Getting into the double digits of the countdown (10 weeks, woohoo!), I thought I’d head back to some question and answer. After a successful collegiate career at the University of Vermont, Jennie Bender spent some years skiing for CXC before making the move west to the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) Elite Team based out of Bozeman, Montana. While some may say that Jennie is a sprinter (she has won nationals twice in the past two years in the sprint division), she is also a kick-butt distance skier. Taking home the classic Birkie victory in 2011 and a very impressive third place in the 2012 skate Birkie race, Jennie is truly an all-around skier (you can’t have 21 super tour podiums without expertise across all disciplines).
What has been your most memorable Birkie experience?
I had no idea how big the Birkie was when I moved to the Midwest. The 2011 Birkie was my first marathon ski race, and I figured I’d try it out and see how it goes. I was running down to the start line morning of, and getting frantic seeing masses of people, who looked way more ready than I was, and were starting in later waves. I wasn’t sure where my skis were, I didn’t know where to be, and I wasn’t even quite sure where the start line was. I was starting to get nervous when I passed Maria Stuber, and she was calmly walking, skis in hand. She looked at me, laughs, and said “Oh, Birkie newbie.” I was so relieved to see her face and see that she was totally relaxed. It was exactly what I needed, and she snapped me out of my panic. It seems as if everyone has their Birkie story, and everyone has a story that begins with “Oh, I remember my first Birkie.”
What was your race strategy for your 2011 victory?
I like classic distance in general way better than skate, but going into the start it was so cold (minus 11 degrees). I remember not knowing how to dress for a cold 50K (a whole different attire than a cold 15K), so my race strategy ended up being slam the uphills to get my blood moving, and tuck low on the downhills behind people to stay warm. I almost stopped to get a vest or something from KJ, who was giving out feeds. I had to argue with myself whether holding in my full bladder would make me warmer or not, but it was so bad I stopped and peed on the side of the trail. That definitely helped me feel a bit lighter the rest of the race!
What makes the Birkie special?
I think it’s that everyone has a Birkie story. The Birkie really brings a whole bunch of skiers out of the woodwork. The whole event is just huge. It’s like you don’t know about it until you know about it, and then it’s all you know. We aren’t used to so many people at one event in the cross country skiing world in the U.S, and having that many people out doing the same thing is so unique. Everyone is at such different levels both mentally and physically. Some skiers goal is to get top 10, others want to get to a different wave, and some people just want to finish it. Doing the Birkie is a common goal for a lot of people in the Midwest, which is just a really cool thing for a region to have.
What makes the Midwest different from the other regions you’ve lived in?
Compared to the East and the West there is way less of an alpine crowd, so nordic is more popular and welcomed. I love the ski community in the Midwest. The high school teams are huge, and I was so surprised at how large nordic skiing was in the city (of Minneapolis), with all of the people and great trails. Having the Birkie as the pinnacle of Midwest skiing is really good for the sport. Or maybe it’s just the Scandinavian heritage that makes the Midwest have such a high level of excitement!
How has skiing shaped you as a person?
Everyone in skiing has made me recognize that when people have a goal and a passion for something, no matter what that is, it makes a huge difference in character. Skiing has been that passion for me, and it has affected everything I do. Succeeding in skiing is my focus, and looking back it’s interesting to see the path I’ve taken in life because of skiing. It’s taught me to view the good and the bad as a circle (there can’t be good without bad), and that has made me a more well rounded person.
How do you keep a healthy and active lifestyle, and further promote that ideal to others?
You know, everyone has a different interpretation of what is active and what is healthy for their personal bodies. Being in a sport teaches you to pay attention to how you treat your body, what you put into it, and what you ask from it. Nordic skiing promotes cross training and has quite a bit of physical diversity, and I like this aspect a lot–everyone has very different bodies, and that’s OK. I think that in being an elite ski racer, we have a big responsibility as role models. It’s important to show what “the next step” in skiing can be. There are tons of junior and master skiers here in the Bozeman area, and not many elite level athletes who are still currently racing, so I value being able to answer questions, providing that insight into professional racing, and what their path could be.
Thanks Jennie! And, as usual, look forward to next week and the letter “K”