The Norwegian Birkie: Something You Just Have To Do

Inge ScheveMarch 18, 20113
Stephanie Howe (left), Taylor Leach and Sarah Max (right) at the 2011 Engadin. (Photo courtesy of Howe)

The XC Oregon skiers posted solid results at the Engadin Ski Marathon in Switzerland last weekend and are ready to take on the Norwegian Birkebeiner on Saturday.

Now fully adjusted to the time change, the XC Oregon racers are excited to race from Rena to Lillehammer, 54 kilometers in challenging, exposed, open tundra terrain with a 3.5-kilo backpack. The venerable event that has been a staple on the calendar for almost 75 years.

Brayton Osgood, 29, is coming off a solid performance at the Engadin last weekend where he was the top American and finished 24th overall, is excited about the Birkie and hopes to build on that experience on Saturday.

“For the Birkie I have pretty much the same goals as I had going into the Engadin. I want to ski with the lead group until the race gets serious, and then put out a good effort from there to the finish,” Osgood said to FasterSkier, noting that at the Engadin, the only thing missing was enough juice for the last couple of kilometers.

“So, if I can finish things off a little better than I did at ESM, I’ll be very pleased, but mostly I want to make it to the finish and have some good memories when it’s all said and done. I won’t say I want to have a good time out there, because that’s a pretty tough standard to live up to during a race,” Osgood added.

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16,000 racers annually enter the Norwegian Birkebeiner. (Photo: Inge Scheve)

Something a skier has to do

While Osgood has tried his hand at the Birkie before, his XC Oregon teammates Taylor Leach, Stephanie Howe and Sarah Max are new to the legendary race.

“As a skier, the Norwegian Birkie is one of the races you have to do in your lifetime,” Howe said.

With her previous marathon results, including winning the women’s freestyle Gatineau Loppet in February, Howe has landed herself a spot in the FIS elite wave. That certainly adds some performance pressure, but Howe still wants to enjoy the experience.

“I hope to have fun! I am starting in the elite FIS wave, so I’m a bit nervous. It should be fun though, I love climbing, and I hear there should be plenty of that. The biggest challenge for us will be to select the correct skis and wax,” Howe explained.

Less pressure

Leach and Max said being new to the event adds some uncertainties, but also cuts down on the expectations and self-inflicted performance pressure.

“I have never done the Norwegian Birke before, but I have wanted to do this race for a long time. so I am really excited, a little bit nervous because it seems like a challenging course. As I have dedicated most of my winter to coaching, I do not have many expectations. My goals are to ski technically well, have a smart race and enjoy the experience,” Leach said to FasterSkier.

The same is true for Max.

“I’ve never done the Birkie. I don’t have much in the way of expectations, which is the beauty of doing a race that is completely unfamiliar,” Max said.

Additionally, the Norwegian Birkebeiner will represent some extra challenges for Max, who is fairly new to classic skiing. Given that the course covers 54 kilometers of varying, exposed and challenging terrain, Max is hoping for good kick from Rena to Lillehammer.

“This is only my fourth or fifth classic race ever. My hopes are to have good kick throughout the race,” Max said.

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Being new to classic skiing and new to the Norwegian Birkebeiner, Max (XC Oregon) is hoping for wax conditions a little less tricky and frantic than these. From the start at Rena in 2007. (Photo: Inge Scheve)

A legendary race

Since the inaugural Birkebeiner race in 1932, the Norwegian Birkie has only been cancelled seven times, most of them due to World War II (no race in 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945).

But in 2007, when the XC Oregon trio Brayton Osgood, Marshall Greene and Zach Violett, attempted to cross the mountains, the Birkie was cancelled due to blizzard conditions, high winds and literally no visibility in the open. The racers in the first couple of waves, which were allowed to start, were called down from the mountain and brought back to the start at Rena.

XC Oregon's Birkie crew in 2007: Zack Violett (left), Brayton Osgood, and Marshall Greene (front). They were turned around early. (Photo: Inge Scheve)

That first wave in 2007 included the XC Oregon skiers, who said they encountered head winds so strong that it was hard for even large skiers to make headway into the wind, let alone stay on the tracks that quickly disappeared from windblown snow on the tundra.

In 1948, the owners of the event could not agree on whether to develop the Birkie into an elite competitive race or focus on participation and recreational skiers. The race was not held, but the owners worked out their issues and now the Birkie is a mass-participation event, maybe the largest and best-known ski race in the World.

The lure of the marathons

For Leach, 25, the European marathons represent crowds and atmospheres unmatched anywhere in North America.

“The big European marathons are a different experience to racing the US, there are so many people. Even our biggest race, the American Birke, is not even close to the size of many of these races. Although when it comes down to it, racing is racing, regardless of where you are,” Leach said, explaining that as a junior coach with the Mount Bachelor Sports Education Foundation in Bend, she doesn’t have the opportunity to do many races for herself in the meat of the season.

“The Engadin and the Norwegian Birke were the only races that I was planning on doing this year, I did get to race at Crescent Lake a few months ago and I may be able to race the Great Nordeen but these European races were really the focal point of my winter,” Leach explained.

For Max, 36, now a veteran of the European marathon circuit, the European marathons have become the main focus of the season. But equally the overall experience is easily just as important as the race aspect.

“I’ve done about half a dozen European marathons now, and while I consider them my main focus, the races are really just a good excuse to travel around, meet interesting people and eat euro breakfasts,” Max said to FasterSkier.

Stephanie Howe won the 2011 Gatineu Loppet (Photo courtesy of XC Oregon)

For Howe, 27, the European marathon races are the reward after a long domestic season, and the European racing experience is icing on the cake.

“They are kind of a bonus at the end of the season. I didn’t have a lot of expectations since I haven’t raced in Europe before. I’m also still new to the marathon distance, but I am learning. In terms of overall season, these races were something I was looking forward to all year,” Howe said.

Return on Investment

In Downing’s opinion, ski marathons are a great return on investment for athletes who can’t do a lot of travel to follow the USSA SuperTour or Canadian Nor-Am series, but want to race a stacked field. For many of the XC Oregon racers, the marathons serve as motivation, variety and a season goal.

“For any athlete that isn’t interested in the SuperTour-format races and prefer longer events with guaranteed field strength, the American Ski Marathon Series domestically and World Loppet internationally are the way to go. Particularly for female athletes, or any athletes with limited travel time, the value of the marathon circuits is super hard to beat,” Downing said.

For XC Oregon as team, marathons are one more way get exposure and experience.

“What we (as a team) are getting out of the World Loppet starts is keeping athletes motivated and excited plus many great to good results over the years,” Downing said to FasterSkier.

Downing lists off that just this season, XC Oregon has placed four female athletes in the top ten at World Loppets: Evelyn Dong third place at the American Birkie, Kristina Strandberg’s Engadin Ski Marathon eighth, Sarah Max’s fourth at the Gatineau Loppet freestyle and Stephanie Howe’s first place in the Gatineau Loppet classic.

Inge Scheve

Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.

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  • Skidfan

    March 19, 2011 at 12:18 am

    “and now the Birkie is a mass-participation event, maybe the largest and best-known ski race in the World.”

    Shouldn’t think so really, the Vasaloppet has been sent live on TV since the 60ies (average 1,7 million viewers in Sweden and a peak of 2.2 million for the finish, 3.4 million different viewers saw something from the race).

    This year is the first with live, nationwide coverage of Birkebeinerrennet.
    The starting field for Vasaloppet and Birkebeinern is about the same recent years, but Vasaloppet fields 51000 starters over a week.

    And the famous google-test
    “Vasaloppet”: 3,3 million hits
    “Birkebeinerrennet”+ “Birken”: 224k+2540k = 2.8 million

    So, again, shouldn’t think so.

  • Lars

    March 19, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Vasaloppet is clearly the bigger event but there was a maybe in that sentence and Birken is a very good second place.

  • Skidfan

    March 19, 2011 at 4:48 am

    Yes, a very nice race (just watched it!). Rezac, Brink, Ahrlin, Aukland I think.

    A nice article too, just me finding “faults” I guess.
    In popularity Birken is a clear second (obviously no1 i Norway before Skarverennet), in Worldloppet it is 2 or 3 in prestige (fighting with Marcialonga) but Birken had enormous growth last few years so with improved TV-coverage it will become more popular.

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