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Cross-country skiing is a great cross-training exercise for endurance athletes that is light on the joints, and one of the world’s largest ski marathons is Chicago’s neighbor.

While Chicago is known for its flat terrain, athletes in the area looking to maintain or improve endurance skills through the winter have one of the best skiing opportunities just over the Illinois-Wisconsin border; the American Birkebeiner, or “Birkie,” is a 55K course in Hayward, Wisc., and is North America’s largest cross-country ski race.

Founded in 1973 by Tony Wise, the American Birkebeiner mimics the Norwegian event, which started in 1932, according to a Slumberland Birkie press release. In 1206, two warrior soldiers, called “Birkebeiners” because of the birch-bark leggings they wore, skied infant Prince Haakon to safety during the Norwegian civil war. The Birkebeiner soldiers became a symbol of courage, perseverance and character in the country.

The first ski marathon had 35 participants, and today, about 13,500 skiers partake in the events. Overall, more than 250,000 skiers have participated in the 44 years of the American Birkebeiner, and in 2016, the Birkie Trail was named the number one cross-country ski destination in the United States by USA Today.

The 2018 American Birkebeiner will be held on Saturday, Feb. 24, and 13-time finisher Chad Giese from Wilmette, Ill. can attest that the Birkie is the race for skiers.

“It’s the biggest event of the year in the U.S. for skiers at any level and truly reminds us why we love this sport,” Giese says. “People come from all over the U.S. and Europe to test themselves on one of the most challenging courses there is, and the excitement that this race generates is like no other race.”

Participants can choose from the 55K Classic Ski Marathon, or the 50K Skate Course, both of which span from Cable to Hayward. However, the event weekend actually begins on Thursday, at the 2018 Slumberland American Birkebeiner Expo at Hayward High School; here, participants and their fans can check out cross-country ski gear, apparel, training equipment, and more while picking up their packets.

Because Chicago is lacking in the ski department, Giese has the inside scoop for those interested in the Birkie, but need a place to train. In fact, right in his hometown is a popular meet up for skiers from all over; the Wilmette Park District laid out a 5K area on the Wilmette Golf Course for both classic skiing and skating.

“The staff does an incredible job at trail maintenance and we are slowly teaching the community about good trail etiquette, such as no walking or dogs on the trails,” Giese adds. “If groomed trails aren’t an option, you can always make your own trails in the local parks … you can’t drive past a park in the winter that has enough snow on it that somebody hasn’t blazed a ski track through.”

Giese also says that there is a strong Nordic community in Northern Illinois that athletes can get involved in. The Norge Ski Club in Fox Rover Grove has a “top-notch” ski jumping program, where last February, three of the four ski jumpers representing the United States at the World Championships came from.

“Cross-country skiing is one of the best activities you can do for a healthy body and lifestyle … it combines strength, speed, endurance, and coordination for your entire body and is easy on your joints,” Geise says. “I would encourage anyone to give it a try, whether you are a cyclist or runner looking for a winter cross-training activity, or someone who is just looking to get outside during the winter months, this is a sport that anyone can enjoy.”

If you want to be a part of the great history of the American Birkebeiner, register today on http://www.birkie.com/ski/events/birkie/. While you’re out there, look for two Birkebeiner warriors, who will ski the entire course on traditional wooden skis in costume to commemorate the event’s humble beginnings.

“The Birkie rivals some of the biggest marathon races in the world.  The event is well run and the atmosphere is electric,” Geise adds. “If there is one race that people tend to prepare for it is the Birkie, which means everyone is in top form and ready to ski fast.”

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