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Betsy Youngman Sails Through American Birkebeiner
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Wednesday, March 1, 2023
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Thirty-four years have passed since Sun Valley’s Betsy Youngman won the 50K American Birkebeiner—America’s largest and most prestigious Nordic race.

And, while she may be a few years older, she hasn’t lost much ground when it comes to America’s largest and most prestigious Nordic race.

The two-time Olympian finished first in her 60- to 64-year class for the Classic Birkebeiner this past weekend, gliding across the finish line in front of 30,000 spectators ringing their cowbells amidst the aroma of beer and brats.

Her time of 3 hours and 32 minutes in the 55K Classic race placed her eighth overall among thousands of competitors, just five minutes behind Alayna Sonnesyn, who has been the reigning champion for the past few years. Caitlin Gregg, who has trained every year in Sun Valley and is a Boulder Mountain Tour medalist, finished third overall 1 minute nine seconds off Sonnesyn’s time.

“To hear the roar of thousands of people cheering is incredible,” said Youngman. 

David Norris, who won the 2022 Boulder Mountain Tour, was the men’s Skate champion.

Sun Valley’s Peter Wolter, who won the 2023 Boulder Mountain Tour, finished seventh in the American Birkebeiner freestyle or skate race on Saturday. And Sun Valley's Annika Landis, who took third in a photo finish at the Boulder Mountain Tour, finished ninth. Also skating in that race were Laura Theis, who finished 179th, Erin Zell (273),Lindsay VanMiegham (503), Eric Huus (936) and Del Pletcher (1,954).

In the Classic Birkebeiner, Lexie Praggastis finished 123rd, Don Sheppler, 366th and Mike Price, 606.

More than a quarter million skiers have competed in the race held in Hayward, Wis., population 2,300, since the first was held in 1973. More than 10,000 skiers take part in a single year.

Half the battle this year was getting there ahead of the epic storm that hampered travel throughout the United States, said Youngman.

“Those of us that were able to make it to Hayward ahead of the epic winter storm were greeted with eight to 10 inches of new snow on Wednesday and then sub-zero temperatures of -13F on Thursday.  On Friday, the weather cleared and the excitement for racing grew palpable,” she said.

A veteran of eight American Birkebeiners, Youngman knew enough to take the chaotic weather in stride.

“Birkie week is notorious for chaotic weather, crazy fun events and camaraderie,” she said. “This being my eighth trip to the northern woods of Wisconsin, I made it a point to savor all the small moments, including cold winds in the big trees, fun rolling hills, warm hugs from old friends and the literal buzz of so many people skiing and just breathing together on the trails.”  

Sun Valley has long had a strong presence in the Birkebeiner. Sun Valley ‘s Johnny Hagenbuch won the skate ski race in 2021, then finished second in the classic race the next day. Katie Feldman, who skis with Hagenbuch on Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Gold Team, finished fourth behind Sonnesyn, who again won that year. Caitlin Gregg placed third in that race.

Peter Holmes took the 2019 Classic Edition while Feldman won third that year.

Vamps founder Muffy Ritz has skied the American Birkebeiner 18 times, winning it twice, and she’s skied the Norwegian Birkebeiner five times, coming in fourth once. EJ Harpham won the American Birkebeiner in 1987.

The race was patterned after the Norwegian Birkebeiner and commemorates 13th century Birkebeiner warriors named for the birch bark leggings they wore. They carried young Prince Haakon of Norway to safety on skis from Lillehammer to Trondheim.

“The race has changed a lot of the years. No longer does the race go from Hayward to Telemark or have a mass start with everyone in Rosie’s Field,” said Youngman. “They have added Elite Waves and seeding criteria to make it safer and easier to ski with people of one’s pace.”

 Indeed, the Birkie now starts under a permanent start banner and finishes on Main Street where crews haul in 82 dump truck loads of snow to cover a nearly three-block finish.

The course is a lot of like the winding, hilly Rip n’ Tear at Galena Lodge, said Anne Jeffery, a VAMP who  participated in the Birkebeiner several years ago. It crosses a flat lake near the end then turns up a hill to town crossing an International Bridge built every year over the highway and then up another hill through town to the finish.

The trail is now wider than it was when Youngman won it in 1989 and the grooming is far superior. Organizers now set four classic tracks all the way to the halfway point.

“The classic event is one that has interested me over the past few years so this year I decided to make it there to see how it skied,” Youngman said. “It was fabulous! In spite of the 8-degree temperatures and dry snow, the tracks were perfectly solid and the hills flew by!”

Youngman can be seen nearly every day out at the Sun Valley Nordic Center doing interval training, pushing herself on hills and focusing on her technique. She says strength training is more important than ever to slow the loss of muscle that comes with age, and it helps with balance and preventing injuries. What’s more, the increased emphasis on double poling demands more strength and power.

Youngman also focuses on cross-training, such as biking and hiking, to prevent overuse injuries while keeping her joints limber.

“Skiers today now have so much more access to information,” she added. “We can watch videos of excellent skiers; read articles on training science and physiology; investigate other skiers blogs to see what life is like for international skiers and watch "how-to" videos on waxing and ski prep.   

JESSIE WINS RECORD GOLD MEDAL

Jessie Diggins, who has competed at and coached young girls in Sun Valley, became the first U.S. cross-country skier to win an individual gold medal at a world championships on Tuesday. She won the  10-kilometer freestyle Tuesday in Planica, Slovenia, by 14 seconds over Swede Frida Karlsson.

It’s her sixth career world championship medal and U.S. record-breaking second world championship gold medal. She and Kikkan Randall won the first U.S. gold in the team sprint in 2013.


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