If you don’t know the spectacle of watching several thousand people stand in the freezing cold and then ski 30 miles, this is the place to start. Think of a running marathon. A big marathon. Now, drop the temperature. A lot. Usually down to between 0 and 20 above, sometimes as cold as 10 below. Those big marathons in cities? Put a big marathon in a small town. Throw in a snowstorm if you want. And take each of the people running a pair of 6-foot-long, $600 skis, 5-foot-long, $200 poles, and a ski trail. That’s the Birkie.The Birkie started in 1973 (I’m not writing a long history here) with about three dozen skiers. It proceeded to double or treble every year until the early 1980s when 6000 hardy souls skied from Cable to Hayward or Hayward to Cable (depending on the year) and numbers leveled off for a few decades, before creeping up in recent years.
With more than 10,000 participants, the race is by far the largest in the country (and for that matter, the western hemisphere). The Vasaloppet has a larger mass start than any single Birkie wave—slightly—but the Birkie sends out several hundred skiers every five minutes for close to two hours. It’s a spectacle at the start, a spectacle at the finish, and for a lot of people, a race they get just a little too excited about. But that’s okay.
So why this guide? Well, it turns out no one had written a guide to the race. A lot of people come from out of town, and there are certain things that it would be, well, good to know beforehand. So we’re doing our best to spread the information. Because information is power. And power makes you fast.