The Race!

I’m a relative newbie to the Birkie. I’ve run and skied the Birkie Trail dozens of times (including the Double Birkie twice—yes, 85k in a day; I put a 100k day in on the Birkie Trail a few years back to boot), I’ve mapped the Birkie Trail (stupid Gmap-pedometer doesn’t seem to like more than 1500 points or so), I’ve made elevation profiles of the Birkie Trail (and made a couple frenemies with the Birkie folks, although the boss himself liked them), I’ve thrown together a Google Map of Birkie landmarks, and I’ve talked up the Birkie on Skinnyski. Oh, and I’m more than halfway to a purple bib, and have skied every race since 2006. So I’m barely qualified to be giving this advice.

The whole trail has kilometer markers. New in 2017, they count down from Cable, not up (this means that once the skate and classic races come together, they only need one set of signs). We still count up for the skate race here. They even on the lake (they are on posts which are put in to the ice). If you’re not familiar with the course, they’re a good way to figure out where you are. They are rather conspicuous, but I’m usually focused/tired enough that I only see every third or fourth one (plus I know the trail well enough that I can identify most of it by landmarks).

One other thing before we start: the feed volunteers generally do a very good job. I’ve found feeds to be warm-but-not-piping-hot and found volunteers to know what they are doing (to not yank back feeds when you come through at 12 mph, and to not walk in amongst skiers to give you a feed). They do a hell of a job giving out thousands of feeds over the course of several hours. I think they’re experienced. You don’t really need a drink belt if you don’t want one, but it’s not a bad idea.

So, here we go, and note that the first bit of this relatively new based on the new trail, note that for now I’m guessing on the kilometer markings, which now count down. So here is the trail, counting down from 50 km to go. Note that this is for the skate trail; if anyone wants to detail the classic trail, let me know and I’ll give you a page.

  • 50k: The trail starts at the new start area and apparently has a gradual climb out. No more mini power lines. You get the climb out right at the start. However, it means that you won’t round the bend and go up the big power lines hill anymore. I’ll miss it, I think; as it was a real challenge and was wide enough to not be carnage. Of course, it was also a great place to red line. So m aybe not. The start will definitely be a bit easier, but certainly not easy. There’s a short uphill pitch (about 10m over 200m) and then a flat section before it starts to climb in earnest where the classic trail splits off about 700m from the start. This section climbs about 30m over the next kilometer up to the Power Lines. The new start area has about 30 tracks, the left-most six of which are reserved for classic skiers. However, skaters are welcome to line up in them, but have to double-pole in the tracks as far as they can before the tracks lead off to the left. This is not a bad strategy, as skating in traffic can be more hazardous to the poles than double poling and them merging right when the coast is clear(er).
  • 49k Once past the start, the rest of the trail is wider than the old trail: the old mini-Power Lines were rather narrow, and the new trail appears to be about 20m wide, enough for several skate lanes, so traffic should stay somewhat more spread out. The old trail would bottleneck a bit, this trail is wide to the power lines. (Here’s a Strava segment.)
  • 48k: The trail rejoins what you’re familiar with near the bend in the Power Lines. So, we still get some power lines. This may be a bit more crowded since the big, wide hill hasn’t had the chance to separate the men from the boys. The classic trail joins from the left at the right turn and leaves just after the feed. Mind the tracks. There’s enough room to avoid them and folks will yell at you if  you ski in to them. With the classic skiers going out earlier this year, even the elites should see some striders in the tracks. There are a couple of places where the trail splits, staying left is generally best, but there’s at least one pitch where the right fork may be preferable, especially if there is traffic. When you hear the drummers, you’re at the high point of the Power Lines.
  • 47k: There is no longer a feed at Power Lines since it would be only about 3.5k in to the race and without as big a climb it would have been chaos. Half the time the Power Line feed was too fast to grab, anyway. Feeds in the Birkie are generally at the ends of downhills, so you can coast through and grab a drink. From there, the trail ducks in to the woods with a sweeping left turn. There are no big hills for the next three k, but there are no big downhills and the course climbs overall. No rest. Get ready to climb. This is also a good place to blow up. You don’t want to. And, yes, the trail is still 30 feet wide. It is this wide the rest of the way. Seriously. Tracking rules are not really in effect—if you want to pass, don’t yell, go around.
  • 44k: At around the 44 km to go, the you crest a hill having climbed a net of 85m from the start. You finally get some rest over the next couple of kilometers with a couple of downhills, with the first feed coming up at Timber Trail. No sharing the trail with the Korteloppet this year. For these feeds, skaters stay right, classic skiers stay left, and there two lanes with feeders on both sides. Caution: feeds may be warm.
  • 43k: After a feed at Timber Trail, the Korte trail used to diverge left. Now instead of focusing on going the right direction, you can focus on the climb ahead. Oh, and get ready to climb.
  • 41k: Here lies the infamous Hecklers Hill a.k.a. Bobblehead Hill. The trail makes a sweeping left turn on a downhill, which is probably the trickiest hill of the course. To top it off, it’s 100 yards from a snowmobile trail, and (if it’s not too cold) a couple dozen (or more) sledders have a bonfire going while they drink beer (yes, at 9:00 a.m.; they’re snowmachiners after all) and cheer you on. Actually, they want to see falls. Stay up (unless you want a score) and try not to breathe in too much cigarette smoke. According to late-wavers, this hill might become three parallel luge courses by late waves. If you don’t snowplow, it won’t. STEP TURN! (Why “Bobblehead”? Because of the sledder’s heads in their oversized helmets bobbing up and down.) Of course, with thousands of skiers, it was so fast in 2010 that even the elites were sliding this corner, so it will wash out or later waves. Berms may be your friend. And if you fall, you fall. The recent WaPo article about the Birkie has quite a long segment about this hill.
  • 40k: Now you start climbing again. There are a couple of more-gradual climbs before you come down a short hill and lay eyes on Firetower Hill, the climb to the high point of the race. Yes, it looks long. Yes, it is long. Yes, it has a downhill on the other side. This hill is a 50m net gain from the bottom of Heckler’s Hill, and 110m from the start. You really want to feel good here, because this is where the race begins. It’s still 40k to Hayward, but it’s down 600 feet. Don’t blow up on the long hill, but it’s definitely a good place to go hard if you feel like it.
  • 39k: High point is marked. If you’re going fast enough, you won’t see this. You then have more than two rolling kilometers downhill. There’s a small climb and then three kilometers nearly all downhill. You’ve earned that! There’s a  feed about a kilometer in to this downhill. Recover a bit. The trail then rolls for a while.
  • 25k: There are three small hills after this long descent, and then a long tricky uphill before the Boedecker Road feed (34k). Most of the Birkie Trail is very level (perpendicularly speaking, if that makes any sense), but this hill is quite off-camber. The trail widens out with some pines on the left, and as you climb you’ll feel the trail leaning to the left. You sort of have to use a right-side V1 on this hill as you climb it if you want to stay efficient. After the trail turns, the hill continues but is not off-camber. Fun. It’s a nice 40m climb, too. Every climb on the Birkie Trail is an A climb, it seems. After the feed, the trail is relatively flat (that’s new) for two kilometers.
  • 32k: There are two downhills after Boedecker. The first has a sweeping right turn near the top, the second a sharp right at the bottom, with a small uphill in between. During a fast year, these can get tricky.
  • 30k: There’s another 40m slog up to the road crossing at OO. You’ll see quite a few people on this hill cheering for racers. The top of the hill is a good place to eat a gel if you want one. before the feed (29k).
  • 29k: New in 2019, there’s a bridge over Highway OO. This means that there’s an additional climb across OO. The classic trail joins here, and the bridge is narrow, but better than the old road crossing, which was always soft. There is another bonus: with better traffic flow, it is easier for spectators to access OO, and so the bridge approach is lined with spectators, as are the trails for the kilometer before. The feed has been moved to the Korteloppet start are past the bridge, which the Birkie now runs through.
  • 28k: New this year, the Birkie course will turn left to join the Korteloppet course in the start area there, which is quite wide and has a slight upgrade. After about a k, there’s a picnic table on the right. After that, you get a nice descent, and then the trail is rather gradual for the next several kilometers. Note that in recent years, the snow has changed considerably past OO, where thousands of skiers skied on it the day before. This will depend on the year most certainly, but is a testament to the accumulated effects of thousands of skiers applying pressure and then a regroom. This is especially of concern for classic skiers, who will be sharing the trail from here on out. You now have a bit less room with two classic tracks (in the past one on each side, now two set on the left side). Mind the tracks and the striding skiers. (The skate lane is still 20 feet wide so there’s no excuse for skiing in the classic track. In the peak of the race, it will often have two parallel trains of skaters, with striders on the side.) Skaters do jump in to the tracks if they’re faster on downhills, which is fine, but don’t impede classic skiers. Classic skiers may cut corners on the skate trail as long as they don’t skate. Depending on the year, skaters may use the faster classic tracks on downhills, or classic skiers may avoid the tracks and use the skied-in skate lanes.
  • 23k: There’s a significant hill that I used to call 29k hill, because it was at the 29k marker. Now the marker is 23k to go, so I guess I have to call it 23k hill. You’ll know you’re on it because you have a sustained climb for the first time in a while, and there’s a kilometer marker in the middle of the thing. It’s not particularly steep, but it’s long, and climbs more than 30m (but not quite 40!), longer than any hill between the climb before OO and after Mosquito Brook, a span of 15 km, or nearly a third of the race. In a sense, the first 20k of the race have 7 significant climbs (and the first 10 is one long climb), the last 15 km have four, and this middle section has just this one. The 23k marker is about halfway up the hill. Jesse says it’s a good place to go hard and put a minute on the field. I agree, if you’re feeling good, since there’s a lot of rest after it (I always like that downhill for some reason, there is just one small climb over about 3k). though, leading in to the next feed (20k) at Gravel Pit. Yes, it’s 9k between feeds, but there is only that one major climb. After Gravel Pit, the trail has a steep but short climb (20m), with some nice downhills to Mosquito Brook. There is one that has full southern exposure, so it might get sticky in the sun later in the race on a warm day. There is an overall descent of 30m to Mosquito Brook with no major climbs.
  • 14k: You get a feed just past Mosquito Brook Road, after the crossing (not yet bridged, so soft, and probably worth double-poling; the volunteers are great but there’s only so much shoveling they can do). You have about 500m of flat skiing across the stream before the trail begins to climb. 17k with one big hill may have lulled you in to complacency—but there are now four big climbs in the next 9k. There used to be three, and they added one. The saving grace is that each has some sort of recovery, which you’ll need. The first is split in to two parts, starting with Mosquito Brook Hill, isn’t particularly steep, but it’s pretty long, gaining nearly 40m feet with one small respite. The trail then levels out and has a gradual downgrade.
  • 12k: Here lies Bitch Hill. It’s only 20m in height, but has an average grade of 10% or more, and at this point in the race it looks like a wall. Yes, Bitch Hill. (When people are being PC, “B Hill” but this website is not PC.) And just like obscenity, you’ll know Bitch Hill when you see it. The bitches on the hill will cheer you up it and hand out mardi gras beads. Take beads if you wish.Sometimes there is a priest telling off-color jokes. There is always some sort of party. You may not feel like, it, as this is a frequent place to bonk.
  • 11k: After Bitch Hill, two downhills lose the elevation you just gained. There’s one small-but-steep uphill after these, which used to the the biggest of three bumps before the cruise across Rosie’s Field to Highway 77 and on towards the final climb. But then they cut the first couple of kilometers off and had to keep the race at 50k. Could they have put an S-curve on the lake? Sure. But they didn’t. Instead they added a hill.
  • 9k: The feed at Hatchery Park follows a relatively narrow section which may have been widened slightly.
  • 8k: Instead of crossing the field, you turn up what someone on Strava called “Son of Bitch Hill” which seems fitting. The hill climbs more than 40m, and while it’s never steep, it is never really easy. The only saving grace is that the downhill, after your legs are cooked, is arrow straight before taking a left along Hatchery Road to Highway 77. It’s worth noting that there may be a new bridge here in 2020. There is sometimes an unofficial feed at Highway 77 for folks up front, with plastic water bottles, but don’t count on it. With 8k to go, the Hatchery feed is a good one to take. No word on how the feed will work with the new bridge, but at least there’s a bridge. Just Mosquito Brook left to bridge!
  • 6k: Cross Highway 77 and … you climb again. The climb after Highway 77 is the last climb of any consequence of the day, so there’s that. And it’s a doozy, especially after 45k. It’s in some ways a repeat of the previous hill, but a bit steeper and bit shorter and it seems to go by. It’s curvy enough you can never really see the top, the grade changes along the way, and when you get to the top the trail opens above and you feel free. The prize is that after you go up more than 100 feet, you have a long, sweeping downhill towards Lake Hayward. The view are great and you can see the town and water tower across the lake (if it’s not snowing), pulling you towards the finish line.
  • 3k: After crossing two small roads (generally okay snow cover) and a flat section between rows of trees where the race ends if there is open water on the lake, you ski on to the lake. It should be easy to ski across two flat kilometers. However a) you are 47k in to the race and b) there is usually a head wind. Find a pack and ski with them; if you do you can often pick off some skiers in front of you who blow up on the lake. If you feel good, pound it out. And it might be faster to ski off the side of the trail where they’ve plowed snow off the ice, but it might be really icy. And it might be not allowed. Ski there at your own peril.
  • 1k: The lake is generally lined with people, so there’s impetus to go fast. There are k markers on the lake, and a 1000m to go near the end. You come up off the lake behind the Marketplace foods, and take a left around the grocery store. (Oh, and there are often interesting feeds on the lake, which may or may not be legal if you’re under 21.) The snow here is often a bit soft, which really does a number on your legs. You then make a right turn on to Main Street and can see the finish; there’s a flower pot to go around (generally right) and you cross Highway 63, which is snowed in well but always quite soft (they don’t put snow down until about 9:00). Your legs will be angry but then Main Street has had snow on it since Wednesday, so it’s solid and fast. Pick your lane, soak in the cheers as you fly up the street and power home. It’s slightly uphill, and a V2 is often the technique of choice for the sprint. SPRINT IT OUT, DUDE!
  • 0.5k: There is now a bridge at 49.5-ish k. I think everyone is pretty pleased with the bridge. The climb up is not too bad, and it gives you a nice little downhill kick in to town. There’s a stairway next to the bridge, but they ask you not to wait and cheer on the bridge itself. There are some nice views though.
  • 0k: Finish! If you win, do whatever it is when you win. Otherwise, get your bag, and put your skis somewhere conspicuous where you can remember them. If you finish early, the town will seem totally overbuilt with a tent city and infrastructure for thousands. It feels like a ghost town. It fills up. If you’ve recovered, go and cheer people on as they finish. If you are interviewed at the finish on WOJB, be ready to answer “what’s your name? where ya from?” and “how was the race/trail.” Using a broad Midwest accent and giving short answers like “yah, good” is the norm. (Sample interview: What’s your name? Where ya from? “Bill, Minneapolis.” How were conditions out there? “Yah, pretty good then.” How was your wax? “Yah, pretty good.” This goes on for hours.) But if you are from out of town, anything goes. Except, since it’s live, keep it clean.

After the race in 2011, Caitlin Gregg said that, after not having skied the course for several years, this description was “very helpful.” And she won (first of 5). Maybe I know something.