I thought back to my childhood and my connection to Norway. My mother came from a small town called Rena. As a child I had heard of the Birkebeinerrennet – a ski race in honor of the 1206 rescue of the 18 month old prince, Haakon Haakonsson. Could I possibly ski the 54km from Rena, at the age of 54, over the two mountains to Lillehammer.
In May 2016 I made the commitment and entered the 2017 race. First problem, I last put on a pair of ski’s in 1994. Second, living in Bristol, England where it rarely snows, how do I prepare for such a challenge.
Training started with a lesson on rollerski’s. Then it was 10 months training in the gym and constant rollerskiing along the Bath – Bristol cycle path. Many strange looks and comments from people wondering what he was doing!
Four days before the race in March, I arrive in Lillehammer. Need to get out on the white stuff. Picking up my rental ski’s I realise that they need to be waxed. Problem is I have no experience and seeing all the different sticks of wax – it seems like a minefield! The rental shop offers to wax the ski’s for me. All set, off to the tracks I go. Confident from all the rollerskiing I have done, the transition to snow should be easy!
How wrong I am. Starting on a gentle uphill track, my ski’s don’t grip so as I gently move forward, the ski’s slip backwards. It feels like one step forwards, two steps back. My confidence disappears and I start thinking, how am I going to do 54km. Struggling, I give up and return to the ski shop. I know enough that the waxing is not right. Change of grip wax and my confidence has returned. Two days on snow, attempting to refine my classic technique in Nordic skiing, I feel as ready as I can be for the challenge ahead.
Pre race day involves collecting my bib and getting my ski’s prepared. No option but to pay the experts to do it for me. I feel a real novice and lack the experience of the locals.
Race day arrives and it is an early start. Fueled for the day, I board the bus to take me to the start in Rena, 2 hours away. As the bus arrives in Rena, childhood memorys flood back as we pass the spot where my grandparents house stood, now demolished and replaced by a road. Have to keep my emotions under control, feel I must focus on the race!
Preparing for the start, I check the weight of my backpack. Must be at least 3.5kg – to represent the weight of the infant king. Apply grip wax to my ski’s, hoping I have got it right, because the first 13km is a climb of some 540m upto the top of Dolfjellet. Before my start time of 9.15am I have the chance to take in the start of the elite men and women’s groups. They make it look so easy!
My start draws near and my thoughts turn to what I have let myself in for. I am ready for the off. As we leave Rena and start to climb, it doesn’t take long for me to realise that this is going to be tougher than I thought.
Thoughts of race time soon vanish from my mind, just getting to the finish is all that matters now. Relief comes in the form of descents, but is soon replaced by more climbing, sometimes steep, sometimes gentle, but it all remains tough. Support comes from the feed stations and locals cheering on the 8000 or so skiers in this legendary race.
Passing Raudfjellet (20km) and Kvarstaddammen (27km) I finally reach the top of Midtfjellet at 34km, only 20km to go. My mind tells me to get to Sjujoen as I know from there the track goes downhill to the finish at the Birkebeineren Ski stadium. However, with energy levels flagging, the downhills prove difficult for me, the novice skier. Following three falls on some steep sections I finally approach the stadium. The sight of the 1km sign to the finish spurs me on. The finish line looms close, one final effort and I have achieved my goal!
My time 5 : 56 : 31
I was a Birkebeiner, a name that carries a sense of pride, strength and endurance.
(Text by Paul Ashdown)