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Norway’s Birkebeinerrennet, by BI Ambassador, Henry Iddon

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Norway’s Birkebeinerrennet, by BI Ambassador, Henry Iddon

The Birkebeinerrennet is Norway’s 54km contribution to the FIS Marathon Cup – Swix Ski Classics cross country racing series. And it’s one of the biggest and hilliest events involving nearly 15,000 XC skiers. So it’s big – with full coverage on NRK, Norway’s national TV channel. Imagine the London Marathon on skis, with a mix of elite athletes, club racers and the odd person in a chicken suit. The whole Swix Classics series involves 6 events throughout Europe with a prize pot of €200,000 and is shown in 50 countries across 20 TV channels. So it’s big.

The event commemorates a legend that has it that there was a civil war in Norway. Faction pitted itself against faction in a fight for the throne. One faction was the birkebeiners. They were the underdogs, often in such dire need that they had nothing but the bark of the birch-trees as foot-wear.

The word birkebeiner, birch-leg, has come to mean a man strong in adversity, never daunted by trials and hardship. The birkebeiners had gained ascendancy over great parts of the country, but the rival faction, the baglers, prevailed in the East of Norway. After the birkebeiner chieftain Haakon died on New Year’s Day in 1204, the baglers saw a dangerous rival pretender in his son Haakon Haakonsson , who was born in 1204, a few weeks after his father’s death. His life was at stake, and the birkebeiners wanted to bring him to safety in Trondheim. On Christmas Day in 1205 the party reached a small farm in Lillehammer, where they remained hidden over Christmas. They found it too risky to follow the route up the Gudbrandsdal valley, so they cut across the mountains to the neighbouring valley in east Østerdalen. Due to bad weather and difficult snow conditions the two best skiers, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka had to go ahead with the two year old prince. ”On this trip they suffered severely from the cold, snow and wind”.

Birkebeinnerrennet
Birkebeinnerrennet

Behind this succinct account of the saga lies a fear of valour and strength which appeals to skiers of all ages and nations. The 3,5 kilo pack carried by the present day birkebeiner racers symbolizes the prince, who later became King Haakon. The 54km course transverses over two mountains from the start in Tingstadjordet near Rena to the finish line in Lillehammer.

Now, I’ve skied from being a nipper, indeed I was a member of the GB Speed Skiing Team – with a personal best of 176kmh, and have been involved in alpine touring trips to Norway and Iran. But alpine skiing and cross country are entirely different things requiring different techniques and fitness, but I’ve always fancied giving it a whirl – or glide as the case maybe. The opportunity arose to take part in this year’s Birkebeinerrennet event, alongside ultra-endurance MTB racer Paul Errington (who’s never had skis on in his life). But it was a case of going from no experience to completing a major event and the plan was, therefore, to go from Zero to Hero. The NW of England isn’t known for its low level winter snow so the amount of training is going to be limited, in fact the plan is to train on roller skis, plus a couple of training trips to Norway. So a major event, no previous experience, little training. The challenge is big.

The first training session on snow took place at the end of November above Lillehammer, the town that hosted the 1994 Winter Olympic. So after visiting Madshus Skis and Swix wax for some background information we headed up to Sjusjøen to get down to business under the watchful eye of Jean-Francois Gehin ( Marketing manager for the event and formerly a cross country ski instructor) while all under the gaze of a camera from NRK (the Norwegian equivalent of the BBC) who are planning on following our progress up to and including the event, as feature during the race day broadcast. No pressure there then !

As our level of experience when it comes down to the event will be limited and specific fitness will be honed on roller skis we’ll be relying on as good a technique as possible. Cross country skiing is all about efficiency – the more glide per kick the better. And thankfully I’ll be able to use up to date equipment, including a Source WidePac – and I certainly won’t be wearing birch bark boots!

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