On the Birkie and Suffering Beautifully

Posted by Annika Landis, EnjoyWinter Factory Team on Mar 1st 2024

On the Birkie and Suffering Beautifully

On the Birkie and Suffering Beautifully


Photos courtesy of Skinny Ski.

Birkie #3 is in the books and it looked quite a bit different this year than in the past. The lack of snow was almost a fatal blow to this iconic race, but thanks to the herculean efforts of the volunteers and trail crew, they were able to pull off a successful week. The 10k man made loop was nothing short of a miracle, and although it was a bit depressing and left me with some complicated feelings about snowmaking and racing at all costs, I was overall happy that the race was not canceled. The Birkie has an energy to it that even a bad snow year couldn’t shake and everyone I met was fired up to race, no matter the conditions.

I had high hopes for the Birkie this year, having felt strong in all my races so far. I felt like on a good day I could be in the mix with the top women and improve on my 9th place result from last yet. Unfortunately, right from the gun, I could tell that I was not going to be in a position to push at the front of the race. For a few different reasons, I knew after just a few kilometers that I was going to be fighting for every spot. That is a daunting realization to have, knowing that you have 47 kilometers left to ski, and with no guarantee that things will get better.

Marathons are long enough that often you go through many phases of feeling good or feeling bad. If you don’t like how you feel, wait 10 minutes and you could bounce back. That was not the case for me in this race and I ended up skiing 47 km completely alone, head down, powering ahead into a pretty gnarly headwind.

I did not have much fun during the race and I think it’s ok to admit that. It was damn hard and I had to fight myself and the course every step of the way. But all along the course there were people cheering, and I heard so many people yelling for me by name even though I had no idea who they were. That was definitely inspiring and it kept me going even when I wanted to stop. Despite the subpar racing, I enjoyed my time in Hayward, soaking in the spring sun and catching up with former teammates and coaches.

When I have a particularly challenging race, I end up doing quite a bit of reflection on what happened, why, and what I am going to take away from it.

Skiing with former Middlebury & GRP teammate Alex Lawson, one of the many people I was happy to see!

Here are four things I like to remember when a race doesn’t go my way:

1. I am not entitled to a good result

Every successful race is a privilege, it is not a given. It does not matter how hard you train, or how well you prepare, you cannot always control the outcome and no outcome is inherently deserved. Humility is your friend. In general, I don’t like to use value words like “bad” or “good” when describing my races because it oversimplifies what makes a race ‘successful’ vs not. I wasn’t happy with my result, I wanted more from this race and I was disappointed that I couldn’t find that beautiful place where suffering and joy combine. BUT, once I finished, I felt a certain satisfaction. I may not have beaten the other racers I wanted to, but I had beaten the toughest competition on the course; my own brain. That felt like quite the accomplishment.

2. You don’t learn as much by giving up

I wanted to, many times, but my personal philosophy is that you need to save your DNFs for when you really need them, not just because it’s hard and you aren’t having fun. Ski racing is incredibly difficult, so you shouldn’t be surprised when it feels that way sometimes. If it was easy, everybody would do it and it wouldn't be nearly as fun.

Toughness is a learned behavior. We have to push ourselves to suffer and lean into discomfort because that is where we learn about and nourish the parts of ourselves that allow us to succeed through adversity, in skiing and beyond. As GRP coach Pepa says, skiing is the art of suffering beautifully. What that means is up for individual interpretation, but to me it means embrace suffering (in sport at least) as a privilege, not something to be feared or shied away from.

3. The power of community

On a particularly lonely part of the course, there was a little boy who ran all of the climb cheering, every lap. He has no clue that he was so important to me, feeling like I could make it just a bit farther, and push a bit harder. The rest of the course wasn’t so lonely - thousands of spectators lined the trail, and their excitement for every racer no matter their speed was close to deafening. It definitely kept me going when I felt particularly disgruntled.

The energy at the Birkie is always electric, and this year was no different. It didn’t take long after I finished to feel lifted up by the positivity from all of the other participants. Of course results matter, but not as much as coming together as a community and reveling in the upswell of history making hype for nordic skiing.

4. Sh*t happens, have a short memory.

Ski racing rewards short memories, take the time you need to process hard or disappointing races, pick a few lessons to take with you and move on. Racing is a forward looking process - we are always striving for forward momentum. It is good to process a tough race, but it also doesn’t help much to dwell on things you can’t change, you can only learn from them.

Up next - Tour of Anchorage! I could not be more excited to spend a week in Alaska exploring new trails and doing a race that has been on my bucket list for many years.