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 is conjecture for 2017 based on the new trail, note that for now I’m guessing on the kilometer markings.
- 0k: 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? Maybe 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 big question is how this will be groomed and whether there will be enforcement of a double-pole only zone. With the start on an uphill, it may be a bit of a push to have a double-pole zone, but with the slightly narrower start, that may be necessary. However, the rest of the trail is wider: 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. If you are a skater and don’t mind double poling, you may wish to stay to the left and use the classic tracks at the start. (Here’s a Strava segment.)
- 2k: 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.
- 4k: 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. You’ll know you’re at the high point of the power lines when you hear the drums playing. 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. 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.
- 5k: You finally get some rest between 7k and 9k with a couple of downhills, with the first feed coming up at Timber Trail. No sharing the trail with the Korteloppet this year.
- 7k: 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.
- 8k: Here lies the infamous 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 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 helments bobbing up and down.) It was so fast in 2010 that even the elites were sliding this corner, so it will wash out or later waves. The recent WaPo article about the Birkie has quite a long segment about this hill.
- 9k: Now you start climbing. 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. You really want to feel good here, because this is where the race begins. It’s still 38k 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.
- 10k: High point is marked. You then have more than two rolling kilometers downhill. A feed (old km 13.7) is during this downhill. Recover a bit. The trail then rolls for a while.
- 15k: There’s a tricky uphill before the Boedecker Road feed (old km 18.5). 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. After the feed, the trail is rolling but mostly downhill.
- 19k: After some fun, fast downhills there’s a 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 (old km 22.8).
- 21k: Cross OO, which will be narrow and thin. Surprisingly so, considering how well the rest of the trail is groomed. I think Birkie could have more snow on road crossings, and in the long term invest in three bridges or underpasses to bring them in to better shape. Anyway, double-poling the crossing is a good bet; it’s really loose otherwise. They will shovel snow all day. And no cars will drive across.
- 22k: New this year, the Birkie course will turn left to join the Korteloppet course in the start area there. 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.
- 23k: The classic trail joins from the left. 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.
- 29k: There’s a significant hill at 29k. It’s not particularly steep, but it’s long, and climbs more than 100 feet, longer than any hill since OO (22k) and until Mosquito Brook (38k). The 29k 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 want to make a move, make it here. You get a nice rest after it (I always like that downhill for some reason, there are a couple of rolls and then a cruise), though, leading in to the next feed (31.8k) at Gravel Pit. Yes, it’s 9k between feeds, but there is only that one major climb. After Gravel Pit, the trail rolls, with some nice downhills to Mosquito Brook. The one at about 33k has full southern exposure, so it might get sticky in the sun later in the race.
- 38k: You get a feed (38.1) at Mosquito Brook Road, after the crossing (similar strategy crossing the road as OO). 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 three big climbs in the next 7k. This is the last really big climb of the trail, and it’s split in to two parts. The first, Mosquito Brook Hill, isn’t particularly steep, but it’s pretty long, gaining nearly 150 feet with one small respite. The trail then levels out, before climbing again up “Bitch Hill.” Yes, Bitch Hill. (When people are being PC, “B Hill” but this website is not PC.) This one is half the elevation, but it’s very steep, and at 40k, it’s not a whole lot of fun. You’ll know it when you see it. The ladies (bitches) will cheer you up it and hand out mardi gras beds. Take beads if you wish. This is a frequent place to bonk, though, so you might not be having too much fun.
- 41k: After Bitch Hill, two downhills lose the elevation you just gained. Don’t worry, you won’t climb that much again. You skirt the field to Fish Hatchery and go back in to the woods, before returning to the field’s edge. There are three hills there that I remember being really nasty little climbs, but I often encounter them after I’ve been skiing the Double Birkie (after 83k of skiing) and at the end of a half marathon. So my judgment may be clouded. (They run a full marathon north from here to Telemark. Running. It sounds awesome.) .
- 42k Word on the street is that the narrow section through Hatchery Park is being eliminated. So the feed will be somewhere. In the past it was just past Highway 77. You have hills and 8k from here to the end. In other words, take this feed. There is sometimes a bandit feed at Highway 77, but not always. And they added a hill after that this year (more on that in a second).
- 44k This hill was added in 2016, and has not yet gotten a name. Rosie sold her property so Rosie’s Field is now going to be Rosie’s on-trail Birkie houses, and they are routing the Birkie Trail through it. Up a big hill. It’s about a 40m/140 foot climb, similar in grade to the Mosquito Brook or Highway 77 climbs but slightly longer. Not as steep as Bitch Hill, but twice the elevation. The hill is long, but not very steep. At least after the hill you get a downhill, come down on to the field and ski along Highway 77, through the sometimes bandit feed (at least for early waves) and across the road.
- 45k: And guess what? You climb again. The climb after Highway 77 is the last climb of any consequence of the day. And it’s a doozy, especially after 45k. Not as steep as the Bitch, and not as long as Mosquito Brook, but still a nice piece of uphill. The only consolation 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.
- 47k: After crossing two small roads (generally okay snow cover) and a flat section 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 illegal. Ski there at your own peril.
- 49k: 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!
- 50k: There will now be 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.
- 50.5k: 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 Compton (now Gregg) said that, after not having skied the course for several years, this description was very helpful. And she won. So I may not just be bloviating. Maybe I know something.