Back to the Birkie
February 26, 2008
With a bit more pressure and a lot more snow, Parkite Zack Simons competed in his second Birkebeiner this past weekend and took second place. Only this year’s race as compared to last year’s — where Simons won it all didn’t even seem like the same race. This year, there was snow, which allowed the 52-kilometer race to be run in its entirety, not cut in half like last year. With that in mind, the second-place win was vindication for the 26-year-old Nordic skier that last year’s victory wasn’t a fluke.
"It was validation from last year with a short race," Simons said. "It was a good race and meant a lot towards last year’s victory."
Last year’s freestyle ski marathon almost didn’t happen as a lack of snow made for a muddy start and had to be shortened before the start of the race. This year, there was a solid blanket of snow at the Wisconsin-based race.
"It was a million times better than last year," Simons said.
One of America’s most popular and well-known cross-country ski races, the American Birkebeiner or "Birkie" as it’s affectionately called, actually traces back to an 800-year-old legend. The story goes that traditional Birkebeiner soldiers in Norway rescued baby Prince Haakon and the soldiers became a Norwegian symbol of courage and perseverance and adversity. The race is said to be a symbolic reenactment of the carrying of the prince by the soldiers, who were called birkebeiners because of their birch bark protective leggings. Hundreds of years later, the story inspired the Norwegian Birkebeiner Rennet and eventually, the American race.
The Birkebeiner is a bit like the Nordic equivalent of the Boston Marathon as one-of the most widely known cross-country events in the country. The race is well attended and winning brings plenty of notoriety.
Recommended Stories For You
"It was fun to have the fun and excitement in the race," Simons said. "It’s fun to have people interested in what I’m doing."
It’s that popularity and the vast difference between the last two races that sort of put Simons in the unwanted spotlight.
"I can’t tell you how many people asked me if I would repeat my victory this year," Simons said. "I definitely knew what was going to happen and how it was going to be. I’ve known what it was going to be like for the last 364 days."
But Simons handled the pressure well, preparing himself fully for the race. He knew that the eventual winner, Russian-born Ivan Babikov, would give him a challenge. He was able to stay with Babikov until the very end of the race, when Babikov suddenly broke away from the pack. Simons got trapped in a group and couldn’t break free fast enough to catch him.
"After that, it was technical," Simons said. "It was a race for second."
Simons finished with a time of two hours and 24.22 seconds. Minnesota’s Adam Swank was a ski length behind him in third.
Simons said that it was a frigid minus-five degrees when the race started, which left many competitors under-dressed, but things soon warmed up. Simons described the first half of the race as the hardest with lots of climbs and other challenges, but the second as much easier. He also said the track was perfect, with snow that led to a very fast race.
The Birkebeiner is no walk or ski in the park. It’s a two-hour grueling race that demands the most out of its participants. Simons said he trains between four and five hours a day at Soldier Hollow preparing for long races such as these.
"You have to long enough workouts then 50 kilometers doesn’t feel like a long race," Simons said.
He also does a lot of speed training, which he admits is his secret weapon.
"I rely on my speed all the time," he said. "Hopefully I’m still up there at the end."
Part of this year’s success may have been due to his skis. Since last year’s race he has switched to Rossignol skis and says that having your sponsoring company in your backyard makes a huge difference.
"They’re so accessible," Simons said. "I know all of the people any support, they’re right there."
He also said that the new skis have helped him stay consistent thus far in the season.
Before the Birkie, Simons got a few starts on the World Cup tour distance starts his first ever. Previously he had only competed in World Cup sprint races. He also made it onto the podium in other state-side marathons, including a third-place finish in the Boulder Mountain Tour in Ketchum, Idaho, and third in the Owl Creek Chase in Aspen, Colo.
Simons went through the cross-country ranks growing up in Park City and had always dreamed of racing in the Birkie. As a youngster, he skied with the Bill Koch Youth Ski League and later the Park City Nordic Ski Team.
Next up, Simons heads to Switzerland for the Engadine Ski Marathon, a 42-kilometer race is on the same circuit as the Birkebeiner.
Parkites Gary and Nancy Fichter, Andrew Johnson, David Knoop, Crystal ward and Lynn Ware-Peek also competed in the event.
For more information and complete race results, visit http://www.birkie.com.