Alaskan David Norris pulled off a remarkable victory at the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin on Saturday.

The Fairbanks native won the largest and most prestigious cross-country ski marathon in North America in daring fashion, by attempting a solo breakaway just three kilometers into the 50K race.

David Norris wins the 2023 American Birkebeiner. Photo courtesy David Norris Instagram.

The gamble paid off, and the former APU and U.S. Ski Team member skied the final 47 kilometers by himself. Norris crossed the finish line in downtown Hayward in a time of 2:05:39.93. Gerard Agnellet of France followed in 2:08:00.04.

Known for its hilly course and festive crowds, “The Birkie” attracts thousands of racers every year, including a large elite international contingent. Norris lost to Agnellet by a ski length in 2022. This year, in the 49th edition of the storied race, Norris avoided another late sprint for the finish with his bold move.

David Norris losing the American Birkebeiner by a ski length in 2022 (left) and winning in breakaway fashion in 2023 (right).

“This will definitely be one of the most memorable wins of my career. It’s not often you are able to have a game plan going into a race and successfully execute that plan,” he posted on his Instagram page.

The 2016 Birkie champion, Norris said he had no way of knowing along the course how well his breakaway was working.

“I honestly didn’t know if I had a 45 second gap or a 5-minute gap,” he shared with the Sawyer County Record after the race.

Norris said he’d long dreamed of attempting a solo breakaway but always “chickened out.” He credits his longtime girlfriend and competitive skier, Olympian Jessica Yeaton, with encouraging him to try the move.

Norris, who is also an elite mountain runner and the Mount Marathon record-holder, said it was a challenge to manage his pace while skiing alone for so long without anyone to measure himself or compete against.

“I was really focused on just like the tempo and technique and trying to ski like the right pace and not getting too excited,” he shared with the Sawyer County Record, “and just trying to be as efficient as possible, like, every opportunity, and I definitely would lose that focus, and then I would ski really well … you know, two minutes. And then I kind of would catch myself, like sort of skiing like a little softer, and I returned to tempo.”

Jessica Yeaton takes the women’s overall win in the 2020 American Birkebeiner. (©2020 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

Yeaton, who did a bit of a solo act herself to win the 2020 Birkie by 41 seconds, finished second in this year’s women’s race in 2:27:42.9, just seven seconds back of winner Alayna Sonnesyn of Minnesota.

Because the women’s race starts before the men’s race, some of the elite men catch the lead women as the end of the race is nearing.

“When I heard ‘the male leader is coming’ … I was just about to lay down the hammer with 10k to go,” Yeaton shared on her Instagram page. ” I looked back and saw (Norris) with no one else in sight, and suddenly had double the motivation…. I knew he could win this race with an epic solo break . . .  but to see him actually pulling it off was the most inspired I’ve ever been.”

Norris and Yeaton on the 2023 Birkebeiner podium together. Photo courtesy Jessica Yeaton Instagram.

Yeaton, a South Anchorage High graduate and former member of the Australian Olympic team, now works as a Physical Therapist and lives with Norris in Steamboat, Colorado.

Yeaton and Norris have shared a similar life path. They were part of the Alaska prep ski racing scene together, then went on both ski for the Montana State University and APU Nordic Ski Center programs.

The couple has shared some great racing moments together along the way, including both winning the Tour of Anchorage Ski Race (2022) and Mount Marathon (2018) together the same year.

They didn’t quite achieve dual title status at the American Birkiebeiner, but Yeaton said via her Instagram account that sharing time together on the course as well as the podium was a great moment.

“I am so proud and stoked to share the podium with him this year… definitely a Birkie I’ll never forget,” she added on her Instagram post. “He did admit that the hardest part of his race was passing me.”

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