The Birkie Dozen

Cross-country skiers share the 12 secrets of a successful Birkebeiner race

Oct 28, 2011
Outside Magazine

The final sprint    Photo: Darlene Prois

Cross-country skiing distances of more than ten miles demands two things: endurance and skill, the primary element of which is balance. Successfully skiing the Birkie on your first try takes one more thing: insider knowledge. Lucky for you, we’ve assembled advice from a crew of veterans to get you to the finish line as quickly and as comfortably as possible.

1. Sweat the Technique
Since 2008, the Birkebeiner has been divided into two races according to different cross-country skiing techniques, the classic and the skate. Each race starts off on a separate course, then they come together about halfway through. Classic skiing uses a walk/run motion while skating uses one similar to rollerblading or rollerskating.

The best way to test the techniques is to take at least one trip to the snow before the race. Two or three days will allow you to break in your equipment and get comfortable moving on skis. If that’s not possible, and you’ve never cross-country skied before, Pierce recommends the classic technique, which has the motto, “If you can walk, you can ski.” Ned Zuelsdorff agrees. “If you bonk, it might be a little bit easier to move forward if you’re classic-skiing.”

Pierce’s plan incorporates activities that closely mimic snow technique, including roller skiing, ski walking and bounding, double-poling machines, and running. He also recommends checking in with a coach who can instruct you on basic technique and movement patterns. To learn more about the classic technique, check out this video. Curious about skate skiing? Watch this video to learn more.

2. Choose Wisely
“Make sure you get a pair of skis that fit you,” says Caitlin Gregg, 2011 female skate champion and course record holder. Cross-country skis come in different lengths and flexibilities, so your height and weight will factor into your selection. Hit up a local ski shop or check out Boulder Nordic Sport online. Recreational ski packages at Hayward’s New Moon Ski Shop, which include wood-core classic skis, poles, and boots, start at $278, while a pair of carbon skate skis could run you up to $600. Don’t want to buy? Reserve rental equipment in advance at Riverbrook Bike and Ski, located about eight miles from the race start.  

3. Practice, Practice, Practice
“Most of the racers are mountain bikers, road cyclists, kayakers—they compete in other sports and don’t ski train,” says Pierce. “But if you haven’t ever skied before, chances are you won’t make the cutoffs.” If you live in Florida and this will be your first race, don’t worry. Our 16-week training plan will give you the ski-specific strength and endurance necessary to finish. Just don’t expect to take off like a pro your first time around.  

Practice by following the technique-specific workouts in the training plan, including running with poles. Arrive two days before the event to try out your equipment and technique. (Note: If your Birkie training doesn’t go as planned, you can enter the 23K Kortelopet or the 12K Prince Haakon races instead. There’s also a kids’ race, the Barnebirkie, so you can bring the family.)

4. Save the Date
If you’re not within driving distance, fly into Minneapolis-St. Paul, located about three hours from the race start in Cable, then rent a car. Use this link for discounted rates through Avis. Make sure to book your lodging as early as possible, as this event sells out hotels within a 50-mile radius of Cable and Hayward. Telemark Resort, located at the race start, is a good option.

5. Wax On
“If you’re racing the classic, and your skis start slipping because you don’t have good kick wax, that is the worst,” says Jennie Bender, 2011 female classic champion and course record holder. We know. You’re wondering what the heck kick wax is. Start studying wax by going online to Boulder Nordic Sport's wax guide or by attending a wax seminar at Hoigaard’s ski shop on your way out of Minneapolis. Listen to what the race organizers recommend at bib pick-up for any last minute wax tweaks.

6. Arrive Early
“There are long lines for the bathrooms on each floor of Telemark Lodge,” Bender said. “People are just frantic.” Plan to get to the race site an hour before the start to take care of bathroom business, orient yourself, and stay warm in the lodge.

7. Think Before You Start
“Racers often worry that they’ve forgotten something or stress over their wax,” said Zuelsdorff. Don’t worry if you accidentally miss your wave because you were putting your extra warm clothes in a drop bag or waiting in the bathroom line. Your time won't begin until you cross the start line, Zuelsdorff says.

8. Layer, Layer, Layer
Start with long underwear, and steer clear of cotton. “Definitely put money into something that won’t get wet right off the bat,” says Bender. Wool or polyester works well. On top of that, wear ski tights or pants and a jersey. Zuelsdorff says most racers wear either a cycling or ski jersey. Top if off with a hat or Buff headwear, glasses or ski goggles, and gloves. If it’s really cold, as it has been the past few years, toss hand warmers in your gloves and toe warmers in your boots, and consider a jacket or windbreaker. Remember: you can always take something off, but you can’t put something on that you didn’t have to start with.

9. Pace Yourself
Coach Pierce advises you to start easy for the first 15K, then keep it steady for the next 15K. “The last 11 to 15K is where the race starts and where your real work begins,” Pierce says. “You will want to have a fair amount of reserves left for the last 11K.” In that last 11K, there are five climbs, the second of which is the legendary Bitch Hill. At about 200 meters long, it’s the shortest of the five, but its 14 percent incline makes it the steepest.

10. Be Patient and Stay Positive
“Skiing is a lot like golf,” Pierce says. “A lot of people just go out and do it, but it’s a highly complex sport that requires the skill of full-body coordination.” Just like you probably won’t hit a hole in one without spending time at the driving range, don’t expect to crush this course your first time around on endurance training alone.

“A high percentage of this race is mental,” says Juergen Uhl, 2011 male classic champion. “Everybody, especially the first time, has a part where it’s like, ‘Ugh! I’m never gonna be able to do it.’” Take solace in knowing that more than 9,000 other people are suffering with you, and think about a dry phrase to crack at the end as you sip that first beer with your peers.

11. Make Friends
“Skiing is kind of like riding your bike—there’s a lot to be said for drafting,” Pierce says. Make friends so that when you get to Hayward Lake, you can take turns pulling each other into the wind. Rotate a new leader every 30 seconds and you’ll get across the lake to the finish chute faster than if you go it alone. Just don’t be a drag. Drafting without taking a pull or silently tucking in behind another skier is bad form.

12. Enjoy the Race
“It’s so refreshing to go into a race that you’ve never done before,” says Bender, who won the classic race and set a new course record—on her first try. There are no expectations, so you can just enjoy it. Next time, you can start boasting about wave placement like the Birkie vets. The lower your wave number, the higher your pre-race bragging rights.