American Birkebeiner Skates Into 45th Year

Northland tradition again brings many to Hayward.

HAYWARD, Wis.- “It’s the Birkie, man!”

The gun fires, and in one fluid motion the surge of skiers and skaters pushes off in Cable.

“The day will go on to be talked about for years.”

Main Street is lined with Birkie fans, the whole town of Hayward, and many others, lining the track with the sound of cowbells.

“Your whole year orbits around it after a while.”

This is certainly true for the town of Hayward.

It’s one of the biggest ski marathons in North America, and perhaps one of the biggest events of the year in this town.

“It’s just something special,” said Jay Kozlowski. “I’ve done it once before, maybe I’ll do it again someday.”

“But it’s something special watching the racers come down Main Street, it really is.”

Jay and his wife, Sarah weren’t the only members of their household who came to watch.

Well, they’re the only two-legged members.

“They like to watch too,” Jay said, holding their dog, Rudy, by the leash.

“They like to watch the people, get pet,” said Sarah, wearing their other dog Daisy in a baby harness. “She watched the Barker Birkie the other day, cheered the other dogs on from her little harness here.”

All the spectators cheer for all the skiers here.

A woman tracks her racing friend with her phone camera, as another friend eagerly bangs the cowbell.

And when the course gets tough, the skiers think of the fans, too.

“There’s always a really lonely, and tiring section around 35k in the race,” said 6-time Birkie participant, Stephen Handler. “I’m thinking about my beautiful wife, who designed this ski suit for me and also taught me how to ski.”

“Her name is Christine, and she’s wonderful.”

When the race first started back in 1973, it was all done on skis, with about 35 participants.

Since then, skating the course has become faster and more popular.

But the old fashioned method is still going strong, with the classic race.

“Done 24 years skate and everybody said you haven’t done the race until you’ve done a classic,” said Marty Sobeck, winded but victorious.

“So I did a classic this year, and I can say I classicked it.”

Competitors like Sobeck who skate the 50 km track, say that skiing it is a very different experience.

“It’s a whole different flavor of race,” he said. “Wave 1 everybody wants to win, everybody wants to go fast, but you do a classic and everybody’s cordial, kind, please, thank you, it’s just wonderful.”

Skiing kind, but no less hard.

“It’s an immense challenge,” said Handler. “There’s always moments where you think you don’t want to continue and you decide whether you got it or not, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

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