'Boston Marathon' on skis in Wisconsin's woods

They're calling it the world's fourth-largest and North America's largest ski race -- "skiing's Boston Marathon." It happens when nearly 7,000 expected cross-country skiers head off into the Wisconsin woods Saturday, Feb. 21.

The occasion is the ninth annual Norwegian - American Birkebeiner at the Telemark ski resort in Cable, Wis. -- a grueling 55-kilometer test of endurance and skiing skill. This year, some of the world's best racers will be on hand, including three former Olympic or world championship medalists, among them Bill Koch of the United States.

But the primary interest, and the reason for which the race is run, concerns all the citizen skiers out to see how well they can do. Some will come from around the world, as this is one of 10 World Loppet marathon ski races. The challenge is to complete all 10 in a lifetime.

A measure of the growth of cross-country skiing is evident in the Birkebeiner: from 53 finishers in 1973 to 7,000 entrants in 1981. Now there is not only the major race but also a shorter one, telemark contests, waxing clinics, and whatever.

If long-distance citizen races attract you, the best way to get started is in shorter races. Joining a ski club that is involved in such competition can also afford training and encouragement.

And in the spring, one of the most pleasant ways to get involved is with a lunch in your pack and no big worry about what place you'll finish. You won't make any ski teams, but you can have a lot of fun.

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