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Birkebeiner cancellation doesn't stop race enthusiasts from coming to Cable

Skiers make the best of the lack of snow by making a quick ski of the 5K loop near Cable on Saturday. Sally Krueger / ABSF

CABLE — In a landscape of brown grass void of its typical February snow cover, four men wearing American Birkebeiner race bibs were running on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 63 on Saturday morning between the race's start in Cable and its end in Hayward.

Nearing the Birkebeiner's starting line in Cable on Saturday, a few more runners wearing race bibs were on the snowless streets, passed by numerous shuttle buses bringing people to the starting line with their cross-country skis.

Despite the lack of snow canceling the annual Birkebeiner cross-country ski race, people turned out in droves at the trailhead in Cable to enjoy food, live music and skiing at the inaugural "Birkie-Stock 2017." Last week's warm weather and rain put the race in jeopardy, but a predicted snowstorm missing the area on Friday caused its official cancellation less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to begin on Saturday. Instead, organizers decided to host a Birkebeiner celebration at the trailhead.

A 5-kilometer loop of the Birkebeiner trail was covered with enough snow to open it to Nordic skiers, and the crowd on the trail was doing relaxed laps. Parents were skiing with young children, and friends stopped to take photos of each other skiing underneath the Birkebeiner starting line sign. A woman skied in a donut costume, while another woman went by with a dog dressed in her Birkebeiner race bib.

Annika Gallendt had just finished the loop, saying with a laugh, "It's craziness — super busy, people going all different speeds. But it's a lot of fun. It's cool that so many people still came out to ski," said Gallendt, a Macalester College student from Orono, Maine.

Gallendt had signed up to compete in her first Birkebeiner this year. She, along with some of her teammates from her ski club at Macalester, decided to still attend the Birkebeiner celebration on Saturday even after hearing the race was canceled. She said she was both disappointed and relieved that the race was canceled because she was worried that she hadn't trained enough for it this winter.

As the crowd continued to stream in with their skis, people rode through the crowd on fat bikes from several outlets doing demonstrations during Saturday's festival.

Luke Dykowski, an 11th-grader at Waukesha West High School, was eager to try an electronic biathlon demonstration. Those activities are usually later in the Birkebeiner weekend, after his family leaves to head home, so he doesn't get to try them, he said.

If the Birkebeiner had gone ahead as a race on Saturday, it wouldn't have been the first for Dykowski and his Peak Nordic teammate Tom Olenshek, a sophomore at Brookfield East High School. Olenshek explained that the Peak Nordic club team in Waukesha, Wis., races all winter, and the Birkebeiner is usually the race they complete for fun at the end of the winter. Olenshek has raced the Birkebeiner for three years — although his dad has done it for 17 years — and Dykowski has been at the Birkebeiner for four years.

"We're happy to be here. It's unfortunate that they couldn't have the race, but we're glad that there's at least some snow, and it's really cool to see how many people out here with us," Dykowski said.

They did a few loops on the trail, and it was fun to see both their teammates on the trail and also people they know from their hometown who were in town for the race, Dykowski said.

"It's a fun Nordic community event," he said. Olenshek added, "It's cool to see how many people come from the different parts of the world."

Jon Engen traveled from Sun Valley, Idaho, to compete in his 16th Birkebeiner this year. They were following the weather, but still decided to travel to northwestern Wisconsin because his group had already paid for the travel arrangements.

"We had nothing to lose by coming out here. We know the people here will do the best possible in order to accommodate the incoming people and to save the Birkie and its legacy. It's really fun to be here," he said. "We will be back, and we enjoyed the day here."

He said he understood the trail condition problems and the lack of snow was the only thing that had let him down about the Birkebeiner this weekend. He wasn't surprised by the large turnout of people on Saturday even though the race had been canceled.

"The Birkie is such an institution. I think people had hopes up until noon yesterday that there was going to be some sort of event, and I think they're in the same boat as we are — they made arrangements and planned on it, and the weekend is already booked. You look forward to it for so long. It's a training goal and a participation goal," he said.