Tracing the 41 American Birkebeiners of Jerrold Schneider gives a good look at much of the history of North America’s venerable cross-country ski race.
When skiers in the 46th Birkebeiner leave the Telemark starting line Saturday morning, Schneider will be up front in the Spirit of 35, those 35 skiers recognized for having the most Birkie experience.
“They give us the royal treatment,” said Schneider, a retired insurance adjuster who lives near Mikana after moving to the Rice Lake area from Eau Claire in 1982.
Those in the Spirit 35 group have all skied 40 or more of the 45 Birkebeiners though only one — Ernie St. Germaine — has skied them all.
Schneider has one up on most of the group. He skied and ran a Birkie that wasn’t held, in 2000, when poor conditions due to a February melt canceled the race. He was the first arrival in Hayward, where a Birkie festival was in progress, and was promptly celebrated by the crowd.
It was one of only two Birkies that mild weather knocked out since Telemark ski hill owner Tony Wise started the race in 1973, with the foresight that cross-country marathon skiing was about to take off.
Schneider started his run in 1976, urged on by Birkie veteran Karl Andresen of Eau Claire. Since then, Schneider has missed only one Birkebeiner, that in 1982 when he and his wife, Jana, were building their house on Minnow Lake.
Though being in the Spirit of 35 has its perks, including being the first wave to leave the starting line, it also has its drawbacks, which Schneider laughs about.
“It plays with your mind,” said the 73-year-old Schneider this week after another workout on the ski track he sets in the fields and woods around his home. “First the women elite catch us, then the men elite, and then the rest of the top waves. They just keep going by.”
Schneider laughs. “You ask yourself, ‘What in the world is wrong with me?’”
With 41 Birkies in the books, there’s not much wrong with Schneider except the growing number of seasons on the slats. He’s had plenty of fast Birkies, in the 2½-hour range. With a competitive streak that belies his easy-going personality, Schneider has been Rice Lake’s top skate-style finisher many years, sometimes faster than skiers 20 years his junior.
He laughs now when he realizes his first Birkie time of 4 hours and 26 minutes in 1976 is not that much different than his 4 hours and 20 minutes of last year.
His best Birkie was in 1992, with a time of 2:36 on a 24-dgree day, using Rex blue wax.
“We didn’t have the $100 wax back then. But that was my best race. That was fun,” remembers Schneider.
Not only was it his best time, it put Schneider on the podium for the 45-49 age division, between Norwegians Bjorn Arvnes, a former Birkie champion, and Willy Hansen.
“Yeah, I was the first American in my age,” said Schneider, with somewhat of a surprise still in his voice nearly 30 years after he placed 116th overall among the 6,400 skiers.
Andresen pulled him in
Schneider was working for Peters Meats near Eau Claire in the 1970s when he met UW-Eau Claire professor and outdoor enthusiast Karl Andresen through canoeing.
“Karl got me into skiing so I wouldn’t get fat in the winter,” Schneider said.
Andresen skied the first Birkebeiner in 1973. By 1976, he had Schneider in his first Birkie, on wooden skis in a Telemark to Hayward route.
“We finished in the Lumberjack Bowl on Lake Hayward. I thought we could go straight across the lake, but we had to wind around it,” said Schneider.
The first-time Birkie skier had caught the bug. He soon switched from classic striding to skate style, and kept putting his boots into the bindings through the 1980s and 1990s. When weather knocked out Birkie 2000, Schneider and a handful of other skiers took to the trail anyway. He was able to ski in places and carry his skis in other snowless spots along the 30-plus mile route.
When he was the first to arrive in Hayward, he was given the laurel wreath, which goes annually to the winner. It had already been made up before the plug was pulled on the race. He still has the wreath.
Schneider would like to get to 50 Birkies, saying he’s been blessed with good health to have the opportunity to keep going, while some of his fellow skiers, including Andresen and Dave Landgraf are now gone.
“I love skiing and I do like the Birkie. It motivates me to get out there,” Schneider said. “I have to stop on top of the hills now to catch my breath. And I go slower on the downhills.”
No matter, Schneider will be out there Saturday, in the red bib 35005, a true member of the Spirit of 35.
Greschner is Rice Lake Chronotype sports editor.