The Birkie Experience

I did my first Kortelopet, a 30-kilometer Nordic ski race through the hilly woods of Wisconsin, at age 14. The American Birkebeiner (Birkie) is a major event, a celebration of the winter. Tens of thousands of cross-country skiers, traveling from all over the world, converge in northern Wisconsin to participate in the races and other Birkie-related events. No matter the conditions, extreme cold, rain, sun, blizzards, or patchy snow, the late February race takes place and Hayward’s Main Street is packed with people cheering on the racers as they ski the final 200 meters through town. It’s a rewarding finish with music and cameras clicking and cow bells ringing, clapping, hugging and back patting, all of which makes the end bearable for the exhausted racers. IMG_1450.jpeg

I’ve done two Kortes now and also two Barkie Birkies, a fun, often chaotic, skijoring race that takes place on the day before the Korte. The Barkie Birkie, for beginner skijorers like me, is 3K down Main Street and through a golf course. I participated in my first Barke Birke in 2018 after a couple months of practicing with my 8-month-old puppy, Bridger. Yet, when it was time for the start all of the practice went out the window. Bridger got so excited by the cheers and commotion that we ended up getting tangled with one of the helpers at the starting line. Then, somewhere along the course, he found some friends and played instead of racing. We finished in the middle of the pack, but had fun. This year, he was something of a veteran and reined in his excitement, concentrated on the course, and pulled us into a thirteenth place finish. I congratulated him enthusiastically, and hours later, we were still laughing about the motley collection of dogs and skiers. By night time, however, my attention turned to my upcoming race. In my head, I separated the course into three sections: The first section up-and-down with short inclines and declines; the second section consisting of long, steep hills; and the third, the flat, windy ski across frozen Lake Hayward, then over the bridge, and, finally, the slight, 200-meter incline to the finish line.

The very first time I skied the Korte, the snow was slow and fluffy. For the first 5K, the hills were packed and skiers got tangled. Then, it cleared out and I was skiing by myself. The day was beautiful, and soon I fell into a rhythm. I finished that ski in about 2 hours with aching feet and sore calves, but I had enjoyed it. I told myself as much as it had hurt and as tired as I was, I would do it again. So, a month later, I registered for the 2019 Korte. 

This time around, I skied with friends — just as rewarding of an experience. The snow was perfect, fast and sleek, and the sun was shining. I didn’t hurt as much as the first time, and I was powering up the hills. Even up “bitch hill”, a massive, steep incline with a man telling bad jokes at the top through a megaphone, I  felt good. Then, with 6K to go, I decided that if I was going to beat my previous time, I had to step it up. I told my friends that I was going to ski ahead and then mustering all the energy I could with the help of a chocolate GU, I increased my pace. Three more kilometers, fifteen more minutes, I told myself, then the finish line, my family’s smiling faces, my dog, a hot lunch and a nap.IMG_5026

Concentrating on the possibility of passing each person in front of me, I continued to V-2, (a tiring technique that requires a high cadence) and focused on my breathing, on the finish line. Soon I had only two kilometers left, then one, then I climbed the bridge, accelerated on the downhill, and hit the battered snow of the final stretch. I was exhausted, but the one thing that kept me from collapsing was the cheers from the fans lining Main Street, the exhilaration, and my relief and pride at having completed another Korte.