Birkebeiner skiers defy warm weather

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More than 16,000 skiers registered to take part in this weekend’s annual Birkebeinerrennet, a traditional ski race that goes over the mountains between the valleys of Østerdalen and Gudbrandsdalen. Unseasonably warm temperatures, though, caused concern about the condition of the ski tracks.

The 54-kilometer Birkebeiner race began in the 1930s, commemorates an historic event and demands that all skiers carry a backpack with specific weight requirements. PHOTO: Birkebeinerrennet

The race starts in Rena, just north of Elverum in eastern Norway, and ends 54 kilometers (32 miles) later at Lillehammer. Registration for the popular race sold out in just 94 seconds last fall, with the oldest participant boasting an age of 92.

In addition to the 16,600 skiers on Saturday, another 1,300 were skiing in a race on Friday for all those who didn’t manage to secure start number for the actual Birkebeiner. And at one point, there were 4,000 skiers on a waiting list, hoping to still nab a spot on Saturday.

The most eager also skied last weekend’s Halv-Birken, which covered half the course. Some did it to test the course, others to see how they’d do this weekend. Many of the participants are middle-aged men who are keen to prove they still have lots of strength and energy.

“Even though I’m older, I still feel I have to go faster,” 53-year-old Bjørn Grepperud from Bærum, just west of Oslo, told newspaper Aftenposten. He claimed there’s a lot of prestige tied to the race, “even though folks like to pretend there isn’t.”

Women make up about 18 percent of the racers, who are all split into various age categories and compete to win the cherished “merke,” a token of having completed the course within a certain allotted time.

Meteorologists predicted light rain during the night on Saturday but mostly sunny skies during the day. Soft, mushy snow suggested that only those with early start times were likely to enjoy ski tracks, because warm temperatures well above the freezing point would likely flatten them out during the day. Those starting late may have more difficult conditions.

Stein Løvlien, who has helped prepare Birkebeiner trails for 17 years, said he thinks conditions would be “better than many think.”

Instead of wax on their skis, most predicted they’d need a sticky substance called klister, which helps skis fasten better to wet snow.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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