By Wes Gabel, New Moon Ambassador
Hello Ski Enthusiasts,
I have been competitive ski racing for the last several years. This year will mark my third time starting in the Birkie’s elite skate wave, and the “fever” has grown into more of a season for me. I wanted to share a list of ski races I do every year and something that I really love about each one. Take this list not as a challenge, but as a reference from one skier to another. I hope you enjoy it.
Seeley Hills Classic (42K Classic)
For me, the Seeley Hills is the opening benchmark for how the off-season training has been going. Even though this race doesn’t get too many in total numbers, the competition is often stacked with the fittest and experienced racers seeking the first real race on the Birkie trail. I believe this race is a “must do” for all die-hard classic skiers. It involves all of the perks of the Birkie infrastructure, with a fraction of the people to navigate around. No need to mess with a shuttle. All skiers can park at the Birkie Startline where the race begins/ends, stay warm in the massive Birkie barn, do their race and recover back in the barn. This year I was able to place my duffle bag on a table just before the race and then come right back to it when I was finished.
Highlights: Competitive field, fantastic trail maintenance, warm building access, classic pride, and no bussing needed.
Lowlights: Skaters need not apply.
Noquemanon (50K Classic)
The “Noque” has been around for 22 years and is a fantastic ski event. I prefer to classic ski the race because it is a more competitive field. The weekend is packed with over a thousand participants in the 50K, 24K, 12K, Adaptive Ski, Skijor, Snowshoe, and Fatbike races. To me, the Noquemanon is the most adventurous of all the races. The trek from Ishpeming to Marquette has a rugged feel. There are several lake crossings, beautiful views, and stunning rock bluffs. There are different snow climates within the race as it begins inland with typically colder and dryer snow and finishes near Lake Superior where it is often warmer/wetter in winter months. The greatest perk of the Noquemanon is finishing at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome. When one finishes the race they simply walk inside with their skis, hand their skis off to a ski valet, grab their bag that was delivered from the startline, and relax in a massive indoor football stadium. Better yet, they feed you full of soup, and have huge locker rooms with hot showers! I even took a sauna after the race this year as I enjoyed my locally brewed Blackrocks 51K IPA.
Highlights: Beautiful course, the Superior Dome, ski valet, and Marquette is a hip college town.
Lowlights: Grooming (the course is primarily private land that can only be worked on the week of the race).
Wolf Tracks Rendezvous (42K Skate)
This race has a lot of charm and probably offers the best quality skiing experience of any race. Minocqua Winter Park is a nordic area that really takes their grooming seriously. The course has a roller coaster feel with twists and turns that really challenge one’s ability to make step-turns at speed. If anyone gets an opportunity to ski MWP, check out their trails Nutcracker and VO2 Max. Both are used in the race, and both are a blast. Imagine a flowy mountain bike singletrack, but designed for skate skiing.
Highlights: Grooming, small-town charm, postrace buffet, cute vintage chalet (with a restaurant and tap beer), twists and turns, and a quality ski shop on site.
Lowlights: Not very competitive, and changing clothes in crowded bathrooms afterward.
Pre-Birkie (42K Skate)
This is a new race for me. Last year I did the half, but this year I’m ramping it up to the full. The Pre-Birkie used to start in Hayward and run the whole Birkie trail north, but now it is a loop that starts and ends at the new Korte Start at OO. From what I gather, the Pre-Birkie is less about the Pre-Birkie and more about prepping for the real Birkie. Many think that two weeks out is an ideal time to get in “one last good one”. Depending on your conditioning, it might be wise to do the half if you’re afraid of not being recovered by the big day.
Highlights: Another race on the Birkie trail, grooming, the stylish sweatshirt, and racing across the OO bridge (twice).
Lowlights: No real changing area.
Book Across The Bay (10K Skate)
For those who don’t know, BookXBay is the second largest attended ski event in the United States (only behind the American Birkebeiner). To be honest, not many people are competitive in this event. Most people do the event to be social, carry a flask, ski up to bonfires, and dance to a live band at the finish line. I love this event because it is totally opposite to all other race events. First, it takes place at night. Second, most participants are on second-hand fishscale skis that probably get used once a year. Third, a tent that fits thousands waits for you at the finish line. Up on a huge stage, an eight-piece rock band entertains winter enthusiasts well beyond midnight. It is truly a unique event. However, in contrast to all the partying I have described above, there are racing benefits to this race. There are probably 50 or so skiers that legitimately race this. Every year I have done this I have been able to find a fast pack to rip out the 10K with. It’s a total chess match with the others in your pack. Everyone wants to be near the front, but leading the race means that you’re working harder than everyone else. Everyone plays cat and mouse jockeying for position for the first 9K, then the last 1000 Meters is a total surge for the finish. I find that I can dial in my drafting skills in this event, and also have to really push through a redlined, threshold heart rate to beat the pack.
Highlights: Candlelight ski, party, everyone can do it, live music, fast tempo pack skiing.
Lowlights: Lowlight. Literally, there is a low amount of light, and headlamps are discouraged so everyone’s eyes are able to adjust.
American Birkebeiner (50K Skate)
The SuperBowl, the BIG DAY, and what we look forward to all year. Birkie fever is real, there is no doubting it. The finish on mainstreet with the cacophony of cheering fans sparks emotion and pride. I’ll speak generally on the Birkie because there are so many reasons to love this weekend. Maybe it’s the one race you’re doing this year. Maybe it gets your friends and family together. Maybe you’re working to become a Birchlegger. Maybe all of the above. For me, the Birkie is so exciting because of the volume of talent that shows up each year. No matter your fitness level, chances are that there are tens, maybe hundreds of people doing the race that are your exact same speed. The Birkie is your opportunity to find a large group of people that feel good to ski with. Additionally, Birkie weekend showcases the incredible resources and trail effort put forth by the towns of Hayward, Seeley, and Cable. The trail really does shine. The Birkie staff are incredibly organized, and all logistics are well thought out. Everything about the weekend is impressive. I could say more, but I’ll let everyone make their own judgments on the big race.
Highlights: Friends and family, pack skiing, spectators, FM 88.9 WOJB Birkie song collection, the culmination of training, energy, and much much more.
Lowlights: Mandatory bussing, stress, and lack of great changing areas at the finish.
Great Bear Chase (50K Skiathlon)
For me, the Bear Chase is the last event of the season. The Keweenaw Peninsula gets a ridiculous amount of lake effect snow, and conditions are always good. There are options for 12K Skate or Classic, 25K Skate or Classic, 50K Skate or Classic, or the 50K Skiathlon. I like the skiathlon because of the stacked competition, and the fact that skiathlons are rare opportunities for citizen skiers. It’s fun to prep two sets of skis for one race. Each participant gets their own spot assigned to their bib number in the exchange zone, and you feel like a World Cup skier when you make your gear exchange. I have always emptied the nordic skiing tank as I finish this race. A huge perk of the Bear Chase is the post-race feed at the Calumet High School. The food provided is amazing. I mean, what beats a loaded Upper Peninsula pasty? Nothing. Furthermore, at the school, racers can get a hot shower and really refresh themselves.
Highlights: Good late season conditions, skiathlons are rare, post feed and showers, and competitive field.
Lowlights: Lodging can be hard to find, and it’s a drive to get up there.
Please note, this is not an exhaustive list of ski races throughout the midwest. People like the Pepsi Challenge, City of the Lakes Loppet, Ashwabay Summit Race (aka “Pie Race”), and many more. The point is, get out there and try another event if life allows. I don’t think that you’ll regret it.
Ya Gotta Ski!