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Cross Country Skiing Wonderland in Norway




Birkebeinerrennet: 54 kilometers classic from Rena to Lillehammer



Pre-race:


On Thursday we found out the race organizers had postponed the Birkebeinerrennet event due to the high winds and snowfall forecast for race day. Instead of Saturday, the main race would now be held on Sunday with an option to complete the course on Friday. I understand this may have caused disappointment for some, but me for, it was fantastic news. I had seen the weather forecast and had been bracing myself to face the elements. I was excited to see Sunday was forecast to be a sunny day with great skiing conditions. On Friday I travelled by plane from Innsbruck to Oslo and then by train to Lillehammer. It was a very relaxing travel day knowing I had an extra day up my sleeve in case of any travel mishaps. Also, a rest day after travelling came as a welcome surprise.


It felt very special to be in Norway. The first things I noticed were all the water and the large open spaces. I did a quick search to find out the population density is even lower than New Zealand. No wonder I felt like I was in the wilderness. From the train I could see across frozen lakes and far into the distance over rolling hills. With snow everywhere! Lots of it!


I arrived in Lillehammer, a small town located at the northern end of Norway's largest lake, Mjøsa, famous for being the base for the 1994 Winter Olympics. 





On Saturday, considering the weather forecast I decided an indoor activity was appropriate. To the swimming pool! I took a bus to the Jorekstad Fritidsbad Swimming pool. Swimming pools are always fascinating places to me, especially in a foreign country. It’s a public facility, used mostly by locals and has a lot of moving parts. I think it really gives an insight into the culture of a place. The changing rooms, the pool etiquette, the facilities available and general flow of operations is always unique. Too many differences to write here but the first thing that surprised me was when I found myself walking into the changing rooms with socks, but no shoes on. Bizarre!




 


Race day:


 The start gun went off and straight away we were into the uphill. I was expecting an uphill, but it still seemed to surprise me. Maybe it was steeper than I expected, and I felt surprised how quickly we were into it. I knew there was about 18 kilometers of this uphill ahead of me, so I tried to find a rhythm. I don’t think I had ever done so much continuous uphill, and it really felt like we were climbing a mountain! I started overheating very quickly. There was almost a need for a wardrobe change but as we climbed higher, we were more exposed, and the temperature must have dropped. Soon enough I had forgotten about being too hot.



A notable factor of the Birkebeinerrennet is the requirement of all skiers to wear a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kilograms. The backpack is for safety reasons as the course traverses isolated and mountainous terrain and must contain appropriate equipment for severe mountain weather (clothing, food, drink etc.). However, the requirement to carry a backpack also has historic significance. The backpack symbolizes the rescue and carrying of the 18-month-old Norwegian prince, Haakon Haakonsson. Following the death of the young prince's father, Norwegian king Haakon Sverresson in 1204, two rivalling factions, the Baglers and the Birkebeiners, fought to gain control of the country. To keep the baby prince from being killed by the Baglers, and thereby secure the throne, a small group of Birkebeiners set out to rescue him and take him to safety. It is said around the new year 1205/1206, Skjervald Skrukka and Torstein Skjevla, two of the best skiers of the group chose to carry the child across the mountains separating Gudbrandsdalen and Østerdalen. It was a difficult journey, but the young prince was brought to safety in Trondheim.


The prince grew to become the king who united Norway after 1000 years of civil war, and led the country into its golden age during the Middle Ages. The name “Birkebeinere” was given by the Baglers, and originally intended to be offensive - referring to their leggings made of birch bark. It indicated that they were poor and incapable. They proved the Baglers wrong, and today the name carries a sense of pride, strength and endurance. In 1930 author and forester, Haakon Lie, published a newspaper article in Oslo launching the idea of a ski race, in honour of the historic rescue and two years later - on January 10th 1932, it was formally decided to arrange the very first Birkebeinerrennet. 

 




Normally when I look at the people around me during a race I just see everyone’s race bib. It was a unique sight to see everyone around me skiing with a backpack. It really felt like we were all off on a real kind of journey, or expedition into the mountains! 


Every so often I would see people alongside the course cheering. I saw couches made of snow. People had dug pits and built fortress-like structures out of snow. Blankets, camping stoves, shovels, skis, and Norwegian flags were some of the items often part of the spectator set up. It’s like they had set up camp for the day, or maybe a few days! These people and this whole situation really fascinated me. There were no roads to be seen, no towns or cars. I kept thinking, where are these people coming from!?  Some had skis parked by their little “camp”. To ski in itself is impressive. We were kilometers and kilometers away from the nearest town, all uphill. But many spectators had no skis. Curiouser and curiouser! I went through all kind of possibilities in my mind as I skied past them. I saw some skidoo tracks and in the end travel by skidoo was the only reasonable explanation I could come up with. I thought it was very puzzling indeed!




One spectator stands out in my mind. A boy, younger than 8 years old, wearing sunglasses was standing on a snow pile with his skis beside him and waving a large Norwegian flag larger than his whole body. I was starting to get an insight into how ingrained cross-country skiing is in the life and culture in Norway for both the young and old. 




As we reached the tops I was totally taken aback by the scenery. The snowy trees were now much shorter - about waist high, with curved tips, almost like Santa hats! It felt like another world and reminded me of something out of a Dr Seuss book. The weather was incredible, and I could see far far into the distance over rolling hills.





I remember thinking I was in a winter wonderland, or even better a cross country skiing wonderland. I couldn’t see any towns or roads and it felt like we were in the real backcountry…. total wilderness feeling. I really tried to soak up the unique surroundings we were skiing in. It was truly like nothing I had seen before. 





My body gave a sigh of relief when we eventually reached a downhill and I moved down into a tuck position. It must have been hours before my body got its first rest. There was more climb to go, which wasn’t to go unnoticed, but compared to the first one, it was far shorter and more mellow.


As we approached Sjusjøen (the first and only "town" on the course), the numbers of spectators increased, and I started to see more people out skiing for leisure. I saw people skiing with dogs and a dad group towing their young children in ski trailers behind them. Skiing through Sjusjøen there were lots of small houses dotted on the snowy hillside and a few snowy roads but it certainly didn’t fit my normal description of a town. There seemed to be more cross-country ski trails than roads! We were still high up and looking around I could just see lots of rolling hills covered in snow. We were not in the total wilderness anymore, but it still felt very isolated. 

 

For me there were two defining factors of the last 14km to the finish line. Firstly, the downhill. I remember seeing on the elevation map there was supposed to be a downhill near the end. It didn’t seem to be coming and I thought maybe I had remembered wrong, or it had already past, and I didn’t notice. Then all of a sudden, the downhill arrived, and in full force. Very fast, and steeper than anticipated. The trees were taller again and the track significantly narrower than the first 40km of the course. As always there were a few extra-sketchy sections and a few falls. I think switching to downhill mode after 5 hours and 40km of mostly uphill took my body by surprise and I felt a little caught off guard. Maybe rusty is a good word! 

 

The second defining factor of the last section were the children. After Sjusjøen, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the future of cross-country skiing in Norway literally started flying past me! Many many young children, mostly girls aged 5-10, must have started a shorter race soon after I skied through Sjusjøen. At least 50 young children must have gone past me in the last 14km. I couldn’t believe how fast they were. Just like the main race, all the children were wearing a backpack but that wasn’t slowing them down. When you take into account the downhill, the increase of people on the tracks and the narrower trail, let’s just say the whole thing required my full attention. I had a not so happy hip flexor, and I really felt my body couldn’t manage the “changing tracks manoeuvre”. I decided it was better for everyone for me to stay where I was. If I did try to change tracks and get out of the way I probably would have taken myself out and few others with me. Fortunately, these children were total experts and changed from track to track, passing me and many others without losing any speed whatsoever! 


There was a funky loop de loop in the Birkebeineren Ski Stadium before we crossed the finish line! What a journey and what a course! 

 

Throughout the day I often thought how thankful I was that the event organizers were able to postpone the event. In very bad weather conditions, sports events are often understandably cancelled. Due to logistics, it is normally not possible for event organizers to move the event to another day. But somehow the Birkebeinerrennet pulled it off. It felt like they made the impossible possible! There must have been a lot of hard work and logistical challenges involved in moving the event, but it really allowed the participants to have the best possible experience of the Birken. I really couldn’t feel more grateful that we were able to ski the course in such fantastic weather and soak up the unique scenery! 

 

Post-race:


 



I have felt very fortunate to spend the past few days in Nordseter, staying with the most delightful group of people who became great skiing buddies and friends. We went ice-skating on Lake Mjøsa and explored some more of the hundreds of kilometers of trails in the Lillehammer area. So much open space. Snowy rolling hills, frozen lakes and trees dotted around. Every so often I would ski past a house or see a few houses up against a hill. But again, no roads or shops or anything! I have never seen anything like it! Sjusjøen was the only place that somewhat resembled a town. Everywhere else was full wilderness vibes. I felt so bewildered by the whole thing I had to find out some more information. I found out to get anywhere in winter, these people must travel by ski or skidoo. I now understand that for many people in Norway, skiing is not only a leisure activity but a way of life. I also heard in summer the cross-country ski trails are gravel roads, allowing people to use cars on them. 






Also, the trail network is next level. One of the first things I do in the morning is check the Norway cross country ski app to see what has been groomed, walk out the front door and put my skis on. Unreal! There are trails everywhere and maps at almost every intersection. I really had fun with the navigation aspect.



But a few times I did get lost and once found myself in the wrong place…accidently joining in the warmup for the Norwegian National Cross Country Ski Championships. Not ideal and it was quite the experience but that’s a story for another day!





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