Once a year, northern Wisconsin transforms its quiet woods into an international sporting hotspot with the American Birkebeiner North America’s largest cross country ski race. This 55-kilometer ski marathon attracts 45,000 skiers and spectators to the tiny communities of Cable and Haward, WI, each February since 1974.
Heartwood Resort lies in the heart of the American Birkie country. Visit our website to discover all the activities, lodging, and ambiance we feature during Birkie weekend and all winter long.
The American Birkiebeiner history
The iconic winter race began as a sleepy nordic ski event for 13 men and one woman at the Telemark Ski Area. World War II vet and Telemark Lodge owner Tony Wise organized the first race in 1973 after falling in love with the Bavarian sport while traveling overseas.
The term “birkebeiner” refers to ancient Norwegian warriors (circa the 1200s) who wore birchbark “armor” wrapped around their legs. These bark-clad fighters rescued Norwegian Prince Haakon on skis, carrying him from Lillehammer to Trondheim on skis!
Fun fact: Nordic skiing began as a practical mode of transportation in Scandinavia, NOT a recreational pastime. This handy way of staying on top of the snow is at least 4500 years old.
The first Birkie course measured 45 kilometers and snaked through logging and snowmobile trails through the deep woods outside Cable, Wisconsin.
Several veteran participants can remember a harrowing glide to the finish line down the main alpine ski hill outside the Telemark Lodge. (If you’ve ever attempted a downhill glide on skinny cross-country skis, you’ll know what a wobbly and slippery task it is.) Most of those early Birkie finishers crashed into the finish line in a sweaty pile of poles and skis.
The American Birkiebeiner grew in size each year but took off in participation following the 1976 Olympics. An American skier named Bill Koch snagged a silver medal in the 30K Nordic race and exposed the sport to more would-be enthusiasts.
Today, the American Birkie is a 55-kilometer point-to-point course that begins in Cable, Wisconsin. After winding through the pristine and quiet woods (as well as a 4800-foot elevation gain), racers finish in front of thousands of cheering fans in downtown Hayward, Wisconsin.
Who are the racers?
With average participation hovering near 8,000 skiers, they come from all over the world. Elite Nordic racers ski this race in hopes of winning a piece of significant prize money.
Most of the skiers range from recreational enthusiasts to hard-core amateur die-hard. There’s even a handful of racers who’ve skied every American Birkie since the race first started.
The start and finish spectacle with thousands of skiers shushing to set at least strong personal records are unparalleled in the sport.
It takes a village (or six)
Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the American Birkie is the volunteer brigade it takes to administer the race. A team of 3000 volunteers plans, produces, and oversees the race. Planning and implementation stages happen all year long.
Further, with climate change impacting snowfall and snowmelt, the race requires even more effort, strategy, and financial support in recent years. Since 2017, race planners have purchased snow-making equipment to keep the trail skiable during the event.
It’s a continual challenge for race planners to bring environmental stewardship (like solar energy to power snow-making) to the forefront. Planners have also reduced plastic bag use in favor of recyclable or compostable materials.
First Birkie? Try these training and logistics tips for success
If you’ve caught Birkie fever for the first time this year, try these tips for a first race that’ll keep you coming back:
- Decide your Nordic ski style: You can choose classic or skate ski varieties. Classic skis glide forward and back only in groomed, or tracked grooves cut into the trail. Skate skis glide on each ski’s inside edges, and you push outward with your legs while poling explosively with your arms. In Birkie terms, the classic ski race is 55 km, while the skate ski course is 50 km.
- Choose a shorter race at first: If you’re just getting into racing for the first time, a shorter race may be a great option for you. You can race on a 15 km or 29 km course during the American Birkie weekend before you pit yourself against the elite distance experts.
- Reserve early for a race bib and accommodations: When a small, northern Wisconsin logging region swells to 45,000 racers and spectators, you can imagine lodging might be hard to come by. You’ll need to make all your arrangements months in advance of the event. As soon as the ABSF releases the next year’s race dates, be sure to get your reservations locked in.
- Run, walk, and “ski” off-season: Like with any other endurance race, the American Birkebeiner requires consistent and structured training. Starting off the previous spring, you’ll need to ramp up your miles on foot or on roller-skis to build your stamina for one of the world’s most demanding Nordic courses. Build your miles each week. Even in the warm months of summer, you’ll build a base of endurance with running or walking (especially up hills), mountain biking, and other summer sports. Plus, ensuring you stretch conscientiously and strength train will help you build strength and avoid injury. As soon as the snow flies and your local trails open, get out there and glide! Start on the “green” trails that stay fairly flat, and then progress to hillier terrain in short increments.
Book a training weekend at Heartwood resort
With miles of groomed ski trails surrounding the lodge and cabins, Heartwood resort makes an ideal training get-away, as well as a true Birkie destination. Heartwood resort nestles in the woods in Trego, Wisconsin, only 20 minutes from the Birkie finish line!
Pamper yourself in rustic luxury with one of our private cabins. You can make the resort your training or get-away home with a host of winter activities and Northwoods culture. Book with us today to dive into Birkie weekend activities with an enchanting winter locale.