Inspired by the Challenge: Training for the Birkie

It is Monday, January 23rd, and I am breaking a sweat in the 30-degree air. I am trying to cross-country ski over hilly terrain, but the result might be more accurately described as chasing my cousin Helen through the woods with boards attached to my feet. My mission: to prepare for the American Birkebeiner.

That afternoon in the woods represented just a small part of our months-long training program for the legendary Birkebeiner, an internationally recognized cross-country ski race from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin. As a first-time racer in February of 2006, my goal was the 23-kilometer Kortelopet, also known as the half-Birkie. My more athletic and agile cousin Helen, a veteran of the event, would tackle the full 51-kilometer Birkebeiner course.

Since 1973, the American Birkebeiner has brought together an international group of energetic individuals who wholeheartedly appreciate the beauty of the great outdoors and the pleasure of a vigorous workout. Today the Birkie is part of the esteemed Worldloppet series of 14 races held in Australia, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Germany, Estonia, Japan, Canada, France, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway.

Races are open to both traditional and skate skiers. Multiple events over the course of the long weekend include something for everyone. Of the 8,969 event participants in 2006, 10 were members of my extended family with whom I shared a condo. Among our group, racers ranged in age from my cousin’s four year-old daughter who skied the 1K Barnebirkie event, to my 69 year-old aunt, a long-time skier who consistently wins medals in her age group for the Kortelopet and smoothly beat my time by over 20 minutes.

The environment is upbeat and fun, but the race itself is serious business. Eleven waves of participants cross the starting line to the cheers of onlookers. With poles flashing and legs pushing, the skiers glide toward a series of steep hills that quickly define the intensity of this course. It is not a race for the unprepared. Good overall fitness is a must, and there is simply no better training regime than spending time on your skis.

Having heard tales from past participants, I was duly inspired and intimidated by the challenge to which I was committed. Being a full-time resident of Baileys Harbor, I felt fortunate to be surrounded by Door County’s natural resources. The peninsula is a haven for cross-country skiing, with over 65 miles of groomed Nordic trails among five parks, including Crossroads at Big Creek and Whitefish Dunes, Potawatomi, Peninsula and Newport State Parks. Peninsula State Park was a frequent destination for me, where despite limited mid-season snowfall, skate-ski-ready conditions were maintained on several roadways.

Author’s family, ages 4 to 69, participate in the annual Birkie event.

In truth, the necessity of training is the greatest blessing associated with Birkebeiner participation. Without the goal of the Kortelopet, poor snow conditions might have discouraged me from sharing that wonderful day in the woods with my dear friend Helen. And, I might have missed the precious experience of exploring Peninsula Park trails after a sloppy wet February snowfall, when I found myself awestruck by the serenity of snow-laden evergreens sparkling in the afternoon sunshine.

As with many of life’s little victories, the experience is sweet because of the journey. The Birkebeiner experience is one I hope to repeat in the years to come. To find out more about this unique event, or to become a participant yourself, visit I promise that your route to Hayward, Wisconsin will be filled with delightful surprises.

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