If you’ve ever wondered what the elite wave is like compared to one of the larger later starting waves here is a crash course. A little background for context, the 2018 American Birkebeiner was my first introduction to the Birkie and the 50K distance. I started in wave 2 and paired with perfect conditions my first Birkie is by far my favorite race I’ve done. Wave 2, while crowded and congested (think penguins huddled together for warmth) for 5-10 K also lends itself to the ability to continuously catch people. Catching people is motivating and one of my favorite parts of racing. After a strong race last year in which I finished 61st for women (one spot outside the top 60 who auto qualify for the elite wave) I had to wait until the end of January 2019 to find out that my request to move up to the elite wave was granted.
I was ecstatic to get a spot in the elite wave. The excitement quickly turned to nerves and questioning whether I belonged there. Wavering back and forth between excitement and nerves was my mindset leading up to the race. While I consider myself a good skier, I do work full time, graduated from college and skiing competitively eight years ago, and usually only ski on the weekends. I was unsure what to expect in the elite wave and out of myself.
In my opinion, travel to Wisconsin went smoothly. My support team AKA the best parents ever almost missed the flight out so they might not agree with my assessment. After another narrow miss with our connection, (we were three out of the last four people to get on the plane), we successfully made it to Minneapolis. My dad chose a bright yellow Jeep Wrangler for the weekend, so if you saw an insanely bright jeep that was us! A night spent in Stillwater to break up the travel and on Friday morning we were off on the last leg of our journey to the Birkie. A gorgeous easy ski from Birkie Ridge was the perfect way to relax my pre-race nerves. Everyone was happy to be out skiing and excited for the race the next day. Comments about the perfect conditions and temperatures of Friday were mixed with some anticipation of the predicted overnight snow and warmer wet temperatures for the race on Saturday. I skied out the Birkie Ridge trail to the intersection with the Birkie trail. As soon as I stepped on the Birkie trail it was like a wave of euphoric joy and I could not wipe the huge smile off my face.
Friday afternoon consisted of a trip to the expo to pick up my bib and for my dad grabbing as much free stuff as possible. I went to get my bib and the volunteer commented that I must have been added to the elite wave late as I did not have my name on my bib. I had not realized that the elite wave was given this honor. The idea of getting my name on my bib next year stuck in my head throughout the race and added extra motivation to my goal of a top 60 finish! As I searched for my parents in the expo I was greeted with the sight of my dad, pockets bursting with stickers, Clif bars, and other goodies taking shots of maple syrup at one of the booths. At least I knew he would be energized for the rest of our day…
Fast forward to the next morning, a 5AM wake up, and eating as much oatmeal as my body could handle. Nervous excitement racing through me, double and triple checking that I had everything as I packed my bag. Truthfully, I think I checked about ten times.
It had snowed a few inches overnight and was a snowy but mild morning. The women in the elite wave and the spirit of 35 would be blazing the trail, packing down the powder for the waves behind us. The spirit of 35 comprises those skiers that completed the first Birkie in 1973. They have the honor of beginning the race first. The women’s elite wave was next to start, my wave. It’s a strange feeling to say that my wave was the elite wave, how cool is that? How nerve wracking is that?!
Rewind to a few weeks before the race and adding to my apprehension about the elite wave was breaking one of my boots and having to borrow my boyfriend’s boots for the race. Less than ideal to borrow someone else’s boots for a 50K. One more hurdle of getting sick the week before the race and my preparation leading up to the race was not exactly as I had planned. My jokes about having an actual Birkie fever were lost on my non-skiing coworkers.
When it comes down to it, everyone in the race is dealing with outside factors. It’s how you deal with them that often affects the outcome of your race, not that they are present. When it came down to it, I was still there, in the elite wave, ready for the experience. Just to be able to say that I started in the elite wave of the Birkie is an honor. I may have had to hold on for dear life when it started but at least I was there.
My nerves subsided as I walked into the start pen and the excitement of the other women in my wave was palpable, everyone smiling from ear to ear. That excitement was only heightened when we saw Kikkan Randall in the front row of the wave. The announcers acknowledged Kikkan, welcoming her to the Birkie, pumping everyone up talking about her and Jessie Diggins gold medal a year earlier. Not only was I starting in the elite wave, I was starting in the elite wave with Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall. I talked to a skier next to me, fangirling about starting in the same wave as Kikkan. As the minutes turned to seconds and the starters readied to pull up the banner, each skier came to their ready position. And just like that the elite wave was off!
It was fast from the start, I had only just said hello to the elite wave in the start pen and just like that I said goodbye. The wave took off so fast I thought Kikkan might have been showing off those gold medal sprinting skills off the line. The wave quickly spread out and down the powerlines I could see the lead women stringing out the group.
And just like that the only time I’ve ever felt “lonely” at the Birkie started. In comparison to starting in wave 2 I was skiing mostly alone and fast. Catching many other skiers and skiing in big groups was not part of my Birkie experience this year. The elite wave was a test of my mental toughness and a test of my desire to push myself for 50K. The comradery that defines the Birkie still on full display, as “lonely” as it was, I never felt a lack of support. The women I did get to ski with were motivating and we talked about how many Birkies we had done. The spectators and volunteers were as positive and numerous as I remembered from the year before. The men in the lead pack passed me approximately an hour and 10 minutes into my race. These men racing to win the Birkie made a point to cheer when they went by. The second half of the race included more of the men passing making the trail busier and adding some much-needed distraction to the race.
I think the comradery that is shared in the Birkie is easy to explain. There are skiers who blister around the course in a quick 2 hours and change and there are skiers that take 7-8 hours. Each skier ready to tackle a challenging 50+K race all with one goal, finish the race. No matter your skill or experience skiing, whether you are a professional training 500+ hours a year or someone who just learned to ski there is no guarantee when you start a 50k that you will finish. The goal of finishing a 50k is the most important goal for every skier that starts the Birkie. Everyone shares the same basic goal.
I had to fight for 50K, to push myself physically and mentally to be uncomfortable for 50K. I did not feel my best and it was as much a physical race as it was a mental race, to keep my mind engaged and talking to myself positively. I feel grateful to the few women I skied with for extended periods of time for encouraging me, letting me help pull them where I was stronger (and vice versa), and for every skier, volunteer, and spectator for pushing me all the way to downtown Hayward.
The last 15K of the race lent itself to a busier trail as the men of the elite wave continued to come through, words of encouragement shared between us, anticipation of reaching Main St. helping each skier push through the last part of the race. When I stepped off the lake I saw my mom holding a sign reading “Go Katie!” and cheering enthusiastically. This moment was extra special as my mom had missed seeing me when I skied by her last year (like I said so many people everywhere!) so we made sure that did not happen again this year! As I made my way to Main St. there was no way in the world to feel lonely, both sides of the course lined with spectators loudly letting you know how amazing your accomplishment of finishing 50+K is, no matter if you finish in 2 hours or 8 hours.
The elite wave was a challenge I cannot wait to tackle again next year. With a little time to reflect on the race, another year of Birkie experience under my belt, and the knowledge of what to expect in the elite wave I’m ready do it again. I reached my goal of finishing top 60 but I was left wanting more, so I think that means training for Birkie 2020 starts now!
Katie MIller is a former UNH skier who remains devoted the sport.