New snow makes for a slower Birkie … but it sure beats the alternative
Cross country skiing
By Mike Ivey
After 30 Birkies, I have learned one very important lesson: if the course is slow don’t try to go fast.
And with several inches of new snow on the ground and temps climbing toward 30 degrees on Saturday, it was clear from the start line that the 45th edition of the American Birkebeiner was not a day for any personal records.
Even the elite skiers found the going slow. The winning time in the men’s 50-kilometer skate race by Akeo Maifeld-Carucci of Bozeman, Montana, was 2 hours, 12 minutes – over 10 minutes off the winning time last year.
Women’s winner Alayna Sonnesyn from the Twin Cities finished in 2:34, some 11 minutes off the 2018 pace.
Olympic Gold Medalist Kikkan Randall finished 12th overall in the women’s skate race in 2:48, winning her 35-39 age group after being diagnosed with breast cancer in June.
And last remaining “Birkie Founder” Ernie St. Germaine of Hayward kept his 45-year streak alive, finishing the classic in 6:19, 35th out of 57 men in the 70-74 group. Good stuff, Ernie.
My personal “go-slow” strategy paid off, as I passed lots of tiring skaters in the second half of the race when things really started to get sticky.
While the days of skiing a sub-three-hour Birkie are probably over, I was still pleased to slide up a few spots in the 60-64 age group in 3:26 with no crashes, cramping or other issues.
Fast skis helped, too, proving another Birkie truism: you can’t use too much Jetstream. But with a ban looming on the fluorinated ski waxes because of environmental health concerns, the days of buying a bit of speed might be numbered. That could make my old wax box even more valuable.
Classic skiers had a rougher ride Saturday. After near-perfect conditions Friday for the Korteloppet and Prince Haakon, the fresh snow for the epic 55-kilometer “true Birkie” tested the most seasoned participant. Soft kick waxes were icing up and the tracks deteriorated to the point where many elite classic racers discovered the skate lane was actually better.
Even the new “skin skis” that are all the rage these days didn’t save the day for Pete Anderson of Madison, who counts 32 finishes in America’s largest cross country ski race.
“I did my first waxless Birkie on skin skis and found them less than wonderful,” said Anderson. “Glide was as good as anybody’s but the kick was only so-so. I can usually make marginal wax work by really jumping on them, but that’s not as effective with skins apparently.”
Aside from waxing issues and a slow course, the biggest gripe I heard Saturday revolved around the changing tents at the finish line in Hayward. Skiers looking to get out of their sweaty boots and into a dry set of clothes had to stand around on a muddy gravel floor waiting for a chair to open up.
Birkebeiner director Ben Popp heard the same complaints and admitted the changing situation was “less than ideal.” But he said the adjacent middle school building used in the past is simply not large enough to accommodate the thousands of finishers.
“We’re going to take a look at it for next year, but the idea is to keep skiers moving along and get them into the hot soup tent as quickly as possible,” he said. “If you wanted seats for everyone, it would need to be two blocks long.”
Popp added that few of the other Worldloppet citizen ski marathons offer any heated indoor changing areas at the finish line and either bus skiers to another location or let them go “au natural” post-race.
Personally, I got no problem showing off the beer belly in public but at least give me a place to sit down to take off the wind briefs.
Either way, I’ll surely be back for the 2020 Birkie Feb. 22. Until then, race organizers are busy getting ready for the Fat Bike Birkie coming up March 9, billed as the largest fat bike race in the world.
No waxing worries for that one, but a big snow dump on race day would leave skiers chuckling for sure.
Editor’s note: Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison.