By Teemu Virtanen & Birken Organization
The spring has arrived, and many of us eagerly wait for the warmth and the long days of the summer. But March is still a wonderful month for skiing and any outdoor activities. There is still much snow, at least in most parts of Northern Europe, the daylight is slowly vanquishing the winter darkness, and the sun even shines on most days. And the greatest thing about the spring season is the fact that we still have three amazing races left in Visma Ski Classics; two of them in Norway and the finale in Finland.
The next event this Saturday, Birkebeinerrennet (Birken) is, along with Vasaloppet in Sweden, the most prestigious and legendary race as it is the biggest ski race in Norway, which is the mecca of cross-country skiing, and it has a long history and an intriguing tale upon which it has been founded. The 54-kilometer course takes off from Rena and goes to Lillehammer, the 1994 Olympic town. There are long climbs up to the mountains and breathtaking scenery for everyone to enjoy.
There are no sprint points on the course, but the climb competition takes place and our pro skiers need to negotiate a long ascent to Raudfjellet at 20 km, where the only climb point is located. The elite women start their race at 7:45 am CET, and 15 minutes later the elite men will embark on their journey through the mountains carrying a 3.5 kg backpack, which symbolizes the weight of the prince Haakon when the two Birkebeiners carried him to safety (see below).
As we are getting ready for Birken, it makes sense to take a look at the history of the event. Just like Vasaloppet, the saga of Birkebeiners and their brave rescue mission is truly worth exploring. Ladies and gentlemen, take a seat, buckle up and go back in time to the year 1205:
All the Birken races are founded upon the legendary escape that the Birkebeiners, Skjervald Skrukka and Torstein Skjevla, managed around New Year 1205/1206, rescuing the little prince Haakon Haakonssen from the Baglers. During this civil war the fraction rivaling against the Birkebeiners, the Baglers, was looking for the young heir to the Norwegian throne.
Following the death of the Norwegian king Haakon Sverresson, the two rivaling fractions, the Baglers and the Birkebeiners, fought to gain control of the country.
To keep Haakon Sverressons son - Haakon Haakonsson, from being killed by the Baglers, and by that securing the throne, a small group of Birkebeiners brought prince Haakon and his mother, Inga, north.
Just after New Years Eve 1206 the two best skiers - Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, carrying the child, chose the route across the mountains separating Gudbrandsdalen and Østerdalen. It was a strenuous journey, but the young prince was brought to safety in Trondheim. The prince grew to become the king who united Norway, after 1000 years of civil war, and led the country into its golden age during the Middle Ages.
The name Birkebeinere was given by the Baglers, and originally intended to be offensive - referring to their leggings of birch bark, indicating that they were poor and incapable. They proved the Baglers wrong, and today the name carries a sence of pride, strength and endurance - something thousands of people, participating in the historical race every year, keep striving for.
In the fall of 1930 author and forester, Haakon Lie, published an article launching the idea of a ski race in honor of the 1206 rescue of the 18-month-old prince, Haakon Haakonsson. Two years later - on January 10th 1932, 6 men - Fredrik Grundtvig, Agnar Renolen, Peder Olsen, Lars Høgvold, Halvor Kampen and Olaf Larsen, met on the mountain Raufjellet, and formally decided to arrange the very first Birkebeinerrennet. In 1932 147 men completed the then 59 km long trail - first among them was Trygve Beisvåg, finishing on a respectable 4:51:40
Best result men: Petter Eliassen in 2015, result: 02:19:28
Best result women: Therese Johaug in 2015, result: 02:41:46
Money prizes for the winners in Men and Women Elite
1.place: NOK 40.000,-
2.place: NOK 20.000,-
3.place: NOK 10.000,-
4.place: NOK 5.000,-
5.place: NOK 3.000,-
6.place: NOK 2.000,-
Each sprint prize has a value of NOK 2 500,- (these sprints are not Visma Ski Classics ones