Birkie Q&A With Alayna, David, and Jessica

From its humble beginnings, the American Birkebeiner has become North America's largest ski race and the world's third-largest. Over 250,000 skiers have conquered Birkie events, drawing nearly 45,000 enthusiasts every February to Cable and Hayward, Wisconsin. Within this tradition, three amazing athletes have not only championed the race multiple times and in the case of Jessica, are also Olympic champions of the sport! Before these athletes toe the start line, we had a chance to talk to them about their Birkie history, fueling strategy, and more! Let’s hear from Alayna Sonnesyn, David Norris and Jessica Yeaton 

Q: So, the history of this race goes way back (we’re talking 1206! That’s pretty amazing) can you talk about how the history plays into the race today? 

Alayna: It’s always special to embrace the history of the race. The current Birkie event includes a reenactment of the original Norwegian birkebeiner story to get people into the Birkie spirit. Beyond that reminder, I think the grit and tenacity that is required for any Birkie endeavor is also a pretty good way to channel history of the race. 

David:  The American Birkie has done an incredible job hanging onto tradition and the origins of skiing- mainly by keeping the race course a point-to-point, which winds through the woods and flows up and down the hills naturally. I fell in love with skiing in elementary school because my dad would just take us into the woods and explore. Now, nearly all of the race courses I do in a season are on 3-5km loop repeated several times until the race length is accomplished. The Birkie trail is iconic and is one of the only poin-to-point courses I do each year and it's the absolute best.

Jessica: Its pretty crazy to think that the origin of the race comes from Norweigan warriors on skis who rescued a young prince on skis in the middle of winter- carrying him over 50 km. Not sure we are doing anything that heroic, but I think the story behind the Birkie helps set the stage for a race of grit and determination. When the going gets tough, I’ll definitely think about how much harder the race would have been 800 years ago (without pristine grooming and birch bark around my legs for gaiters). It is really cool to see how the Birkie story has been kept alive and is now celebrated in countries all around the world!

Q: What is your favorite part of the Birkie? Is this a race you look forward to every year? 

Alayna: IT’S THE HIGHLIGHT OF EVERY SEASON! The crowds are amazing. They’re scattered throughout the course, hidden in the woods, playing drums in the fields, offering shots at the top of hills (someday I’ll indulge in this aspect), and packed like sardines along Main Street in Hayward at the finish line. They keep the racers going over 50k and the blast of cheering that hits you as you turn onto Main Street is one that I’ll carry with me forever. It embodies the true love and passion for the race and the sport.

David: I anticipate the Birkie every year because it’s this unique combination of high caliber, high pressure race combined with a reunion of friends with a great party atmosphere. I like having the Birkie as this carrot to train for each season and a fun weekend seeing friends. 

Jessica: The Birkie is definitely the race I look forward to the most every year. Not only do I love the course, but the atmosphere is unmatched by any other race. I get to see friends and teammates from all over the country, and the roar of the crowd cheering on main street at the finish line is incredible.

Q: Let’s talk about fueling strategy since a majority of our audience is running/cycling. How do you fuel for a ski race? How do you carry or plan your nutrition? Of course with this question, I am going to ask you your favorite Endurance Fuel flavor too! 

Alayna: I always go with Cola Endurance Fuel! Of course the fueling starts much earlier than the start line. I usually start thinking about it a week in advance, adding extra snacks to my day to make sure my body is fully topped off. The night before is always pasta and the morning is oatmeal plus a healthy dose of coffee. Once I get to the start line I have a 24 oz water bottle filled with Cola flavored endurance fuel. I usually make it a goal of mine to drink ¾ of this bottle before we reach the OO crossing (~22k or 1 hour into the race). Then I drop the bottle and switch out for a fresh one, also filled with cola. Some years I’ve also taken a gel, some years I’ve dropped that second bottle by accident and have had to go 25k without anything. But it was a good thing I had been fueling with Tailwind the first half of the race because it was still a successful race! (I’ve used Tailwind to fuel 4 of my 4 Birkie races).

David:  I smash a breakfast 3 hours before the race and eat something simple like french toast, pancakes, or oatmeal. It is hard to fuel well during ski races because of poles in your hands, cold temps potentially freezing your bottle, and the Birkie being a point-to-point it becomes difficult to position friends on course to hand you feeds. I try to minimize my glycogen depletion prior to the race because I know I will likely under feed throughout the Birkie as compared to running or cycling where its easy to feed regularly.. At the start and conclusion of my warm-up I will consume a pack of Gu’s energy chews while drinking 10-12 oz of Tailwind Endurance Fuel over that period. Ten minutes before start I will have a Gu gel and attempt to have one or two Gu’s during the rest of the race. Otherwise, I rely heavily on Tailwind’s Endurance Fuel to get the carbs I need. The Matcha and Lemon flavors sit really well with me so I have no problem at race pace drinking what I need!

Jessica: Fueling is definitely tougher in skiing than other sports like cycling due to poles/straps. After really focusing on fueling in my summer bike races I have realized how important it is for performance, so I’m trying to hold myself to a higher standard at this year’s Birkie. My goal for the Birkie is to ingest 60-70 grams of carb/hr. This looks like 3 scoops of Tailwind in a bottle + 3-4 Gu’s over the course of a 2.5 hr race. My plan is to use a hydration system with a hose so that I drink more frequently and to force a gel down every ~30 min (will likely tape them to my suit to make this easier.). Flavor of choice is Tailwind Matcha- caffeinated for the extra performance boost/ early Birkie start!

Q: I’m curious about your ski racing season: Do you travel quite a bit to chase snow? What does your ‘off-season’ look like? 

Alayna: I spend most of my winter chasing snow and/or races. I usually spend about ½-¾ of my season racing world cups in Europe and the other part racing domestically, all around the country. There’s A LOT of travel involved in the ski season and I usually race 2-3x/weekend, 2-3x/month (so about 6-9 races a month). This race schedule adds up, so all the more reason to keep my energy stores topped off all the time with Tailwind! During the off-season I stay put a bit more, training with my club team (SMS T2) out of Stratton, VT. Although, we do travel during the summer and fall for training camps to altitude and/or snow (like New Zealand or a ski tunnel in Germany). 

David:  In years past I’ve spent November through April in Europe following the World Cup circuit. The past two years I’ve made an effort to spend more time at home, which has given me flexibility to train well and also pursue career goals outside of ski racing. I’ve generally lived places where I do not have to travel to chase snow- often when I travel to races I am leaving good snow to race somewhere with man made snow. 

In the summers I mainly mountain bike and run, which I always start looking forward to each spring. This summer I am excited to do a few 50-100km running races, tackle a few epics routes on my mtb or gravel bike, and fish some new creeks!

Jessica: During the off- season I spend a lot of my time on my mountain bike- I compete in longer (5 hr +) races and think its awesome training for skiing. I also do a lot of trail running, gravel biking, and open-water swimming.  Rather than chasing snow I like to fully embrace summer- I have a rule of jumping in the river at least once a day :). 

Q: Any parting advice, wisdom, or mantra you want to share? 

Alayna: Fuel early and fuel often in the Birkie! You might be able to make it without fuel, but you’re going to have a lot more fun and be a lot faster if your body is feeling good and you’re fully fueled. 

David: I cannot control the weather, but feeding and organization I can nail so I suggest mixing up your Tailwind the night before, deciding what pockets to stash your gels into, and practice eating during workouts to get your gut accustomed to fueling while exercising.

Jessica: Don’t be afraid to take the extra 30 seconds to fuel during the Birkie (or any race!). Any time you may “waste” pulling out your bottle or stopping at an aid station will actually save you time later on when your body has what it needs to keep skiing fast. Just keep your poles close to your body!

photos courtesy of American Birkebeiner

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