Norway Birken Adventure - Rena to Lillehammer

Birken Norway
Rena to Lillehammer
54 KM – Elevation gain approx 3500 feet
Up to 17,000 registrations
March 21, 2015

Ann and I had planned to ski the Birkebeinerrennet (translation Birkebeiner race) for over 25 years, but we were delayed with our family and careers.  Chris Bean, Robert & Lisa Nadler are all long term ski friends from college, so when they called to finally make our trip a reality we jumped at the chance.  Some might argue that the Vasaloppet is the most historic race as it too stems from historic events in 1505 and is a huge race, however to Ann and I, the legend and incredible Birken race was always the original and the big one.   Imagine that the Boston Marathon with all its history were actually run on the plains of Marathon to commemorate Pheidippides announcing victory in Athens.  As long time skiers it was time to go. 

Legend of the Birkebeiner Race

The race has been skied since 1932 with huge numbers of Norwegians participating each year.  The race honors the 1206 rescue of and 18 month old prince Hakon from an opposing army.  Two of their best skiers are given the task of skiing the baby king to safety over the mountains in a brutal storm.  It is legend and desperate times so the exact story is probably not perfect, but it is clear that Hakon as a grown king later unites all of Norway ending 1000 years of civil war and this ushers in Norway’s medieval golden age.  The famous drawing of the skiers with shield, spear and baby child is
appropriate as they did in fact ski with one long pole which could often be used not only to ski, but also as a spear or other implement (we saw poles with ladles and many other innovations in the museum). The race now regularly draws over 10,000 with up to 17,000 start numbers.  A lot of Norwegians have now carried the baby king to safety.
You have to plan early for these big marathons.  The Vasa sold out in 83 seconds last week and we were uncertain we could get into the Birken race last spring.  However, we found a package that was a terrific location near Sjusjoen called Nordsetter with a nice lodge some logistics, 3 meals and the all important entry, so the 5 of us signed up and booked inexpensive flights.  It always seems easy when you say yes, but we knew it was going to take some planning.  It pays to be a CSU coach if you have to figure out a race of this magnitude as we know how easy it is to mess up logistics, training, health and ski racing.

We decided to stay the first day in Oslo but we should have gone earlier to watch the Holmenkollen as the world cup was in town.  Also, you can ski right from the subway with skis on the train. We did go to see the jump, ski course, museum and more as it’s unique to see a famous venue on some hills just outside of Oslo.  It is an easy subway ride from the center of town as long as you don’t mind sitting next to folks taking their skis and poles out mid day ski.  Business people yes, tourists yes, shopper of course and yes I see the wax is purple klister from the guy next to me.  The first advertisements I see as we get on to the train are about ski racing.  We are at the home of Nordic skiing.   That sort of helps as we lug huge duffle bags, ski bags and Birken packs through the various train stations.
 I have two great friends from school that I had not seen for some years.  Kjell Sobak and Don Skantze.  Kjell was a silver medalist (and 4th) in Biathlon in the Olympics and he won the Vasaloppet.  He also taught me a ton about skiing long ago when it was all a mystery. He knows exactly how to deal with young Americans who could run fast in fall XC, but were still not quite there in XC skiing.  Kjell, what do we wax?  His stock answer.  Read the tube.  We all had a terrific dinner right near the parliament and Kjell gave the 5 of us a private tour of the city which was just fun. You can see Robert and Lisa showing that these sculptures had nothing on US skiers.  From there we went by train and bus to Lillehammer, which had its own challenges even though the trains are superb.
We skied for 4 days before the race.  I realized long before the race that while we were all skiing pretty well in classic, it was not going to be my focus to shave off the last minutes in this race.  Just too many moving
parts and especially this trip was our chance to see so much  skiing and ski history in Norway.  So we skied a ton.  You can ski across these long gradual classic striding hills on perfect tracks with views and beautiful scenery literally forever.  50K, 100K, I am not sure, but I imagine there ware `1000s of Ks so ski if you’re really just kept linking up loops.  There is a GPS on every piston bully in Norway and the app shows you very efficiently what tracks were set in the last hours or days.  While you ski there are signs at each intersection that point to the next town and tell you whether there is food and they had huge maps for those of us without a clue. 
One day we skied to a town called Hornsjo and a neighboring hotel 12 km away for some hot soup and a return ski back.  We were dropped off 2 days prior to the race at the 29K mark and skied to the big ski town Sjusjoen, which sits at about 3000 feet, then up over a small windswept Mt Lunkefjell where Ann found evidence of Ski O, then back home to Nordsetter.  The day before the race we were driven back up to Sjusjoen and skied the final 13km all downhill to the Birkebeiner Stadium- the main venue for the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.  Like the uphills, the downhills are long and gradual, so it is much different from anything we ski on at home.  You must carry the baby king!  Birken requires an 8 pound pack with shirt, windbreaker, pants, hat, mittens and buff, plus whatever else makes up the weight.  Top racers get them pretty skinny, but we wanted to change clothes and carry wax and food, so our packs were a bit larger and we adorned them with various patches, while two of the packs featured dolls of the baby king. 

The big day starts with a bus pickup at about 4.30 AM as it is 2.5 hours to get around the mountains, past Lillehammer, down the Fjord (more of an inlet from the ocean vs. the huge cliffs along the coast)  in a huge line of silent early morning buses and over to the next Fjord heading to Rena.   Now we have to ski back.  The race organization is phenomenal.  We arrive in front of at least 50 swix benches, irons, waxes next to warm drinks and porridge at the venue and of course a lovely tent with a raised wooden floor.  Such luxury.  Of course we argued for days about the changing wax as it was frozen slush down low and powder over hard pack up high.  Then it snowed the night before the race, but not at the start where there is an immediate 14KM (you
reading that correctly) uphill.  Not wanting to be short of kick, we put on the lightest coat of klister possible and covered with blue and violet range stick wax.  Our mistake was both in the klister and warmer wax.  You can actually double pole in the fast frozen tracks and live pretty well for a few Ks with less kick, then go with great skis for the rest of the race which were in the highlands.  Toko green stick base binder and blue or extra blue (viola) would have been a bit better as we were a little slow on the double poling in the high dry powder, but hey with 3 giant hills (14K, 6K, 8K aka low mountains) I was happy to have kick.

Starting long after the Elite waves, we skied up the track the first K and watched the race start.  Therese Johaug (aka number 2 in the world only to Marit) immediately skis off the front and by herself sets a record. But in the men’s race Sunby admits that a non world cup skier cup skier blows his doors off double poling the entire race and leaving him by 10 seconds with 2 KM to go.  "It must have been your skis” says the announcer.  No he says, despite my kick wax, my skis were flying and I caught him on the downhills, he was just much stronger in double poling.  There are just a lot of great skiers in Norway.  We started in waves 2, 11, 13, 14 and 18.  Alas, I was stuck in 14 with Ann in wave 13 as I had skated the American Birkie last year and they discounted my 2 year old time.  At least I could ski up to Ann and say hello to someone in the race.   A quick calculation shows that the beginning of the snake was finishing before the last wave had started, so this spectacular wave of skiers was over 54 km long.  Wow.  I also calculated that if I included my wave 14, I skied past 1850 skiers and had 3 beat me from my wave and one from wave 15 so I certainly exceeded my seed if nothing else.  The rest of our team was actually placed almost perfectly which is the case for most Norwegians.  The race is 6-10 tracks wide, most of the racers are skiing technically well and all the skiers go at the same pace due to their superb seeding.  (I was the renegade
fast skier stuck back as I had not followed their seeding rules, but I just wanted to try the American Birkie skate last year).  Robin Anderson was on our plane & she was the top non elite women’s wave as they have a second top women’s start soon after the men begin.

What I most remember about the race is this vivid image of thousands of skiers winding far up these long hills in a huge snake across the open country side with bright white low mountains and unusual terrain.  It is unique site in a breathless terrain. However, it was a deceptive and exhausting race.  Maybe because I had to change tracks so much, or went a bit too hard, I had nobody to draft at my speed or it was just the long super skiable hills?  You did get some really nice long downhill rest sections and long double poles, so I was a little surprised how tired we all were going up the final climbs.  My short stops for food and drink to sneak past another 50 turned much longer munch fests at the feeds and after 35K as I was just shuffling, but my energy returned after a long flat double pole and at the end it was much easier as the last 13 K are mostly downhill sections to the finish.  I know I could have skied the race a bit faster, but it was just such an epic event with perfect weather, skiers and tracks.  My only minor complaint is that with 8755 mostly
good, aka serious racers who carry goo, they can drop a lot of goo.  I mean 10,000 goos that are mostly in the tracks!  Ouch, you get good at picking up a foot here, there and everywhere.  They have an environmental campaign to reduce litter, but it needs work. 
While endless analysis with my friends suggests a more perfected race could well have been much faster, it is not realistic to think even with my top race and the absolutely perfect luck, I could have taken more than say 10 – 20 minutes off my time.  (wax, less pre-race ski, travel, more training – less work, no drafting in the wind, endless passing, goo packs, bonking for 20 minutes, slowing down on the downhill, forgo my inhaler, did I spill jelly on my skis and maybe the sun was in my eyes).  Regardless, we all skied well, but my 2nd place in master’s nationals at Craftsbury was replaced by 268thplace in my age in the Birken and even 20 minutes faster is still a ways back.  We mostly did make the 25% age group, yippee.  Wow do they have depth.   Ann was 39th and got a mini
trophy.  I was very happy to see her finish as the final downhill was really fast, a bit icy with some ruts and you ski downhill about 4 abreast.  Ann had a partial tear of her medial collateral ligament on Jan 7, so her recovery is astounding. She was just thrilled to ski into Olympic stadium after such an epic journey and was very emotional at the finish.  You could not have asked for a nicer day and better scenery and yes I did look around a lot.  Then a bus ride took us to the famous Hakon hall Olympic hockey venue seating 11,000, showers, ski vendors and the like.  Note I
found electric braking roller skis with a trigger on you pole handle and a fold up 3 pound wax bench that would fit in a ski pole tube.   

Sunday featured another pre- 4 am wake up to make the 5:10 AM Lillehammer - Oslo airport train, but our group was still chatting about the race so the travel, though so the trip was not so bad.   I could go on with stories and details, but it is a terrific place to ski and race and I would highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.  If you are going to the Birken feel free to ask other details.

Coach Bob

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