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Cross-country skiers gather in Wisconsin for annual competition

Skiers coming down the stretch of Main Street in Hayward, Wis., home of the Birkebeiner. Photo by - Karen Skoyles1 / 3
Detroit Lakes resident Dan Josephson makes his way through the course of the Birkie Classic. He was among several Detroit Lakes area residents to ski in the competition. Photo by - Karen Skoyles2 / 3
Dylan Ramstad Skoyles and Zach Foltz apply wax in the wax room. Photo by - Karen Skoyles3 / 3

Birkie Fever. Over 10,000 people are infected with it, and there doesn’t seem to be a cure.

The fever is managed annually in the Cable-Hayward area of Wisconsin in mid-February, and it brings out the odd in outwardly appearing “normal” people. There is no other possible explanation for their behavior. Normal people do not subject themselves to skiing a 50- or 54-km race.

The infection has spread westward to the lakes area. Nine Detroit Lakes residents competed in the race, and members of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University nordic ski teams renewed their rivalry on the ski trails of Wisconsin.

A member of the Birch Leggings Club, Bob Koshnick, has suffered from Birkie Fever for at least 20 years. He passed on the infection to Dan Josephson and Nikki Caulfield, who in turn infected Dylan Ramstad Skoyles. Dylan passed the infection on to his father, Charlie Ramstad, and fellow Laker teammate, Zach Foltz.

Shannon Goetz contracted the infection from her Ski Patrol father, Don Goetz. Glenn Gifford and Knute Thorsgard have suffered from Birkie Fever for many years as well.

History of the Birkie

The American Birkebeiner is patterned after the Birkebeiner Rennetin Lillehammer, Norway, an event commemorating the rescue of the Norwegian prince in the 13th century. During a civil war, an invading force was about to capture the infant prince and heir to the throne. 

Two Viking warriors, called “birkebeiners” for the birch bark leggings they wore, took the child and skied 55 kilometers to safety. The baby went on to become a Norwegian king, Haakon Hakonsson.

The first American Birkie took place in 1973, and it has since become the largest cross-country ski race in North America. It is part of the Worldloppet circuit of 15 international ski marathons held in Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, France, Estonia, Germany, Austria, Finland, Italy, Canada, Australia, Czech Republic, Poland and the United States.

The race attracts competitors from 21 countries and 48 states. The Birkie has two races: the 50-km skate race and the 54-km classic race. The Kortelopet is a shorter 23-km version of the race. Those under 18 are not eligible for the Birkie.

Reaching the Birkie

When the afflicted first arrive in the woods of Wisconsin, they make their way to the Hayward Middle School where they snake their way through the registration line. It is an odd mix of people, these Birkie Fever suffers. They come in all ages and many shapes and sizes.

More are male and most are fit, training for the event even before the snow falls — they have skis with wheels for use in the summer. Some wear their Spandex and cross country ski boots as though such gear was conventional attire off the ski trails.

Once inside the middle school gym, volunteers compare registrants with their photo IDs, herding them off to more volunteers once their identity is confirmed.

The wax techs head out to the wax room (the unaffected would likely refer to the room as a porch) to work their magic.

Waxing is a peculiar science. Practitioners pour over weather graphs charting temperature, snow condition and humidity forecasts. After much head scratching and consultation, they peer into their wax boxes and pull out magic potions, powders, liquids, pastes, scrapers, corks and irons.

For those who may not be so intimately familiar with the symptoms of the Fever, there are two cross country skiing styles. The most popular style at the Birkie is the skate technique, and those who suffer from that variant of the Fever do not display the most serious of wax symptoms because their wax is designed to glide down, and not up and down, the hills.

The legend is that skating was developed by Bill Koch, the only U.S. skier to medal in the Olympics, because his kick wax was failing.

Skating is rather like the butterfly swimming stroke: those who skate well have a fluid style and are truly beautiful to watch. Those who don’t skate well just aren’t pretty and it hurts to watch them struggle.

The other style is called classic. Groomers set tracks and skiers propel themselves through the tracks. Classic skiers need to have wax that allows them to glide downhill yet give them sufficient “kick” so that they can climb hills. This is no easy task, and many a classic skier’s race has been made or broken by choices made by the wax tech.

And they’re off!

Race morning starts early for some. The elite wave starts at 8:05. Competitors have a routine and it is a dangerous, thing to get in their way.

They are particular about what they eat for breakfast and they need to get to the start in time to “do” whatever it is that they do in order to get ready for the long trek.

The American Birkebeiner respects tradition. Those 35 people who were in the first race are forever remembered as founders. They wear a distinct red bib and are allowed to start the race before anyone else. Those who have skied 20 or 30 races also wear distinct bibs and are afforded special privileges.

The most revered skiers are those who wear founders or either of the two types of Birch Leggings bibs.

The competitors are in their zone and it is best not to disturb them. It is a circus very unlike that of Barnum and Bailey.

The racers start in waves and are grouped according to skiing style and ability. Elite skiers are World Cup class skiers, Olympians, college skiers and skiers who have performed well in qualifying races in the preceding year.

First timers and eccentric regulars generally start in the dreaded Wave Nine, unless they have fared well in a qualifying event. Skiers in the earlier waves tend to be more serious about their performance.

The colorful, “well dressed” skiers tend to be in the later waves. Cheese heads, super heroes, bees, people dressed in tutus, capes and flesh colored spandex tend to start in the later waves.

Even the serious skiers can show their wild side: Olympic wheelchair curler “Goose” Perez wore a fairly large neon green Goose sign as he double poled the Kortelopet with his similarly labeled guides, “Duck” and “Duck” in tow.

Birkie finishers make their grand entrance on the Main Street of Hayward, where they are greeted by thousands of adoring fans. The race organizers estimate that nearly 20,000 spectators cheer on the infected as they seek treatment along the course. Many of those spectators suffer from a form of the fever as well.

After the finish line

After a little bit of soup and perhaps some malted beverage from the Angry Minnow Brewing Company, the treatment seems to cause Fever sufferers to begin talking about plans for the year ahead.

The race organizers rely on nearly 2,500 volunteers to man the feed stations, groom the trails, time the event, register the participants, haul their gear around and keep them safe during the race. Law enforcement officers from Cable, Hayward and surrounding counties direct traffic and close roads. The city of Hayward paves Main Street with snow. EMTs are placed alongside the course, and members of the Ski Patrol come from all over to ski segments of the race.

Detroit Lakes Ski Patrollers David Squires and Don Goetz have been patrolling segments of the Birkie for a number of years, showing that they too suffer from a form of Birkie Fever. Berkie Fever: it’s contagious!

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Story written by Karen Skoyles