A Trip To The Norwegian Birkie

FasterSkierApril 7, 2003

The UNH Ski Team, along with some alumni and friends, recently took a spring
break trip to participate in the Norwegian Birkebeiner. The Birkebeiner is a
fifty-four kilometer ski race that starts in Rena and finishes in the Olympic
stadium in Lillehammer, Norway. It is one of the more famous ski marathons on
the World Loppet tour.

We left from Boston on a Friday night flight that took us to Oslo with a quick
layover in Iceland. We were to spend a few days in Oslo before catching a train
to Lillehammer. These days were full of city sightseeing opportunities. Oslo
holds many interesting museums, art galleries, historic places, shopping opportunities,
waffle stands, and crazy cab drivers, all of which enhance the cultural experience.
The highlight for me was the chance to catch the metro in downtown Oslo and
in minutes be at the famous Holmenkollen ski facilities, cruising around on
some very historic racing trails. The Holmenkollen ski jump is a major Oslo
landmark and the annual world cup ski races and jumping competitions are considered
something of a national celebration in Norway. Unfortunately for us the races
had taken place the weekend prior to our arrival.

We were fortunate enough to pick a day at the Holmenkollen with a little action.
The annual Barne Holmenkollen, or "Kids Holmenkollen" was taking place.
A local informed us that the races were national championships for 12 to 14
year olds. So while we cruised around the trails of the famous ski venue we
were greeted by many young "Barnes" that were probably wondering,
"who in the heck are these people?"

Located underneath the Holmenkollen ski jump is a skiing museum that is certainly
worth a visit. For a small fee you’re able to take a cruise through Nordic
skiing history, view the skis of Kings (the kind with crowns and the kind with
gold medals), and take an elevator ride to the top of the ski jump which provides
the best view in town.

Another Oslo point of interest is Vigeland Park, which is dedicated to housing
192 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. Vigeland was an artist that was employed
by the city of Oslo in the early 1900’s. The sculptures within the park
are all nude figures either carved from granite or made of bronze. I would like
to suggest that Vigeland Park hosts the first annual bare-buns world championship
ski race.

On to the Lillehammer!
Lillehammer has recently been nominated by a few skiing enthusiasts as xc-ski
town planet earth. There is definitely some reasonable justification for this
praise. Lillehammer was home to the 1994 Winter Olympic games at which Nordic
skiing was the primary attraction. The Men’s 4×10 Relay from the Lillehammer
games went down in history as one of the largest attendances of any sporting
event in history. There are a gazillion kilometers of free groomed skiing in
and around town and lots of ski shops. Some very well known brands of ski equipment
are based in town and chances are you might run into a famous ski personality.
It’s certainly one heck of a place to visit if you’re into cross-country

Lillehammer sits on a hillside that overlooks a small portion of one very large
lake. For most traveling skiers, the points of interest are as follows. The
train and bus station are at the bottom of a hill. The Olympic ski trails are
at the top of the hill. Your hotel is likely to be located somewhere in between,
along with a bunch of stores and restaurants. We were staying at the Birkebeiner
Inn, which is located on the high side of town.

We rolled into Lillehammer by way of train and migrated up through town, weighted
down with all of our gear. By the time we reached the hotel we were shedding
our sweat-drenched layers by the second. Cory Schwartz, the head coach of the
UNH Ski Team, and a few alumni were waiting at the front steps of the hotel
with large grins. Yes, taxis do exist in Lillehammer, Norway. I for one think
struggling up the hill of death, as we started calling it, is more befitting
of the cross-country skier lifestyle then taking a ride from a taxi. Although
for the next few days I felt like I had come out on the wrong side of a sumo-wrestling

Our condo was located along a ski trail that climbs up the hillside onto the
plateau where the Olympic Stadium resides. In no time we were skiing through
the "Birkebeiner" stadium and along courses that had been engraved
in my mind from countless viewings of the 1994 Olympic races. One can sense
a lingering excitement in the air while you ski on those trails. Perhaps the
trees stand a little prouder or maybe the emotions of those that skied and watched
still remain. I’ll bet this is one of the harder places in the world to
attempt to do an easy level 1 workout. The urge to power up a steep climb or
sprint down the finishing straight is almost uncontrollable. I gave in more
than once.

The Birkebeiner
We caught one of the shuttles from Lillehammer and were on our way to Rena,
a small village that serves as the starting point for the race. Rena is a charming
little Norwegian village that is, each March, overwhelmed with Norwegian Birke
Fever. We made our way through the crowds to pick up our bibs and get our sleeping
arrangements sorted out. Like many Birke participants, we had reserved spots
to sleep in one of the towns’ schools. With the size of our group we took
up two whole classrooms. That is, except for one 70-year-old Norwegian gentleman
named Alf who must have been thrilled to be have had 20 young Americans as roommates
the night before his big race.

Seven sleepless hours later I was up and headed to breakfast at the race headquarters.
There is nothing like cold cuts and brown goat cheese to settle an uneasy pre
race stomach. After a quick bite we dropped off our luggage bags that would
be taken back to Lillehammer for us and boarded a bus to the start. For those
lucky enough to have early starting waves this bus ride would take about 10
minutes. Unfortunately for the race organizers, traffic up the small road would
eventually cause some major delays. Yep, even in Norway there are unforeseen
problems in ski race organization.

UNH skier Casey Collins at the start

The pre race mood at the Birkebeiner is very interesting. Being a classic race
one must think about kick wax selection. All week long the biggest topic in
Lillehammer had seemed to be "what is the wax going to be?" The race
is certainly very long (54km) and the snow conditions could vary quite a bit
within the race making waxing very tricky. So there are thousands of people
milling about, testing, checking temperatures, mixing, corking, and praying.
Some of these have hopes of winning, while many others just want to avoid double
poling for 54 hilly kilometers. I don’t normally get nervous about kick
waxing but a recent marathon in New Hampshire had me a bit on edge. This years
Great Glen to Bretton Woods marathon turned into a waxing nightmare. Lets see.
At one point I took off my skis and ran up a hill trying to scrape the stilts
off my skis as I went. At another point I actually was licking the kick zone
of my ski to melt the ice, so that I could attempt to cover the klister with
hardwax. Other people used metal trail signs to scrape some of the klister off
their skis. That I thought was very resourceful! I was hoping to avoid a similar
situation in Norway. I put the finishing touches on my skis and cruised around
the warm-up track. "Ah, skis feel pretty good"

Into the starting pen I went. I guess I got there at just the right time because
I was able to get a place right on the front line. No problem! I deserve a spot
on the front line. Sure I had been feeling under the weather all week, suffering
form a nasty cold I had caught while in Norway. But I was ready, mentally at
least, to kick some butt. I put my skis down and stuffed my warm-ups into my
backpack. (All racers must carry a weighted pack that symbolizes the rescued
baby prince). Hold on. Reality check. I turn to one side and there is Jorgen
Aukland, winner of this years FIS marathon cup. Then, two people to the left
I can see Erling Jevne, a perennial Norwegian superstar. Seconds later Odd Bjoern
Hjelmseth shows up and straps on his skis right next to me. Well then! It seems
the competition just got pretty tough. For me, those few minutes were a little
like sitting on the bench with Michael Jordon, or getting ready to tee off with
Tiger Woods. What a thrill. The gun cracked. And we were off!

A few kilometers into the race it would become very clear that the nasty cold
I had caught wasn’t just in my head. It was in my head, my arms, legs,
stomach… I think my toes even felt sore. As far as races went, this was
not to be one of my strongest. I had to swallow some pride. I had just gone
from "men’s elite" to feeling like an amoeba on skis. The next
52 kilometers would be some of the more tiring and humbling I’ve ever
skied, but also some of the most fun. The Norwegians seem to have a real gift
for celebrating sport. Thousands of people lined the course. Feeds and enthusiastic
cheers were overwhelmingly plentiful. Locals gave me concoctions of coke and
coffee, little children offered pieces of candy bars, oranges and an enthusiastic
"Heia." People had skied kegs of beer out to the race to liven things
up a bit with the fans. Music blared from speakers. They seemed not to care
that it was cold out or that the race leaders were now many minutes come and
gone. They were having a great time, and it was exhilarating to be a part of
it. Up through the wooded hills we climbed, and then out into large open alpine
fields. Even there, where it was obvious that no towns were within miles, there
was no shortage of supporters. As slow as the first twenty kilometers can be
as you climb steadily, the final kilometers are fast. The final 15 kilometers
are full of fast downhill and flat double poling. "Just what the doctor
ordered!" Cruising down the finishing stretch in Birkebeiner stadium is
a pretty fantastic. I highly recommend it to anyone.

Birke Stadium

At the finish

After enjoying the post race scene for a bit, we skied down into Lillehammer
(A nice 4 km downhill, phew!) picked up our luggage and headed for the train
station. We caught one of the trains headed for Oslo and settled in for the
trip home.


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