The following was written by Katie Miller, a former University of New Hampshire (UNH) ski racer who recently completed her first American Birkebeiner and 50-kilometer ski marathon, after registering for the race last year. That race was canceled due to low snow, but Miller returned for this year’s edition on Feb. 24. She currently lives in southern N.H. where she does her best to “juggle a full-time job as a criminal defense investigator with the desire to get outside and ski all day everyday!”
The pull of the storied American Birkebeiner brought me to register for the 2017 race. I had heard nothing but positive reviews of the Birkie. I had not even experienced the race yet and I was bummed when it was cancelled in 2017. Fast forward to 2018, my excitement level was high and my expectations of the race were all over the place. This was the largest cross-country ski marathon in North America. This was my first 50K. This was the longest race I had ever done. I had trained as much as I could while working full time. I had skied as much as I could considering the January and February thaw we experienced in southern NH. I rolled my eyes while embracing the New England weather as I ran in 70-degree weather four days before the race. And as I stood in the start pen surrounded by thousands of other people all ready to conquer the 50K it dawned on me that this was F*&%ing awesome.
Now rewind two days, getting to the race in Wisconsin made the finish line that much sweeter. Thursday morning set to travel with my parents, a.k.a. the best support crew, we left for the airport at 4 a.m. Our flight from Boston to LaGuardia went off smoothly and we landed in N.Y. with a three-hour layover ahead of us. Plenty of time to relax, have some food, and get back to the gate. With 45 minutes before our flight departed we got to the gate, sat down, and were informed our departure gate had been changed to a different terminal, forcing us to go in and out of security, again. We got through security for the second time smoothly, apart from a few expletives from my mom as she had to throw out another bottle of water and off we went on our second flight. We landed in Minneapolis at 5 p.m., picked up our bags, got our rental car, and were on our way, seemingly without hitch! After a quick dinner stop at LOLO American Kitchen (yum!) in Stillwater, Minnesota, we started the drive to Cable … in a snowstorm.
Two-and-half hours later, driving on slow, snow-covered roads in a rental car lacking the proper tires for these slippery roads, the car starts to lose power. Fifteen miles outside of Hayward, on the highway, with NOTHING in sight, a rare car passing us every few minutes. We putter along for another 5 miles as I am on the phone with the rental car’s emergency roadside assistance, a lovely woman who is struggling to figure out where we are to send a tow truck. It is 10:30 p.m. and stress levels are high in our failing rental car. We pull to the side of the road, five miles from Hayward. A few minutes later we attempt to continue driving. The power seems to have returned to the car, we can drive over 20 mph now. I feel slightly relieved, but we still have 40 miles to our cabin in Cable. Thankfully, we make it to our cabin, safe and exhausted at 11:30 p.m. I get to sleep after 12 a.m., which would be 1 a.m. in the time zone we started our travel in a long 21 hours ago. Not an ideal travel day.
Friday morning, with one day to go before the race, I wake up ready to put the long travel day behind me and get out for a ski. With six inches of new powdery snow and a questionable car, that was not going to be as easy as I planned. Luckily the car made it through the rest of weekend without a problem. I headed to Birkie Ridge for a deep powdery ski on the ungroomed trail. My ski was a mix of skating, double poling, and single sticking trying not to tire myself out in the deep snow. There were a few other skiers as I started and by the end the trail was full of people getting out and getting ready for the next days races.
Every skier I passed smiled or said hi, some asked questions about the trail (not that I knew the answers), but everyone seemed happy to just be there for the race. I skied as easy as I could in the deep snow, just happy to be skiing, anxious for the next day. I had no idea what to expect with the size of the race and the distance. It was exciting but nerve wracking. Post-ski, my parents and I had lunch at the Brickhouse Café in Cable. A friendly, delicious café with breakfast, lunch, baked goods, and coffee, I highly recommend it! With our confidence in the rental car cautiously optimistic we made our way south to the expo (and possibly my dad’s favorite part of the weekend: free stuff! When the Clif wonders why their energy gels disappeared so quickly midafternoon, I know why….). I picked up my bib, explored the expo, bought some Birkie gear, and got my new Birkie gear bag.
With each event moving closer to race time, the stress of travel and the excitement of the race was taking over. The moment we got to downtown Hayward and I climbed the stairs up the Birke bridge and looked down main street towards the finish a huge smile took over my face. I could not wait to be at the top of the bridge tomorrow during the race. Fast-forward to Saturday morning, I had checked, double checked and triple checked my backpack and gear, making sure I had everything I needed. The quality of the organization of the race and entire weekend is better than any event I have ever been to. From busing to the start, volunteers with information everywhere you look, feed stations full of volunteers handing out much needed fuel, to having a place to change after the race, it was simple and stress free. The best kind of race environment for racers and spectators alike.
Now back to the race, standing in the start pen, the excitement palpable as thousands of skiers wait to start their race journey that day. The starts guns go off, I wait for the people in front of me to move forward and off I go. The beginning kilometers of the race was a slow accordion of movement down the trail. Doubling poling being more effective, and safer for my poles, than trying spread out and skate. As the kilometers started to tick by, the crowd thinned, and the trek to Hayward was on! Three hours of skiing has never gone by so quickly. I smiled and laughed out of pure bliss the entire 50K. I laughed as I tried to open my GUs during the race without dropping them. I laughed (and tried not to fall) going around the sharp rutted corners lined with snowmobilers, the rowdy crowd cheering and waiting for people to fall. I laughed when my water bottle froze after 20K. I laughed as my quads cramped up climbing “bitch hill”. Why? Because there was a priest with a megaphone telling jokes on the hill followed by two nuns cheering.
I marveled at the beautiful skiing and the other racers that surrounded me as I skied. The feeling of cresting the top of the bridge, like Rocky at the top of the Philadelphia steps, was an indescribable feeling, one of pure joy. Looking down main street towards the finish, the street lined with cheering people, was a feeling that was worth all 50K. I skied up those last 200 meters feeling like I could take on the world. It was the most amazing, captivating race I have ever done. I’ve caught Birkie fever (caution: highly contagious) and I don’t think I’m ever going to shake it.
The love of skiing, the hard work of the Birkie organizers and amazing volunteers (and a big party…) brings all these people together and that is a special thing.
I was smiling the entire 50K and I’m still smiling a week later. I think I can speak for everyone waiting for next year’s race when I say…can we do it tomorrow?
Miller, 29, finished 15th in her age group (25-29) in 3:01:44.1 hours.