Each year, leading up to the third week in February upward of 11,000 people get sick. It isn’t a sickness that would cause a widespread panic, but rather one thousands of Midwesterners actually looked forward to each year, and it’s called Birkie fever.
The 42nd running of the American Birkebeiner takes place Saturday, starting in Cable, Wis., and ending some 30 miles (or 50-plus kilometers) south in Hayward, Wis. The race filled up in November, with all 10,500 allotted entries accounted for before the first of the year. In total, 10,517 skiers from 18 countries were registered for the three Saturday races, almost 7,000 of them are entered in the 51 k skate race. That’s a big change from 1973, the first time the Birkie was held. Back then, there were 34 men and one woman as race participants.
The race course has gone through several changes since 1973, from the direction skiers raced to the length of the race. This year’s race has a few changes that will add a some interesting twists. For one, the race is longer. The classic race is now 55 k and the skate race now 51 k. The extra distance was due to a relocation of the final aid station and the extension of the finish line, pushing it farther down Main Street.
The biggest change that has garnered some of the most attention is the new bridge the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) finished assembling on Wednesday over Highway 63, a kilometer from the finish.
The International Bridge adds no length to the race, but it does add a 17-vertical-foot hill before the finish. Previously, once skiers were five kilometers from the finish, it was a flat ski to Main Street. The new manmade hill adds a 10-percent climb to legs that already have some 50 kilometers of climbs in them.
This isn’t the first time the International Bridge has been a fixture on the Birke course. In the late ’70s and early ’80s when the race finished at the Telemark Resort in Cable, the bridge was the last hill skiers needed to climb before they finished. The temporary bridge is 100-feet long and spans 30 feet over the highway.
The bridge was needed to eliminate the traffic congestion problems the race brought during the weekend. Funding for the ramp and other changes is a part of phase one of the ABSF’s multiple-year fundraising program.
Birkie Draws FIS Marathon Cup Contenders
The past two years, the Birkie has been a part of the FIS Marathon Cup, a season-long international competition that crowns a winner with the highest points after a series of races of 42 k or farther. This means it attracts some of the world’s best long-distance racers and this year’s women’s field is a reflection of that. In the elite wave, the top four women in the FIS Marathon Cup are entered: Tatjana Mannima of Estonia, American Holly Brooks, Aurelie Dabudyk of France, and Antonella Confortola of Italy. Confortola finished second in last year’s Birkie.
Brooks was leading the FIS Marathon Cup, but skipped last week’s stop at the Tartu Marathon in Estonia to head to Hayward to prepare for the Birkie.
“I’m really excited for this year’s Birkie,” Brooks wrote in an online message this week. “It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been here and it’s great to be back — both at the Birkie and on ‘home soil!’
“I’ve been bouncing from country to country racing marathons and I decided last fall that I would spend two weeks here in Hayward,” she explained. “I have great friends that I’m staying with and it feels fabulous to be in a house [rather than a hotel].”
Coming into the race, Brooks ranks second in the overall FIS Marathon Cup standings, just seven points behind Mannima. Brooks won the Birkie in 2012 and knows the course well.
“I‘ve seen the whole thing start to finish… both at distance pace and race pace. That’s more than I can say for some of the courses I’ve raced this winter!” Brooks wrote. “Not sure how much of a true advantage it gives me but it puts my mind at ease a bit. I know where people including myself have made moves.”
Two year ago at the Birkie, Mannima lost a photo finish and placed second to three-time Birkie champion Caitlin Gregg, who is currently in Sweden representing the U.S. at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun. American Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) finished third in 2013 and seventh last year, and could prove to be a threat in this year’s elite race.
In an email on Wednesday, Patterson wrote that she was looking forward to skiing part of the Birkie trail on Thursday, refreshing her memory “of some of its notable features, and seeing the new bridge and finish line if possible.
“My preparations have been going well — mostly I’ve been focused on recovering after recent Craftsbury Supertours, building up my energy, and actually keeping my training skis pretty short and easy,” she explained. “At this point in the season I have to trust the endurance and fitness I’ve built up during the past year, and mostly just stay sharp and excited for the race, which I most certainly am!”
In terms of her goals and expectations for Saturday’s race, Patterson felt anything was possible.
“The past two years of racing the Birkie have taught me that it’s a race in which you have to test your limits but where you never quite know what will happen, where you must always be thinking quickly and ready to react throughout all 50+k,” she wrote. “I believe that I’m in very good shape, so my goals are to trust my fitness, ski with confidence and enjoyment of the sport… and to make it onto the podium!”
“I’ve seen the whole thing start to finish … I know where people including myself have made moves.” — Holly Brooks on her Birkie advantage
The men’s field is also competitive. Most of the FIS Marathon leaders didn’t race last weekend’s Tartu Marathon to fly to the U.S. to prepare for the Birkie. Overall FIS Marathon Cup leader Petr Novak of the Czech Republic is racing along with France’s Benoît Chauvet, who sits in second place, only 85 points behind Novak. Second-and-third place finishers from last year’s Birkie, Simone Paredi and Sergio Bonaldi of Italy, are also listed to start. Bonaldi won the Birkie in 2013.
For the U.S., Birkie winners Tad Elliott (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Elite) and Matt Liebsch (XC United/Team Strong Heart) will be racing, along with 2014 U.S. Olympian Brian Gregg. Elliott won in 2012 and Liebsch took first in 2009.
This trio has had a pretty intense history in the Birkie. When Elliott won in 2012, Liebsch placed second and Gregg took third. The difference between first and third was only 14.8 seconds.
In a phone interview, Liebsch mentioned how team tactics played a part in previous Birkies, but that would not be the case this year.
“In the past, you would have these teams come over with five or six guys and it would essentially be like a cycle race,” Liebsch said. “The fast sprinters would just sit in the back while his teammates did all the work up front setting the pace and sending guys off the front to disrupt the flow of the race. This year is a little different because there aren’t the multiple-person teams.”
Liebsch added that the style of racing here is different than at European marathons.
“In Europe, the pace is extremely fast due to the fact that teams have ten or eleven guys,” he said. “Here in the United States, the pace is slower and many of the Europeans don’t like that pace so they would send guys off the front if the pace got to slow.
“Most of the European guys are here to get FIS points to improve their standings for the overall FIS Marathon Cup title,” he added.
Chauvet is currently second in the overall FIS Marathon Cup and has the biggest team entered in the Birkie with four total teammates, while the overall leader, Novak will race solo.
“The strategy for most of the European guys will be to stay up front, in the top eight, get points and then head back to Europe,” Liebsch said. “This could really help out the fast American guys like Tad, Brian, me and Lex [Treinen] because the pace won’t be crazy fast like most European races can be.”
In an email, Treinen predicted that U.S. guys would have a good showing: “Matt looks like he’s in good shape and he and [Brian] Gregg would love to take home a Midwest victory here,” he wrote. ” … I have been training specifically for the Birkebeiner for at least two weeks and I even did some intervals recently, so I feel like I am in better shape than ever before.”
Elliott has spent some time in the Midwest and won last month’s Seeley Classic race that was held on the Birkie course.
“I am excited to race the Birkie,” Elliott wrote in an email. “It will be three years since I last raced here! I am looking forward to a great event. I have had some health issues again sneak in this last month, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve. My twin brother is also my wax tech coming with me from Colorado. Hoping [he] can keep me in the race this year!”
The biggest factor going in the weekend is the weather. There was a concern of a lack of snow but over the last few weeks the area has gotten enough snow to make the course set up nicely for the race. The wind and cold temperatures are an immediate concern. On Tuesday, organizers canceled Thursday’s elite sprints because of the predicted well-below-zero temperatures at the scheduled start time. Early predictions show Saturday morning’s temperatures to be around 4-degrees Fahrenheit.
The Birkie can been viewed live on Saturday, starting at 8 a.m. Central time, via the race organizer’s live stream (http://new.livestream.com/xcountrylive/birkie). Follow athletes via the Birkie’s live athlete tracker and check FasterSkier for a post-race recap.