The Race: Feeds and Hydration

Most long races have feed stations, and the Birkie is no exception. It doesn’t have blueberry soup (you’ll have to travel to Sweden—or a nearer Mora—for that) but there will be water, energy drink and other consumables, like fruit, cookies, gels, and other sugary items along the course. As you approach an aid station, you’ll hear calls of “water” and “energy” which mean “water” and “whatever energy drink is sponsoring the race this year” (Nuun in 2023). Gels are often handed out at aid stations, too, although it’s harder to rely on them, and it can be difficult to get an energy gel into your mouth before hitting the last of the water to gulp it down. Plus, you have no choice in flavor and some flavors can be interesting. There are additional complications to running a Birkie feed which make them a bit more complex than, say, a marathon or a small ski race, and may affect how you interact with the aid station as a racer.

Temperature is an issue that the Birkie has to deal with and road marathons do not. It’s rare for a road marathon to be run in temperatures where the state of matter of the water at the aid stations is a problem, and it’s rare at the Birkie for this not to be the case. So while road marathons can pre-load thousands of water cups on tables and let them sit out for distribution to racers, Birkie feeds have to be constantly replenished lest they turn from liquid to solid. This is mitigated by keeping the feed warm; each aid station has a large warming vat to keep gallons and gallons of water and energy drink warm for racers. The liquid goes from the warming vat into pitchers and then into cups and is generally cool to lukewarm by the time racers pass through. There’s nothing worse than a frozen feed cup, except for, perhaps, a scalding one. Don’t expect either, and make sure to thank a volunteer, standing in the cold, getting wet and sticky from the liquid.

The other variable the Birkie has to manage is volume. Since the Birkie is several times larger than any other ski race in the country, everything must be done at scale. A smaller race might get by with a couple of insulated Gatorade jugs at each feed. The Birkie needs the aforementioned heaters. It also needs teams of people at each aid station, to heat drinks, transport drinks, hand out drinks and then rake the cups off of the snow and pick them up. Keeping you fed during the race takes teams of hundreds of people.

So, how should you plan to interact with the feed? A lot of this depends on how you are planning to race. If you’re in an early wave, you can plan to glide through each feed (they are generally at level points in the race, if not on slight downhills, although if the snow is fast the first feed at Timber Trail can be tough to get without scrubbing a lot of speed). Unfortunately, if you’re used to running races, there are some added complications to taking a ski race feed. The first is that it’s cold. Your hands don’t work particularly well. The second is that you can’t hold onto your feed and take a few sips and still pole. So it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. I generally use the method of putting two fingers in the cup, taking one sip, tossing the cup, and not losing my pole. The second complication: you have poles on your hands! When it’s 5˚ and you have thick gloves and pole straps on, there’s not a lot of dexterity. Sometimes the “taking a sip” part of the process becomes “throwing water in the general vicinity of my face” and sometimes it works. Expect to be covered with some amount of frozen, sticky feed after the race. Don’t worry too much, everyone else will be, too. As you come in, you can yell “energy” or “water” and the correct hand will often get stuck out for you. Water is usually in white cups, with energy in branded cups, and it is possible to take two cups at one feed if you get the first one early enough.

For later and more recreational skiers, the process can be a bit less intimidating. Rather than the grab-and-go feeds, many skiers will stop, and actually attempt to eat and drink like normal human beings. Fruit and bananas are usually passed by by top-level racers (it’s hard to grab them at speed) but more popular further back. Volunteers will often walk out to meet skiers in the middle of the trail, a no-no early on when they might block the next skier. For some skiers, getting too chatty with the volunteers can lead to longer race times and missing race cutoffs! But everyone appreciates a good conversation, this is the Midwest after all.

What about bringing your own nutrition and hydration? Many skiers do this! You have to manage a few variables if you do. First, you have to carry what you bring. For water, this usually means a drink belt with a water bottle holder. I’ve found that it’s best to have one which holds a water bottle firmly but still loose enough I can get it out with cold fingers. Then you have to successfully transfer the bottle to your mouth with cold hands. Finally, you have to keep it from freezing. This can be done through a combination of salt, liquor (most Kwik Trips sell nips), body heat and putting it upside-down in your water bottle holder, just make sure it doesn’t leak. And make sure not to drop it at 30k when you really need a drink (been there). I usually have one as backup, but rely on the aid stations.

As for nutrition beyond liquids, many skiers ski with their favorite brand and flavor of energy gel. I prefer gels with lots of caffeine in them (Clif espresso gels have 100 mg) for an extra boost, and I can use the Clif “litter leash” to attach it to my drink belt. I’ve seen people use staples, duct tape, athletic tape and all other manner of adhesive to try to keep gels accessible without flopping. A note on gels: they can be hard to open with cold hands in poles and cold teeth, and you generally want to follow a gel with some water, so they’re good to have just before an aid station. This is also helpful, because you can throw the gel packet at the aid station, rather than stuffing it in your pants (which can make for a stick situation) or, worse yet, throwing it in the snow, where it will get skied over, power tilled and eventually melt out in the spring. Don’t do that. (Amongst other things it’s against the rules and could result in a 15 minute penalty added to your time, which is usually worth a wave, or more! And you feel shame.)

A couple of final notes: what you do before race day may be more important than race day itself. My two worst Birkies came from being dehydrated at the start (bad, because it’s hard to rehydrate in the race, so make sure you’re up on Friday night to make #1) and underfed (sick the week before the race). I’ve found that I can manage a three-hour marathon on liquid feeds alone. But since skiing is more full-body, you use more calories than running, and I generally need a bit more of an energy boost at the Birkie, even if the times are slower. So extra calories, both before and during the race, are a must. And from prior experience, if you have a cold the week before the race and not much of an appetite, you’re not going to have a stellar day on race day!