Conditions were way better than expected for the 43rd annual American Birkebeiner Saturday, where two U.S. skiers bested the strongest international fields in years.
David Norris of Fairbanks, Alaska and Caitlin Gregg of Minneapolis claimed titles in the feature 52-kilometer skate race between Cable and Hayward in northwest Wisconsin. For Gregg, it was her fourth career victory in North America's largest cross country ski event.
An estimated 10,500 skiers—including nearly1,000 from the Madison area—enjoyed weather in the mid-30s following a rainstorm and meltdown Friday that left skiers of all stripes fearing a long, painful slog to the finish line. The track was surprisingly firm.
For Madison's Jerry Ensign, 83, the course was solid enough to complete his 35th Birkie. Ensign was the second oldest finisher, skiing the 55-kilometer classic technique race in eight hours, 44 minutes.
"As usual, I was questioning my sanity when I finally hit Lake Hayward [3 kilometers from the finish], thinking this is the end of Birkies for me," he says. "But a day later I am ready to sign up for next year."
Ensign used waxless "fishscale" skis, which he says provided enough grip for the uphills but were slow on the downhills. That's always the trade-off.
"They were great for the first half but I had almost no glide for the second half," says Ensign, a retired University of Wisconsin–Madison microbiologist.
Middleton's Steve Pitts also notched his 35th Birkie finish and was surprised at the decent conditions. Much of the snow had melted down, leaving just a solid trail base.
"It was a little slow but not as slow as some other years," says Pitts, 57, an engineer at Madison Gas & Electric who did his first Birkie in 1981 and hasn't missed one since. Pitts skated the race in a very respectable 4:11.
Things didn't go quite so well for Madison's Brooke Wentland, 34, who won a pair of new skis and a free entry into the race for winning the Birkie T-shirt design contest. It was her first attempt but she had to drop out at the halfway point after not hitting the cut-off time
"I gave it my all, had some good BBQ that night and then went to the Birkebeiner movie premier, which was great," she says. "Despite not being able to ski down Main Street, it was still lots of fun and I'm glad I gave it a try. I hope to be back next year."
Chris Pappathopoulos of Sun Prairie was the top local skier in the Birkie skate race, finishing 42nd among the men in 2 hours, 21 minutes. Madison's Claire Luby was the top local woman, finishing 13th in 2:39.
In the classic technique Birkie, Madison's Jacob Pellmann finished 93rd among men in 3:39. Kim Hughes of Waunakee was 13th among women in 3:48.
Also of note is the Madison ski racing couple Jim Coors and Ann Pollock who now spend a lot of time in the Hayward area. Coors finished 3rd in the 65-69 age group in the skate Birkie while Pollock took second in the women's 65-69. Not sure who gets bragging rights there but imagine the talk around the dinner table.
All told, competitors from 17 countries and 40 states competed in the 2016 race. With the recent cancellation of two FIS Worldloppet Cup Races in Estonia and France, hundreds of foreign skiers made the trip to Wisconsin. It's always exciting to hear a mix of languages in the warming tent before the race.
The 2017 Birkbeiner is slated for February 25. I plan to be there after finishing my 28th Birkie on Saturday in 2:57. That was good enough to crack the top 500 men so I'm pretty happy with that.
Lots of expensive high-fluro wax helped my skis run fast right until we hit the slush on Lake Hayward. Thanks to my buddies for letting me dig into their wax kit after I left mine at home in a pre-race brain freeze.
That's the true spirit of the Birkie because in the end we are all out there, together, trying to do our best while hopefully having some fun in the process. It makes the post-race beer—or in my case many beers—taste even better.
"Footloose" is Madison Magazine's new online series written by Mike Ivey.
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