'Birkie' racers brave brutal course, frigid conditions to test mettle

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A small Wisconsin town with a huge winter tradition: The 41st American Birkebeiner

Cable, Wis. – How do you get 10,300 cross-country skiers to an early morning race start in the middle of rural Northern Wisconsin?

You need a whole bunch of school buses.

That explained the bright yellow traffic jam on the road through Cable, Wisconsin, as the buses climbed to a broad plateau surrounded by towering, snow-laden pines. The vehicles, commandeered from school districts all over the region, were packed with both the elite and avid – the world’s best cross-country skiers and thousands of citizen athletes from 21 countries and 48 states. And don’t underestimate those competitors – they include amateur elites, college and high school ski racers, weekend warriors, and wiry and determined grandparents who love nothing more than a long ski through the woods. Furthermore, a remarkable 85 percent of the racers were returners – meaning they knew exactly what they were getting into, and couldn’t wait to do it again.

Tom Reichelt smiles after winning the men's skate division at the American Birkebeiner. (AP)

That was the surge of sporting passion that filled the racing ranks of the 41st annual American Birkebeiner (known as the Birkie), and that made a frigid Saturday morning warm with good cheer and anticipation. It may have been two degrees. There may have been a headwind. And the finish line may have been more than 30 miles away, on Main Street in Hayward, Wisconsin. But those racers were raring to go.

Disgorging from buses and hiking with their skis up a narrow mountain road to the start, the brightly colored hordes looked like happy refugees crossing an Alpine border. And their preparations – chowing down PB&J on homemade white bread, doing a final wax job on their skis, grabbing a free donut from the bundled-up Hayward High School football team – were all in service to skiing this cross-country gauntlet, considered one of the toughest of its kind in the world.

Known as one of the longest ski marathons in North America (and one of the top-16 ski marathons worldwide that comprise the prestigious Worldloppet circuit), Birkie's real teeth is its relentless terrain. The course is packed with hills, including Firetower Hill, which pushes skiers to gain more than 400 feet of altitude from their start, as well as the candidly dubbed “Bitch Hill,” tormenting deep into the race at the 25-mile mark with the steepest grade of the entire course. Whether you’re skiing the race skate-style or in the classic parallel technique (and the Birkie has a special route for each), the exertion is unremitting. Pushing up hills like these can burn more than 1000 calories an hour.

And just when the terrain levels out, there’s a 2.5-mile crossing of frozen Lake Hayward, right into the howling Arctic wind.

Which means Birkie skiers often look like Nordic warriors, with custom-cut Moleskin patches on their cheeks and down the bridge of their noses, to ward off frostbite. They pack liquids and energy gels to keep their calories up. And they gladly grab the water, energy gel, electrolyte drinks, bananas, and Nilla wafers offered by cheery volunteers at eight rustic food stations along the way. And when the town of Hayward finally comes into sight, they push up the narrow, crowd-lined Main Street with the same attack of those Olympians in Sochi this month.

[Slideshow: Best photos from the American Birkebeiner]

The top finishers blew through in over two hours – Minnesota native Caitlin Gregg notched her third Birkie women’s division win and a purse of $10,000 ($7,500 for her finish, plus $2,500 for being the highest-finishing American female) with a time of 2 hours, 40 minutes and 57.4 seconds. Gregg's husband, Brian, was preparing for the men’s 50-kilometer mass start freestyle race at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but called to congratulate Caitlin after her win Saturday.

Meanwhile, Tom Reichelt of Germany topped a closely packed trio of finishers to win the men’s division by less than a second over Italian skier Simone Paredi at 2:14:29.9.

Hours after the champions crossed, waves of skiers continued to charge to the finish – their name getting called out over the loudspeaker amid the friendly clang of cowbells.

Some hunched over their poles, gasping for oxygen. Others collapsed. After fighting their way up and down the Birkie’s bedeviling landscape, these skiers were exhausted.

But give them a moment and ask them how it went. Sure, you get the word "cold," but more often you hear words like "great," "awesome," and "incredible." And when you ask if they’ll be back, watch the ice crack off that man’s frozen mustache as he breaks into a wide grin.

"Absolutely."

For all results of the 41st American Birkebeiner, go here.

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