No cure for his Birkie fever

Winter brings on Mike Hennig’s malady and sends him up north for yet another grueling Birkebeiner ski race
Mitch Maersch
Ozaukee Press Reporter

Mike Hennig has a disease, and the only thing that can cure it is winter weather.

The Town of Cedarburg resident recently completed his 27th American Birkebeiner ski race from Cable to Hayward in northern Wisconsin.

“People talk about Birkie fever. Once you get it, it’s hard to get out of you,” Hennig said.

That’s not the only race the 60-year-old does, but it is his favorite, being the largest ski race in North America.

The event is so enormous — with around 14,000 skiers and just as many family and friends — that it starts in several waves with 700 to 800 hundred skiers in each.

Waves are arranged by past finish times. Rookies always start in the last wave.

“It’s a neat starting area. You’re probably 30 skiers wide and 20 rows deep,” Hennig said.

He said skiers can gauge their progress by seeing times at checkpoints along the race, and he has another way to tell how he’s doing. He counts how many people he passes or how many have passed him.

“If you’re getting passed by the previous wave, you’re not doing good,” he said.

That hasn’t happened to Hennig, but he said he has passed people from higher waves.

Hennig caught Birkie fever in his 30s and still has the medal first-timers receive. He got involved in the race through his older sister and brother. At one point, he was part of a group of 20 who would rent a cabin in the area. Now, he goes up with six to eight friends.

To prep for a race, Hennig irons wax into his cross country skis to fill in the pores, which makes for easier gliding.

He has a pasta dinner the night before to load up on carbohydrates, followed by breakfast the morning of the race, with oatmeal, fruit or peanut butter on a bagel.

During the race, several stations along the trail offer energy gel packs, bananas, oranges, energy drinks and warm water.

“The top guys will race past and grab something quickly,” he said.

At the end of the race, some competitors throw up and others cramp up. Hennig hasn’t ever been sick after a race, but he said “this year I was really tired.”

After they finish chocolate milk is given to racers for free.

“It goes down real well,” Hennig said.

Hennig competes in the 50-kilometer skate race. Skate skiing simulates inline skating rather than the classic version that uses a glide-walking motion.

This year, Hennig finished in four hours, 4.53 seconds, placing 105th out of 299 in his age group, 60 to 64-year-old men. He was 1,729th of 3,696 overall racers and 1,485th of 2,963 men.

Hennig’s low time was 2:52 eight years ago. Around 3:20 is typical, he said.

His wife Laura sometimes goes along, but this year she stayed home with their grandchildren and used an app to track Mike’s progress. A conductor in his bib reads a code, he said.

The Hennigs’ 23-year-old niece from Grafton who now lives in Minnesota, Catherine Lundgren, finished in 4:08.39, good for 45th of 155 women age 18 to 24.

Hennig got into skiing in high school in Milwaukee for recreation.

“It’s a great way to stay in shape. It’s a full-body exercise,” he said, adding “You’ve got to do something in winter, right?”

He tried downhill skiing as well but prefers the flatter terrain.

“We call that gravity-assist skiing,” he said.

But skiing didn’t become a passion right away.

“Sometimes you don’t enjoy something until you’ve been doing it a few years,” he said.

Ideal cross-country skiing conditions call for “enough snow but not too much,” Hennig said.

Packed snow is best. Trails used too much get icy, he said, which makes for squirrelly skiing which isn’t fun anymore.

This year’s Birkie featured fresh snow, which prevented ice but slowed down the pack.

Ice makes downhill portions of a course challenging and dangerous. Speeds can reach about 20 mph, he said. Hennig has wiped out before, but not in the Birkie and he has never been injured.

“It’s a fairly safe sport,” he said.

About 20 degrees is the ideal temperature. Anything much colder than 5 below causes crystal formations and makes it feel like skiing on sandpaper, Hennig said.

Hennig could tell he was becoming a better skier when he moved up from V1 skating technique to V2 and open field techniques.

“V2 is the fastest but it takes more energy and you need better balance,” he said. “The average recreational skier will do V1.”

During a long race like the Birkie, Hennig said he will use all three styles.

“When I was able to advance to the faster techniques, that was kind of a watershed moment,” he said.

Improvement in his form is what helped him reach his fastest time in the Birkie in his 50s, he said.

Hennig said he likes to ski 50 times per season. Sometimes her gets out for an hour during lunch at Laird Connectivity in Cedarburg, where Hennig is an electrical design engineer.

He likes a few area trails — Zillmer Loop System near Dundee, Pike Lake near Hartford, Lapham Peak near Delafield and Kohler-Andrae near Sheboygan.

Henning uses the website to check area trail reports and sometimes posts reviews himself to warn others of dicey conditions.

Skiing isn’t his only fitness interest. When it’s not snowing, Hennig enjoys bike riding, roller skiing and hiking. Staying fit year round makes races like the Birkie easier to complete.

An elite wave of skiers who have coaches and train hours per day all year leads off the Birkie.

“They get international Olympic skiers,” Hennig said.

While he’s not quite in that group — although he’d like to be — Hennig plans to continue competitive skiing as long as he can.

“When I get in that 70-plus age group I’ll be able to really kick butt,” he said.



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