Birkie No. 2 goes more smoothly than first attempt

posted March 5, 2018 8:42 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Nate Jackson, Regional Editor |

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It was just a slight slip, but it apparently took quite the effort on my part to regain my balance. So I swung my right arm in something of a windmill motion and, on the backswing, swatted the tray of cookies from the nice volunteer’s hand and onto the snow below.

It was 2016, my first time at the American Birkebeiner, my first time ski racing of any distance, and, really, the culmination of my first real year skiing in about a decade. This was somewhere around 20 miles into the 31-mile skate skiing race, and I really needed a cookie.

I saw, as I made my way through the Mosquito Brook aid station, the tray of cookies being extended. I veered slightly right toward the cookies — chocolate cookies with a white cream center or vanilla cookies, also with a white cream center — and slowed to a stop. As I reached to grab a cookie (and reaching for anything with my ski poles strapped to my hands had proven to be one of the more awkward things I had encountered in my first attempt at ski racing, probably contributing to my need for cookies at this point in the race) my right ski slid slightly forward and I made my grandiose attempt at staying off the snow, sending the tray of cookies to the ground in my place.

I apologized profusely, grabbed a few cookies from the ground and was sent on my way.

Following the race’s cancellation last year due to a lack of snow, I made my second attempt at the Birkie Feb. 24.

While grabbing things hasn’t gotten much easier, my only real food mishap this time was pouring half an energy gel package into my beard instead of my mouth. Other than that and the usual skier traffic that leads to stepped-on poles and skis, my race this year went off about as well as I had hoped.

In the two years since the last Birkebeiner, the race’s organizers have made several changes to the event, which draws approximately 40,000 spectators and skiers to the Cable and Hayward area each February, with an estimated 13,500 skiers participating in annual Birkie Week ski events.

For the first time, the Kortelopet was held the day before the Birkie, with the Korte starting at Highway OO east of Seeley and finishing in downtown Hayward. The Birkie also has a new permanent start area near the old Telemark Lodge start line outside of Cable and a wider International Bridge for skiers to cross over Highway 63 in Hayward, which made for an interesting way to start and finish the race.

Following a dumping of snow Thursday night, groomers worked right up until the start of Friday’s Kortelopet to get the trail ready for skiers, and Ben Popp, executive director of the race, kept participants and spectators updated every step of the way on Facebook.

The Thursday night snow meant skiers in Friday’s 29-kilometer Kortelopet had to deal with some loose snow conditions for their race, but it meant the trail after OO was packed down a bit better than before OO for Birkie skiers the next day. What amounted to a free increase in speed at about the halfway point was a nice benefit after dealing with our own loose snow for the first part of the Birkie.

Race officials estimate that between noon and 2 p.m. during the American Birkebeiner, approximately one skier per second crosses the finish line on Hayward’s Main Street and that it takes nearly 2,500 volunteers to pull the event off.

I thanked as many volunteers as I could along the way. Then, as soon as I crossed the finish line and glided to a stop, resting exhausted on my poles, a volunteer asked, “Would you like to get those skis off?”

“Yes, thank you,” I grunted as he bent down to help unhook my bindings.

When he stood, he offered congratulations on my race. It was then I realized I had just gotten my bindings unlatched by Popp, the race’s executive director.

I returned the congratulations for pulling off the 44th Birkebeiner and offered what was far from my final thank you of the day.

Nate Jackson can be reached at

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