Although I’ve never skied in any of the Birkie events, I’ve been involved somehow for over 20 years: as a reporter, photographer, spectator, support crew, and child wrangler. I’ve interviewed participants, watched them on the trail during the race, and listened to their stories in the shop after the events. Over the years, it has become very evident that each of the Birkie waves has a distinct personality. Have you noticed it while you were watching or as you were skiing?
Gary Crandall has a unique perspective on this topic. As one of the founders of the Power Line Drummers, with his wife Sara Balbin, he has seen innumerable skiers of all kinds. “We drum from the very first skier to the very last. What a spectrum of skiing humanity is represented in all those waves…Skill level is the complete spectrum as well—from the fastest elite skiers to those who slide on their back sides down the hills and crawl up the other side.”
Gary and Sara started the Power Line Drummers to make memories for their family as well as the other drummers who joined them and the skiers who skied by, and no matter what wave those skiers are in, Gary says they have been “so thankful for our ability to snap them out of their focus for just a bit to enjoy some music and light-hearted encouragement.”
And, although all the skiers are happy to hear those drummers at top of the power line stretch, he says, “As the waves come and go one after the other, signs of appreciation change.”
First to pass are the Elites. These guys and gals are the real deal. Not just a bunch of young hotshots, either. Take a close look around and there are some that have completed more Birkies than the age of the youngsters in this wave. Top 200 is the goal to preserve one’s elite status. Many elite skaters will finish in well under 2.5 hours. These skiers have to keep their heads in the game, so there’s no time for much acknowledgement of spectators or drinking a shot before Lake Hayward.
Wave 1 – The stampede. Wave one goes out fast… super fast. No strategic goofing around here. It’s all gas pedal, so hang on if you can! Many here are either on the cusp of moving up to the elite wave or have just gotten kicked out of the elites. There’s always a lot of chatter in wave 1 about “how I haven’t been training much,” or “ I’m just going for an easy cruise today…” Don’t believe any of it – nearly everyone here is super fit and will ski as fast as they possibly can! Tip: if you can’t ski at the front of this wave, don’t line up at the front of this wave, seriously. Another tip: line up mid-wave or toward the rear and go for a steady, moderate pace til OO and then step on the gas. It’s much easier for force a fast pace and pass other skiers after OO than before. These skiers may be even more “uptight” than the Elites as they may have a lot to prove or a lot to lose.
Wave 2 & 3 – Smooth & Fast. 2 & 3 are known for a much more relaxed, but still speedy tempo. There’s a lot less bumping between skiers and fewer broken poles. Many here are former elite and wave 1 skiers. A decent day out of wave 2 will get you a sub-3 hour Birkie on skate skis – not too shabby! Take advantage of the steady nature of these waves and save energy on the way to OO and, like in wave 1, step it up in the second half. According to Gary, here is when he starts to get some feedback. “First some smiles, then some rocking body motion to our ski beat. Then, skiers shouting thank yous.”
Scott Smith skied his first Birkie in 1992 and has skied about half of his Birkies from Wave 2. You may know Scott from his time as Torstein, one of the Birkie warriors in 2017. “It’s interesting to be skiing along with hundreds of other people without any conversation going on. Only in aerobic competitions would this many people in close proximity remain silent. In these earlier waves, more skilled skiers take hills in stride and the backups (that are common in later waves) simply do not happen…things are more spread out.” These guys and gals are pretty focused on the gains they can make; they simply don’t have time to chat, a smile or nod may be it.
Wave 4 – Business in front, party in back… but much prettier than a mullet (if you get the joke). At the front of wave 4 is often a group of really fast skiers that is gunning for a faster wave. A customer at the shop who shall remain nameless commented, “Wave 4 is full of super-competitive Grannies.” If you go with the front here, be prepared to fly until you catch wave 3, then there’s a lot of passing to do. At the back of wave 4, well, it’s all about fun. Let the party begin! A lot of thanks, smiles, and questions from this group. As a spectator, it’s great to get some more acknowledgment for your cowbell efforts.
Wave 5-7 – The party continues! These are the real heroes of the Birkie. Everyone else did their best to destroy the trail ahead of them. Every uphill is like mush, each fast curve scraped down to ice. Many here get to ski just a few times per year in preparation, some not even once. No kidding, each year, there are a few that make the pilgrimage without a single day on snow. Some are devout rollerskiers and some not, but they are all fully committed. The dress code for the late waves is always interesting. One-piece race suit, yes. Sensible ski tights and a light jacket, sure. Blaze-orange deer-hunting bibs, yup, that too! It’s like a tossed salad of every imaginable outfit possible.
If one thing defines the later waves, though, it’s the smiles. Sleet, sun, cold – doesn’t matter. Remember, these skiers are working a lot harder than their speedy brethren and are out there a lot longer doing it. “The course is very different in the back. The corduroy that the elite skiers encounter is long gone, and in place of that are furrowed rows or berms that make descending on a corner treacherous. The uphills have turned to mashed potatoes,” comments Scott. But despite the long hours on the trail and the relatively poor conditions, They are here to have fun.
Paulette Smith, Scott Smith’s wife and Chris’ mom, started in the back (Wave 10 at the time) for her first Korte. “I started as a newbie at the age of 59. After being on skis for only 2 months, I skied with my son who shepherded me through the course. My goal was simply to finish and live to tell about it. It was great! We stopped and talked to lots of people along the way. In general the atmosphere was very chill. I had the biggest smile ever crossing the finish line! The ski patrol even made all of us back there take our skis off on a tricky downhill back behind Telemark. Hilarious!” Regarding the downhill ski removal, Chris recalls asking the ski patrol personnel “Are you kidding?” They responded very sternly, “NO. We will disqualify you!”
Joel has also had the privilege of skiing in Wave 10 after having been used to being closer to the front. “I had my best race while skiing in Wave 10,” Joel says. ” Everyone is so social. Skiers are yelling from the top of every hill, and everyone is full of enthusiasm.”
Gary agrees, “By these later waves skiers are downright conversational. They ski over for a photo opportunity or hug or to actually take a turn pounding the drums.”
Whether you get passed by at the speed of light or get a bear hug from an energy drink drunk skier in jeans and camo, all of the different kinds of racers add to the Birkie experience. Every wave is different and every skier is important. Let’s make an effort to cheer them all on! This is what the Birkie is about!
Thanks to Chris Young, Joel Harrison, Gary Crandall, Judy Krueger, Brett Morgan, and Scott and Paulette Smith for their input.