The American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon is the largest cross-country ski marathon in North America and the 3rd largest in the world. Each year it attracts skiers to the north woods of Wisconsin to ski portions of the 107-kilometer groomed Birkie trail that spans from Cable to Hayward. From its humble Norwegian roots, this race has grown exponentially into an international event that attracts thousands of people each year. Today the American Birkebeiner has an estimated 250,000 skiers who have competed in its various ski events (including the 55K Birkie Ski Marathon, the 24K Kortelopet, and 13k Prince Haakon race), and each year attracts over 45,000 skiers and spectators to the race course.
To get a glimpse at this year’s American Birkebeiner, as well as the culture that built and surrounds it, the directors of the American Birkebeiner Foundation (ABSF) are happy to give you a little insight as to why the American Birkebeiner, which takes place Feb. 20th of this year, is a winter event you should put at the top of your snowy radar.
The Clymb: What is the history behind this epic winter event?
Ben Popp, ABSF Executive Director: The American Birkebeiner ski race was the vision of Hayward native Tony Wise, who discovered skiing as a soldier serving in Germany in World War II. After the war, he brought his concept home to start the Telemark Lodge, near Cable, WI, and later evolved the idea into a cross-country ski race through the north woods of Wisconsin.
The origin of the race is steeped in Norwegian history. In 1206, Norway was in the midst of a civil war when Birkebeiner skiers, named for their protective birch bark leggings, skied through the treacherous mountains and rugged forests of Norway, smuggling Prince Haakon, the son of King Sverresson and Inga of Vartieg, to safety. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners’ bravery with preserving the life of the boy who later became Norway’s King Haakon Haakonsson IV and forever changed northern European history by his reign. This historic rescue inspired the creation of three ski marathons: The Birkebeinerrennet in Lillehammer, Norway, the American Birkebeiner “Birkie” from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin and the Canadian Birkebeiner, in Alberta.
From its humble beginnings, the American Birkebeiner has grown to become North America’s largest ski race and the third largest in the world, all in a celebration of the determination and perseverance of those historic Birkebeiner warriors, the “Birkies.”
Each year two people dress up as these celebrated Birkie warriors in full costume, and even carry a prince doll all 55 Kilometers of the race as a way to motivate others along the course and pay homage to the Norwegian heroes that the race was inspired by.
Clymb: What is it that gives the Birkebeiner its appeal? Is it competitive drive or something else that brings people outside and into the cold?
Nancy Knutson, ABSF Marketing & Communications Director: Our winters tend to be crisp, brilliantly blue-skied and most-often sunny, not the frigidly cold days that are often thought to be found in the North woods. As for the appeal of the race itself, the amazing 107-kilometer Birkie trail, the decades of tradition, the charm and beauty of the north woods experience, the celebration and festival atmosphere, these are what drive skiers of all ages to participate in this iconic world-class sporting event.
Clymb: Besides fashion trends and ski technology, what else is different about the race as it is today compared to the first time it ran?
Allan Serrano, ABSF Event Director: Fundamentally it is still the same point-to-point race through the hills and forests of Northern Wisconsin on portions of the beautiful 107K Birkie Trail. While the race originally started in Hayward and ended at Telemark Lodge near Cable, WI, it is now skied in reverse from Cable, WI and ends in downtown Hayward, WI, where Main Street is blanketed in snow and an estimated 30,000+ cheering and cowbell-ringing fans greet more than 10,000 skiers as they near the finish line.
There were only 35 skiers on the starting line at the first American Birkebeiner; now, the Birkie races are capped at 10,500 skiers.
In the early days, and with the ski gear at the time, people simply cross-country skied, with no particular technique identified, on one common groomed Birkie trail. Over the years, two skiing techniques emerged, classic and skate, the American Birkebeiner adapted and now the course is groomed for both unique skiing disciplines.
The Clymb: Is there anything new happening specific to the 2016 Birkebeiner?
Nancy Knutson: The American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon has grown the event into 4‑day festival designed to offer an event or experience for everyone. It is a true celebration of Nordic sports.
The 4‑day festival is a perfect way for anyone to join in or watch the festivities surrounding this celebration of Nordic Sports.
Starting on Thursday, Feb. 18 there is the Barkie Birkie Skijor, the Elite sprints and the Giant Ski Race (teams of six people on 25-foot long skis race down Main Street), followed by Family Friday and the Junior Birkie, the Barnebirkie (youth tour), the Nikkerbeiner (vintage tour) and the Family Fun Ski. There is an event for everyone. The biggest show on snow begins on Saturday morning with the American Birkebeiner, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon ski races. Spectators should arrive early and stake their claim along Main Street for the excitement and celebration! Don’t forget your cowbell!
While the 10,500 spots have already filled to race in the 55K Ski Marathon, with other races and events happening throughout the four days, plus the spectating to be had, there is little to no reason not to bundle up and check out this year’s events. For more information including ski tips, trail information and all the general good cheer of the American Birkebeiner, be sure to wax your skis and slide on over to the ABSF website.
About the American Birkebeiner® Ski Foundation and Birkie® Events
Located near Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, is known for its signature American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon held each February. Today, the Birkie brand has grown to encompass a year round lifestyle that provides healthy, active events for thousands of outdoor fitness enthusiasts of all levels. From the iconic Birkie ski race to the Birkie Trail Run & Trek, and Fat Bike Birkie race—the world’s largest fat bike race—the ABSF and the Birkie Trail attract skiers, runners, bikers, trekkers, and hikers, from casual day-trippers to elite superstars.
photos Courtesy of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation