The American Birkebeiner 40 years on
Much has changed, but the core experience remains
The first Birkebeiner in 1973 was a pretty simple affair compared to the complex modern version. A few dozen skiers drove to the start at the Lumberjack Bowl on Lake Hayward, paid the entry fee, rubbed some wax on their skis and then found a place with 34 others on the start line across the frozen ice and snow of the lake.
Another 19 skiers - women and boys under 20, according to Tom Kelly's book Birkie Fever - started at Highway 00 and skied north in the short race toward Telemark Lodge on a hodgepodge of logging roads, railroad beds, snowmobile trails and road right-of ways.
Back then, there were no traffic congestion nightmares getting to the start, motels to book months in advance, meticulous training regimes or a board of directors, a paid staff and a year-round office. There were no grooming machines powered by Mercedes-Benz diesel motors, fluorocarbon waxes or carbon fiber skis, boots and poles.
My guess is there was a bit of wax panic at that first race, but it was all about the wax in the middle of the ski. Losing kick, after all, is a serious problem in a 50K race. In 1973, glide was most likely an afterthought for most cross-country skiers.
What wasn't simple that day was skiing from Hayward to Telemark. Even today with our modern equipment, slippery waxes and flawless grooming, skiing from Cable to Hayward, or vice versa, is no simple matter. That will never change.
In 40 years, however, much has changed at the American Birkebeiner as it has grown into the multifaceted organization it is today. Like same-day registration. This year, the race filled on October 15 as a limit of 10,000 skiers signed up for the four headliner races as well as the 13K Prince Haakon event, ensuring the 40th edition of the Birkie will be the largest ever. For the 2012 race, the cap of 9,000 skiers filled in late November 2011. As I write this in late December, the Prince Haakon had not yet reached its cap of 400 skiers.
According to race director Ned Zuelsdorff, who recently announced he would retire after the 2013 event, the cap adds value to the race. "It also forces people sitting on the fence to make a decision," he said. A Birkebeiner skier can no longer do the race on a whim. Months in advance, skiers must make a decision to enter or not enter the race. The race sees an annual turnover rate of about 15 percent.
Other race week events
For those who missed the registration deadline for the Birkie and the Korte, the Birkie hosts numerous other events that typically don't fill, including several on race week. The Birkie website lists 17 separate events. None is more popular than the Barnebirkie, which this February celebrates its 26th year of getting over 1,000 children involved in the Birkebeiner each year. Many of these kids grow up and graduate to the Birkie and Korte.
More recent event additions to Birkie week have also been quite successful. Introduced two years ago, the Barke Birkie a 5K skijoring race in Hayward, has filled up quickly. This year's race is capped at 70 dog-and-skier harnessed teams. Wide smiles and wagging tails warm up Main Street Hayward for this canine friendly event.
The Giant Ski, in which teams of six use 25-foot skis to race up Main Street, is one of the most popular spectator events at the Birkie. According to Zuelsdorff, the crowd on Main Street for last year's Giant Ski rivaled that on Saturday for the big race. "You don't have to be a skier to do it," he said. "Everybody, both skiers and spectators, has a good time."
Both the Barke Birkie and the Giant Ski take place on Friday. On Thursday of race week, the Nikkerbeiner makes its debut this year. This 5K untimed retro tour celebrates wood skis, pine tar, 75mm bindings and wool knickers to commemorate the old school equipment and clothing of the first race in 1973. Later that evening, skiers can take in the Luminary 5K and 10K Family Fun Tour, which will use LED lights to brighten up and mark the course in Hayward.
Other draws to the Birkie Trail
The Birkebeiner also runs several other annual events that have taken on lives of their own. This past September, about 1,200 runners and walkers did the Birkie Trail Run and Trek. Started in 2004 with just a handful of runners, reminiscent of the original Birkie, the trail run has become a must-do for some runners, just like the big ski race is for cross-country skiers.
The Birkie Tour, cancelled for lack of snow this past January 19, has also been hugely popular. Last year, over 700 skiers braved nearly 20 below temperatures to ski either from the Fish Hatchery or Highway OO to Telemark Resort in this untimed and supported ski tour, which qualifies for the Worldloppet passport.
The inaugural Fat Bike Birkie will roll out two weeks after this year's main event. This race will give riders of "fat bikes" a once-a-year chance to ride on the Birkie Trail. According to Zuelsdorff, both the participants and organizers are excited by this new race, which will be moved off the Birkie Trail and onto surrounding forest and logging roads if soft snow conditions warrant doing so. The north end of the trail, where the event takes place, will be groomed immediately after the race.
Skeptics claim the Fat Bike Birkie, like the trail run, is a hedge against climate change. But Zuelsdorff insists these new events simply draw people to the trail year-round. This they do, as do other events the Birkie has helped spawn, like the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival.
According to CFTF director Gary Crandall, "The originators of the event all had something to do with the Birkebeiner. Four of the six guys worked at Telemark for Tony Wise and helped with the Birkie." They pitched their idea of a mountain bike race using the "recognition of the American Birkebeiner Ski Trail as a world class venue," Crandall said.
The Birkie will continue to grow and evolve, perhaps in ways we don't yet even comprehend. Five years ago who would have thought the Birkie would be promoting a fat bike race just a few weeks after the main attraction? The biggest growth problem for the Birkie might be finding sufficient volunteers to help at the myriad of events it promotes.
Even though the Birkie has developed into a complex organization with a seven-figure annual budget, in many ways it still resembles that first race in 1973. The wonder of it all - skiing 50K through the Northwoods on a crisp February day - that will never change.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.