Perspectives on Birkie Race Course Strategy: Skate

Perspectives on Birkie Race Course Strategy: Skate - Gear West

Ali Parsons & Corey Towle

Editor’s Note: Ali and Corey met during their first Birkie weekend in 2014 as novice skiers who barely made it to the start lines of the Korte and Prince Haakon. Catching Birkie Fever, they completed their first skate marathons in 2015 and got engaged on Birkie weekend in 2016. Corey is now a six-time Birkie finisher with three elite wave placements. Ali has completed five Birkies, moving up waves and chasing that elusive women’s elite cutoff. When Corey’s not skiing, he’s equipping others for skiing, biking, and running adventures as a manager at Gear West, and coaching Nordic skiing at Mound Westonka High School. Ali frequently benefits from Gear West expertise, which helps fuel her cycling and skiing passions, although she’ll never be a wax nerd like Corey. 

Start to Timber Trail (7K): Corey

The start of the American Birkebeiner is a spectacle, a seething mass of skiers streaming onto a snowy Nordic superhighway into the northern Wisconsin woods. In the faster waves of the Birkie skate race, the start can get unruly as skiers jostle for position. Broken poles, stepped-on skis, or even a crash are possible. Whether new to the course or a multi-Birkie course skier, there are a few ways to avoid these mishaps so you can reach the Powerline Hills unscathed. Be predictable by making no sudden moves that can surprise skiers around you. Keep your poles in and double pole until you have enough space around and in front of you. Make sure to call out where/when you’re going to pass or drop back. Keep your eyes at least a skier or two ahead of you.

After the congestion of the start, the Powerline Hills can give you a sense of what the course conditions will be like. In fast, hard-pack years, you may rocket down the descents and carry momentum halfway up the next climb. In years when the groomers have to plow snow off the trail before setting the skate deck, you might feel like you’re bogged down in mud at the bottom of each hill. Regardless, this is the time to start settling into a comfortably hard pace.

At the end of the Powerline Hills, the trail narrows and veers left into the woods, becoming more twisty and technical. Everyone will be vying for the best lines through turns, so try to hold your position and ski the tangents.

Around the 5K mark of the grating, uphill slog that defines most of this section, you may glimpse a veritable white wall through the trees to your right. Yes, this hill is called The Wall, and for a good, literal reason. And yes, you have to climb it. Carry as much momentum as you can going into this one because once you lose your glide, you may be swallowing your pride and doing the Birkie Shuffle to the top. The other side, though, is a welcome sight: the kilometer leading to the first aid station is a net downhill. Quickly grab nutrition on your way through. Banking energy now will stave off the deficit later. 

Start to Trail to Fire Tower (11.5K): Ali

Ah, Corey’s superhighway metaphor is apt for elite skiers. However, for the citizenry of the later waves, the early sections of the race may smack of a three-lane traffic jam on said superhighway. Endless lines of skiers tramping up hills in front of you, the swishing and stumbling of hundreds of pairs of skis, the clacks of misplaced poles followed by “Oops!” and “Sorry!” — and that dude in jeans you started chatting with because you’ve been stuck next to each other for 40 minutes.

Don’t waste energy worrying. It’s early in the race, you’re still climbing to the course high point, and this is one of the most technical trail sections. If you’re skilled on skis, think of it as a fun game to calmly navigate through the crowd without causing pileups. Hop into the faster-moving lanes, slip through openings when they appear, and communicate with skiers around you, without being that much-loathed pole-breaking jerk.

Just over the 8K mark, gleeful cackles at Snowmobile Hill puncture the air ahead. The trail curves right then drops in a steep descent with a sharp turn near the bottom. A throng of jovial snowmobilers lines this infamous turn, erupting in cheers whenever some hapless skier crashes.

Depending on your wave and snow conditions, Snowmobile Hill can range from quite manageable to a three-lane ice chute. But you’ve got this! Maintain a safe distance from other skiers, pick your line (or chute), widen your stance a bit, and keep your center of gravity low and sturdy. Flash a smile at the machine-powered crowd as you whiz by anticlimactically.

Now you will begin the last gradual climbs to the High Point. Just when the burning in your legs makes you wonder whether you’ve spent too much energy early on, you scramble across the Seeley Fire Tower Road and glimpse the aid station up ahead. The High Point! With the most difficult climbing section accomplished, this is a good time to quickly take nutrition from the aid station. 

Fire Tower (11.5K) to Boedecker (16.1K): Corey

You’ve navigated the start, climbed The Wall, survived Snowmobile Hill, and conquered the High Point. Thankfully, this section begins with a relatively gradual downhill. Stay low and relaxed, free-skating when needed to maintain momentum. After a short but tough climb, be prepared for the Birkie Drop, a descent averaging a 5% grade for about a kilometer. Don’t be hesitant on this one — really let it rip and rocket down. The speed of this descent can stretch out the pack like a rubber band. Don’t worry if you lose contact with other skiers, though. Boedecker Hill will snap everyone back together again.

Boedecker Hill starts out quite steep with a slight curve to the left, similar to The Wall. Unlike The Wall, though, Boedecker levels out a bit while continuing up. Pace yourself on this hill so you can really attack the flatter sections ahead. 

Boedecker (16.1K) to OO (20.6K): Ali

Beyond the Boedecker aid station, you’re greeted by a relatively flat expanse of trail, a welcomed sight after the hills. If you follow Corey’s advice and pace yourself up Boedecker, now is a great time to open up, especially if you weren’t as confident on the more technical sections. At this point, you can boost your energy, and use it more efficiently, if you can latch onto another skier or small group that’s matching your pace. Work together by taking turns leading; if you’re moving at a decent pace, drafting can really make a difference on descents and into the wind.

As you near the middle of this section, the trail gives way to two sizable downhills with just a few technical turns — plenty of runway to build speed. To maintain momentum through the turns, take an efficient line by entering the turn a little wide, skiing through the apex, and exiting a little wide again. For later wave folks, remember that the insides of turns may be icy if lots of skiers have snowplowed through them. On the steeper straightaways, keep your body low and compact, and lean into the exhilarating whoosh of winter wind as snow-capped trees fall away to either side.

Again, this is where working with another skier or small group can be beneficial. You’ll travel faster downhills in a small pack, especially if the person in front of you has fast skis or is taller than you. If you’re the speediest descender, take the lead on the downhills, and let the smaller folks pull you up the climbs.

Now you’ve reached the bottom of the second descent, with good momentum to carry you into the winding climb to Highway OO and the next aid station. Find a steady, strong cadence for the ascent, and channel the energy of the growing number of spectators and clanging cowbells. 

Hwy OO (20.6k) to Gravel Pit (29.5K): Corey

OO is one of the more exciting sections of the course. The classic and skate courses merge and the Highway OO trailhead area means more spectators, energy, and cowbell. It’s as though the Nordic superhighway has belched you out of the woods into a vibrant village pulsing with people and cheering and colors and noise and banana-bearing volunteers.

To get through the throngs to the aid station bananas, you have to cross the OO Bridge. The bridge’s elevation gain and narrow width force skiers to merge and cross in single file. This can have a slingshot effect, ratcheting up the pace after everyone gets through the aid station. If you’re not carrying nutrition, though, it’s worth taking a second to accept a banana offering because the next aid station is almost 10K up the trail and you have a lot of race left.

After the congested beginning of this section, the course widens out and Birkie skiers enter the Kortelopet start area, with more space to open up and get back into position. As the electric energy of Highway OO fades into the background, the course narrows again, now with classic tracks on each side. Depending on snow conditions, the tracks can be faster and more stable on descents. Take advantage of the long, gradual downhills on this section, jumping into the tracks if it makes sense to do so.

About 6K into this section, you’ll climb the only significant hill before the next aid station. While it hasn’t earned an official name, this hill can surprise your legs after the descents you’ve gotten used to. Crest it steadily and smoothly, and set yourself up for some fun during the second half of the race. (Uff-da! Just halfway?)

Gravel Pit (29.5K) to Mosquito Brook (35.4K): Ali

Energized by the steady downhills of the previous section, and the volunteers and nutrition at the Gravel Pit aid station, you’ll be primed to tackle this section of gentle rollers. They’re small enough for momentum to carry you up and over, especially if the snow is fast.

If the sun is out and it’s warm, though, the softened snow may start to smush like mashed potatoes under the skis of folks in later waves, slowing your pace. You may also start to feel the dull burn of fatigue creep into your legs and arms. This is when the nutrition and liquid you’ve been taking will yield dividends because, while you’re into the last third of the race, there’s a substantial distance to go.

And the next section contains two formidable hills, one of which needs no bitch’n’ introduction. Focus on the skiers in front of you and on maintaining a solid, steady stride, pushing yourself enough to be uncomfortable, but also reserving energy for the climbs in the next section.

Mosquito Brook (35.4K) to Hatchery Creek (41.1K): Corey

As you leave the Mosquito Brook aid station, the forest thickens and the trail tilts upward. The 39K Hill is an insidious sort. The trail stays fairly narrow, obscuring visibility and belying the grinding pitch of the long ascent. After the climb, your burning lungs and legs get a brief downhill reprieve. Then you crest a small rise and Bitch Hill looms large in front of you.

At this point in the race, this relatively short but steep hill is a menace to the eyes and a sucker punch to the legs. Depending on conditions, you may be able to roll into it with some momentum, but shortly thereafter there’s no denying gravity. As Ali likes to remind me, those in the earlier waves of the race also often miss out on the Bitch Hill festivities during the height of race time: the music, heckling, costumes, and the mic-toting Father Birkie telling dad jokes and forgiving grimacing skiers for all the profanity uttered during the climb. But whether you’re laugh-grimacing at Father Birkie or just plain grimacing at trees, you’re still relieved when you’re up and over.

On the other side of Bitch Hill, a pair of welcomed but fast descents will test your shaky legs. Lean in and hold it together — you’re almost to the last aid station! 

Hatchery Creek (41.1K) to Main Street (50K): Ali

And just like that, you’ve slurped nutrition from the ever-delightful volunteers and shoved off from the last aid station. Dark, silent pine trees give way to hardwoods, and the long, winding penultimate climb, Sunset Hill, stretches ahead. Sunset Hill and the final climb, Josie’s Hill, are actually two of the biggest ascents on the course.

After the leg thrashing of 39K Hill and Bitch Hill in quick succession, these last two climbs feel like a cruel irony. If the classic tracks are fast, and you have space and are comfortable in tracks, hop in after cresting Sunset Hill. Double pole using your upper body as a lever and save your legs a bit as you coast down. This will position you well to tackle Josie’s Hill. Climb steadily and, as you begin your descent on the other side, jump in the tracks again if they’re fast. This is your last good opportunity to build speed.

Then the fabled Nordic superhighway spits you out onto Lake Hayward. By far the longest flat section of the race, the lake can feel surprisingly tough. If you’re cramping and stiffening, holding the same body position and performing the same motions with no elevation variation, and often into a headwind, can make for some dogged hobble-shuffle-gliding. But you can coast in on fumes now!

Hold on. Focus on catching or staying with the skiers in front of you and try not to get annoyed by how far apart each kilometer sign seems to be, or by the rosy-cheeked, Jägermeister-imbibing spectators insisting you’re almost there. Because they’re right — you really are.

After you clamber off the lake between throngs of spectators, you’ll reach the famous, flag-bedecked Birkie International Bridge spanning over Highway 63 onto Hayward’s Main Street. If there’s congestion on the bridge, pick the fastest-moving lane and propel yourself over the top to build speed toward the finish. Your energy should be spent, but pour everything left into the finish straightaway and soak it all in the noise of the crowd, wafting smell of brats, cowbells, and the announcer recognizing each skier by name.

Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned veteran, the Birkie is a humbling race. But with some preparation, grit, and a sense of humor, your 50K pilgrimage from Cable to Hayward can be one of the highlights of your year. Maybe, like Corey and I, you’ll spend most of next year counting down the days until that next February morning car ride to the start line, singing along to Birkie songs on WOJB:

Birkie Fever, I’m a true believer, get me to the start line, I’ll be ready to go!

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