Nearly a foot of fresh snow is groomed into place on Hayward’s Main Street for the 43rd running of the Slumberland American Birkebeiner (USSA-Tom Kelly)
HAYWARD, WI (Feb. 18, 2016) – A pristine track is in place between Cable and Hayward in northwestern Wisconsin for the 43rd running of the 51k Slumberland American Birkebeiner cross country ski marathon this Saturday. A host of U.S. long distance skiers are among the favorites in the International Ski Federation Worldloppet Marathon Cup event.
Approximately 10,000 skiers are anticipated for the race, the largest in North America and part of the global Worldloppet series. The Birkebeiner has a strong elite field as a part of the scored races of the FIS Worldloppet Cup.
Foremost among the favorites will be Caitlin Gregg (Minneapolis, MN), going for her fourth Birkebeiner women’s title. Gregg won in 2013 and 2014, but missed the 2015 Birkie while at the World Championships in Sweden where she won a bronze medal in the much shorter 5k. She will face a formidable women’s field headlined bye FIS WorldLoppet Cup leader Aurélie Dabudyk of France, who was second to American Holly Brooks (Anchorage) a year ago. Brooks is not racing this week.
“I love the fact that the Birkie is a race that is never really straight forward in terms of the most fit athletes winning,” Gregg said. “There are so many factors that could come in to play over 50k that the race could go from great to bad and likewise from bad to great.”
On the men’s side, Italian Sergio Bonaldi is considered a strong pre-race favorite and looking to make it three Birkebeiner wins in a row. He, too, will be up against a powerhouse French team led by Worldloppet leader Bastien Poirrier. But a strong and knowledgeable group of American men could factor into the mix including U.S. Ski Team veterans Kris Freeman (Campton, NH) and and Tad Elliott (Durango, CO), along with Matt Liebsch (Minneapolis) and Brian Gregg (Minneapolis). Elliott, coming back from injury this season, was the 2012 Birkie champion and recently won the 30k U.S. title – his fourth national championship gold. Liebsch won the race in 2009.
After four Olympics and nine World Championships, for Freeman the Birkebeiner will be a new experience.
"This is my first year skiing the Birkie so I don't know exactly what to expect," said Freeman. "I was able to ski the last 20k Wednesday, which was really important to me. But the first 30k will be a real question mark."
Weather is likely to play a factor in Saturday’s race. Crisp, cold temperatures plus several dumps of fresh snow have blessed the Northwoods over the last two weeks. But current forecast calls for warming temperatures and the possibility of rain on Friday, the day prior to the race.
Action gets underway on the snow-covered Main Street of Hayward Thursday afternoon with the head-to-head elite sprints starting at 4:30 p.m. CST. Friday will feature youth and children’s races on Main Street, plus a retro ski gear competition. Saturday’s mass start waves in Cable will begin at 8:00 a.m.
Caitlin Gregg I love the fact that the Birkie is a race that is never really straight forward in terms of the most fit athletes winning. There are so many factors that could come in to play over 50k that the race could go from great to bad and likewise from bad to great. It's really a journey in and of itself.
That's why I love these marathon length races. There are so many variables to consider and have in order that really the best prepared and most organized athletes succeed. I am really excited to race again this year after taking a year off last season to race in Falun.”
Kris Freeman This is my first year skiing the Birkie so I don't know exactly what to expect. I was able to ski the last 20k Wednesday, which was really important to me. But the first 30k will be a real question mark.