The Race: Waves

For many years, the waves at the Birkie have remained mostly the same. The Birkie and Kortie went out together, there were ten waves, and everyone went for a ski. That was then. With the new start area, things have changed. For a while there were seven waves. Now there are eight. So for now, we can speculate about exactly how the waves work. But remember that if you made a list of the eight largest mass-start ski races in the country, the Birkie wavers would pretty much be numbers 1 to 8. They’re big. They’re mean. You’re going to be fine.

So not ten, not seven, eight. You may have been a Wave 3 skier and were then a Wave 2 skier and then now a Wave 3 skier again. No matter how much rollerskiing you did this summer, it doesn’t mean that the Birkie found out and made a change; it simply means that without the Korteloppet skiers there are fewer skiers overall, so even with fewer waves the overall wave size will be smaller. So, yes, it’s quite possible you’ve moved around a bit. For skiers who have defined themselves by their wave for years (if not decades) this may be a sea change. But it’s okay. You’re a Wave 2 skier now. You did little to deserve it. But that’s okay. Embrace it.

This wave-by-wave advice depends a lot on your wave and a lot on how seriously you will be taking the race. Before specifics, let’s talk about pens. Before the race, we’re basically cattle with ski poles. 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; this will be used at the new start.) When a wave leaves, each pen gate opens, allowing the skiers to run up (generally running, not skiing; skiing will result in broken equipment) 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. (Sidebar: starting in 2022, Elite Wave skiers have to have their skis marked, so leave extra time and see more here.) If you want to be in the front of your wave, you generally have to get in your pen early (and wait in the cold.) Sneaking through to the front of the wave is generally verboten: you need to know the volunteers if you’re even going to try, and expect lots of dirty looks. (i.e. just don’t do it, and if you do, you better ski fast.) And since people take things way too seriously, it means that you have to beat out a lot of master blasters for a spot.

It’s worth noting that the start scheduled has been pushed back about half an hour with fewer waves, which should help with getting people to the start easily (in the past few years, the women have gone out at 8 a.m., other than the “Spirit of 35” skiers who have skied the race three dozen times. The new start times are a bit more sane given the busing.

Let’s go wave by wave:
  • Elite Wave: In theory, the top bib numbers get seeded in the first row. In practice, the Elite Wave is a rather long end of a tail, skiers generally know where they stand, especially with bibs numbered sequentially by previous finish time. So it’s pretty quiet—it’s wide enough that no one gets too far back (you know, since the wave is 200 people, not 600). In the past few years the women have gone out 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.

    With 2022 fluoro testing, skiers will have to check in early with their skis, but there will be racks, and skiers (but not skis) wlll be able to go in and out of the pens to drop their bags off and find restrooms. More information here. Once marked, for Elite women at the start, there’s pretty much just two rows of starters. Once your skis have been marked, skiers (likely) enter from the side of the pen—the only time this happens—and if there is ski marking get your skis marked there, since it is an FIS race.

    Since there is ski marking this year women and men will enter and exit sort of at the same time. One of the things about skiing your way into the Elite Wave is that you get a much less hectic start. On the other hand, you have to settle for a gun time. This might cost late-wave Elites a few seconds, especially for men, but it’s not a big deal. There is generally plenty of time for everyone to get started for the Elites. Note that a change in 2019 is that Wave 1 skaters will start just five minutes after the Elite Wave, so Elite stragglers will see—and potentially be able to take rides off of—Wave 1 skiers significantly sooner in the race (in past years, there was a 10 or even 15 minute gap).

  • 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 600. 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 probably not peeing before the race.) 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 10 minute gap between waves before, 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.

    “But this sounds insane. What about the women who don’t want to have to deal with all of this nonsense with men who are way more confident in their skiing than they should be?” Not a problem: if a woman qualifies into Wave 1, she’s in the Elite Wave.

  • 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 even a few Wave 2 guys who are content with their wave placement. Some fast women, too. There are a 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 and fourth waves: These waves are all quite big. “Birkie Wave Creep” in the past has meant 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 breaker, although the reshuffling may allow the waves to be more evenly-sized.
  • Fifth and sixth waves: Somewhat less competitive. Many skiers here are skiing recreationally, which is a lot more fun, since not as many people are trying to break poles at the start. (Okay, maybe not trying, but it seems that way.) Just watch the downhills, they’ll get icy if the snow isn’t great (or even if it is).
  • Seventh and eighth wave: In the past, the late waves have been for new skiers, but it appears the Birkie is going to seed new skiers with qualifiers in other races in to other waves if possible. Still, expect all level 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.) 

One more thing: if you are unhappy with your wave assignment, tell Birkie as early as possible. They have 8000 people to assign, and occasionally 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, you know, won the race a few 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, but it’s worth a try. Just don’t expect a lot of sympathy at the expo.