Skiers relish return of Birkie spectators
48th annual American Birkebeiner sees return of hordes of enthusiastic fans.
HAYWARD — Plymouth native Alayna Sonnesyn and Gerard Agnellet of La Clusaz, France were the top finishers in the 48th annual Slumberland American Birkebeiner 50K Elite Skate Nordic ski race Saturday.
A throng of eager fans lined Main Street to greet skiers as they crossed the finish line—a sorely-missed element of the Birkie experience that was absent at last year’s event.
Both Sonnesyn and Agnellet said they fed off of the energy from the crowd as they reached the bridge with the finish line in sight.
“Going over that bridge and hearing the roaring crowd … It’s just incredible,” Sonnesyn said. “It just gives me the chills thinking about it. I just kind of channeled all of that energy and gave it everything that I had.”
Agnellet, who’s competed in events all across Europe, said the reaction from the Birkie crowd offers something truly special compared to what he’s experienced all over the world.
“It’s better here. It’s so exciting at the finish line,” Agnellet said via a translator. “It is the best finish line of the entire distance skiing world.”
The extra boost from the fans helped push Agnellet over the top in what amounted to a photo finish with North Pole, Alaska native David Norris. Both skiers finished with times of 2:07:24, but it was later determined that Agnellet had narrowly edged Norris, who was vying for his second Birkie crown after previously winning in 2016.
Adam Martin of Craftsbury Common, Vermont trailed the two front-runners by two seconds with a 2:07:26 finish.
After congratulating Norris and Martin for a great race, Agnellet conceded that he had his doubts about the prospects of a top-finish after battling through windy conditions and crossing Lake Hayward.
“I was telling myself, I’m racing for second place right now,” Agnellet said. “I was trying to pass on the bridge and trying to find a position, but I still thought I was going to be in second place. I would have been happy with second, but it feels awfully good to win.”
On the women’s side, the first-place finish for Sonnesyn was the third of her career after previously winning the event in 2019 and 2021. The Wayzata High School graduate and Vermont University alum credits her time training with 2022 Beijing Winter Olympian Jessie Diggins for helping develop her strategy for approaching the course.
“It’s been pretty amazing to learn from her how to kind of handle both race scenarios,” said Sonnesyn. “I had the sprinting ability at the finish line, but I had to be there at the finish line when it mattered most, and so I am always trying to conserve energy through a distance race like today.”
Sonnesyn’s victory did not come without its fair share of adversity, however, as fatigue set in late, leading to a momentum-killing spill which she was able to come back from.
“I fell on the ground,” Sonnesyn said. “I was on the ground and had to get back up as fast as I could. I was at the bottom of the hill and completely lost all momentum going down the hill and into the next uphill, and it was really silly of me. (It was) not my proudest moment.”
Caitlin Patterson of Craftsbury Common, Vermont, and Rosie Frankowski of Anchorage, Alaska finished just behind Sonnesyn with times of 2:22:54 and 2:23:01, respectively.
Northland skiers fare well
Duluth was well-represented at the Birkie with Elaine Nelson earning the top finish among area skiers with a time of 2:52:38 in the women’s Elite Skate Race, good enough for 35th place.
Mari Hardel earned a 36th-place finish after completing the course in 2:53:46. Patti Harvieux placed 47th with a time of 2:58:09.
In the men’s Elite Skate Race, Samuel Olson (2:21:42) and Bryan Cook (2:21:46) finished 30th and 32nd, respectively. Peter Coenen completed the course in 2:21:51 for 34th place.
Adam Swank (2:25:00) finished just inside the top-50 at 49th-place.