Nordic skiing: Minnesota native Sonnesyn comes back to reclaim Birkie glory
With COVID-19 protocols in place, the 47th American Birkebeiner didn't finish in Hayward or have a crowd but racers still enjoyed the experience.
Alayna Sonnesyn was overcome with emotion on Feb. 23, 2019, so any tears streaming down her cheeks were tears of joy.
Sonnesyn had just won her first American Birkebeiner freestyle championship, in her first year skiing as a professional, and it was hard for her to grasp the magnitude of winning North America’s largest cross-country ski race.
“It was so overwhelming,” Sonnesyn recalled. “It had always been a dream come true to win the Birkie.”
Now almost two years to the day, Sonnesyn repeated the feat, albeit under far different circumstances, with the world still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sonnesyn, 24, of Plymouth, Minnesota, won her second Birkie and Johnny Hagenbuch, 19, of Ketchum, Idaho, won his first Saturday at 47th American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon in Cable, Wisconsin.
“It was so much fun,” Sonnesyn said. “Obviously, it was a little interesting with a few different measures everyone had to take with the state of the world right now. It was still really impressive how the Birkie pulled everything off. It was still super fun to be racing on those trails with all those other women, so it was an awesome day, all-around.”
This year Birkie races are being held over five days to thin out the numbers. About half the participants are doing the races virtually.
Skiers have to wear a mask or face covering at all times except when they are actually racing and are required to socially distance themselves. The starting area in Cable is expansive, and Sonnesyn said that allowed room for the 34 elite women in the field to decently space out.
Unlike recent years, the elite women started behind the elite men this year.
“No spectators were allowed out there, which is so sad,” Sonnesyn said. “There already aren’t a ton of spectators for a sport like cross-country skiing, and the Birkie is the one time where the whole ski community comes out and, all the supporters come out and cheer for you, so it was kind of a bummer not to have the spectators out there, but it made sense.”
Normally the Birkie follows a point-to-point course that begins in Cable and ends with the skiers coming down Main Street in Hayward, with throngs of people lining the street, ringing cowbells and cheering racers on and the smell of beer and brats wafting in the air.
This year, there was none of that as the race started and ended in Cable, with competitors skiing out to “Double-O” and coming back. It was also shorter at 43 kilometers (or depending on your tracking device, 45 kilometers).
Saturday started out cool and fast before the temperature climbed to 40 degrees but that was long after the elites were done.
Sonnesyn finished in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 45 seconds, followed by Rosie Frankowski, 29, of Anchorage, Alaska, in 2:06:49.1 and five-time champion Caitlin Gregg, 40, of Minneapolis, in 2:08:17.6.
Hagenbuch won the men’s race in 1:54.15.2, followed by Sun Valley Gold teammate Sam Wood, 24, of Ketchum, Idaho, in 1:54:18.6 and Tyler Kornfield, 30, of Anchorage, Alaska, in 1:54:20.3.
There were four Sun Valley Gold men’s skiers Saturday and two women, all finishing in the top 11.
“There was a cool moment in the race where all of us Gold teamers were definitely dictating the pace in the front of the pack, which was fun,” said Hagenbuch, who finally broke away from the pack with about seven kilometers to go. “I would say there was a little bit of team tactics of some sort going on, but it wasn’t really organized. It was more improvised, I would say.”
Normally when you’re from Sun Valley, you’re not actually from Sun Valley, a transplant, but Hagenbuch was raised there, with his parents moving to Sun Valley when he was 3, awestruck by the astonishing beauty of the place.
While it was Hagenbuch’s first Birkie, he had heard all about it. He also had raced a junior national competition in Cable when he was 14.
“The Birkie is the Birkie,” he said. “I have no previous experience to draw from, but I’m sure in a normal year with all the fans lining up and down Main Street in Hayward that would be pretty special. I’m definitely really glad that I came out this year and did it.”
Sonnesyn and Hagenbuch each earned a top prize of $2,500.
Both of Saturday’s winners are aspiring World Cup racers and smart, with Sonnesyn earning a degree from the University of Vermont in biochemistry and Hagenbuch holding off studying at Dartmouth College while he pursues his ski career.
Sonnesyn missed the Birkie last year while competing in World Cup in Europe — she trains in Vermont with the likes of Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell — while Hagenbuch is awaiting his debut, with COVID-19 not helping matters, and has a goal of making the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
While Saturday was only Sonnesyn’s second Birkie, her family has been coming up to the event from the Twin Cities every year since before she was even born to take part in some sort of Birkie festivity. On Sunday, she plans to go for the double by trying to win the elite classic race.
“To come back and win a second time really means a lot to me, especially because it was a slightly different course, and there were different women there,” Sonnesyn said. “It’s not like it’s the same race every single year. There’s always different competition, different conditions, different weather, so it’s really pretty special to come back and do it again. My family has always been part of the ‘Birkie Fever.’”
Among the top local finishers, Duluth’s Bryan Cook, 37, finished just outside of the top 10, coming in 11th in 1:59:07.6, while Duluth’s Hannah Olson, 21, was 15th among women in 2:24:03.2.
47th American Birkebeiner
Saturday’s 43-Kilometer Elite Freestyle Results
1. Johnny Hagenbuch, 19, Ketchum, Idaho, 1 hour, 54 minutes, 15.2 seconds
2. Sam Wood, 24, Ketchum, Idaho, 1:54:18.6
3. Tyler Kornfield, 30, Anchorage, Alaska, 1:54:20.3
4. Finn O’Connell, 22, Bozeman, Montana, 1:54:21.2
5. Ian Torchia, 24, Rochester, Minnesota, 1:54:23.8
6. Christian Gostout, 22, Bozeman, Montana, 1:54:33.2
7. Brian Gregg, 36, Minneapolis, 1:55:29.6
8. Simon Zink, 22, Bozeman, Montana, 1:55:36.1
9. Karl Schulz, 23, Sun Valley, Idaho, 1:55:52.2
10. Peter Holmes, 24, Ketchum, Idaho, 1:56:12.0
1. Alayna Sonnesyn, 24, Plymouth, Minnesota, 2:06:45.0
2. Rosie Frankowski, 29, Anchorage, Alaska, 2:06:49.1
3. Caitlin Gregg, 40, Minneapolis, 2:08:17.6
4. Katie Feldman, 25, Ketchum, Idaho, 2:09:11.6
5. Erika Flowers, 31, Bozeman, Montana, 2:11:26.4
6. Renae Anderson, 22, Minneapolis, 2:12:16.5
7. Lauren Jortberg, 23, Bozeman, Montana, 2:13:55.6
8. Abby Drach, 24, Minneapolis, 2:16:28.0
9. Hannah Rudd, 22, Bozeman, Montana, 2:17:02.1
10. Felicia Gesior, 27, Bozeman, Montana, 2:17:37.2