-towners come in for [including me, this year], it seems prudent to have one. So with apologies to people who know more than I do, here goes, in bullet-list form:
• Be early. This goes for pretty much every step of the race. The Birkie is incredibly well organized, a testament to its staff and the huge volunteer corps which itself is as large as the town of Hayward. Still, with 8000+ skiers involved, everything takes a bit longer than it might at a pick-up race in March. Or any other ski race in the western hemisphere. Be patient, and give yourself a bit of extra time every step of the way.
• Get there. There are many ways to get to Hayward. Whatever you choose, make sure you are on Highway 63. Unless you really know what you are doing, taking back roads is very unlikely to save you any time.
• Listen to WOJB. The official race station is 88.9 WOJB. It’s a community station broadcasting off the local reservation. It has eclectic and quirky programming. Starting on Friday, they broadcast wax tips and Birkie-themed music (it’s very corny). It will either get you in the mood for the race or drive you batty.
• Bib pick-up. Get your materials before the race, if possible. If you’re in the tenth wave, you’ll probably be okay navigating Telemark the morning of the race. If you’re in the second wave, do you really want to deal with an extra half hour in the morning before your 8:45 start? If you pick up your bib on Friday, you can ski the trail (before 3:00, at least in 2010), get some freebies at the expo, and find all sorts of other skiers. Plus, if anything is amiss, there’s a lot more time to fix it. Friday bib pickup is, this year, in Hayward at the middle school, as is the expo, so it’s not right at the start. Saturday will be as normal at the recently (and temporarily) reopened Telemark.
• Grooming and skiing on Friday. There is no word yet on skiing before Friday. It sounds like the base is somewhat thin on the southern half of the trail, but that portion should receive more snow from the current storm. However, the trail has, in the past, been closed to skiing as early as Wednesday before the race, so keep tabs on that.
In 2010, grooming will take place the night before, using five (5) Pisten Bullies. That’s right. Five. Usually the course is closed for several days pre-race, but with the base they had in 2010 I’m assuming it was solid enough not to worry about it. However, at 3:00 on Friday, the courses, and that means the Birkie Trail, the classic trail and the Korte trail, closed. If you need to ski after that point, the North End Trail, Seeley Trails and Telemark Trails are your best bet, but stay off the Birkie Trail. Drummond Trails, Rock Lake and Mukwanago are a bit further afield.
As for the grooming, well, it will be awesome. It always is. Expect a firm but pliable skate deck, which, as long as it is cold enough, should stay solid during the race. The race may be icier and more abrasive at the north end with more powdery conditions further south, depending on snowfall. Will some hills get mashed potato-ey (up) and icy (down) by the eighth wave? Probably. But where else do 8000 skiers ski a single trail in a day? The groomers know what they are doing. Tracks will be solid and set on downhills. There will be no groomer ridges. These guys groom the trail all season long. They’re pros. (Exception: road crossings. We’ll get to that.)
• Busing. On the last Saturday in February, the Birkie operates the second or third largest bus system in the state of Wisconsin. It’s efficient and they have a lot of experience doing it. Still, things take a while. Normally, you can drive from Hayward to Telemark in under half an hour. On Birkie morning, leave an hour and a half, minimum. If you park at Como, remember: everything looks long, but everything moves. Buses comes in threes. The traffic in to the lot creeps along, but it creeps. Get your spot, get your skis and get on a bus. Unless you have an elite wave bib, people won’t let you cut in line. If you do, well, people might let you cut in line. The best advice is to plan ahead and leave extra time. And if you are going out early, use the buses out of Hayward. It’s very convenient to be able to walk to you car post-race. However: this doesn’t mean you have to leave three hours. Unless you want to see people rushing around way before the start, there’s no need to be on a bus at 6:30 if you are in wave 5. Calm down—it’s cold at the start and warm in your bed.
Oh, and don’t try to bend the rules. There are times when you can bend the rules (example: you’re a top-level skier from another region who has never skied the Birkie and would like to be in wave 1 rather than wave 4, in this case you can ask/plead your case) but this is not one of them. Unless you have a pass, you will not get in to Telemark. Unless you are coming from the east on Highway M, you will not get in to the Telemark parking area. Go to Como with everyone else. It would be nice if they gave car-pooling elite wavers a pass to park at Telemark, but they don’t. It would be nice if they chartered planes to fly elite wavers in to Telemark, but they don’t. Park in designated parking. Take the bus with everyone else.
• Before the start. Telemark is a big place, but it’s not really made to handle 10,000 people. So the start is somewhat chaotic. There’s a big tent near the start, and all sorts of stuff in Telemark. Still, you don’t want to do anything extra at Telemark. There are lines for things like bathrooms. (Gentlemen often relieve themselves on the far side of the start area.) Restrooms in the lodge also have lines (N.B. I’m not sure if all of the lodge’s restrooms will be open), but some of the more far-flung ones aren’t necessarily very long. If you want to warm up, go down the trail as far as you see fit. If you want to see the first big hill, well, it’s about 2k down. If you want to ski it before the race, you’re a masochist.
• Drop your bag. Make sure it’s in the right truck. The Birkie is proud of never having lost a bag (they’re much better than the airlines), but there are thousands. Leave a bit of time. And don’t worry about a few minutes in the cold without a jacket—a thousand other people will help to break the wind. Apparently you can bring your own bag this year if you’d like; otherwise the Birkie folks give you a big plastic bag. Hint: you don’t have to drop your bag, necessarily, before you hit the pens. But it might be a good idea. Oh, and put your shoes in your bag. The last thing you want to do is walk around Hayward in your wet, sweaty ski boots.
• Your wave. This advice depends a lot on your wave and a lot on how seriously you will be taking the race. Before specifics, here’s how the pens work. There are three or four successive “pens”, each of which is separated by a gate. (By gate, I mean a series of barriers which can be raised and lowered by a team of volunteers. Here’s a picture; they use the same system for the start.) When a wave leaves, each pen gate opens, allowing the skiers to run up (generally running, not skiing) asfastastheycan to the next gate. With Elite men and elite women, and classic skiers, there is a lot of running involved if you’re not in the Elite Wave. If you want to be in the front of your wave, you have to get in your pen early (and wait in the cold.) And since people take things way too seriously, it means that you have to beat out a lot of master blasters for a spot.
Let’s go wave by wave:
– Elite Wave: I think the top bib numbers get seeded in the first row. Otherwise, it’s pretty quiet—it’s wide enough that no one gets too far back (you know, since the wave is 200 people, not 900). For women, there’s pretty much just one row.
– First Wave: This is probably the most “competitive” of the waves, at least in the running up through the pens portion of the event. A lot (okay, all) of this wave thinks they belong in the elite wave. Maybe 30 guyswill actually make the jump. Out of 900. Still, everyone wants to be on the front line. If you actually think you’ll be skiing a 2:30, by all means get on the front line. This, however, entails lining up half an hour before the race, making a run for the successive pens each time a new wave goes out, and getting your skis down in front. And it will be crowded. If you think you’re going to be skiing a 2:55 or 3:00, it’s probably not worth the extra time. There’s a 15 minute gap between the wave 2 classic skiers (8:10) and elite men (8:25), which should be ample time to leave your skis, take off your clothes, stuff them in your bag, and throw your bag at the correct truck, and get back to your skis. Especially if you are the front line and can duck under the gate. Be prepared for a few scoffs from other skiers—and don’t do this if you don’t plan to ski fast out of the start.
– Second Wave: Everyone thinks they belong in the first wave. There’s a bit more crossover here, though. And more waves to have to “pen jump” before the start. Everyone in this wave has a similar seeding time, so unless you’re better than everyone, you’re probably not.
– Third-fifth waves: These waves are all quite big. “Birkie Wave Creep” means that everyone tries to qualify up as far as they can, and waves 1-5 are much larger than 6-10 (see charts). So, you get to start with several hundred of your best friends and/or potential pole breakers.
– Sixth-Ninth waves: Probably less competitive. Fewer skiers, especially skiing the full Birkie.
– Tenth wave: Since this is the new skier wave, there are all levels of athlete. Every year a couple guys go out and pass the whole race to make the elite wave. More power to them. (Although not in 2011, when the race course was considerably slower at 10 versus 8:25.) Again, I don’t know what it’s like, I got myself in to wave 2 my first Birkie.
One more thing: if you are unhappy with your wave assignment, tell Birkie as early as possible. They have 8000 people to assign, and make mistakes. In addition to your’s truly, who was put in the wrong wave but got that corrected, some guy called Matt Liebsch (who only won the race last year) wound up in the 6th wave. Before the first of the year is a good idea. Email them, call them, they’re real nice if you explain yourself and give them a lot of time. They may say no to your request, but it’s worth a try. Just don’t expect a lot of sympathy the day before the race.
• Cell phones. Bring em’. Put them in your bag. It makes finding people at the finish a lot easier, especially if some of the people you are going to try to find are skiing the race in more than 3:00. I think there’s reception at Telemark, but if you battery is low, it might be a good idea to shut it off.
• Delays. Sometimes, the start is delayed. This happens, generally, if there is a problem with busing or weather makes driving difficult. It’s usually 10 or maybe 20 minutes, if it happens. They’ll announce it at the start and probably on WOJB. Yup, more time to stand in the cold.
This is probably where I’m most qualified to give advice. I’ve run and skied the Birkie Trail dozens of times (including the Double Birkie twice—yes, 85k in a day; I put a 100k day in on the Birkie Trail a few years back to boot), I’ve mapped the Birkie Trail (stupid Gmap-pedometer doesn’t seem to like more than 1500 points or so), I’ve made elevation profiles of the Birkie Trail (and made a couple frenemies with the Birkie folks, although Ned himself liked them), I’ve thrown together a Google Map of Birkie landmarks, and I’ve talked up the Birkie on Skinnyski. It’s the best.
Also, the whole trail has kilometer markers. Even on the lake (they are on posts which are put in to the ice). If you’re not familiar with the course, they’re a good way to figure out where you are. They are rather conspicuous, but I’m usually focused/tired enough that I only see every third or fourth one (plus I know the trail well enough that I can identify most of it by landmarks).
One other thing before we start: the feed volunteers generally do a very good job. I’ve found feeds to be warm-but-not-piping-hot and found volunteers to know what they are doing (to not yank back feeds when you come through at 12 mph, and to not walk in amongst skiers to give you a feed). They do a hell of a job giving out thousands of feeds over the course of several hours. I think they’re experienced. You don’t really need a drink belt if you don’t want one, but it’s not a bad idea. So, here we go:
0k: The trail starts at the Cable Union Airport. It follows a grass runway for the start. It’s flat. It’s wide. It’s fun. Don’t get lulled in to complacency. There are a a couple of small, rolling hills, but most of the first 2k are flat. And, yes, it’s that wide. It will be at least 30 feet wide until after the powerlines. And, no, the little wooden telephone poles you follow are not the power lines. Oh, and be nice. It’s a 50k race. There’s no need to break anyone’s poles if you don’t have to.
2k: Ha! The easy part is over. You’ll take a left and see the first power line hill. It’s hard, but it’s probably amongst the three worst hills of the race. Still, the trail gains 400 feet in the next 10k. Don’t blow up here.
3k:At the top of this hill the trail rolls along the power lines. The Birkie Trail generally follows topography, except when it goes in a straight line along the power lines. There is a lot of up and down; there are also some choices as to where to ski—the general advice is to follow the pack. The classic trail joins from the left at the right turn and leaves just after the feed. Mind the tracks. There’s enough room to avoid them and folks will yell at you if you ski in to them. With the classic skiers going out earlier this year, even the elites should see some striders in the tracks.
4k: One last hill brings you to the first feed (4.5). In 2010 it was fast enough that you had to slow down to get this feed (the 9k one too) but 2010 was a record pace year. From there, the trail ducks in to the woods with a sweeping left turn. There are no big hills for the next three k, but there are no big downhills. No rest. Get ready to climb. This is also a good place to blow up. You don’t want to. And, yes, the trail is still 30 feet wide. It is this wide the rest of the way. Seriously. Tracking rules are not in effect—if you want to pass, go around.
7k: You finally get some rest between 7k and 9k with a couple of downhills.
9k: After a feed (9), the Korte trail diverges to the left. Make sure you keep right (for the Birkie). It’s well signed with volunteers yelling at you, but still, pay attention. Oh, and get ready to climb.
10k: Here lies the infamous Bobblehead Hill. The trail makes a sweeping left turn on a downhill, which is probably the trickiest hill of the course. To top it off, it’s 100 yards from a snowmobile trail, and a couple dozen sledders have a bonfire going while they drink beer (yes, at 9:00 a.m.; they’re snowmachiners after all) and cheer you on. Actually, they want to see falls. Stay up (unless you want a score) and try not to breathe in too much cigarette smoke. According to late-wavers, this hill might become three parallel luge courses by late waves. If you don’t snowplow, it won’t. STEP TURN! (Why “Bobblehead”? Because of the sledder’s heads in their oversized helments bobbing up and down.) It was so fast in 2010 that even the elites were sliding this corner, so it will wash out or later waves. The recent WaPo article about the Birkie has quite a long segment about this hill.
11k: Now you start climbing. There are a couple of more-gradual climbs before you come down a short hill and lay eyes on Firetower Hill, the climb to the high point of the race. Yes, it looks long. Yes, it is long. Yes, it has a downhill on the other side. You really want to feel good here, because this is where the race begins. It’s still 38k to Hayward, but it’s down 600 feet. Don’t blow up on the long hill, but it’s definitely a good place to go hard if you feel like it.
12k: High point is marked. You then have more than two rolling kilometers downhill. A feed (13.7) is during this downhill. Recover a bit. The trail then rolls for a while.
17k: There’s a tricky uphill before the Boedecker Road feed (18.5). Most of the Birkie Trail is very level (perpendicularly speaking, if that makes any sense), but this hill is quite off-camber. The trail widens out with some pines on the left, and as you climb you’ll feel the trail leaning to the left. You sort of have to use a right-side V1 on this hill as you climb it if you want to stay efficient. After the trail turns, the hill continues but is not off-camber. Fun. After the feed, the trail is rolling but mostly downhill.
20k: After some fun, fast downhills there’s a slog up to the road crossing at OO. You’ll see quite a few people on this hill cheering for racers. The top of the hill is a good place to eat a gel if you want one before the feed (21.8).
21k: Cross OO, which will be narrow and thin. Surprisingly so, considering how well the rest of the trail is groomed. I think Birkie could have more snow on road crossings, and in the long term invest in three bridges or underpasses to bring them in to better shape. Anyway, double-poling the crossing is a good bet; it’s really loose otherwise. They will shovel snow all day. And no cars will drive across.
22k: The trail climbs gradually away from OO. After about a k, there’s a picnic table on the right. After that, you get a nice descent, and then the trail is rather gradual for the next several kilometers.
23k: The classic trail joins from the left. You now have a bit less room with two classic tracks. Mind the tracks and the striding skiers. (The skate lane is still 20 feet wide so there’s no excuse for skiing in the classic track. In the peak of the race, it will often have two parallel trains of skaters, with striders on either side.)
29k: There’s a significant hill at 29k. It’s not particularly steep, but it’s long, and climbs more than 100 feet, longer than any hill since OO (22k) and until Mosquito Brook (38k). The 29k marker is about halfway up the hill. Jesse says it’s a good place to go hard and put a minute on the field. I agree. If you want to make a move, make it here. You get a nice rest after it (I always like that downhill for some reason), though, leading in to the next feed (31.8k) at Gravel Pit. Yes, it’s 9k between feeds, but there is only that one major climb. After Gravel Pit, the trail rolls, with some nice downhills to Mosquito Brook. The one at about 33k has full southern exposure, so it might get sticky in the sun later in the race.
38k: You get a feed (38.1) at Mosquito Brook Road, after the crossing (similar strategy crossing the road as OO). You have about 500m of flat skiing across the stream before the trail begins to climb. 17k with one big hill may have lulled you in to complacency—but there are now three big climbs in the next 7k. This is the last really big climb of the trail, and it’s split in to two parts. The first, Mosquito Brook Hill, isn’t particularly steep, but it’s pretty long, gaining nearly 150 feet with one small respite. The trail then levels out, before climbing again up “Bitch Hill.” Yes, Bitch Hill. This one is half the elevation, but it’s very steep, and at 40k, it’s not a whole lot of fun. You’ll know it when you see it. The ladies (bitches) will cheer you up it and hand out mardi gras beds. Take beads if you wish. This is a frequent place to bonk, though, so you might not be having too much fun.
41k: After Bitch Hill, two downhills lose the elevation you just gained. Don’t worry, you won’t climb that much again. You skirt the field to Fish Hatchery and go back in to the woods, before returning to the field’s edge. There are a couple of hills there that I remember being really nasty little climbs, but the last two times I’ve been on them were at the end of the Double Birkie (after 83k of skiing) and at the end of a half marathon. So my judgment may be clouded. (They run a full marathon north from here to Telemark. Running.) You take a right and ski along Highway 77, through the final feed (44.3), and across the road.
44k: And guess what? You climb again. The climb after Highway 77 is the last climb of any consequence of the day. And it’s a doozy, especially after 45k. Not as steep as the Bitch, and not as long as Mosquito Brook, but still a nice piece of uphill. The only consolation is that after you go up more than 100 feet, you have a long, sweeping downhill towards Lake Hayward. The view are great and you can see the town and water tower across the lake (if it’s not snowing), pulling you towards the finish line.
46k: After crossing two small roads (generally okay snow cover) and a flat section where the race ends if there is open water on the lake, you ski on to the lake. It should be easy to ski across two flat kilometers. However a) you are 47k in to the race and b) there is usually a head wind. Find a pack and ski with them; if you do you can often pick off some skiers in front of you who blow up on the lake. If you feel good, pound it out. And it might be faster to ski off the side of the trail where they’ve plowed snow off the ice, but it might be really icy. And it might be illegal. Ski there at your own peril.
49k: The lake is generally lined with people, so there’s impetus to go fast. There are k markers on the lake, and a 1000m to go near the end. You come up off the lake behind the Marketplace foods, and take a left around the grocery store. (Oh, and there are often interesting feeds on the lake.) The snow here is often a bit soft, which really does a number on your legs. You then make a right turn on to Main Street and can see the finish; there’s a flower pot to go around (generally right) and you cross Highway 63, which is snowed in well but always quite soft (they don’t put snow down until about 9:00). Your legs will be angry but then Main Street has had snow on it since Wednesday, so it’s solid and fast. Pick your lane, soak in the cheers as you fly up the street and power home. It’s slightly uphill, and a V2 is often the technique of choice for the sprint. SPRINT IT OUT, DUDE!
50k: Finish! If you win, do whatever it is when you win. Otherwise, get your bag, and put your skis somewhere conspicuous where you can remember them. If you finish early, the town will seem totally overbuilt with a tent city and infrastructure for thousands. It feels like a ghost town. It fills up. If you’ve recovered, go and cheer people on as they finish. If you are interviewed at the finish on WOJB, be ready to answer “what’s your name? where ya from?” and “how was the race/trail.” Using a broad Midwest accent and giving short answers like “yah, good” is the norm. But if you are from out of town, anything goes. Except, since it’s live, keep it clean.
AFTER THE RACE
• Get a feed. The feed tent has soup, bread, bananas, cookies, and all sorts of things you may want.
• Get a feed. The celebration tent has food for sale, like brats. You are in Wisconsin, so you really should have a brat. Plus, you just burned 2000-4000 calories, so you really should have a brat.
• Get a beer. You’re in a small town in Northern Wisconsin. There are probably ten bars to choose from. Skiers are welcome at any of them. For packaged liquor, find a liquor store/gas station. The Marketplace has a good selection. It’s Wisconsin, after all. If you are under 21 and have a Birkie bib, well, you can probably take your chances. If you are under 21 and are with a parent or guardian, drink up! It’s legal in Wisconsin.
• Get on a bus. Buses to parking lots at Telemark and Como leave often about a block up past the finish line.
• Get ready to wait. Since Main Street is closed, Hayward devolves in to gridlock. Expect it to take 20 minutes to get through town after the race. It might be worth driving across on Highway 77 to miss the congestion.
• Cheer on everyone else. People will finish all day long. Ski or walk out across the lake and let people know they are doing awesome (even if they look differently). Main Street fills up with more and more skiers as the day progresses, both finishing and cheering. It’s a good time. We accomplished this with alacrity last year, getting a couple of six packs and making our way out on to Lake Hayward. It was amazing, especially since we weren’t driving for a few hours.
• Go to the Sawmill Saloon. In Seeley. 10 miles north of Hayward. A big party. With New Glarus on tap.
AND MOST OF ALL, HAVE FUN!