WHO WOULD’VE thunk it? The fourth Saturday of February, in 1984, more than 6,500 skiers lined up in Duffy’s Field just outside of Hayward for the start of the American Birkebeiner. I was one of those skiers.
Even before I started, the plan was for that Birkie to be my one and done. As it turned out, I had badly miscalculated what kind of shape my body was in. I found out the hard way that skiing about a half-dozen times all winter prior to the Birkie, with none of those outings more than 5 miles long, was hardly the kind of training you need to carry you across a 30-mile course that spans some of the toughest up and down terrain to be found in all of northwestern Wisconsin.
I dragged myself to the finish line that year, swore I would never, ever do it again and here I am, two and a half weeks away from skiing my 20th Birkebeiner. 
Who would’ve thunk it?
As badly as I have performed in some of my Birkies and as well as I have performed in others, when I beat my personal time goal, I wouldn’t have missed doing any of them.
The Birkie has enriched my life with one of the main reasons being the gang of friends with whom I have shared so many Birkie experiences.
I have found out many things about myself and other people from skiing the Birkie. I have found out that the 20,000 spectators who cheer on what has grown to be more than 7,000 Birkie skiers and about 3,000 more Kortelopet skiers are among the real stars of the race.
It really is an amazing thing how those spectators treat every skier in the Birkie as a star when they cheer them in; either along the trail somewhere or at the finish stretch heading up Main Street in Hayward. Whether you are an elite skier competing for victory or a tail ender just trying to finish, the spectators line up three, four and five deep on the sidewalks on the sides of Main Street, and cheer each and every one of us skiing those final meters as though we are their very best lifelong friends.
My wife is one of those spectator stars. Early on in my Birkie career, she skied the Kortelopet twice and has since been a cheerleader for all skiers who pass by, but especially the main cheerleader for the gang of skiers of which we have long been a part.
She begins at the start line and as many people do, moves on to the Highway OO crossing to give us encouragement there, before heading to Hayward where she spends several hours waiting for each of us in the gang to finish; ringing her cowbell the whole time along with several thousand others who do the same.
Over the years, spectators all along the trail have given me the encouragement to keep on trucking even when my body didn’t want to.
There used to be a guy who hauled a stereo system via a long snowshoe trek to a place about 20K into the race. With a small generator powering it, he played a never-ending tape of music, like theme songs from the “Rocky” movies and the theme from “Chariots of Fire.” Corny as it may seem, that music always gave me a quick burst of energy to keep me going.
Then, there is the perennial bunch of snowmobilers who have a trail to reach the Birkie course just before the OO crossing. There, about 75 to 100 of them spend the entire day roaring approval over each skier crash that occurs in front of them at the bottom of a long, fast hill with a near 90-degree turn at the bottom.
They hold up cards like gymnastics judges with hard-crashing skiers, rating a 10, cheered the loudest. Those who make the hill and curve without falling, which I have always been lucky enough to do, are chased down the trail by a chorus of loud “boos.” Again, corny as it may seem, that bunch of spectators gives all of us skiers a welcome burst of adrenalin.
For years, no Birkie was complete without running the gauntlet of “the witches” of a certain hill about 10K from the finish. The hill has long been fondly named with a word rhyming with witch. A group of Madison-area women used to hike in about 2 miles every year, donning costumes ranging from large, loose shirts with images of a huge-busted, scantily-clad lady adorning the front of them, to the witch costumes for which they became famous.
Starting at the very bottom of the hill, which seemed to us skiers to rise up at a 90-degree angle, the witches would urge each and every one of us to the top. I know their pranks and sometimes risqué comments were all that got me to the top more than once.
Skiing across Lake Hayward for 2 miles near the end of the race, skiers find more parties of spectators on the ice; people who have partied all day, whooping and hollering for every skier headed for the finish line, elite sprinting racer or barely trudging tail ender.
One year, when offered a can of Milwaukee-canned pop by a happily cheering member of one of those parties when it was obvious I was rapidly dying, I eagerly grabbed it, slugged down a few gulps, exchanged high fives with revelers I’d never met and with their cheers behind me, managed to ski up Main Street at least looking like I was a real racer.
Without doubt, the biggest stars of the Birkie are the volunteers; hundreds of them without whom there would be no Birkie.
From the folks who work the bib pickup stations all day long for two days, to the people who man the start gates; those who direct traffic to the people who spend all day, no matter the weather, handing out orange slices, banana chunks, energy drinks and packets of gooey energy treats and also sweep aside empty cups, orange peels and other discarded aid station litter; to the finish-line folks who fasten a commemorative finishing pin to your bib when you cross the finish line, volunteers are the biggest and brightest stars of the Birkie.
Who would of thunk it that after all these years, I would still be one of the skiers benefitting from all that the spectators and volunteers do? 
One and done, hah!