Fitness Moment of the Week: The Birkie

On Saturday, February 22, more than 10,000 cross-country skiers will descend on the town of Cable, Wisconsin for the 41st annual  “Birkie.”  Short for Birkbeiner, the Birkie is the largest ski event in North America and the fourth largest ski race in the world.  There will be four different races: the 50-kilometer Birkie Skate Race, 54-kilometer Birkie Classic, 23-kilometer Kortelopet and 12-kilometer Prince Haakon.

The Birkie has a fascinating history that goes back to medieval Norway. In the year 1206, Birkbeiner skiers, named for their protective birch-bark leggings, spirited the son of King Sverresson and Inga of Vartieg to safety during the Norwegian civil war. Carrying the 18-month-old on their backs, they crossed the rugged 208 miles of mountain and forest between Lillehammer and Trondheim.

The boy the Birkbieners saved went on to become King Haakon Haakonsson IV, a major figure in northern European history. And the story was the inspiration for the first Birkbiener ski race, held in Norway in 1932.  In a nod to its origins, modern Norwegian racers still carry a pack that’s roughly the weight of an 18-month-old.

The first American Birkie was held in Wisconsin in 1973, with 34 men and one woman participating.  It has since blossomed into a huge annual happening that draws skiers of all abilities, plus 20,000 spectators. The Birkie is a legend in the cross-country ski world and for good reason – traversing 50 kilometers on cross-country skis is an impressive feat of fitness!

And it’s not just about skiing. The Birkie movement is now, in the words of its US organizers, a “year-round lifestyle choice,” with running and bicycle races that follow the same trail as the ski race.

We salute all those who are keeping the Birkie tradition alive, with the organization’s own excellent motto:  “Ski. Run. Bike. Live!”

Michael Wood, CSCS
Chief Fitness Officer, Koko FitClub

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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.

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