Through Thick and Thin, the American Birkebeiner Brings People Together on the Trails
Images courtasey of ©2020 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation
Each year in late February, when the Valentine’s Day hearts are beginning to wilt, and the first hints of spring green have yet to appear, cross country skiers from across the country and across the world migrate to an oasis of Nordic-American jubilation in the depths of wintery Wisconsin. The epic American Birkebeiner combines the best of Old-World outdoor traditions with Midwestern ebullience into the one of the largest and most cherished ski races on the continent. A weekend of various ski competitions, equipment expos and family activities build up to the eponymous Birkebeiner ski marathon, a 54-kilometer grind that travels the hilly distance between northern Wisconsin towns Cable and Hayward (a route that mimics the medieval path of two fabled Norwegian warriors, for whose Birkebeiner faction the race is named).
In the years since its 1972 inception, the American Birkebeiner (now managed by the nonprofit American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, or ABSF) has grown its Hayward-Cable headquarters into an influential Nordic center with its own gravitational pull on outdoorspeople everywhere—both through its climactic annual race and celebration, and by a steady increase in more regular and diverse outdoor activity offerings.
Transforming sheer athletic challenge into cultural phenomenon, the Birkie Foundation has successfully created a one-of-a-kind ski event whose challenging terrain and intimidating distance is made not only somewhat approachable but downright enjoyable by the supportive community that comes together around it. Proving the intense attraction the race has for folks near and far, the 2019 Birkie drew skiers from 49 states and 23 countries; a statistic even more impressive when you consider how much determination and grit is required of those from snowless places, who manage to prepare for a ski marathon without skiing!
To be clear, this ski community is hardly confined to the competitors themselves. Hundreds of volunteers, the gracious townspeople of Hayward and Cable, enthusiastic spectators—everyone involved is dedicated to making the ski as fun and memorable as can be, for everybody. The result is what seven-year Birkie veteran Mike Johnson, of Minneapolis, calls “the sort of racing community you don’t get very often.” On the course, he says, skiers keep each other company and support one another, as they are cheered on by “European sized crowds of ski fans,” many of whom enjoy the entertainment from the warmth of trailside bonfires. And after the racers glide (or tumble) over the finish line arrayed grandly across the Hayward Main Street, the bonds of the ski community only strengthen. At the bars, restaurants, and post-race events, it is not unusual to see top-tier racers gabbing it up with more casual skiers, sipping beers side by side with local spectators.
Among the many outlets for outdoor recreation managed by the ABSF is a well-loved Trail Run Festival, which has attracted ultramarathoners, cross country runners and casual joggers alike for the past 19 years. As a testament to the resilience of their unique community, the Birkie folks managed to continue their streak of top-quality trail racing this September, maintaining a safe and characteristically joyful environment despite the difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Drawing from a deep bag of tricks, race organizers spaced the Festival’s events over two days, constructed touchless aid stations, kept racers informed via FM radio, and even turned to a social-media-shared selfie board to keep post-race camaraderie alive.
Looking ahead to a COVID-complicated winter, the Birkie organizers have affirmed that the 2021 Birkebeiner, the Korteloppet (a half marathon) and the Prince Haakon 15 k will happen. Following the success of the September Trail Runs, the ski events will adhere to strict safety protocols, including mandatory masks in congregated areas, alternative awards ceremonies and informational meetings, and, importantly, a virtual option for those unable to make the trip to Wisconsin. Details can be found on the ABSF website.
Though there may not be the normal post-race retreat to bars and restaurants, you can rest assured that the beating heart of the American Birkebeiner will be there this February to keep the tradition alive: passionate skiers and enthusiastic spectators, all with a shared love of playing outside, in any weather and under whatever circumstance.