Over one weekend every February, the population of Hayward, WI balloons from 2,302 to over 30,000.
Two words — Birkie Fever.
What is Birkie Fever?
“It’s that yearly craving for the excitement, camaraderie and challenge that can only be satisfied by clicking into a pair of skis and lining up at the start line with more than 10,000 other ski pals from around the world. It’s a lifestyle that keeps you fit and healthy year-round. It’s an annual test of personal endurance. And it’s something no skier wants to shake.” –Slumberland Birkie®
Video and photos by Myke Hermsmeyer.
The Birkie (known formally as The American Birkebeiner®) is a cross country ski race from Cable, WI to Hayward, WI. The now famous event first started in 1973, when 35 skiers set off in the inaugural race. 46 years later, it’s the largest ski race in North America and boasts one of the most competitive Nordic ski events in the world. Birkie week features several races and events and culminates with the 50k Skate and 55k Classic races on Saturday.
Of the over 13,000 finishers in 2019, only one person has raced every Birkie since 1973. Ernie St. Germaine says he’ll keep skiing until he is no longer smiling when he goes for a ski.
For the 2019 Birkie, we traveled from our balmy headquarters in Berkeley, CA out to the Northwoods of Wisconsin in the dead of winter. It was 28 degrees and snowy, but we were told this was actually warm for this time of year!
Our host for the weekend, Corrine Malcolm, has been a GU ambassador for a few years, but before she rose through the ranks as a world-class ultrarunner, Corrine grew up Nordic skiing and racing in her hometown of Hayward, WI. Growing up in the “land of cheese curds, musky fishing, and the home of the American Birkebeiner,” Corrine eventually became an Olympic contender in the sport of biathlon. (For those that don’t know, biathlon is the Olympic sport that combines cross country skiing with rifle shooting.)
The Birkie is in her blood… her mother, a local doctor, is the medical director of the race, and on race day can be found out on the course making sure her extensive medical staff is ready to handle any racer injuries.
This year, Corrine competed in the “classic” division of the race, which means keeping your skis parallel as you mimic a running motion… just on skis. (The “skate” division allows you to go a little faster and involves a “v-style” stride where you push off on the edge of your ski.)
On Saturday morning, the snow was falling at the start line, but that didn’t muffle the excitement of the thousands of skiers waiting anxiously to get started. After watching the elite skiers fade into the snowy woods, we came across what veteran GU lovers refer to as “jingle gels!” When you’re skiing with poles in your hands, you’ve got to make sure your nutrition is as easy to access as possible!
As the waves of skiers made their way 50k or 55k south to Main Street in Hayward, the energy from spectators and volunteers was contagious! Despite the cold, snow, and windy roads, thousands of fans lined the course cheering for the racers (and having a little fun of their own).
After skiing through the woods for hours, competitors were greeted by a roaring crowd and clanking cowbells as they skied over a wooden bridge built for the event that crosses a highway and leads to the snow-covered Main Street in Hayward.
In Wisconsin, cross country skiing is a lifestyle. The thousands of miles of wooded trails that crisscross the Northwoods serve as an amazing playground for skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-biking in the winter and bikers, runners, and paddlers in the summer… and these gorgeous trails also attract ATVs and snowmobiles. From the contrast, the term “silent sports” was born, which we think is a perfect way to describe the quiet purity that comes from harnessing your body’s strength to explore a new trail.
After serving up gallons of warm GU Recovery Drink Mix to tired but satisfied skiers, we woke up Sunday morning greeted by high winds and eight inches of fresh snow. When our flight back to California was cancelled, we told our bosses we weren’t going to make it in on Monday, called our friends at New Moon Ski & Bike Shop, and saddled up on some fat bikes to explore the famous Birkie trails for ourselves! It was windy, it was cold, but that didn’t stop us from smiling or way through the snow.
…looks like we’ve come down with a serious case of the Birkie Fever!