Birkebeiner brings success for Simons
There must be some sort of Park City cross-country skiing karma.
At least that’s how it seemed last Saturday when Parkite Zack Simons, 25, captured first place with a time of one hour and 18.2 minutes at the Birkebeiner, long thought of as America’s most popular cross-country skiing race.
In the last 10 years, only two Americans have managed to win the title, and curiously they have both been from Park City. In 1998, Olympic cross-country racer Carl Swenson won the Wisconsin-based race.
According to an 800-year old legend, traditional Birkebeiner soldiers in Norway rescued baby Prince Haakon and the soldiers became a Norwegian symbol of courage and perseverance and adversity, which later much later — inspired the American race.
The 34th running of the Birkebeiner race proved to be a challenge long before the entrants lined up at the starting line. With uncooperative weather and just an inch of snow on the ground, race officials were forced to narrow the field to just the elite classes and cut down the race’s length from 51K to 25K. Simons said it was an adjustment, but he was still pleased with the race.
"The race officials did a great job. They put in a lot of effort," Simons said.
As close as Wednesday, Simons wasn’t even sure they would have a race.
He had made the trek to the Midwest with the Fischer/Swix team in hopes of finally competing in the one race that all Nordic enthusiasts call "the best."
When his coach said that lack of snow might cancel the race, Simons was disappointed, but with an inch and a half of ice on the course, he knew it wouldn’t be safe. Luckily, the decision was later made that the top skiers could handle the challenge, and the best 200 men and 50 women would be allowed to compete.
The rest of the field was invited to ski in an "open event," where they could run the course, but their times were not recorded. Simons said everyone was pretty happy with that compromise.
"They had just as much fun," Simons said. "It was cool."
Admittedly, the start and finish area staged in an open field were a bit rocky.
"It was like skiing through a sandbox," Simons said.
Once the track turned into the woods, though, Simons said it was just like skiing on a normal bed of snow.
Winning the Birkebeiner was a big accomplishment for Simons, who struggled earlier in the season.
"My legs have been a little bit fried," Simons said.
A switch in training to light, fast workouts seemed to do the trick and on Saturday, Simons found himself in position to win.
"I saw a shot and took it," Simons said.
Speaking of shots, the victory was a shot in the arm for Simons who trains year-round and competes on the Super Tour circuit, the largest race series in North America, in hopes of soon breaking into World Cup competition. This year he had been working toward the goal of making the Nordic World Championships, but his tired legs betrayed him at the U.S. Nationals.
"After that, I had to pick another goal," Simons said.
He had been hearing about "the Birkie" his whole life. As a young boy, he skied with the Bill Koch Youth Ski League and later the Park City Nordic Ski Team and the Birkebeiner was always mentioned. So, Simons decided now was the time to enter. Simons said once he was on course, the feeling was spectacular. With roughly 7,000 spectators cheering him throughout the race, Simons couldn’t have asked for a better comeback.
"To have it pay off at this point of the season is huge," Simons said. "It validates the season."
And Simons had plenty of time to reflect on his accomplishments as a huge snowstorm hit just hours after the race trapped him in Minnesota. Eight-inches worth of storm that would have made the race just perfect, but Simons has no regrets.
"Winning the Birkie is unreal," Simons said.
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