LILLEHAMMER, Norway— Early on Saturday morning, 17,000 skiers – mostly Norwegians – made their way to Rena, a small town of usually just 2,000 people in central Norway. They were set to race the Birkebeiner, a 54 k classic marathon that traverses a mountain range and ends here in Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Olympics. It is one of the most well-known ski marathons in the world.
But as meteorologists had warned, winds were extremely severe at the top of the race course, which sits at nearly 3,000 feet. Gusts were rumored to reach 25 meters per second, or 55 miles per hour. The tracks were blowing in within seconds of being set and with wind chill, temperatures dropped to -26 C or -14 F.
As race organizers deliberated whether they could send thousands of skiers over the mountains, the racers sat in Rena, on buses and in school gymnasiums. There was an hour delay for organizers to see if conditions improved and the race could be held.
After that hour, the announcement was made: the Birkebeiner was canceled.
“This was not weather to ski in,” groomer Runar Austgarden told news agencies after the decision. He said that the tracks were completely blown over only a minute or two after he had set them; the race committee posted a photo on their website of sponsor banners blowing sideways.
“The wind was so powerful that groomers did not see it prudent to leave their machines,” race director Silvie Amundsen said in a press release on the Birken website. “It was hard to stand still in storm… The most important thing is life and health, and we do not want anything to happen participants because of unacceptable conditions in the mountains.”
On their website, the Birken called Saturday “a heavy day” and said that the decision had been extremely difficult. Only once before, in 2007, had the race ever been canceled and that year, participants set off but were turned back on the high mountain passes, creating even more confusion. This time, racers simply had to find a bus ride back to Lillehammer.
Some – potentially even a few thousand – skied over to Lillehammer on their own. Organizers were adamant that skiers turn in their timing chips before they set off, so that they would bear no responsibility for what happened next, and there were of course no aid stations. But some of these skiers said that the conditions were not bad.
The brothers Jorgen and Anders Aukland were probably the most famous participants to try this, skiing with their friend Simen Østensen.
“They made the decision too early,” Jorgen Aukland told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “It was fine to go over the mountains today.”
They, and others, pointed out that in the Birkebeiner race participants are required to carry a backpack weighing 3.5 kilograms, and inside are required to carry an extra long underwear shirt, ski pants, and a jacket.
“Therefore, it shouldn’t have been a problem,” Anders Aukland said of the weather.
American skiers Matt Gelso (Sun Valley) and Peter Kling (APU) also skied over the passes to Lillehammer.
Indeed, the decision has been second-guessed and criticized relentlessly here in Norway in the past two days, by everyone from skiers themselves to newspapers and television stations.
The Birken posted a statement on their facebook page on Sunday trying to explain and defend the decision:
“The cancellation of this year’s Birkebeiner Race was a real downer for everyone involved. There are many opinions about the decision taken. Birken is a mass event and we must ensure the safety of both participants and volunteer staff. In such conditions as there were on the mountain yesterday morning, it was not prudent to send participants over the mountains or volunteer personnel onto the top. We understand that many of you are disappointed, so are we, but we hope you understand our decision. We hope you get some great skiing in during this last part of the ski season.”
The posting has received nearly 1,000 “likes”, but many of the 114 comments are critical of the decision.
“Now you sit down soon to start thinking about some alternative, and show a little more respect for thousands of well-trained skiers with a backpack full of extra shirts,” wrote one commenter. “There are many ways to solve this in order to avoid a cancellation… it seems like you’re taking a little too lightly.”
“All participants are required to wear sack which for safety reasons SHALL contain windproof clothing, dry underwear, drink, food and waxes,” wrote another. “I don’t understand the point of these rules if the participants aren’t let on the trail when it blows a little on the mountain.”
Still others asserted that the Birkebeiner had been held in worse conditions before.
Race director Amundsen, however, told NRK that it was the luck of the draw what conditions a skier might find at the course’s highest points. Between 15 and 40 kilometers, the course is always above 2,000 feet. Within that area, there is a seven-kilometer section at nearly 3,000 feet.
“There were several gaps during the day when it was okay to go over the mountain,” Amundsen told NRK. “But when we consider that we will be having 17,000 people all over the area, someone would have to be in the strong winds in the morning or else when it blew up again in the afternoon.”
The directors considered delaying the race even beyond the one-hour delay they had initially implemented, but did not think it wise to keep slower participants out on the trails too late into the afternoon and evening.
With two cancellations in the last decade, Amundsen said the organization may consider developing a backup route which traverses at lower elevation.