The big race is on Saturday, with the Korteloppet on Friday (this is new in 2017). The Birkie is a Big Deal, and there are activities for several days preceding the race. Many participants and spectators arrive several days early to prepare for the race, go skiing or just hang out. Here’s what’s going on, and how to have some idea of how to navigate it all.
• Be early. This goes for pretty much every step of the race. The Birkie is incredibly well organized, a testament to its staff and the huge volunteer corps which itself is as large as the town of Hayward. Still, with 8000+ skiers involved, everything takes a bit longer than it might at a pick-up race in March. Or any other ski race in the western hemisphere. Be patient, and give yourself a bit of extra time every step of the way.
• Get there. There are many ways to get to Hayward. Whatever you choose, make sure you are on Highway 63. Unless you really know what you are doing, taking back roads is very unlikely to save you any time. For out-of-towners, our traveling from afar page has much more information.
• Listen to WOJB. The official race station is 88.9 WOJB. It’s a community station broadcasting off the local reservation. It has eclectic and quirky programming all the time and is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Starting on Friday, they broadcast wax tips and Birkie-themed music (it’s very corny). It will either get you in the mood for the race or drive you batty.
• Bib pick-up. Get your materials before the race, if at all possible. If you’re in the tenth wave, you’ll probably be okay navigating the tent at Telemark the morning of the race. If you’re in the second wave, do you really want to deal with an extra half hour in the morning before your 8:45 start? If you pick up your bib on Friday, you can ski the trail (this depends very much on weather: if it may harm the base, the trail may close very early), get some freebies at the expo, and find all sorts of other skiers you may know. Plus, if anything is amiss, there’s a lot more time to fix it.
They’ve started asking you to print out an email and show it to them when you’re picking up your bib. If you don’t have said email, you’ll probably still get your bib. If you don’t want to keep track of a piece of paper, pull it up on your phone. You’ll have plenty of time in line in Hayward to get it ready to show them. If you’re picking up your bib on Saturday, you might want to load this offline in case the cell reception is overwhelmed in Cable.
And bring an ID. Again, you can probably talk your way in to a bib without an ID. But it’s a lot easier if you have one.
It is possible to pick up bibs for other people. Let’s say you’re arriving early, and a friend is coming in late Friday night. If you have him send/fax/give you a signed piece of paper saying “I ______ authorize ______ to pick up my bib for the Birkie” it generally works. A photocopy of their ID won’t hurt. They are strict about this, but understand that people sometimes grab bibs for each other. Just don’t walk in and say “I’m here to pick up my bib, and these three others,” without some documentation. It’s a lot less likely to work. Having a print-out of the email from those people probably would expedite the process as well.
• Where is bib pick-up? Bib pick-up takes place at the Hayward Middle School with the Expo nearby since Telemark has closed. This works pretty well. It also means that if you’re staying in Hayward or south you don’t have to drive to Cable. Which is good. (How are the schools closed for this? They schools up there get two days off for Birkie. Yes, be jealous.)
• Grooming and skiing on Friday:
Grooming for the race is very snow-depenent! Watch our homepage, and birkie.com, for updates. This is all subject to a whole lot of change.
Due to warm temperatures, in 2017 the course will be closed for the week before the race. Skiing on the course could put ruts in what little snow there is. The best way to maintain snow if possible is to not touch it. It won’t get groomed, and it better not get skied on. We may be able to salvage a race, but if people ski on the trail, it ain’t gonna happen.
Every year, the rules for when you can and can’t ski the trail before the race are different. Some years, when the snow is minimal and needs to be preserved, the trail will close to all use as early as Wednesday. Other years, when there’s a hard, deep skate deck, cold predicted temperatures and all that is needed is a touch-up groom, the trail may be open until Friday afternoon (this has been the norm in recent years, but not in 2016, when the trail was very closed). If it’s open, ski to your heart’s content. If it’s closed, please (please!) stay off it; the groomers need your cooperation to get the best conditions possible for the big race. If one person skates on the trail after it’s been groomed, their ruts will trip thousands of skiers. With the Korteloppet on Friday, it’s likely the race south of OO will be closed at some point on Friday afternoon to allow regrooming to take place, again: weather dependent. Watch this page, or the Birkie’s main page, for information.
In any case, in the past they have closed the trail on the Wednesday before the race—meaning everyone had to go elsewhere for their skiing. The Birkie does a great job grooming, if you’ve never skied it before and could see the course the elites see, it’s astonishing—30 feet of flat corduroy. Let them be, especially if they don’t have a nice, thick base to till in to wonderful.
Expect a firm but pliable skate deck, which, as long as it is cold enough, should stay solid during the race. The race may be icier and more abrasive at the north end with more powdery conditions further south, depending on snowfall. Will some hills get mashed potato-ey (up) and icy (down) by the eighth wave? Probably. But where else do 10000 skiers ski a single trail over two days? The groomers know what they are doing. Tracks will be solid and set on downhills. There will be no groomer ridges. These guys groom the trail all season long. They’re pros. (Exception: road crossings. We’ll get to that.)
• Where to eat
When you’re about to ski for two to six hours, you want a good feed. Really, you should have been loading carbs for several days, but if you need a pasta feed at the last minute, there are plenty of options. Most resorts in the Cable-Hayward area will have pasta feeds for race day. Most restaurants will offer Birkie dishes in addition to their normal fare. And several community organizations offer relatively cheap and suppers with pasta galore. You’ll likely see signs for these events; if you are flummoxed ask most any Birkie volunteer and they’ll steer you in the right direction. Expect things to be busy.
• Where to stay
The town of Hayward has 2129 people living in it. Cable has an additional 836. Combined, these towns account for less than a third of the number of racers (add in a few thousand spectators). So at least 10,000 people need somewhere to stay. When it was open, Telemark was booked years in advance (seriously) as are most accommodations within an hour of the start. If you luck in to the closest condo to the start like I did in 2011, well, lucky me. If not, find someone’s floor to sleep on, or find a couch, or get a spot at the Middle School (which is apparently a snoring echo chamber). You do have to sleep.
Another option is to look further afield, especially if you are a later starter. Towns like Spooner fill up, because it’s on the way to Hayward. But look in to Ashland, Rice Lake and Duluth. Ashland is only 45 minutes from Como Field, and has the added bonus of being on the north side, which sees less traffic. Duluth and Rice Lake are only an hour and a bit away (and Rice Lake has been running a shuttle if you stay there). If your start time is 9:40, you could leave at 6:30 and have plenty of time to park and get your bib in time for your start, and not have to pay an arm and a leg for a room you reserve years in advance.
If you plan to stay in the area Saturday night, call around and see if there are any hotels with space. A decent number of skiers come up on Friday night, ski the race, and then book it home on Saturday. So while many hotels have minimum stays, there are certainly some which have empty rooms they’d be happy to fill with a warm, paying customer.
• Where to wax
Ah, the wonders of pre-race waxing. Generally, not in your hotel room. Hotels really don’t like going and picking wax out of their carpets. Some will let you wax on a porch (if there is one) or set up a wax room (an empty room with a concrete floor). Some won’t. If you’re coming in from out of town and don’t want to lug an iron, a profile, six types of waxes, an anti-cancer fluoro mask and sixteen brushes and tools, paying someone else to wax for you is not a bad idea! Several local shops will wax your skis (the Birkie has a list here), including some where, if you drop your skis on Friday, they’ll deliver them to the start line on Saturday. (Including BirkieGuide.com sponsor Gear West where previous winner Matt Liebsch will literally bless your skis with magic Birkie pixie dust.) For reals. How convenient.
If you’re coming from far away, you can often get away with doing most of your waxing far away. If the forecast calls for cold and dry weather, it should be easy. It’s only years when there are changing conditions (and wax recommendations) that you really need to worry yourself.