This advice depends a lot on your wave and a lot on how seriously you will be taking the race. Before specifics, here’s how the pens work. There are three or four successive “pens”, each of which is separated by a gate. (By gate, I mean a series of barriers which can be raised and lowered by a team of volunteers. Here’s a picture; they use the same system for the start.) When a wave leaves, each pen gate opens, allowing the skiers to run up (generally running, not skiing) asfastastheycan to the next gate. With Elite men and elite women, and classic skiers, there is a lot of running involved if you’re not in the Elite Wave. If you want to be in the front of your wave, you have to get in your pen early (and wait in the cold.) And since people take things way too seriously, it means that you have to beat out a lot of master blasters for a spot.
Note that there is a bit more time in between the first few big skate waves, which should help somewhat with congestion on the trail.
- Elite Wave: I think the top bib numbers get seeded in the first row. Otherwise, it’s pretty quiet—it’s wide enough that no one gets too far back (you know, since the wave is 200 people, not 900). New in 2013, women are going out at 8 a.m., 20 minutes ahead of the men. Meaning that a) there won’t be any women for men to gauge their performance by (and by men I mean slow guys like me), b) if you break a pole you won’t have anyone to ski with and c) the women get to ski all alone without having to worry about passing elite stragglers for 30k. So a big win for the women. At the start, there’s pretty much just one row for the women. For both genders, you enter from the side of the pen—the only time this happens—and get your skis marked there, since it is an FIS race. I assume that women will enter separately from the men, earlier on. There will only be 10 minutes to get all the guys in to the pen and get their skis marked, so that may be hectic.
- First Wave: This is probably the most “competitive” of the waves, at least in the running up through the pens portion of the event. A lot (okay, all) of this wave thinks they belong in the elite wave. Maybe 30 guys will actually make the jump. Out of 900. Still, everyone wants to be on the front line. If you actually think you’ll be skiing a 2:30, by all means get on the front line. This, however, entails lining up half an hour before the race, making a run for the successive pens each time a new wave goes out, and getting your skis down in front. And it will be crowded. If you think you’re going to be skiing a 2:55 or 3:00, it’s probably not worth the extra time. There’s a 15 minute gap between the wave 2 classic skiers (8:10) and elite men (8:25), which should be ample time to leave your skis, take off your clothes, stuff them in your bag, and throw your bag at the correct truck, and get back to your skis. Especially if you are the front line and can duck under the gate. Be prepared for a few scoffs from other skiers—and don’t do this if you don’t plan to ski fast out of the start.
- Second Wave: Everyone thinks they belong in the first wave, and most think they should be in the Elite Wave. There’s a bit more crossover here, though. And more waves to have to “pen jump” before the start. Everyone in this wave has a similar seeding time, so unless you’re better than everyone, you’re probably not.
- Third-Fifth waves: These waves are all quite big. “Birkie Wave Creep” means that everyone tries to qualify up as far as they can, and waves 1-5 are much larger than 6-10 (see charts). So, you get to start with several hundred of your best friends and/or potential pole breakers.
- Sixth-Eighth waves: Probably less competitive. Fewer skiers, especially skiing the full Birkie.
- Ninth and Tenth waves: Since these are the new skier waves, there are all levels of athlete. Every couple of years a couple guys go out and pass the whole race to make the elite wave. More power to them. (This very much depends on the weather. so no 10th wavers made the jump in 2011, when the race course was considerably slower at 10 versus 8:25.) Again, I don’t know what it’s like, I got myself in to wave 2 my first Birkie.
One more thing: if you are unhappy with your wave assignment, tell Birkie as early as possible. They have 8000 people to assign, and make mistakes. In addition to your’s truly, who was once put in the wrong wave but got that corrected, some guy called Matt Liebsch (who only won the race a couple years back) wound up in the 6th wave. Before the first of the year is a good idea. Email them, call them, they’re real nice if you explain yourself and give them a lot of time. They may say no to your request (damn megalomaniacs), but it’s worth a try. Just don’t expect a lot of sympathy the day before the race.