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Conquering the Birkie Trail
March 5, 2012
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Dassel man competes in the 50K American Birkebeiner

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

Skiing the American Birkebeiner – one of the largest cross country ski races in North America – was something Marty McGraw didn’t think he would ever attempt, much less accomplish.

He proved himself wrong, however, when he crossed the finish line of the 39th annual American Birkebeiner Feb. 25.

The American Birkebeiner is part of an annual weekend-long snow ski festival and includes the Birkie, a 54- and 50-kilometer cross country ski marathon race through a hilly, northern Wisconsin countryside, from Cable to Hayward.

“All the top skiers ski it,” Marty said, explaining that it’s part of the Worldloppet circuit of 15 international ski marathons, with roughly 9,000 recreational and elite skiers from across the world partaking.

Also part of the event is the Kortelopet, a 23-kilometer race that begins and ends in Cable, WI making it the second largest ski race in North America. Marty’s wife, Corinne, competed in the Kortelopet this year, for the second year in a row.

Marty competed in the Kortelopet (Korte) last year, but was up for an even greater challenge this year by taking on the Birkebeiner (Birkie).

“I did the half (Kortelopet) last year, and I wasn’t totally spent,” he said. He wanted to really challenge himself this year, “and I did,” he said.

The event includes two different types of cross country skiing - classic and skate skiing. Classic skiing is the traditional diagonal skiing, and skate skiing is much faster and uses shorter, skinnier skis and longer poles. The couple both skate skied in their respective events.

Aside from the distance – the Birkie is roughly 30 miles and the Korte is about 14 miles – the difference between the two races is the terrain.

The Birkie is extremely hilly compared to the Korte, which also happens to be quite hilly. For that reason, Marty was “pretty intimidated” and “nervous” for the Birkie Trail.

“I never thought I would do anything like this,” he said, explaining he skied part of the trail in the ‘70s for fun, but didn’t think he would ever do the full 30 miles.

“He looked really happy crossing the finish line,” Corinne said, who was there to see her husband complete the 30-plus-mile race on the main street of Hayward.

“Crossing the finish line I was elated,” Marty commented. “Doing something I never thought was in my realm – it was something I thought other people did, not me, and I had done it.”

Marty finished the race in four hours and 52 minutes, 257th of 300 in his age group (55-59). The fastest time in his age group was two hours and 27 minutes.

Unlike the elite skiers, including some Olympic hopefuls who were racing the Birkebeiner for the fastest time, recreational skiers like Marty compete for their own, personal satisfaction. He plans to compete again next year to beat his time.

The most challenging part for him, other than the length, were the down hills. “They were steeper than anything around here,” he said.

What had been particularly nerve-racking for him was when he went down one hill with a sharp curve to the right about a quarter of the way down. On that curve sat more than 50 snowmobilers “who seemed to be wishing you to fall and crash.”

One of the most amazing parts of the event for Marty was meeting a 74-year-old man who had competed in the race for 34 years, first competing at age 40.

There was also an 80-year-old man who finished the race in five hours and 45 minutes, which also impressed Marty.

With roughly 9,000 competing, skiers were sent off in 10 waves for each of the two types of skiing, with new waves every five minutes, Corinne explained. The first skiers went out at 8 a.m., and the last went out at 10 a.m., she said.

Corinne finished the Korte in two hours and eight minutes, 23rd of 51 for her age group (55-59), and 24 minutes faster than her time last year, she commented. Top time in her age bracket was one hour and 26 minutes. She, too, will compete again next year.

“I was a really happy person when I crossed the finish line,” she said, explaining it was a beautiful day and a great experience overall.

The couple was encouraged to compete last year for the first time by their friends, Pam and Tom Osterberg of South Haven. Pam competed in the Korte last year, and Tom competed this year.

Pam’s brother lives in the Hayward area and is an avid skier. His daughter (Pam’s niece) competed in the Birkie this year and finished third in her class and eighth overall.

Finishing the Korte in three hours and 18 minutes, Tom was pleased with his time in respect to his age group and how challenging the trail was. “It’s not bad . . . I was hoping to do better,” he said though noting that he will try for a better time next year. Due to health reasons, Pam was unable to ski this year’s Korte, but has plans to race next year.

Another local, Randy Johnson, competed this year for his second time in the Kortelopet. The last time he competed in the Kortelopet was in 2004, though he has endured the more challenging Birkie 11 times in his late-teens and 20s.

Johnson was first introduced to the Birkie while attending Bemidji State University by some of his friends who were avid skiers. “They talked me into it (the Birkie) before I ever learned how to ski,” he commented.

For him, the race this year was more of a time to connect with friends. He completed the race in two hours and 13 minutes, which, he said, is “way too long” for him.

Training for the races

Last winter’s large amount of snow made for good training close to home. This winter, however, was a different story.

The McGraws started training for the cross country marathon right after Christmas.

For five weekends since then, the McGraws drove either three-and-a-half hours to Hayward to ski the trail they would eventually race on, or drove five-and-a-half hours to Ironwood, MI, where they knew they could always find good snow.

During the week, the couple would ski and skate on the lakes around their home or hike with Nordic walking poles at county parks like Stanley Eddy and Collinwood, great for strengthening your arms for poling, Corinne said.

To prepare for the hills awaiting them, the couple made tracks from their house down to Spring Lake, making it much like skiing Swede Mountain, the hill near their home between Spring and Long lakes, Corinne explained.

“We just like being outside,” Marty said. “It’s made a huge difference in our winter.”

The couple really encourages people to go ski the Birkie Trail. “The whole area (near Hayward) is a skier’s paradise,” Corinne said. For more information on the annual American Birkebeiner, visit www.birkie.com.

How did the Birkie get its name?

Founder of the American Birkebeiner, the late Tony Wise, of Norwegian heritage, patterned the ski marathon after the Birkebeiner Rennet, a race that had taken place in Norway since 1932.

The first race was in 1973, with events that honor and re-create a historic Norwegian event from 1206. That was when two warrior soldiers, called “Birkebeiners” (named after the birch-bark leggings they wore), skied infant Prince Haakon to safety during the Norwegian civil war. Prince Haakon eventually became King of Norway and the soldiers became a symbol of courage, perseverance, and character in the face of adversity.

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