Katie Bradish and Jon Jay are not professional Nordic skiers. But they do participate in the sport at a slightly more-than-general-enthusiast level, leading them both to participate in the 2023 American Birkenbeiner 50-kilometer skate ski race. For Katie, this would be her second time skiing from Cable to Hayward. This was Jon’s first time in a Nordic skiing race and his first time in Wisconsin.
What would you tell someone thinking about racing in the Birkie?
Katie: First, a question. Are you sure? 50 kilometers is a long way. What if you just went to Wisconsin for a nice little Northwoods ski trip? You could eat some cheese, pat the 143-foot-long muskie sculpture, and enjoy what the majority of people supposedly enjoy about Nordic skiing: the alone time. But if you insist on bib-ing up and hitting the deck with thousands of people, just remember that aiming for anything other than fun and an intact finish is, in a word, misguided.
Jon: I totally agree about aiming to have fun. I had a head cold the week prior to the event, so I went into the race with the mentality that I was just going to spend half a day outside skiing with thousands of my new best friends. And even though I might have stepped on some other skis and nearly ran over multiple people at the feed zones, I like to think everyone considered me a new friend too. It’s a very welcoming event.
What key moment or item helped get you through the race?
Katie: At one point, the endless sea of skiers in front clogged the way forward and a large Hawaiian-shirted person ran fully over me, creating a domino effect and sending me into other skiers. I was pretty indignant for a while but regained my sense of humor around the halfway point when the Turn Back – You’re Not Going to Make It! sign appeared trailside.
Back home in Idaho, I’ve been—we’ll say vocal—about snowmobilers. But at the Birkie, it’s their turn to have a laugh and, in their own special way, show support. Sledheads line the most treacherous descents of the course revving their mechanical steeds and cackling with glee with each racer wipeout. Maybe next year I’ll join them? Attend the Birkie as a newly-minted sledhead?
Jon: I was happy to have worn a hydration belt with some electrolyte mix and some spare gels as most of the aid stations were chaotic. Being able to pause for a drink on the side of the trail during some flat sections and take in the woods where it was relatively peaceful reminded me that skiing is just a fun way to experience nature. And having a shot of Jagermeister on the lake a few kilometers from the finish line definitely helped me savor the moment of coming down the International Bridge onto Main Street.
Final words of advice for anyone thinking about doing the next American Birkenbeiner?
Jon: While the race is great and certainly the highlight of the festival, it’s important to remember there is so much more going on at the American Birkebeiner that is worth checking out. From the Giant Ski Race to the Para Birkie to the Barkie Birkie to the Expo, there are laughs and inspiration to be found all week long. And remember to drink a Spotted Cow!
Katie: Endurance events allow access to all the shades in one’s emotional crayon box. Not always in the same sequence, but excitement, joy, fear, anger, despair, and two-to-one self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement all make an appearance. This race had them all. And while I didn’t come over the International Bridge into Hayward anywhere near the time I thought I would, another Birkie is under the belt and I had enough juice left in the tank to go out skiing on the Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Minneapolis before my flight home. My Fischer Speedmax 3D skis proudly sport the 2023 Birkie tags, and there is plenty of season left to enjoy a bit of alone time on trail.