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Thousands bound for 35th annual Birkebeiner races

HAYWARD -- With the countdown on to the 35th running of the American Birkebeiner from Feb. 21-23 in Cable and Hayward, race organizers are looking forward and looking back.

HAYWARD -- With the countdown on to the 35th running of the American Birkebeiner from Feb. 21-23 in Cable and Hayward, race organizers are looking forward and looking back.

Forward to the multitude of events that pepper the three-day event, and back to where it all started when Tony Wise, a native of Hayward, returned home from World War II, graduated from Harvard Business School, and set forth to build an Alpine ski resort the likes of no other in northern Wisconsin.

Wise persuaded several local businessmen to invest in a one-room day lodge, a 370-foot high hill with a few downhill ski runs, and a tow rope near Cable. He named the destination Telemark after the province in Norway where downhill skiing originated. Before long he added cross country ski trails and launched the American Birkebeiner, a marathon-distance ski race calling on participants to challenge themselves in the Wisconsin northwoods.

Wise's vision to create an international cross country ski race for people from all walks of life caught on in a big way and, 35 years later, continues to inspire skiers world wide.

In the 35 years since the inaugural event, 189,285 men and women have raced the American Birkebeiner and its sister event, the Kortelopet. Thousands of others have participated in shorter races and related events.

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Now, in the final days leading up to the three-day event beginning Feb. 21 and culminating with the American Birkebeiner on Feb. 23, organizers are pulling out all the stops to make the 35th anniversary a celebration of a ski race that changed a regional community and created a worldwide ski community.

More than 9,000 skiers will join the colorful pageantry. While 7,000 skiers set their sights on the 51-kilometer American Birkebeiner, 53-kilometer Birkie Classic and 23-kilometer Kortelopet ski races, another 2,500 are bound for the shorter races and events that dominate the three-day event.

Gov. Jim Doyle commended organizers, area residents and skiers alike for shaping the event into a vital piece of the northern Wisconsin landscape and lifestyle.

"This race showcases Wisconsin to the nation and world, and is a major contributor to the state's tourism industry," Doyle said. "The Birkie is a vital part of the social fabric of northern Wisconsin and is a tradition that I look forward to continuing for years to come."

The challenge of skiing the rolling hills as well as the opportunity to experience the camaraderie and diverse gathering of cultures from around the world lure participants from 19 countries and 45 states.

"The Birkie brings thousands of people from around the world to Wisconsin to experience our hospitality, our beautiful winter season and the spirit of competition that embodies the American Birkebeiner," said Ned Zuelsdorff, Birkie executive director. "It's always exciting to hear the variety of languages spoken at the American Birkebeiner each year as skiers descend upon the small communities of Cable and Hayward."

Skiers are cheered on by 15,000 spectators lining the race course and finish lines, ringing cowbells, and shouting words of encouragement. Add music and the banter of the announcers, and you can understand why all the excitement sparks that final adrenaline rush and empowers skiers to cross the finish line feeling an incredible sense of victory and personal accomplishment.

"While truly great skiers, including Olympians, come to the Birkie, most of our skiers are everyday people who work full-time, raise families and love the outdoors," Zuelsdorff said. "They ski because it's a challenge, it's fun, friends are on the trail with them, it keeps them active and lots of other reasons which are often personal stories. I recall the year I skied after having heart surgery and having tears run down my face while skiing up Main Street to the finish-line."

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Zuelsdorff said skiers may register at Telemark Resort on Feb. 21 and 22 for the American Birkebeiner, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon 12K. Race registration closes at 8 p.m. on Feb. 22.

"There really is something for everybody," Zuelsdorff said. "Birkie 2008 will be a fantastic tribute to Wise and a recognition of all the skiers, sponsors, volunteers and businesses who have driven the event for 35 years. We'll commemorate Wise with a photo installation on the Wall of Champions both at Telemark Resort and in the Birkie office in Hayward during the Welcoming Ceremonies on Friday, Feb. 22."

For more information, visit www.birkie.com .

Leslie Hamp and Cherie Morgan are affiliated with the event.

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