CABLE, Wis. – Matt Liebsch’s wife had been in a car accident.
Lars Flora couldn’t feel his fingers nearly two weeks after a ski mountaineering race in Vail, Colo.
Holly Brooks had just returned home to Alaska to recharge. Caitlin Gregg was waiting for an OK from her doctor.
Tad Elliott wasn’t sure what to do with a weekend off from the World Cup. His U.S. Ski Team coaches suggested he look for a ski marathon in Europe.
Brent McMurtry and Graham Nishikawa felt like flying down from Canada, Adam Swank made the short trip south from Duluth, Minn., and Bryan Cook and Maria Stuber returned to their roots in Wisconsin.
Former Central Cross Country (CXC) racer and 2012 Winter Triathlon National Champion Rebecca Dussault was back with three kids cheering her on. Last year’s classic champion, Jennie Bender couldn’t wait to give the skate race a try.
Norway’s Tore Martin Gundersen knew he’d be back as soon as he won here last year.
The paths nearly 350 elite racers took to the 39th American Birkebeiner were varied, but they made it. On Saturday, about 300 skiers will compete for the top-six money spots in the 50-kilometer men’s and women’s freestyle races from Cable to Hayward, Wis. Another 50 will contend for glory rather than cash in the 54 k classic race.
Nearly 6,000 skiers will follow them in waves 1 through 10, but the elites will likely keep their attention forward. If they look back, it will likely be to see where their familiar friends or foes are.
Really, the American Birkebeiner as North America’s largest ski marathon breaks down into several separate races. From elites to beginners, every participant enjoys or suffers through their own journey. If they’re lucky, they will all end up together after the finish on Main Street in Hayward.
That’s if they finish.
For the racers at the highest level of the sport, like more than a dozen Norwegians that ventured to the states, the event is about winning. And if they don’t win, they want to come close.
The fastest male and female in the Birkie’s 50 k skate race get $7,500 – more than twice the amount winners received at the five-stage Tour de Twin Cities SuperTour event last month. Second place in the Birkie skate race earns $4,500 and the purse trickles down to sixth place, which gets $1,000. That’s enough of a draw for most skiers.
“I think that this year might be the strongest field we’ve had in a long, long time,” said American Birkebeiner Executive Director Ned Zuelsdorff. “We have the past champions back, both in the men’s and women’s skate division.”
The top nine women from last year’s skate race returned, including Gregg as the defending champion who set a course record last year in 2:16.07. Seven of the top 10 men also came back, including Gundersen and Benoit Chauvet (FRA), who placed first and second, respectively, in the 2011 Birkie.
In the classic race, Norway’s six-time Olympic medalist, Vegard Ulvang, will be the man to beat – even if he isn’t really racing. He was invited as a research ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Birkie’s Skiers for Cures cause. Regardless, he still gets the top elite bib in the classic race.
“I haven’t competed in a few years,” Ulvang told FasterSkier on Thursday. “If I race too much I will be disappointed because the feeling will never be as it was, so I prefer staying with the old memories.
“I will ski quite fast, I think,” he added. “But I don’t know, I have no ambitions.”
His wife and former Norwegian national team biathlete, Grete Nykkelmo, has the lowest bib among the elite women in the 50 k state.
Caitlin Gregg: The reigning skate champion from CXC is back for more, although a week ago, it seemed uncertain whether she would be healthy enough to race. Upon coming down with a cold last weekend, Gregg skipped the SuperTour sprints in Madison, Wis.
“I think it was a good move,” Gregg wrote in an email. “That was my first weekend off since Nationals and it was very refreshing to be at home and catch up on sleep and rest.”
She stayed off her skis for a few days, which wasn’t a big deal because that’s what she would have done for a taper anyway.
“I am feeling much better now and got the OK from the doctor to get after it in the Birkie!” she wrote.
Last year’s win helped her pay off her debt from the 2010 Olympics, and she and her husband, Brian Gregg, bought their first house. Brian was eighth in the men’s 50 k skate last year.
Holly Brooks: After starting out on the World Cup for what she expected would be a six-week stint, this Alaska Pacific University coach and athlete remained with the U.S. Ski Team in Europe for about 13 weeks.
Despite breaking her wrist in the Tour de Ski and fighting a stomach bug in Russia, she kept competing. Two weeks ago, Brooks decided she had enough after she was unable to finish her first race in several years because of her illness. On Feb. 11, she bought her plane ticket for home and left the following day, a few hours after she helped the U.S. women nab a historical fifth in a World Cup relay.
Less than a week ago while in Anchorage, she signed up for the Birkie. Her husband and former U.S. Ski Team member, Rob Whitney, had already entered the 50 k skate.
“This is going to be my first domestic race of the entire season, my first race that’s not a World Cup, and so I think it’ll be really fun to mix it up,” Brooks said. “It’s different, not only doing a marathon, but going into a race where you’re like, ‘OK, I’m in contention for the podium or a win.’ ”
Three years ago, Brooks was second to Dussault in the Birkie skate race by one-tenth of a second. She figured now would be a good time to shoot for the podium again before heading to Lahti, Finland, for the World Cup next weekend.
“You get in a groove; it’s a physical groove, it’s a mental groove, and it feels good to keep racing,” Brooks said. “As long as you’re healthy, that’s a great thing to do.”
Morgan Smyth (APU) finished second to Gregg last year by three seconds. Evelyn Dong (Rossignol) was third after her pole grip slipped out of her hand and she had to ski back down a hill to retrieve it.
Nicole Deyong (Sun Valley) was fourth last year and Maria Stuber (formerly of CXC, now with Craftsbury) was fifth. Stuber rolled her ankle a few days before this year’s skate race while running in the dark, but said she would be fine to race.
Jennie Bender as the 2011 classic champion and course record holder decided to test herself in this year’s 50 k skate.
“The classic was a lot of fun,” Bender said of last year’s race. “I was really happy with how that brought me into the Midwest community, like, ‘Oh we don’t know you, but you won the classic Birkie.’ ”
While classic distance races remain her known strength, Bender tried not to downplay her potential in a marathon skate race.
“I don’t know how Saturday will go so I can’t start dismissing anything yet,” she said.
Tore Martin Gundersen: At one of the coldest Birkies on record, with temperatures around minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit last year at the start, this Norwegian said it didn’t faze him.
“That wasn’t hard at all,” Gundersen said on Thursday. “It’s a great event and doing so great, I just had to go back.”
He won the 2011 skate race by just over three seconds in 2:00.32.8.
“I think the trail suits me, it’s a very nice trail,” Gundersen said of the 50 k Birkie course, which winds through rolling forests and includes several short but steep hills. “I can go long distances and I am pretty fast in the end.”
Tad Elliott: Two years ago, Elliott was second to the man who set the Birkie course record, Fabio Santus of Italy. Santus won in 1:56.58, and Elliott was about eight seconds back.
That probably factored into his decision to fly to the U.S. earlier this week for the Birkie. His coaches and father, three-time Olympian Mike Elliott, suggested he skip the unnecessary travel and find a long race in Europe to keep him sharp during the bye week.
Elliott said he was on the fence about the Birkie, but his mom talked him into it. He said she loves the race, and he fed off her excitement.
Matt Liebsch: A week and a half ago, Liebsch wrote in a blog post that his wife, Marybeth, was on several medications and resting to recover from an injury to the back of her neck, which she suffered in the car accident.
On Friday, Liebsch wrote in an email that she had improved dramatically over the last few days and would watch him finish the Birkie. After placing ninth last year, he was focused on topping the podium.
“Birkie fever big time,” wrote Liebsch, a Midwest hero and Gear West employee who races for Team Strong Heart and Team Birkie.
Earlier this month, he won back-to-back distance races one weekend: the 32 k Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, Idaho, and then the City of Lakes 17 k loppet in Minneapolis.
Benoit Chauvet of France was last year’s runner-up by three seconds and already has two 42 k races under his belt this season. He won the Trans’ Champsaurine in early January and placed second in the White Stride in the French Alps at the end of last month. Bryan Cook (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was fifth last year while racing for CXC. Originally from Rhinelander, Wis., he relocated to North Petersburg, N.Y., last spring with Stuber, his longtime girlfriend.
Brent McMurtry and Graham Nishikawa, both Canadian Senior Development Team members, traveled from Calgary to Cable, Wis., on Thursday for their first Birkie.
“The prize money is definitely higher than all other races I have competed in beside World Cups,” McMurtry wrote in an email. “But I feel like I have a much better chance to take home some cash here compared to on the World Cup circuit.”
“I really don’t what to expect,” Nishikawa wrote. “I am just going to try a stay out of trouble and enjoy the weekend.”
Easier said than done. Lars Flora (APU) could have won the 51 k Gatineau Loppet last weekend if not for a crash that took down three of four frontrunners shortly before the finish. Adam Swank, Flora’s roommate at the Birkie and an ER doctor in Duluth, Minn., won the Canadian event. Also from Rhinelander, Swank is back for his 14th Birkie.
Meanwhile, Flora wrote in an email that he is still trying to feel his fingers “due to the worst bonk of my career” at the Teva Mountain Games two weeks ago.
“The Gatineau Loppet was a great experience,” he wrote. “Being a World Loppet, I thought it would be a great warmup for the Birkie. The whole trip (minus the fall at the end of the race) was a blast. … No big lessons, other than stay on your feet in the last few kms if you want to win.”
If you happen to miss the races starting at 8 a.m. local time (9 a.m. Eastern), check out archived videos here.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.