Birken backpacks & Cooking dinner for Norway’s (potential) next Prime Minister!

Another week has passed in my “marathon of marathons.”  The Norwegian Birkie, called “Birken” is the 9th long distance ski race I’ve competed in this winter.  As an ambassador and huge fan of the American Birkie I was extremely curious to see what the Norwegian Birken was like and how it compared.  It’s safe to say that they are two completely different races for a host of reasons and both are completely awesome. 
Fun to be on a team with girls from 3 different countries!  Kerttu Niskanen, Me & Laila Kveli pre- Birken modeling our perfectly weighed 3.5k backpacks! 
The Stange Family! Erik, Emily, Henrik & Greta 🙂
A huge thank you to the Stange family for hosting me in Lillehammer for the week.  (And thanks to Ben Popp, ED of the American Birkie for connecting us!)  Erik is a former high-level ski racer and we have lots of mutual friends. I had a blast with him and his family. They fed me, gave me rides, loaned trail maps, and were awesome company. They had great Internet, a queen sized bed (!) laundry, and a wax bench so I was in heaven. 
Thanks to Andrew Young of Great Britain for providing some rides to training.  If you look closely you can see that the steering wheel is on the right side instead of the left side of their van.
After a long stint of traveling and racing alone it was fun to rejoin Team Santander for the Norwegian Birkie.  I didn’t have to worry about waxing, accommodations or transportation which was a huge relief.  Many of these marathons (especially the point to point ones over mountain ranges) are logistically difficult and having a team to help was awesome! 
Plus, I had a new teammate and roommate for the two nights we slept in Rena (the small town where the Birken starts!)  Kerttu was coming off an impressive 4th place in the 30k Classic at World Championships in Falun so it was great having her on our team!
 
Kerttu weighing her pack after loading it with the necessary “survival gear” and rocks for added weight. 3.5 kilos is a lot more than you might think! 
Backpacks, rocks… 
 The finish line scale was out all week…. maybe as a scare tactic? As such, all the skiers in our house were obsessing over getting just the right weight, not too little, and not too much. If you’re found without some of the necessary gear or your pack is too light you face disqualification! 
Team bread delivery from Baker Hansen! 
Jorgen Auckland: Bread for breakfast, bread for lunch.  There is no gluten intolerance on THIS Norwegian Team! 
Birken weather report
Race bib modifications and dinner preparation occur simultaneously. 
Rena is a small town and as such, it’s hard to accommodate the thousands upon thousands of people that come to participate and help out with the race. Thus, many ended up boarding buses at 4am in Lillehammer to ride to the race start in Rena.  Many of the pro team opt to stay in Rena and for us, that meant renting a private house for the weekend.  The family moved out, and we moved in. 
While I heard of other teams bringing along cooks our team didn’t have such a thing. In fact, that cook turned out to be ME! I enjoy cooking and am not intimidated cooking for large groups of people (thanks to years as a coach and perhaps training camps on Eagle Glacier where we take turns cooking for the entire camp!) It didn’t set in until later that not only was I (along with help) cooking for the team but the guest list which included Norwegian TV, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, and Jonas Gahr Store, the leader of the Norwegian Labor Party and arguably the next Prime Minister of NORWAY! All of these aforementioned people spent the night at our team house AND raced the next day. Standard protocol in Norway. (Can you imagine Barack Obama and Bill Gates racing the American Birkie??!!) Yes, slightly different I know but I had to draw a comparison!
 Naturally I had to get a selfie with Jonas Gahr Store 
The day before the race was heinous with overcast conditions and temperatures around 32 degrees making waxing really difficult. We trained in late morning and attempted to ski the first 10k of the race following a couple thousand skiers who did the “open track” or more informal “race” the day before the real deal. 
However, the following day, race day was AWESOME. Oh, it should be mentioned that last year’s race was cancelled due to high winds across the mountains so this year we were lucky with sunshine and low wind conditions! 
Johaug, skiing by herself on a perfect Birken Day…. Photo, Swix Ski Classics
For more race photos check out the Ski Classics Facebook page HERE
Although it’s better, I’m still struggling with elbow tendinitis spurred on my racing the Marcialonga with a “blank ski” AKA, no wax. The double poling on hard, artificial snow wreaked havoc on my arms.  While it’s a lot better than a month ago, I haven’t been able to train classic as much as I’d like and consequently, my confidence for classic racing isn’t quite there. I was happy that the Birken featured tons of climbing and opted for lots of kick wax on my skis. Unfortunately that also meant they were slow on the flats but so was I.  However, I met my goals for the race which were to have fun, enjoy the day, ski within my current capabilities, and maintain good technique.  While I wasn’t blazing fast it was good enough for a respectable 11th place for women overall and 3rd in my age group. The added bonus is that my elbows survived and I didn’t completely blow up.  I have two more marathon races this season and each of those will require a 110% effort so I’m glad I didn’t completely “drain the tanks.”  
That night we had a small party:
Alaska meets Norway! So fun to have dinner with new and old friends from both countries!  Left to right, Tora, Cathinka, Espen, Anders, Ragnild, Chris & Anne Marit
The next day I moved North…. 
Traditional Norwegian food at a road stop part way through the 6-hour drive with Anders from Lillehammer to Trondheim
Before racing the Birken myself and spending time around it, I didn’t realize the social status and professional ramifications of racing the Norwegian Birken.  I didn’t find out until after the race that many Norwegian’s motivation over the 54 kilometers is to earn their “Merket” or a Diploma that stats their accomplishment. The Merket is a percent back standard from the winner’s time(s) that amateur racers strive to achieve. The standard is gender and age specific.  Achieving the Merket is a big, big deal – such that people literally put it on the their CVs. In some Norwegian Professional Industries (like Finance) it is almost a rite of passage. This year, even Norway’s prince, the namesake Prince Hakon achieved his Merket which made front page news. Here is Anders with his!  Also super cool is that Espen (the brother of Anders) made the Merket from the 26th/last wave of the race! Huge congrats to both of them! 
Anders with his “Merket” (pronounced “Marka”)
Homemade Norwegian brown cheese, “Brunost”from Anne Marit (her mom, actually) and my third place age group award for the Birken 🙂 

This brings me up to today. I am currently in Trondheim staying at Anders and his girlfriend, Christine’s apartment. They are so nice to let me infringe on their space and I am incredibly thankful for their generosity and friendship.  On Thursday I will meet up with teammates from Santander and drive two hours to Are, Sweden for the final ski classics race. Snow is minimal and the race course is TBA but the race is going to be an important one for Team Santander. After a difficult weekend result wise at the Birken we are still leading the team competition but only by a few points over Team United Bakeries. It’s most certainly going to be a battle to the end! 
Thanks for checking in and have a fabulous week! 
Good luck to everyone at Supertour Finals in Sun Valley – miss you all!  Go APU!
Cheers, 
Holly