NORWEGIAN BIRKEBEINER RACE REPORT – RUNE HARKESTAD March 24, 2017
Every race has its own unique challenges, be it waxing conditions at Gunnar Hagen or surviving the cold in Wisconsin (in normal years, that is), but few have as many challenges as the Norwegian Birkie. With its big elevation changes, usually quite different snow conditions throughout the race, and not the least the logistics, a successful race largely depends on how well these challenges are handled.
This year I decided to get to Norway almost two full weeks in advance of the race to have ample time to adjust to the time zone, get some quality skiing in, and get a real good handle on the various challenges (work is totally overrated).
This also gave me time to do the half Birkebeiner, 6 days prior to the real deal, as well. I totally lucked out this year and got to stay in my childhood friend’s brand new cabin at the top of Mosetertoppen, basically 50 meters to walk and I was right at the start of a 600-kilometer network of groomed trails, at 900 meters above sea level; couldn’t be better!
Skiing the days before the half Birkie was superb, with blue kick wax and sunny days.
The half Birkie starts up at Sjusjoen, goes in a 14 k loop in gentle terrain up at the mountain before descending down to the Birkie stadium for a total of 28k. I had skied the course a few days before and with only gentle hills, I figured if there ever is a double pole course manageable for Master skiers, this is it.
There were just shy of 1,000 skiers in the race, self seeded in 8 waves, and I got a start position towards the end of the first wave. I had seen from the times last year that this race attracts a lot of really fast young skiers, this year no exception, and the pace from the start was blistering fast. I used my Madshus Propulsion skies (double pole skis) for the first time and they were excellent! I could probably have done a better job tactically and made sure I was in a large group farther up in the wave from the start. Instead I ended up just 20 seconds off a large group for most of the race before descending down the mountain, and with a gap behind me, no advantage of drafting in a group. Nonetheless, a fast and good race, 1 hour and 15 minutes which gave me an 8th in the 50 – 59 age group. The winner of the age group: 1 hour and 7 minutes, ridiculously fast!
Now on to the big race, with 6 days to rest and time to do some more skiing.
The temperatures are changing quickly in mid-March and the sun is all of a sudden having a real effect during the days, glazing and melting the snow in places; with that, it was time to pull out the klisters which we love so much.
The Swix wax report was still largely based on ice klister covered with hard waxes. Zach Caldwell skied the course the day before the race, testing a lot of different waxes, and his conclusion was to use one of the universal klisters, with Rex Gold having the best result. So when I picked up my skis from the local ski shop, who did the glide waxing, I became the proud owner of a brand new tube of Rex Gold, a wax I had never heard of before.
Augustina came and joined me 5 days before the race and our plan was that she would take me to the start area in Rena where I had rented a room for the night at a local farm within walking distance to the start. Looking at the map, Augustina just couldn’t believe how far it is to drive from Lillehammer to Rena, relative to the skiing distance. Add in Friday night traffic and her round trip to Rena and back was about 7 hours! Staying at the farm house was a really good move and for the first time, I actually slept the night before; sure beats a 3-hour bus ride at 4 am!
There is something nerve-wracking about a 54 k race climbing 3 mountains on kick wax you have never tested, but that is the way it goes. I have learned that testing at the start is meaningless; the warm-up tracks have no resemblance to the conditions up the course, so I just headed to the start and put my skies down. I skied out of wave 3, which actually turned out really well. I was able to be in the top 20 or so out of the gate and had plenty of room around me to quickly settle into a rhythm and ski relaxed on what turned out to be an excellent kick; thank you Zach!
My first split, after 9k of climbing, was 31st in the age group, and I was now starting to catch lots of wave 2 skiers on the uphills, which continued for the first 14k. The weather was gorgeous with sun, light wind, and anywhere from -2 C at the start to -6C up in the mountains. Zach cautioned me that the skis that I chose were too flat to carry speed with klister wax and that turned out to be true, but those were the best I had in my travel bag so that’s what it is. Every downhill I lost places, relative to skiers around me, and gained on the uphills. My next splits were 47th in the age group, then 42nd after a series of climbs, and 55th at the finish (850 skiers in the 50 – 54 group), with the last 14k pretty much straight downhill skiing.
All in all, though, I had a really good race where most everything worked out perfectly well. I finished in a time of 3 hours and 11 minutes, and to give some perspective of how tight it is, there were 14 skiers within one minute just ahead and behind me on the result list! My goal was top 30 in the age group; I didn’t quite make it, but seeing the splits, I know that a top 30 is within reach and I’m already looking forward to next year!