Monday, March 21, 2016

Birken - the race report

I really don't know where to begin. As you all know, I decided about a month ago that I'll go and do the Birkebeinerrennet already this year. I hadn't done any of the seeding races, so I opted for the Fredagsbirken, which is a sort of "open tracks" kind of event going on the same tracks, over the same distance and with the same 3,5kg backpacks but just one day before the main event. And well, it is also a seeding race for next years Birken.

Before the start I had two goals and one worry. I was quite worried about the skis. I knew I had a good pair for the conditions, so glide was supposedly nothing to worry about. But the grip was. I have by no means such a strong upper body that I could do the Birken route (or any other routes for that matter) with a poor grip and as I was on the road on my own, I just had to hope that the skis would be at least ok. The main goal for the Fredagsbirken was to enjoy - the views and the fact that I was finally at THE event I had wanted to do for so many years, but never had the time, resources or guts to do it. The second goal was to do a time that would secure me a good starting row for next years Birken, but not at the cost of enjoying the trip too.

First half: Tingstadjordet, Rena - Kvarstad

So I guess I could say, that before the gun went off at 8.30 on friday morning at the Tingstadjordet in Rena, my plan was to go as fast enough, but to do it as easy as possible. The plan worked quite well right from the start and my biggest worry turned out to be unnecessary. I had a decent grip up the first hill and had to tell myself at least once every two minutes not to go out too fast. The tracks were really nice, a bit crusty at points as the temperatures were a few degrees below at the time of the start.

I knew there would be a long uphill to start with and I have watched Birkens from previous years several times on tv, but nothing had really prepared me for what kind of a hill it was. I remember being at about 3km point of the race and thinking how it can be possible for someone to double pole the whole route. And little did I know at that point what was ahead... Anyway, I arrived to the first feeding station at Skramstadsetra after 9km of only uphill. I took my time, drinking, eating my first gel, chatting a bit with a someone and then looked at my watch telling me I had spent over 45 minutes to get there. I had prepared myself mentally that the beginning would be slow, but that slow..?

In Skramstadsetra and from there I had some company along the way from all the pro teams testing skis and preparing for the real race on saturday. Usually I would have been fascinated by what they do and how it all looks so effortless, but now I was more annoyed as I was trying to go forward in the headwind by some means and they just kind of floated ahead next to me so easily.. But the cheering I received from quite a few was nice. Best part was a comment given to the group of guys I was dragging behind me in the wind at that point. They were told to "man up and help the girl in front". Needless to say, I didn't get any help but luckily could also drop those guys before we had climbed up the Dølfjellet at 13km from the start.

Cruising ahead somewhere up the fjells. 

Dropping the drafters.

After Dølfjellet there's the first real downhill to Dambua, where the second feeding station was also located at about 15km point. I really don't remember anything from that point of the race. After Dambua we had the quite steep (for a flatland girl like me) climb up the Raudfjellet ahead and once up there, we had reached the 20km point. I was a bit knackered up there and started to fear the climb up the highest point of the race a bit. And also the remaining 34km that I would still have to go. 

But from Raudfjellet, all the way down to Kvarstad at the halfway point of the race I started to feel better again. A certain pro team service had been skiing "with" me almost all the way from Skramstadsetra up to Raudfjellet and now down to Kvarstad. I was quite happy to notice that I had a relatively good glide in my skis as I was able to follow their speed in the downhills and not even drafting in the same tracks, but doing just my own thing. At the third feeding station in Kvarstad I continued with the same "feeding strategy" as I had in all of the five stations: one gel, one cup of sports drink, one cup of water. At this point, I had used 2hrs 9minutes to the first 27km.

Second half: Kvarstad - Birkebeineren Skistadion, Lillehammer

Once having passed Kvarstad it was time for the second (or third?) climb of the day as the route went up to its highest point at Midtfjellet at 33km. I didn't have much of the grip left at that point and had to go up the steepest parts herringboning - like a tourist (that I honestly was). Otherwise I didn't find the 5km climb so hard compared to climbing up Raudfjellet earlier. It might have helped too that I knew that once I reach the top of Midtfjellet it will be all flat and downhill to Lillehammer from there for the last 20km of the race. Up in Midtfjellet we also had the fourth feeding station.

The following 10km from Midtfjellet to Sjusjøen was relatively flat. On this part I started to catch a few men who had obviously started out too fast and I was feeling better and stronger all the time. It's quite rare to me to be feeling strong on the flat parts so I really enjoyed it, smiling idiotically to everyone I saw during those kms.  On this part also the amount of spectators and cheering at least tripled from what it had been before. I can't even imagine what it has been on saturday, if it was like that on friday. But hopefully I get to experience that next year.

The last feeding station was at 
Sjusjøen with 14km to go. Might sound like a long way without feeding stations for us tourists, but as it's basically only downhill to the finishline from there, it's not. First 5km down from Sjusjøen were really fast. There was a quite technical downhill (again for a flatland girl), but as I arrived to it amongst the 80 first skiers on that day and the tracks were still in a perfect shape it was so much fun to just let go and enjoy the speed. The fun ended with about 7km to go as the sun was up and I think it was about +5 in Lillehammer at that time of the day. 

All of the sudden the tracks and the snow turned slushy, a bit dirty and all the glide was gone. As I hadn't had any grip left after Midtfjellet (talk about perfect timing) I had no other option than to try to get forward with double poling and felt at times I wasn't moving anywhere. With that, my old friend cramping came to visit first my abs, then my arms and with a few kms to go, also my toes. In spite of all that I managed to pass 4 of the 5 men I saw during the last couple of kms and arrived to the finish line in the Birkebeineren Skistadion in Lillehammer with a time of 3.49 as the 4th lady of the day. 

The tourist herringboning (read: walking) up Midtfjellet.
Final few meters on the Birkebeineren Skistadion. With my cramping toes.


As I said, I had two goals for the race. First one was to enjoy and the second one was to do a time good enough to get to a good starting row for the real Birken next year. Both goals were achieved and I can honestly say, that these were probably the greatest 4hrs I've ever spent on my skis. I was feeling strong all the way and for once the feeding "strategy" worked well and I had good energy levels throughout the whole 54km race. I'm usually the worst at eating and drinking both in training and especially when racing, but I wanted my first Birken to be as good experience as possible and forced myself to eat enough. 

The biggest worry about the skis, was as said unnecessary. I had a decent grip up to Raudfjellet and could still ski quite nicely up to Midfjellet too. After that I didn't do much else than double pole for two reasons: there was no need to with all the downhills and if there would have been a need, I didn't have any grip left. The glide was really good all the way until the last 7km where the skis completely died. 

Another, a lot smaller worry was the 3,5kg backpack. After asking for advice, stressing over a lot of stuff and finally deciding to go with 2 ankle weights 1kg each as extra weights, I managed to pack the backpack so neatly that it sat really nicely on my back. For the first two or three kilometers the backpack felt really heavy, annoying and like it was chocking me. After that I didn't even remember I had one with me - until the next morning when I noticed the bruises down on my spine and on my collarbones as well as a totally stiff upperbody.

One of the best parts of the day was to share it with a friend. I urged Heini to come to Fredagsbirken with me the same day I had decided to go myself. She took up the challenge and that made it a whole lot easier to go through all the pre-race excitement and fuss. We stood next to each other on the starting line and both did well in the race too as Heini was the third girl to finish the Fredagsbirken with a time of 3.40. That being said, we'll be back together next year. Oh and the results can be found here.

I have a lot to say about the travelling, accomodation, raceday transportation and all that, but to save you for that now, I will write another post on those subjects. But if you're considering doing Birken someday, GO FOR IT!


  1. Kiitos kattavasta raportista!
    Odottelen kovasti vielä tarinaasi majoituksesta ja muusta, kyseinen tapahtuma on ollut pitkään jo sellainen salainen haave.
    Ja onnea hienosta hiihdosta!

    1. Kiitos!
      Lisätarinaa on kyllä tulossa, kunhan saan ajatukset järjestykseen ja palaudun töihin paluusta :)

  2. Congrats on a great time!
    And thanks for a good report, was nice to read.