The snow was abundant and the weather glorious. What more could you want for a 54km trek across the Norwegian mountains? The views were stunning, the snow-clad trees looked like fat snowmen squatting in the snow. What a magical day?
Staying in Lillehammer at the hostel above the train station is highly recommended as it very convenient when arriving by train. Also, the buses to the Nordic ski trails of Sjusjeon and Nordsetter depart from outside the station allowing skiers to prepare on the last third of the race course or just enjoy the 200kms of trails in the mountains above Lillehammer without having to climb up the 600+ vertical metres from Lillehammer.
The only disadvantage to staying in Lillehammer was that we missed the Worldloppet Masters’ pasta party as it was held in Rena, 2 hours drive away on the Friday evening.
Bib pick-up was available in either Rena or at Hakon Hall, Lillehammer on Thursday afternoon. At Hakon Hall there was also a huge clothing and equipment sale that was well patronised by Norwegian skiers grasping overflowing shopping baskets full of bargains.Bus transport to the race start at Rena had to be pre-booked and was an additional cost to race entry (370 NOK Lillehammer- Rena – about $60 AUS). There were race buses from a multitude of places including: Lillehammer, Hamar, Sjusjeon, Nordsetter, Oslo etc. Bus transport could be organised online or in person at bib pick-up.
Even though Fredag’s Birken was an Open Track event, skiers departed in allocated waves. Our wave departed at 9.05am so not wanting to stand around in the predicted frigid temperatures, we caught the 6am bus from Lillehammer, arriving at the race start by 8am. As we got ready we watched the first waves of skaters start from 8.30am, with additional waves departing each five minutes. Different waves reduced the chance of congestion of which I didn’t experience any. Some 1,500 skiers apparently skied the Fredag Birken, significantly less than the 8,000 skiers in Saturday’s Birken, the main race.
We felt significantly warmer at the start compared to Sweden’s Öppet Spår a few weeks ago in similar temperatures of -17 degrees Celsius. The sun was already shining and there was a relaxed atmosphere amongst skiers. There weren’t any toilet queues. Skiers must carry a backpack weighing 3.5kilograms containing essential emergency gear such as waterproof clothing, thermals, spare gloves and hat. The weight is to replicate the weight of the baby King Hakon that was carried across the mountains in the 1500’s to escape the invading forces. Weighing scales, to check your packs weight, are provided near the trucks that carry your luggage to Hakon Hall (Lillehammer) for pick-up after the race.
Setting off in cold temperatures, I had worn an extra layer to my usual race clothing, as I clearly remembered how cold I had been in the first 10 kilometres of the recent Öppet Spår. However, being in the forest, with the sun blazing down, and the first part of the course being a 14km uphill, I very quickly over-heated and had to stop to take off my jacket, hat and buff. Climbing further up the hill, I was sweating and couldn’t believe this was possible in such cold temps. The climb just went on and on. Finally, a sign said “5kms to drink station.” I was desperate for a drink as I was sweating and over-heating. I wished I had worn my camelback but hadn’t because I thought it would freeze. Finally, I reached the first drink station that was attended by obliging volunteers who met thirsty skiers with drinks on trays. Keen to stop my dehydration headache, I quickly drank a couple of different flavoured drinks and had some flat bread with jam and a piece of banana which was the available faire at subsequent drink stations as well. Onwards and upwards, the hill kept on going. Finally, we broke out of the forest and reached the high mountain plains. The 360 degree views were tremendous after 14km and 550m climb. They were so good I had to stop and take pictures.
Ahead I noticed a downhill but didn’t realise how fast and cold it would be. Tucking down the perfect classic tracks at an incredible speed, the sweat on my brow froze and I felt an “ice-cream” headache from the intense cold. I had to stand up and slow down as my core temperature dropped drastically. From then on, I made a decision to stop at the top of hills and put on a hat/buff as it was just too cold descending without them, though I was too hot ascending with them. I was actually looking forward to the next uphill to warm up again.
The drink stations became more regular and I was able to keep my fluid intake up which thankfully dissipated my dehydration headache and I was able to ski on fully enjoying the magnificent surroundings on such a picture perfect day. There was another uphill, much shorter than the last hill before reaching Midjfellet. From here I felt very comfortable having skied the final 18kms a few days earlier. Reaching Sjusjeon was awesome as there were quite a few enthusiastic spectators cheering us on and giving out chocolate treats. From there it was mostly downhill and flat to the finish, though the downhills require significant concentration especially as earlier skiers had pushed the soft snow off the corners.
The snow conditions were superb. Most of the way up the climb there were 3 classic tracks and the earlier skaters had stuck to the skating lane. At the highest elevations it had snowed a couple of centimetres after the grooming and the fastest classic skiers had stuck to just one track, so it was quicker if overtaking to double pole in the skate lane rather than use the other snowed in classic tracks. The snow was very dry causing my skis to run a little slower than my previous Birkebeiner races.
I think the Birken is definitely the hardest Worldloppet course I completed this winter, as there is so much uphill compared to other events but definitely worth doing as you feel a brilliant sense of achievement when finished.
We felt so fortunate to have experienced such superb conditions especially since it was our 12th and final Worldloppet race during this northern Winter. An added bonus, was that finishing Fredag’s Birken meant I was now a 7 x Gold Worldloppet Master, the most of any Australian. To complete our spectacular day Epp, the Worldloppet secretary presented our group of 6 Australians with 8 Worldloppet Master Diplomas completed this season. Not sure when we’ll be back to Europe for more Worldloppet races but 2018 has truly been a memorable season for abundant snow and superb conditions for all Worldloppet races, a stark contrast to our previous European winter in 2014 when we had 3 race cancellations and several races shortened. I recommend to all Worldloppet skiers to spend a season going from race to race, it’s a great feeling of achievement completing so many races in one season.
If anyone is coming to the Kangaroo Hoppet and requires information, please feel to contact me. firstname.lastname@example.org
Signing off for the 2018 European season.