Only on the day of the American Birkebeiner ski race will they represent a half-dozen countries and sprint to exhaustion in pursuit of victory and $7,500.
The field for the 39th edition of North America’s largest ski race projects to match or exceed the international quality of the 2011 group, according to Dennis Kruse, the Birkebeiner director of competition. Two teams from Norway, including defending champion Tore Martin Gunderson, will be chased by skiers from Russia, Canada, France, Switzerland and the U.S.
“I’m totally psyched,” Kruse said, after assessing the start list. “It’s going to be good.”
Kruse figures as many as a dozen skiers could be spread across the snow-covered street in the race to the finish.
His pick in the men’s freestyle race is Tad Elliott, a member of the U.S. Ski Team on a break from racing in the World Cup series. Elliott finished second to Matt Liebsch in 2009 and beat the Minnesota native for the gold in the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships 15K freestyle.
Liebsch, a Minnesota native, is expected to push the lead pack again, along with French racer Benoit Chauvet, who finished second in 2011.
Gunderson, a law student from Lillehammer, returns to defend his title, and will be joined by a group of teammates to help cover attacks early and put one of their own in position to represent the Norwegian heritage of the race.
In the women’s division, Caitlin Gregg will be chasing a repeat of her 2011 victory, one she credited in part to the ski wax work by her then-fiance, Brian Gregg. She’s shown solid form as a newlywed, and took third in the U.S. national championship 10K freestyle. Her husband will be among those with a chance to have a break-out day.
Caitlin Gregg and the top three female skiers all broke the previous course record in 2011 and will be back for another chase on Saturday.
Kruse picks Gregg to be in a battle with Holly Brooks, a 2004 Olympian from Alaska, who also took a break from the World Cup circuit to race in the Birkie. A group of young skiers from the Green Racing Project, based in Craftsbury, Vt., figure to be in the mix, along with Rebecca Dussault.
The winner in 2009 and 2010 took a break last year after giving birth to her third child, but has the experience and strength to win over the 50K marathon distance.
The top six men and women will split $39,000 in prize money and gather points for the FIS Marathon Cup, a series of 15 races around the world.
In all, nearly 6,300 skiers will take the start line in Cable, with hopes of reaching the finish in Hayward. Another 2,900 will race the 23-kilometer Kortelopet, and 430 in the 12K Prince Haakon.
Close to 20% of the full Birkie skiers will be making their virgin voyages over a course of unrelenting hills.
“A lot of them want to do it once, then they get hooked, they get the Birkie fever and they start coming back year after year,” said Ned Zuelsdorff, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Foundation.
That Birkie fever has turned the race into an annual reunion, and an objective that keeps citizen athletes motivated throughout the year. It’s also led to a remarkable demand for entry in the race capped this year at 9,000.
All those slots were filled in late November, marking the second straight year the Birkebeiner set a record for registrations.
Organizers will carefully watch the traffic flow and congestion around the start and finish areas to guide their decision for expanding the race.
“We’re trying to grow the event in a smart way, which is our highest priority,” Zuelsdorff said.
As it has grown from that initial race with 33 skiers in 1973, the Birkebeiner has added events to fill a four-day weekend in the north woods.
Vegard Ulvang, a Norwegian gold medal winner, will share highlights from his 800-mile ski venture to the South Pole throughout the weekend, and ski in the race on Saturday as an ambassador for the MS Society and the Birkie for Cures Program.
The 2012 Birkebeiner will also be a tribute to one of the founding skiers, David Landgraf, who was hit by a car and killed while bicycling near Hayward, in August. Landgraf, a retired teacher from Bloomer, was one of only three skiers to participate in every American Birkebeiner.
His wife, Laurie, will be the honorary starter on Saturday morning.
“I think the things Dave did in promoting cross country skiing and getting people enthusiastic, that’s why the Birkie exists,” Zuelsdorff said. “That’s why we thrive.
“I watched him start the last many years, and for me, he was always quietly inspiring.”
What: The 39th Annual American Birkebeiner, a race that started with 33 skiers in 1973 and has a record field of 9,000 for 2012.
Start: The initial wave of skiers will depart from the Cable Area Airport at 8 a.m. The last wave takes off at 10:05.
Course records: Caitlin Gregg set the women’s record, 2 hours, 15 minutes and 26 seconds in 2011. Fabius Santus, of Italy, set the men’s record, one hour, 56 minutes, 58 seconds, in 2010.
Course conditions: The Birkebeiner course has been in good condition throughout the ski season and received one to three inches of fresh snow on Tuesday. The forecast calls for a chance of snow through the weekend, including the potential for lake effect snow late Friday night. Temperatures are predicted to be in the low teens at the start, and reach a high of 24 as the late finishers approach Main St.