The Birkebeiner, a legendary 54 k ski race from Rena to Lillehammer in Norway, has been running for 77 years. But that doesn’t mean that every year can’t bring something new.
Last year, the Birkebeiner was canceled due to extreme weather on the mountain summits in the middle of the race course. This year, weather was perfect and the snow was faster than ever, leading to course record times being set in both the men’s and women’s races.
The men’s race was won in 2:19:28 by Petter Eliassen, who also made history in another way: the Norwegian racer, representing team LeasPlanGo, also went without kickwax. It was the first time the race has ever been won on skis without grip, and probably among the first times such an attempt was even made.
“I was very unsure whether I would go without or with kick wax,” Eliassen told Norwegian broadcaster E24 after the finish. “But after talking with the guys on the team, we agreed that I would do it. It’s how I have been training all year.”
While other marathons such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden or the Marcialonga in Italy are routinely won on skate skis, or classic skis with only glidewax, the Birkebeiner is different. It gains 600 meters, or nearly 2000 feet, of altitude from the start to the high point at 34 k into the race, and the total climb is even greater than that because of a substantial descent from 19 to 27 kilometers which racers then must climb up from again.
Yet despite lacking kick wax and having to double pole the entire race, Eliassen still had the upper body strength at the end to beat out fellow Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby by 10 seconds. John Kristian Dahl placed third, another five seconds back.
Eliassen built up a lead descending from Sjusjøen, but Sundby and Dahl caught back up to him and forced an exciting finish.
“It is quite special and very fun to win the Birken,” Eliassen told E24. “It’s a great, traditional race… It was a good race. We were a nice group that went along together the entire race.”
Sundby, who just finished up the World Cup season with the overall title, said he has a lot to learn for these long marathon races with such huge fields. He also said he’s still recovering, in some sense, from the illness that knocked him out of the first week of racing at World Championships back in February.
“I’m in good shape, but have not gotten myself up again,” he told Aftenposten. “I’ve tested a bit lately, and is quite far from where I am at my best.”
Beating the reigning World Cup champ does not tempt Eliassen to return to shorter distance racing, however. A former national team member, he finished World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden, last year in eighth place. Then he shifted his focus, and it has paid off. He won the König Ludwig Lauf in Germany and the Vasaloppet in Sweden as well as the Birkebeiner this season.
“Now it’s long races that appeal to me,” he told Aftenposten. “That’s what I like and what suits me, and so I enjoy it very well with the team.”
In the women’s race, Therese Johaug competed in the Birkebeiner for her first time and won it handily; her time of 2:41:46 was also a course record. She broke the previous record by five minutes.
“It was a fantastic trip over the mountain,” she told NRK. “What a mood! It could not have been better with these surroundings. It was incredibly fun to dabble in Birken. It has been a dream since I was a little girl.”
Johaug is coming off of a successful World Cup season, including victories in both the 15 k skiathlon and the 30 k mass start classic competitions at World Championships. Like Sundby, she raced for Team United Bakeries at the Birkebeiner.
Austria’s Katerina Smutna was the runner-up in 2:44:27, and Seraina Boner of Switzerland placed third two seconds behind her.
Holly Brooks, an Alaskan racing for Team Santander, finished 11th in 02:58:25. Robyn Anderson of Stowe Vermont and VTXC finished in 3:16:00. Christina Turman, the interim head coach of the University of Alaska Fairbanks ski team, finished in 3:35:14.
The top Canadian result went to Brian McKeever, who finished in 2:34:39, good for 58th place in the elite wave. McKeever is a member of Canada’s Para-Nordic World Cup team and his guide, Erik Carleton, placed 110th in 2:41:11. Ian Murray of Rocky Mountain Racers crossed the line just over a minute later to place 121st in 2:42:27, while Philip Shaw of Club Ski Rosemère finished in 3:00:18.