This past weekend American Trail Running Association Director of Marketing Richard Bolt travelled to Hayward, Wisconsin to participate in the largest cross country ski race in North America – the Slumberland American Birkebeiner. With over 13,000 skiers and an estimated 30,000 spectators, “Birkie” weekend has grown from humble roots when in 1973 Tony Wise and 35 intrepid skiers clad in woolen sweaters and knickers raced 50-kilometers from Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward to Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wisconsin. In 2018 cross country ski racers from around the world gathered in this rural corner of Northern Wisconsin named the #1 cross country ski destination in 2016 by USA Today.
In addition to the ski races, The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation hosts March fat bike and September trail running races. Last September’s Birkie Trail Run was also the USATF Half Marathon Trail Championships; an event attended by ATRA Executive Director Nancy Hobbs and Richard Bolt.
There were events for all ages and ability levels starting with kids races, a ski with your dog event, adaptive ski events, the 25 km Korteloppet and ending with the premier races – the 50 km freestyle and 55 km classic Birkebeiner. The American Birkebeiner is also part of the 2018 Worldloppet circuit of 20 international ski marathons and part of the American Ski Marathon series of 13 races.
Back on snow for the first time since New Years day, ATRA’s Bolt arrived in Hayward 2 days before the big race to pick-up his bib and experience the famous Birkie Expo; an indoor vendor fair with manufacturers showing off the latest skis, poles, boots, wax, tuning equipment and nutrition products. Birkie participants can also get their skis waxed by one of several expert vendors who will prep and deliver their finished skis at the race start on Saturday morning.
The 29 km Korteloppet took place on Friday on a course with 8 to 10 inches of fresh snow. Starting from the OO Trailhead the 3000 “Korte” skiers also skied over frozen Lake Hayward, crossed the Birkie Bridge and finished on Main Street. While Korte skiers battled the fresh powder, Bolt hunkered down at the Birch Point Lodge with 2012 Birkie winner Tad Elliot, ATRA member Ragnar Trail employee Josh Korn and “KJ” – Josh’s college friend and rep for Start Ski Wax, Lill Sport gloves, Blitz eyewear and other cross country ski products. Thanks to the hook-up from KJ, Bolt got expert wax recommendations and spent 2 hours applying, scraping and brushing is skis. With fresh snow and overnight temperatures around the zero the wax of the day was 2 layers of Start graphite BWG, 2 layers of Start blue high fluor HF8 and finished off with Start fluor SFR75.
On race day Bolt, Elliot, Korn and KJ awoke before sunrise to fuel-up, coffee-up and pile into the rental SUV for the 30 minute drive on snowy backroads to the start in Cable. Thanks to Elliot’s elite status parking pass, team Birch Point Lodge got a spot just a couple hundred yards from the start line and didn’t have to make the journey on the expertly organized conveyer belt of school buses pouring in from remote parking areas.
To accommodate so many racers in different events and ability levels, the Birkie organizes athletes into waves. There are a total of 17 waves (!!!) for Saturday’s races including waves for elites, 70+ athletes, skiers who have done 20+ Birkies (Spirit of 35) and numbered waves from 1 to 7. Placement in numbered waves is based on prior years results with new Birkie skiers getting seeded into wave 7. While Elliot and Korn were comfortably situated in the elite wave, Birkie newbie Bolt had to wait for wave 2 starting 25 minutes after the fast boys. According the Bolt, “I was pretty excited when race director Kristy Maki generously elevated me up to the wave 2, but once the race started the traffic was still intense”. “In spite of the 30+ foot wide trail, I knew pretty quickly that it was going to be a lot of work to move up thru the field”, said Bolt.
The first 11.8 km of the race features multiple steep uphills and long trains of athletes skiing on the trail from edge to edge and tip to tail. Passing is only really possible on the few flats and downhills as the course climbs to the 1772′ high point, 300′ above the start line. Also at the Fire Tower high point is the first of 4 transponder arches recording as skiers pass and transmitting information back to the Birkie’s live race timing website. Fans can follow their favorite skiers progress again at 20.9 km (Highway OO), 36.2 km (Mosquito Brook Rd), 47.2 km (Lake Hayward) and of course the Main Street finish line in Downtown Hayward.
“I knew generally what kind of course profile to expect”, said Bolt, “but having been 23 years since I last skied the Birkie trail it was surprising how sharp and steep some of the uphills were”. Bolt raced the 1995 U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships which were held on an out & back section of the Birkie trail when the original venue pulled out due to low snowfall.
Since athletes in different waves wear different colored bibs, it’s pretty easy for skiers to know who they are racing head to head. Catching bibs from waves that start ahead can be motivating but watch out, when a skier from the wave behind flys by skiers know they just lost 5 minutes to the passing skier. “At 20 km I thought my race was going pretty well” said Bolt, “it was hard work and I was passing a lot of wave 2 skiers but suddenly a wave 3 skier flew by like I was standing still”. “I checked results after the race and that guy ended up 125th overall which means he literally passed all 500 skiers in wave 2 and a lot of wave 1 skiers” according to Bolt.
Another unique Birkie feature are the huge well stocked and volunteer filled aid stations. With so many skiers coming in for aid there are dozens of volunteers passing an assembly line of water cups and food to tired and hungry skiers. Several of these aid stations are organized around permanent buildings purpose built for the Birkie and at the height of the race resemble busy highway rest stops on fourth of July weekend – controlled chaos.
“Taking advice from Josh, I elected to carry my own water and gels so I could ski through the aid stations and avoid the traffic jams” said Bolt. “In hindsight it was a good idea and definitely saved time”.
After 47.2 km of wide rolling trails through the Wisconsin forests the course goes onto frozen Lake Hayward. “It was amazing”, said Korn, “I’ve almost never had a tailwind on Lake Hayward”. 12 time Birkie veteran Korn later explained that a strong headwind is not uncommon on Lake Hayward and sometimes athletes even have to ski around puddles or thru ankle deep slush.
“I was feeling really good when we hit Lake Hayward” said Bolt, “With less traffic during the send half of the race I was able to speed up and ski at my own pace”. “I also knew I was way ahead of my goal time of 3 hours” said Bolt, “glancing at my watch coming off the lake it appeared a sub 2:50 might be possible”. At 300 meters to the finish skiers charge up the temporary Birkie Bridge, a 30 foot wide wooden structured spanning 4 lanes of traffic on Highway 63. After the preceding 2 km of flat, the bridge is skiers last cramp inducing challenge before sprinting down Main Street with crowds of fans packing the sidewalks, yelling and swinging cowbells.
Once over the finish skiers were awarded a finishers medal customized to the number of times they’ve finished the Birkie. Bolt picked up his first time finisher medal while Korn still needs to ski 7 more Birkies before he’s eligible for the “Spirit of 35” wave. “I had a great time at my first Birkie” said Bolt, “While I was pleased to finish with a respectable time I now know what I need to do to get faster. Who knows, maybe even qualify for the elite wave”.
Birkie finishers with mountain & trail running experience include multiple Olympic cross country skier Kris Freeman who was 23rd place (2:03:45). Kris is a native of Northern New Hampshire and has raced the iconic Mt Washington Road Race – 7.6 miles, 4200′ of climb. Boulder, Colorado’s Adam St Pierre is a trail running regular and finished 116th at the Birkie in 2:28:04. Ladia Albertson-Junkens from Issaquah, WA finished 15th at the 2015 World Mountain Running Championships contributing to the women’s team bronze medal and a Birkie ski veteran who also raced in the 2017 Birkie Trail Run. Showing true cross-over talent, Duluth resident and elite skier Brian Gregg finished 9th (1:18:17) at the 2017 Birkie Trail Run and 22nd (2:03:30) at last weekend’s 50K freestyle race.
Tad Elliot made several aggressive moves late in the race to break up a lead pack of 30 skiers but ended up in 20th place (2:03:12) just 43 seconds behind winner Anders Nostdahl Gloersen from Norway. Tad is retiring from ski racing after this season to go back to school and plans to avoid trail running.
Wisconsin native Josh Korn finished in 53rd place in 2:19:08 as his number 1 fans mom & dad watched from the deck of the Angler’s Bar and Grill. Josh previously worked for American Trail Running Association member Salomon and is an avid trail runner.
Almost exactly 20 years after retiring from cross country ski racing Richard Bolt finished is first Birkie in 380th place (2:50:39). Prior to getting a real job, Richard chased the powder, racing in the 1992, 1994 and 1998 U.S. Olympic Cross Country Skiing Trials and represented the United States at the 1993 World University Games in Zakopane, Poland. Richard currently works as the Director of Marketing for the American Trail Running Association and leads elite American mountain & trail runners to World Championship competitions. Richard uses skis and boots from ATRA member Salomon and poles from ATRA member Leki USA.