norway’s legendary birkies: races for your résumé
posted: May 22, 2014
The mountain biking race is the longest of all Norway’s Birkebeiner races, and attracts the most competitors of any MTB race globally
In the wooded trails that weave through Lillehammer, Norway, a runner stops to snap a picture of a fox. She pockets her phone, then heads down a path that, more than 800 years ago, was part of a race carried out not for a personal best or a Facebook status update, but to save a life.
The year was 1206, and most of Norway was engulfed in civil war. One of the power players in the conflict was the Birkebeiner faction (Birkebeiner translates to “birch legs,” in reference to the birch bark leggings they wore as snow protection). Their King had died, leaving the throne to his infant son, Haakon Haakonsson. This left the baby in great danger, and to protect him from their rival faction, two of the fastest Birkebeiner skiers set out with the 18-month-old Haakon for the safety of the North. They skied hundreds of kilometres, through deep snow and over the treacherous Sølen mountain range, carrying the young heir to safety. Today’s Birkie races commemorate this heroic journey, which eventually brought an end to 100 years of civil war.
In 1868, Norwegian painter Knud Bergslien paid tribute to the legend with “Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child”
The races—cross-country skiing, running and cycling—are held annually over three weekends for each sport, with the run segment kicking off on June 14. While the March skiing race is arguably the most famous of the three races, at 94 kilometres September’s mountain biking race is the longest, and has the most competitors of any mountain bike race in the world. There are also races for the children (to be Norwegian is to be connected with nature, no matter how old you are).
Since the inaugural Birkebeiner race in 1932, the Norwegian Birkie has only been cancelled seven times, most of them due to World War II
All told, the series will see close to 30,000 people (roughly equal to the population of Lillehammer) from 33 countries hit the forest over the three weekends to pay homage to history. During race weekends, the town swells as people come from across the country to race, to cheer, or just to take in the accompanying festivities. Most spectators, after they’ve watched competitors cross the finish line at Birkebeiner stadium, head inside to eat and drink, listen to music, and check out sports gear demos. Also on everyone’s list: picking up wool clothing in the renowned market that always runs on Birken race weekends.
For Norwegians, completing a Birkie is a mark of honour, partly because the courses are long and incredibly demanding. To finish in the top 20 per cent of your age category is so prestigious that it has its own name: Birkebeinermerket. Those who achieve it include it on their résumés to demonstrate their reverence for nature and their ability to overcome a gruelling physical and mental challenge.
The Birkebeinerløpet, or cross-country run race, happens each June
As a nod to history, each ski and bike competitor carries a backpack weighing around 3.5 kg, symbolizing the weight of Prince Haakon. Things to pack in your backpack: a change of clothes and socks (wool, of course), a Kvikk Lunsj (one of the most popular chocolate bars in Norway), and of course, your cell phone. You never know when a fox will cross your path.
Regardless the reason you find yourself in Lillehammer at the conclusion of a Birkie race, you’ll want to soak up the festivities when the sweating portion is said and done. Here’s what not to miss.
See: Visit Maihaugen, the open air museum, for a look at how Norwegians have lived through the ages. Head to the Lillehammer Art Museum to see how many images of Birkebeiners you can find. Amble down Størgata, the pedestrian area, for the best people watching in the county.
Eat: Have a beer and some locally-made pølse (sausage) at Park Cafén. Try the two best cappuccinos in town, at Strada and Atelier Kakao (the average Norwegian drinks three coffees a day, so you’ll be in good company). Take in some sports history by having a late-night drink at the Toppen bar, which overlooks the ski jump of 1994 Olympic Games fame.
Reward: Wander through the charming design and clothing boutique Folk og Røvere and pick out a Scandinavian-designed curio; rest those tired feet during a foot massage at Lillehammer’s best spa, Din Hud Velvære. Just make sure to book ahead, like many things in Lillehammer its charm is in its cosy size.
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Originally from Vancouver, Lindsay has spent the last year living in small-town Norway. She now drinks three coffees a day, owns cross-country skis, and loves spending time in nature (though she always loved that). She speaks fluent Canweigan, knows how to ride a kicksled, and considers brown cheese a food group. Follow her adventures on Instagram.