Organizers of this year’s annual and highly traditional Birkebeiner ski race from Rena to Lillehammer faced having the lowest number of participants in 15 years. They’re making up for at least some of the loss by instead attracting record numbers of foreign racers, keen to test their stamina in the 54-kilometer marathon.
“I am from Granada,” a Spanish skier told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday, as he and seven other fellow Spaniards waxed their skis before testing the trails at Rena in the eastern Norwegian valley of Østerdalen. The Birkebeiner race course runs over the mountains to Lillehammer, but fortunately they’re not among those being hammered this weekend by blizzards and hit by road closures. The weather forecast for much of southeastern Norway this weekend was much better, with even some blue skies and sunshine expected.
A lack of snow in many areas of Norway this winter made it difficult for racers to sufficiently train for competition, and led to many ski races being cancelled or postponed. That prompted many veteran Birkebeiner participants to drop out. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Thursday that “only” 7,949 racers had signed up for this year’s main race on Saturday, compared to 16,999 in the record year of 2013.
While as many as 70 percent of organized ski races in Oslo, Akerhus, Vestfold and Buskerud counties had to be cancelled this winter, conditions in the area where Birkebeiner runs reportedly have been excellent and remained so heading into this weekend. Organizers were still hoping for last-minute registrations.
“In recent years we’ve seen that folks sign up later and later,” Jo Gunnar Ellevold, general manager of the Birken organization, told DN. “Last year we had around 1,000 people sign up in the last week. I think we’ll hit 9,000 by the time the race starts.” He was promising “fast trails” over the mountains this weekend.
Foreigners provide ‘welcome econonic boost’
Meanwhile, a total of 1,730 foreign racers from 34 countries have set a new record for the Birkebeiner. The Spaniards from Granada were far from the only non-Norwegians taking part in the race that requires all participants to carry a backpack weighing 3.5 kilos during all 54 kilometers, to commemorate the original, legendary Birkebeiners who carried a baby king to safety in the same area hundreds of years ago. Their numbers have swelled by more than 430 from last year.
“We’ve had a project over the past three years to attract more foreigners to our race,” Ellevold told NRK. “And we clearly have.” They’re now providing a welcome economic boost not only to the Birkebeiner organization but also to the local tourist industry. Ellevold said they tend to stay in the region longer (an average of 4.5 days) and they spend more money than the Norwegians.
“We have calculated that the foreign participation generates well over NOK 30 million during their stay,” Ellevold said. Those running local hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and bars in the town where the Winter Olympics was held in 1994 are pleased.
Royals racing, too
“This means a lot to us,” Camilla Maanum Trulsen, marketing chief for the Visit Lillehammer organization, told NRK. “Today I got a message from someone who rents out hytter (cabins) at Nordseter that they have people from 12 nations up there now, and that’s another record.”
The largest numbers of racers from abroad were coming from Sweden (387), followed by 283 from Denmark, 114 from the US, 110 from the Czech Republic, 91 from Switzerland and 90 from Finland. Other racers were coming from Estonia, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Russia, to name just a few of the countries represented this weekend.
Among the racers from Denmark, by the way, is the Danes’ Crown Prince Frederik. He’ll be racing against Norway’s own Crown Prince Haakon, and likely hoping for some royal revenge after Haakon beat him last year by nearly an hour.