Norway, here we come!
By Lennard Zinn
Now in my 20th year of cross-country ski racing, I’m finally embracing the traditional classic (kick-and-glide) technique in anticipation of racing the granddaddy of all ski races, the 54K Birkebeinerrennet in Norway March 19. The Birkebeinerrennet commemorates the rescue in 1206 of the infant crown prince Haakon Haakonsson (who later became Haakon IV of Norway) from enemy Bagler rebels by two mighty Birkebeiner (literally, “birch-bark leggings”) warriors, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, who carried the child over two mountain ranges during a blizzard to safety in what is now Trondheim. The racecourse now traverses a route west from Rena to Lillehammer over two mountains. Participants are only allowed to ski with the classic technique (i.e., skating is not allowed), and they must carry at least 3.5kg on their backs to simulate the weight of the infant prince.
For two decades, including racing the American Birkebeiner 50K race in northern Wisconsin a dozen times, I have only been doing “freestyle” ski races, which means that the faster skating technique is allowed. (Ski skating looks like ice skating except for the addition of skis and ski poles and doesn’t require kick wax to grab the snow to climb hills—rather, the skis are waxed tip to tail for speed only.)
On my bucket list is to do all of the races on the Worldloppet circuit—a series of 15 mass-start races in 15 different countries (mostly in Europe but including also Canada, USA, Japan and Australia), seeing along the way countries like Estonia, Finland, Poland, and the Czech Republic that I might otherwise have been unlikely to ever visit. I’ve been ticking them off one at a time, but the Birkebeinerrennet is the first classic-only one of them I will have done, and there are a number of other ones that are also classic only. So it’s time to learn how to classic ski.
In addition to two friends from Boulder, Clint Kay and Greg Berlind, I also roped into doing the Birkebeinerrennet with me my dear friend Dag Selander, a cycling teammate of mine in 1982 and former Norwegian Olympic Team member who raced on pro cycling teams in the USA and Holland in the 1980s. I couldn’t imagine ski racing in Norway without Dag! Dag, Greg, Clint and I have been racing the American Birkebeiner together since the mid-1990s, so it’s a switch for all of us to classic technique. Dag, however, grew up classic skiing and racing in Norway and, like all Norwegians, had kick wax added to his infant formula. In the early 1980s when living in Boulder, Dag used to win the local ski races as off-season training for cycling; this was classic skiing, as it was before the skating technique was invented in 1985. But Dag’s classic ski equipment dated also to the 1970s, so a group of us got together and got him fast, modern equipment, since he never spends any money on himself.
Thus outfitted, Greg, Dag and I took on our first classic race at the City of Lakes Loppet, a fantastic event in Minneapolis in early February with very cool community ski events the prior day. We acquitted ourselves well in the Loppet and then took on the biggie, the American Birkebeiner on February 26 in classic technique. The latter was extremely cold and difficult, being, at 54K, 4K longer than the skate race and considerably slower due to the less efficient technique. After suffering for 3.5 hours (an hour more than it takes us to skate the American Birkie) in -9F weather and falling snow, we survived and actually did quite well, assuring ourselves first-wave starts in future classic Birkies. I followed this with the Snow Mountain Stampede 42K classic race in Tabernash, CO, after umpteen times skating this race.
I’m having a blast classic skiing, a technique I used to laugh at, and I’m learning lots about kick wax and how to get the skis to grip. And Dag is like a little kid again, going back to his roots. And at my age, injury management is always an issue. Thanks to a personal trainer and a twice-weekly Boot Camp class, I seem to have built up enough overall strength that I’m surviving the races better. Every single ski marathon I’ve done for the last 14 years at least one of my elbows was in sharp pain due to tendinitis by the finish—until the Stampede last weekend—no elbow pain, no going to bed with ice on my elbows! That’s in spite of spending 45 minutes more racing time than I would have when skating, and using my upper body more! I’m stoked! I still have a foot injury to manage, but everything else is working well.
On to Norway next week! We’re hoping to get a start further toward the front with our good US Birkie results. There are 16,000 people who do the Birkebeinerrennet (it sells out in 18 minutes online after registration opens), so there are a lot of people clogging the tracks if you start in the back. I’ll let you know how it goes.