David Norris didn’t let it come down to a sprint this time. Alayna Sonnesyn did, but dispatched Jessica Yeaton with relative ease when it counted. Norris won his second skate American Birkebeiner, and Sonnesyn her fourth, in the 49th running of the race on a picture-perfect day for marathon skiing in Birkieland.
Caitlin Gregg was third for the women, with Gérard Agnellet of France and Francis Izquierdo-Bernier of Spain second and third for the men. Thomas O’Harra and Tyler Kornfield rounded out the domestic podium in the men’s race.
Norris has a history with this race, one punctuated by the group sprints up Main Street that are more the norm than the exception in the high-end men’s field. He took his first win here in 2016, winning by 1.1 seconds out of a finishing pack that saw the top six men all cross the line within ten seconds. He was fifth here in 2018, within five seconds of the lead, in the middle of a ten-man sprint. And last year he was second, to Agnellet, by 0.06 seconds, or less than one boot length, with third place less than two seconds back.
This year, Norris didn’t let Agnellet, or anyone else, stick around that long, nor let the top step on the podium be determined by the vagaries of who timed his lunge better. Racing in heavy mittens, two buffs, and battery-powered warm socks on a cold and clear day that made for a firm trail but crisp conditions, Norris skied off the front shockingly early, and just never looked back.
At the Fire Tower timing checkpoint, roughly 12 kilometers into the race, Norris was 27 seconds up on former APU teammate, now Worldloppet marathon specialist, Tyler Kornfield, and 49 seconds up on a Matt Liebsch–led chase pack in third. At OO (21km), Kornfield had been swallowed up, and now was skiing among roughly ten men in the chase pack, with APU skier Thomas O’Harra, a former top-five Birkie finisher, leading the chase. O’Harra was also over a minute back by this point.
By Mosquito Brook, 38 kilometers into the race, the margin was a staggering 3+ minutes back to O’Harra and co., places 2–11 all still skiing together, and barring an all-time collapse Norris had it in the bag.
Norris did not collapse. He skied calm and collected over the final few minutes of his 45-plus-kilometer solo tour of the Wisconsin northwoods. His form remained impeccable, with his trademark long glide and almost languid tempo (slow is smooth and smooth is fast, kids). The Fairbanks native was skiing on, well, Fairbanks snow, and was looking damn good while he did so.
Norris crossed the finish line in 2:05:40 to take his second Birkie title, and $10,000 in prize money for the overall win plus first American. Behind him, Gérard Agnellet and Francis Izquierdo-Bernier used their experience on the Worldloppet circuit to successfully break away in the race’s final third; Agnellet pipped Izquierdo-Bernier for third.
Thomas O’Harra was fourth, 25 seconds off the overall podium, and Tyler Kornfield fifth, 12 seconds behind him.
There was a strong Alaska theme for the men’s domestic podium; O’Harra and Kornfield are from Anchorage, and as recently as last season all three men skied for APU. Norris now describes himself as “retired from full-time racing,” and raced Saturday in a Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club suit. (Kornfield raced in the powder-blue suit of his current employer, Team Robinson Trentino.)
The semi-retired Norris also was named to this year’s World Championships team, and will, I expect, race next weekend’s 50km classic mass start in Planica. His coaching duties with the Steamboat Springs juniors will have to wait another week or so.
I reached out to Norris for comment earlier today. I would suspect that the man who literally just won the Birkie is not on his email right now, but I will update this article with his thoughts when possible.
Update: And here is David Norris, extremely promptly given everything else he had going on today, via email to Nordic Insights:
“My plan going into the race was to go from the first sprint prime. I wasn’t concerned with winning the first prime, but I wanted to use it as a jumping off point. For years I have talked about hammering from the gun, but for one reason or another I haven’t. Last night Jessica told me to stop talking about these plans and finally commit. Basically, she told me to be brave and play to my strengths. I know I am fit, but I also have not been following a traditional training plan. I have a massive base, but I might not have my normal high-end that I would have when I’ve been racing a most weekends of the season.
“I’m so stoked to have the opportunity to race and ski a ton. I feel so fortunate that Jess just loves to get out into the woods and exercise a ton — ‘training’ has become more of a lifestyle than a professional endeavor. I’m proud to show that there isn’t just one route to skiing well and staying in the sport.”
The men’s race features first in this writeup because David Norris was the first person to cross the finish line on Saturday, but it was close. The women’s elite wave got a 20-minute head start over the men’s race, so it was not until late in the race that Norris caught up to the two lead women. He found a familiar sight when he did so; Jessica Yeaton, who won this race in 2020, is his longtime partner.
Jessica Yeaton and Alayna Sonnesyn were holding down the top two positions in this race at OO, slightly before halfway, but they had some company at the time; there were six women still in the lead pack, with another five athletes a few seconds back. Caitlin Patterson, now retired but still in racing shape, was in contact, along with Alex Lawson, Hannah Rudd, Mariah Bredal, Michaela Keller-Miller, and French marathon skiers Céline Chopard-Lallier and Emilie Bulle. Oh, and one Caitlin Gregg, a woman who, to put it mildly, knows how to ski this course.
By Mosquito Brook (38km), little had changed, though the lead pack was now down to eight women.
Soon after that, though, Yeaton and Sonnesyn had had enough, and dropped the hammer. Sonnesyn had appeared to try to break away before earlier in the race, but this time the move stuck. Yeaton, who also used to ski for APU but is now affiliated with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, was the only one who could stick with the SMS athlete. By the time they hit the lake they were nearly a minute up on third, and one of them was going to win.
That one was Sonnesyn. Yeaton led coming off the lake, and valiantly tried to shake Sonnesyn around the final few turns and over the bridge. When Sonnesyn was still in contact coming off of Main Street, the race was, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, all but over. Sonnesyn was 24th in two separate World Cup skate sprints earlier this season. Yeaton did not qualify for the heats in the skate sprint at U.S. Nationals. Sonnesyn moved around Yeaton halfway up Main Street, Yeaton could not respond, and that was that. Sonnesyn took the victory in 2:27:36, with Yeaton shutting it down slightly to cross the line roughly seven seconds later.
Behind them, Caitlin Gregg (Team Birkie), now age 42, hit the lake in a pack of five, including Caitlin Patterson (age 33), Mariah Bredal (age 25), Chopard-Lallier (age 28), and Lawson (age 24). Chalk one up for experience, because by the time these athletes came up Main Street, roughly three kilometers later, Gregg was ten seconds ahead of all of them. Chopard-Lallier was a half-second ahead of Bredal in a sprint for fourth and fifth, a notably painful way to end a marathon.
Because Yeaton is an Australian national (yes it says Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in the results, but her FIS profile still lists her as an Aussie), it would have been Bredal third on the domestic podium. Caitlin Gregg was joined on the overall podium by her daughter, Heidi Mowgli Gregg.
Sonnesyn has now won this race four times, including every year since 2019 save for Yeaton’s victory in 2020, and has Gregg’s (Caitlin, not Heidi Mowgli) all-time record of five wins squarely within her sights.
Sonnesyn was on her email soon after winning the Birkie as a Midwestern athlete, which is very gracious of her considering what today meant and how popular she would have been in Hayward this afternoon. She wrote to Nordic Insights with the following background about her race, which frankly makes today’s victory all the more impressive.
“The story behind the story…” she wrote: “I woke up on Tuesday with a sore throat and took the day off from training and started pounding fluids. By Wednesday evening I had gone downhill, FAST and was starting to feel skeptical about racing this weekend. I usually find myself as more of a positive person, and I was trying not to give up hope, but things were not looking good on Thursday. I had canceled all sponsor and promotional obligations and stayed secluded in my room drinking tea and binging Ted Lasso.”
“I kept going through the motions as if I was racing,” Sonnesyn went on, “but continued to check in with myself every hour to assess my energy levels and symptoms. On Friday morning I started feeling slightly better so I made a plan to try to race, but I went into Saturday morning with a spare change of clothes in my mom’s car at OO in case I needed to drop out.”
“So, all of that being said, I am beyond thrilled to have finished the race and proud of the effort I gave it. One week ago, my game plan was to start turning screws around OO, but today I was in survival mode. I continued to check in with myself every kilometer and took feeds every other kilometer because I knew my limiting factor would be energy levels in the second half of the race. In the last 20k of the race I was happy with how I was feeling and decided to start testing some moves. This proved to be challenging, as the conditions and head wind made it hard to break away. I remained patient and focused and when Jess started making a move that looked significant, I made sure I was there for it and wanted to make it count, pushing it pretty hard as we climbed out of Fish Hatchery. From there, I had my eyes locked on the finish line and although I was confident in my sprint finish, I knew the race wasn’t over until crossing the finish line.”
So what’s her takeaway?
“Thinking back to where I was two days ago, I am proud of the way I was honest with myself and very pleased with another FUN Birkie weekend. Next time, I hope I don’t literally come down with Birkie Fever. ;)”
Citizens race highlights
In the unofficial citizen athlete race within a race, and on a personal note, my calculation is that my friend and training partner, Anna Engel in 17th, was the fastest woman in the field who did not ski in college or was never a pro athlete. I give the nod for comparable status in the men’s field to Jakob Wartman, 26th, because skiing was a club sport at Macalester College when he attended there, but someone placing ahead of him should feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about this.
The ageless John Bauer, Hayward local, 54 years old and 21st today, was the top athlete over 50 in the men’s field. Patti Harvieux of Duluth, 57 years old and 29th, was the fastest such woman, with a very honorable mention to the second-ranked 50+ woman, the inimitable Jan Guenther (45th overall), who is 63 years old and still crushing.
— Gavin Kentch