Tough trek: Hughes recounts racing the Birkebeiner in Norway

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Local Ski racer Craig Hughes shows off his pack and number from the Birkebeiner race in Norway he took part in last year.

HOUGHTON — “For me it was by far the most difficult striding race I’d ever done but it was hard to complain…It was beautiful, just drop dead gorgeous,” said local ski racer Craig Hughes.

Hughes and his wife, Amy, traveled to Norway in March of 2017 to take part in the famous Birkebeiner ski race. He shared some of the experience to a packed audience at the Portage Lake District Library Tuesday.

The Birkebeiner was created in 1932 to commemorate the journey of two skiers who carried the infant heir of Norway to safety. Today racers must carry a pack weighing 3.5 kg to symbolize the young noble. The race begins in Rena and ends in Lillehammer.

When Hughes competed, the race itself hosted around 8,000 competitors.

“(There were) so many people poling that your pole plant would actually be lower by two or three inches…than what you’re accustomed to,” Hughes said. “What can you do about it? There’s 8,000 people. If I would have skied faster, I could have had a better course.”

Hughes didn’t have the best race, suffering a few mishaps with his ski waxing. Once the race started he quickly noticed something was off.

“I realized I was double poling, I had no kick,” Hughes said. “After about 35-40 kilometers… I’m cramping in places I’ve never cramped in before.”

Dealing with the lack of kick and steep terrain through much of the race Hughes had a much slower race than usual.

“In the US in my age group in classic races, I’m usually in the top ten to twenty percent,” Hughes said.

At the Birkebeiner, he ranked 485 out of 853 of the 50 to 54 age group. However, he doesn’t think it was just a bad race. Hughes had tough competition.

“There’s a lot of good skiers in Norway,” he said.

Hughes recounted some of their adventures and observations of the Norwegian culture. Skiing, in particular, was a key part of life, a point driven home by a visit to a hardware store.

“The wax and supplies (section) is bigger than Cross Country Sports, Down Wind or any other local stores combined. It was a big place, but I wasn’t in a ski store, I was in a hardware store just like Swift’s except there’s this whole section of ski stuff,” Hughes recounted. “So that kind of shows you how ingrained skiing is in the community when a hardware store has this much ski stuff.”

Hughes wants to ski the Birkebeiner again in coming years and improve his time.

“It was quite an experience,” said Hughes. “I’d like to go there again.”