A year of waiting is finally over for cross country ski racers. Anticipation has been growing for weeks, and events have been going on for days, but Saturday the 44th Annual American Birkebeiner Race finally took place.
"This is the biggie. This is the one we're all aiming for," said racer Greg Metko.
Festivities leading up to The Birkie have taken over Hayward for the better part of a week now. An estimated 30,000 fans descended on the city for the week. That's quite the surge for the normally quiet city that is home to just over 2,300 people.
"It's such a fun event every year. Gorgeous weather, you can't miss it. It's the best," said racer Kip Krueger.
What a difference a year can make. In 2017, unusually warm weather, and below average snowfall meant Birkie organizers had to scramble to get a race together. With much of the trail not being snow covered, and declared unsafe, volunteers brought in snow by the dump truck load. The end result was a 5k loop track.
"Last year was terrible, we watched the snow melt, we watched the ice melt on the lake," said Metko.
In 2018, the conditions were near perfect.
"Last year was a little disappointing, but we made the best of the situation. And this year, it's just so fantastic, great snow, beautiful course, family and friends together. It's awesome. You can't beat it," said Krueger.
More than 13,000 skiers representing 49 states and 36 countries turned out for the events. It's the largest of its kind in North America. However, at 55 kilometers, the race is no easy task.
"It can be a little bit long sometimes, but the crowds always keep me going," said Rachel Breuer, a racer.
"It's brutal. The hills are just relentless. I mean, you have to be mentally tough to get through this thing. You gotta be on your A-game, and continually grind. If you're not grinding, you're not going to finish," said Krueger.
But for the racers, crossing the finish line is makes it all worth their while.
"It's all worth it once you get up Main Street, and you hear the crowd, and then you cross the finish line, and you realize it's over, and you have to get ready for next year," said race finisher Peter Coenen.
The week long Birkie events requires the help of some 2,500 volunteers. There are several more events scheduled for Sunday, which can be found here.