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Amputee skier Cnossen inspires Birkie participants

Dan Cnossen, a wounded former Navy SEAL, crosses the finish line of the American Birkebeiner Saturday in Hayward. Paul M. Walsh photo

HAYWARD — Every year the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon amazes, with thousands of people gathering in small-town America to watch world-class athletes ski incredibly fast, and ordinary, every-day people, challenging the parameters of what they can accomplish.

This year, in terms of most inspirational, well, that race wasn’t even close.

Dan Cnossen, a sit skier from Cambridge, Mass., who lost his legs serving in Afghanistan, finished the 55-kilometer Birkie from Cable to Hayward on Saturday in 3 hours, 50 minutes, 51.8 seconds. What’s even more impressive is that he had been sick all week, even throwing up Friday night.

Cnossen was approached at the finish line by fellow skier Nate Blumenshine of Minneapolis.

“It’s an honor to finish with you,” Blumenshine said. “He’s an inspiration, totally.”

Cnossen was serving as a platoon commander for Navy SEAL Team One in Afghanistan in September 2009 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, causing him to lose both his legs just above the knee. He took up skiing in 2009 and started racing hard in 2011.

Cnossen was asked how he felt on Saturday night.

“I’m tired,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t even know if I’d be able to finish the race, even if I wasn’t sick. It was a really, really tough course. I didn’t realize it was going to be as hilly as it was, but I felt like I held on pretty well at the end.”

Cnossen, 35, is a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His busy school schedule didn’t leave him a lot of time to train for the Birkie. He arrived in Duluth on Friday and was heading back this afternoon.

Cnossen said it wasn’t a good snow year in New England, and he often had to go around and around on a 1- or 2-kilometer loop. He had never skied a race longer than 42K, and the most he did in training for the Birkie was about 30K.

Cnossen said he couldn’t have done the Birkie without the help of Eve Graves of Duluth, whom he stayed with during his short stay. Graves brought his prosthetic legs to the finish line. Graves knows her local Nordic skiing and recalled only one other person doing what Cnossen did Saturday.

“He’s absolutely amazing,” she said.

Odd Osland agreed. Osland, a native of Norway who lives in Apple Valley, Minn., was volunteering at the finish line as he watched Cnossen come across. Osland shook his head in disbelief.

“Now that,” Osland said, with emphasis, “is something.”

A SLOPPY FINISH

While women’s skate champion Caitlin Gregg called the trail fantastic, men’s third-place finisher Benoit Chauvet of France said the last few kilometers were very challenging.

If the elites had a tough go of it, you can imagine how much of a struggle it was for recreational skiers struggled to get across Lake Hayward in afternoon, when temperatures topped 40 degrees.

“It was slop, pure slop,” one man said. “I was double-poling through 12 inches of water. It was ridiculous.”

For classic skiers, good luck finding those tracks.

Most of the elites didn’t have an issue with it, having the benefit of being the first ones out. There was some dirt on the course from a gusty wind and there was rain, but all things considered, given the conditions, they did the best they could.

“I had a rough time falling asleep last night thinking, ‘What on earth are they doing to do with that course? How are they going to deal with this situation?’ ” Gregg said. “And they did amazing. The grooming was absolutely spectacular. It was so good I couldn’t have asked for more. They nailed it.”

Adam Swank was the top Duluthian, finishing 22nd among men.

CHAMPIONS TIMES TWO

Welly Ramsey of New Sharon, Maine, and Deedra Irwin of Pulaski, Wis., won the men’s and women’s Birkie classic races, netting $1,000 each. Those two also won the men’s and women’s Elite Sprints on Thursday down Main Street in Hayward, netting another $500 each.

“That was the furthest classic race I’ve ever done,” said Irwin, 23, who skis for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation in Ketchum, Idaho. “This was my first Birkie, and I guess I’m going to have to do it again. I was keeping up with the boys a little bit. That was fun. They were super encouraging, telling me to stay with them.”

Neither Ramsey nor Irwin was challenged in the classic, winning by more than 12 minutes each.

Irwin skied collegiately at Michigan Tech.

SKI STAR ATTENDS BIRKIE

Kikkan Randall, the most decorated Nordic skier in U.S. history, attended the Birkie on Saturday. Randall and her husband, Jeff Ellis, are due with their first child in April, so Randall is taking the 2015-16 season off.

“I’ve always heard so many positive things about the Birkie, so now to see it in person, just the sheer number of people who are here and passionate about Nordic skiing, it’s so cool,” Randall said. “I’ve had nothing but fun.”

Randall, of Utah, took part in the Junior Birkie on Friday, admitting she might have to come back in a few years with her little one.

“I feel like I’ve gotten every Birkie experience here, even getting out on the trail for a little bit,” she said. “I’ve heard about this race from the time I was a little kid. It’s an American tradition and has provided a little bit of folklore in our family. We’ve got some family history here, so coming back and racing this someday is definitely on my bucket list.”

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