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The American Birkebeiner Experience

The American Birkebeiner Experience

Henry travels to Hayward, WI to experience the largest cross-country skiing race in North America

One of the joys of life is having the opportunity to always expand your horizons. Be able, when given the opportunity, to try new things. Allow yourself to grow and learn about things that you’ve never heard of or experienced. Well, I did exactly that this past February, when I attended the 2022 American Birkebeiner.

The American Birkebeiner is the largest cross-country skiing race in North America. It dates back to 1973 and was started by a gentleman named Tony Wise. It was named after a similar race in Norway. Anyone that is a cross country skiing enthusiast knows of this race and the origin. But for me, a city kid like myself, I had no clue such a cool event existed.

Granted, I had heard of Cable and Hayward, Wisconsin for years. It’s just hours away. But not being a skier or the outdoors type, what would I know of this area and this event? But I’m so glad that I do, because it was such a breath of fresh air to be at. Skiers from all over the world participate in this event. It attracts skiers of all levels. I sat and spoke with the Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation Ben Popp, and stated to me that every state in the US was represented with one exception. Oklahoma, where you guys at? They need you!

That fun fact in itself tells you what this race means to the cross country ski community. Past Olympians even enjoy participating in the race. But for me the thing that makes it so special is just the excitement around an outdoors event that brings people together from far and wide. Two-thirds of the participates are from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the other third comprised of those from other states and countries around the world. And knowing that this was the first race back since Covid 19 wiped away the race the year before, made it a little more special for some I would say.

This year’s big race took place on Saturday, February 26th. But it isn’t just about one massive race. There are events that and other smaller races that take place the entire week preceding that Saturday. “ This year the number of participants that they had the entire week was 13,500. We had over 10,000 skiers alone for the signature race on Saturday” says Popp. And Popp says that the numbers are growing. Because of the Covid 19 pandemic, a lot more people have gotten interested in the event because more folks got outside to be a part of activities. And with that, many folks wanted to just check it out and be a part of something fun.

Acknowledging that this was a new experience for me, I asked Ben, what was the toughest thing with this year’s race with the Covid 19 pandemic that had previously put the race on pause? Popp replied that it was dealing with “the overall uncertainty around Covid and where things were going. The Omicron variant was something we had to navigate too. And also the fact that essentially it was 2 years for us to return. Having that time away, it’s not always easy to get your groove back.”

Something that absolutely helps the event, is the relationship that they have with The Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis. Having the Twin Cities so close, and with so much interest in skiing, it’s been very beneficial for the Birkie. One of the things I learned from the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation is that they believe that everybody can do it. And one of the most appealing things at this time is how comfortable the experience is.

The thing that truly was exciting to see was the sense of community and togetherness. It didn’t matter what group you skied with or what your bib number was. Everyone rooted for each other. As I stood by the finish line and interviewed participants, it feel like I was at part race, part festival, and part reunion. It was exciting and learning about the origin of the race, Tony Wise the founder of the race and the Telemark Resort Property, even the ties to legendary chef Emeril Lagasse, there is so much to learn about and enjoy about a truly special and unique event in Hayward, Wisconsin.