Perspectives on Birkie Race Course Strategy: Classic

David Chamberlain

The American Birkebeiner, deservedly known as the pinnacle of the ski marathon season in North America, has it all: A beautiful, often challenging and changing course mostly through the Chequamegon National Forest, a race tradition approaching 50 years, and an atmosphere its race organizers capture and enhance so well with every detail.

The Birkie has well-earned all the focus that skiers from around the world put on the event every year. But while the Skate 50K often gets most of the attention, many skiers know that the classic course provides one of the best classic ski marathon races in the world.

Love Those Parallel Tracks

My own relationship with the Birkie Classic started after my ski racing days. When I was training full time and chasing races domestic and abroad, I raced the skate marathon a handful of times, most often as a way to get entered into a race between other goals, or as an obligation to sponsors. It wasn’t until 2012, when I began working full time in the ski industry, that I raced the Birkie Classic for the first time. And I happened to win the race.

It’s part of a longer story, but I was not the deserved winner. The skier who had beaten me to the finish line in a strong sprint was later disqualified when it was revealed he hadn’t signed up for the race. In fact, had skied using another athlete’s bib. Even with the ensuing drama that incident caused, I was enchanted by the race for this fundamental reason: It’s was the best classic marathon ski course I had ever been on.

That year in 2012 we raced the morning after a snowfall and skied with tracks full of snow. Because of the slow tracks, a pack of skiers about 30 strong went through 00 together, and it wasn’t until the long gradual descents of the course leading out of 00 that the pack began to thin out a bit. It was the perfect illustration of the dual nature of the course. The first half of the race up to 00 has steady, rolling uphills, with 00 being close to the high point. The second half of the classic race shares the course with the skate race, and is a flowing net downhill to the lake. The wonder of the course includes the uphill/downhill feeling of the race, like a welcomed shadow to the natural feeling of how a 55K often gets raced for better or worse — hard charging into the first 30K and holding on for the last 25k.

However, the last half of the race is not without challenges, including Bitch Hill and the new section of the course from Fish Hatchery up to the powerline before the lake can put a skier into the red for good if not careful. But the flow of the course provides outstanding fun, and it’s to your benefit to use momentum of the downhills to better tackle and enjoy the uphills.

And, as you can do the math, the separate Birkie Classic trail, which breaks off from the skate skiers soon after the Power Line Hills, through to OO, gives you a total of 55K, start to finish, a 5K bragging right over Birkie skaters. On the classic trail, you’ll find the tracks solid and unmarred by errant skate skiers, the trail more personal-feeling, and, for the most part, far less crowded through to OO than what you would experience on the Skate trail. For your Birkie experience, you get more Birkie trail and great Birkie classic tracks. What is not to like?

Starting Out

For many years, the Birkie start was once located on a lonely snowed-in airstrip. The buses, crowds, tents, and endless stream of skiers jumping up and down and jogging all around added to the circus type environment. The skiers certainly make the atmosphere and I have seen this at races all over the world. Changes made to the Birkie start over the years, most recently the move from the Telemark airstrip up to the new Trailhead out on McNaught Road, have added to the atmosphere.

The new start captures the feeling of the old start at Telemark, a long run-out from the line before facing a wall towards the Power Lines. At my first skate Birkie, I will never forget skiing alongside veteran Olympic skier Ben Husaby as he yelled out at the base of the Power Line, “Watch out here — all hell is about to break loose!’ And it did. The classic and skate course coming together along the Power Lines gives the feeling to classic and skate skiers alike that the first of the hills of the Power Line has the ability to shake things loose. The Power Line section itself is one of my favorite spots on the course. It’s a rolling set of steep downhills flowing into steep uphills. This terrain gives the sense of riding a wave. When the skis are running and the body is feeling fresh and ready to go, the hills flow by and the Power Lines have a way of giving back energy for the rest of the race. You should try to do your best to take advantage of the downhills, to enjoy the uphills while saving energy. By the time skiers hit the end of the Power Lines, with the drums, smoke, and cheering from the enthusiastic crowd gathered there, it becomes clear that the start is over and the race is on as the trail hits the woods.

Timber Trail Through Fire Tower & OO

The first aid station is at Timber Trail, about 7.5K into the race. For this classic skier, it seems like the best one. As with all the aid stations on the classic-exclusive course, the skate and classic trails come together before again parting. Leaving the Timber Trail aid station, the classic trail gives you a long, downhill run-out downhill to the fork, where the classic trail goes left and skate trail goes right.

There is always some smoke through the trees here and the frenzy of the race is not yet to a pitch where you can’t pull in and grab a drink at a little slower pace than at later stations. This is a beautifully scenic part of the trail, showing the boreal forest character and beauty of the Chequamegon.

The rest of the trail leading up to the Fire Station hill and the High Point of the course is a series of steps. The classic skiing is perfect, just the right uphill grade for classic striding with downhill sections in between made just right for recovery. When the snow and grooming is right, there is no better feeling than these hills.

At the Fire Station hill, skiers should get ready for a series of fast downhills with some technical corners. Then from here up to 00 presents the most demanding part of the race, with a series of steep hills, including Boedecker Hill starting just before the 20K mark; it’s easy to lose count of all the coming hills. After one lung-buster is finished, there will be short recovery before the next; take advantage of these through easy but effective double-poling and comfortable tuck. The good news at this point is that the crowds and announcers at 00 will be heard before they are seen, and once the sounds are heard, an aid station is within reach. 

They’re Baaack!

Beyond 00, the classic trail merges with the skate trail. However, this doesn’t take away from the classic race. The trail is plenty wide for double tracks on the left and all the extra activity can provide some needed excitement at a point in the race when things could otherwise easily fall apart. Here you’re at a flowing part of the course with long, gradual downs and ups, and nothing too technical. But take note: even with the net downhill over this part of the course, there are demanding sections toward the end of the race, so it’s important not to go too far in the red. The good news is there is plenty of recovery on this section of trail.

For classic skiers leaving the Mosquito Brook aid station, the rise after this fast and flat portion, an approximate 1K rise of varying elevation with a couple of welcomed descents, leading to 39K Hill, gives you the chance to take advantage of all the classic techniques in your arsenal. A length of steady striding, a series of kick-double poles, and then a healthy dose or two of double poling, and you may find yourself passing your share of skate skiers and/or saving more on gas for what’s coming up next.

And so, when you first see Bitch Hill in the distance, it may appear as some sort of white wall. However, as you near its beginning after a decent downhill, by the time you reach Bitch Hill, the look of a wall gives way to a rise that, although steep, with a steady and even running stride up and over, the Bitch falls away to some nice recovery flats and gentle downhill slopes. In my opinion, the specter of Bitch Hill is worse than the real thing anyway. Don’t let it psyche you out!

Through the Fish Hatchery, the course heads out onto the new section of trail. This can be considered the pointy end of the race. Because of the all the kilometers you’ve already put in, climbs such as Sunset Hill arriving soon after leaving Fish Hatchery might seem relentless, even if they are not as steep as the hills you’ve already tackled. There is plenty of striding through these hills, and skiers who can work their way through fatigue and keep their skis moving can potentially pick up minutes on their time. It’s good to remember that the next section is Lake Hayward, a place to ease the fatigue on your legs. Yes, the lake sometimes feels like an endless stretch that may offer some head winds, but you can hear the Main Street crowd, it’s cowbells and cheers, and, most of all, there are no more hills.

Until . . .

Triumph Awaits You!

The hardest part about coming across the lake toward Hayward is resisting the urge to jump out of the tracks to join the skate packs. It’s only a few kilometers across to town, but this final part of the race can be a mental challenge. Objects in the rearview can seem closer than they appear on the lake, and the front view never-ending looking.

For this section, my best mental mindset has always been to not look back. Instead, keep your focus strong on good technique and looking forward. Also, the snow on this part of the course will always feel different and can feel draggy. This is another mental hurdle to get around; everyone else will be feeling the same way and the end of the lake eventually comes for everyone.

Everyone will experience coming off the lake, nearing the finish in their own way. And you have the International Bridge, that last climb some skiers curse while ascending while others rejoice, every one delivered down to Main Street. There, cheering crowds await, their cowbells and waving arms. You will see the finish and take it all in, perhaps letting loose your emotions. And then it’s over, but then again, it’s not. There are stories to tell, friends to congratulate, and family to hug. The cold beer and sizzling brats await you, perhaps at the Moccasin.

You, Classic Birkie skier, have earned all the good feelings of accomplishment: An extra 5K of Birkie Fever over the skaters!

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