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Voyageur's Best Sports of 2004

Bruce Shoenberg skiing

Cromwell skier participates in 26th Birkebeiner
Bruce Shoenberg's 26th year of participation
by John Grones  | March 2, 2004

The purple vest Bruce Schoenberg is wearing is significant. It means he has skied the 51-kilometer American Birkebeiner Cross Country Ski Race more than 25 years. The vest also contained two stickers. One read ‘Classic’, which stands for the style of skiing the Cromwell resident chose and the number ‘26’ for the actual number of years he has participated in the event.

Bruce’s first race was in 1978. The Birkie was in its 6th year. What started out as 34 men and one woman had grown to 2,717 men and women. Bruce started out skiing the race with fellow down hill skier, Bruce Piner. “We taught downhill skiing at Spirit Mountain,” he said. “We challenged each other to compete in the Birkebeiner.”

The American Birkebeiner, which takes place in the northern forests of Wisconsin, now has more than 6,500 participants and Bruce is one of them. The race begins in Cable and finishes in Hayward. In addition to the participants, as many as 24,000 spectators flock to the event to cheer on the skiers.

The history of the race dates back to 1973 and it was patterned after the Birkebeiner Rennet in Lillehammer, Norway, an event that commemorates an historic event in that nation.

During a civil war in the 13th century, an invading force was about to capture an infant prince and heir to the throne. Two Viking warriors, called ‘birkebeiners’ for the birch bark leggings they wore, took the child and skied 55 kilometers to safety. The baby went on to become a great Norwegian king, Hakon Hakonsson.

The American Birkebeiner is now the largest cross country ski race in North America and part of the Worldloppet circuit of 14 international ski marathons all over the world.

The Birkebeiner trail in Wisconsin is also known throughout the cross country skiing world as one of the finest. A unique aspect of the sport is its ability to offer the excitement of competition to a wide range of people. The American Birkebeiner has been called the “Boston Marathon of Skiing” by the New York Times.

The race took place on Sat., Feb. 21. Another Cromwell resident, Lonny Gervais, was the guide for this reporter on that day. He too, has skied the Birkie in the past. Lonnie met up with his friends, Jim and Mimi Crandall from Drummond who helped locate a couple of excellent spots to watch the race.

Jim is an old Army buddy of Lonny’s and he helps out at the race in a number of capacities. This year, his only responsibility was to groom the trails and then cheer on the racers.

Jim and Mimi meet with a group of friends at the top of power line hill near Cable where they set up drums, carry bells and build a fire. The drums have been a tradition and the group has grown in size. There were six drummers and about twenty people at the top of the hill cheering on the racers.

It took awhile for Bruce to arrive. There are several waves of racers and Bruce was in the second wave. Lonny was in charge of spotting Bruce and he was sure that he must have missed him in all the congestion. “He’s usually in the middle of the pack,” said Lonny as skiers wizzed by.

He eventually emerged on the horizon with another skier wearing a purple vest. “I didn’t have the correct wax. I had to stop,” said Bruce. “I don’t ever remember having the whole trail to myself.” As the race wore on, Bruce eventually found himself in the mix. Many of the skate skiers in the third wave caught him. He was skiing the classic style, which is a little slower. That and the fact that he admitted to being on the lower end of training. “More snow didn’t necessarily free up more time,” he shared.

Bruce eventually finished the race in over four hours, not too far off his predicted finish. When he crossed the finish line, he had expended every ounce of energy. His legs cramped up a little, but his support crew was there to help. Once he got back into dry clothes and worked out the knots in his muscles he enjoyed a big ol’ Italian sausage pizza.

It was at the restaurant that Bruce shared his most memorable experience at the Birkie. “That would be the first year. I almost turned around and quit, because I got claustrophobia. We had to wait our turn to climb up the hill,” said Bruce referring to the beginning of the race that used to start at Telemark Mt. “The trail was narrow and crowded. There were no waves.”

Bruce eventually fought through and completed the race. He would complete 25 more and he still plans on more.

He’ll have to if he wants to introduce his daughter, Anja, to the race. Anja is just two years old and she already likes skiing. “She asks to go skiing before daycare,” Bruce beamed. “She rides in my backpack. She says ‘wee’ on the down hills, and when we get to the bottom she says ‘do it again.’”

Not bad advice. “Do it again” will probably be the voice calling Bruce next Feb. when the 32nd American Birkebeiner Cross Country Ski Race approaches.

This article first appeared in the March 2, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.