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Karl Andresen: A Birkie Original

Andresen poses next to a light pole sponsored by friends in his honor at the Tower Ridge Trail in Eau Claire,WI.

Andresen poses next to a light pole sponsored by friends in his honor at the Tower Ridge Trail in Eau Claire,WI.

For most participants, the American Birkebeiner is a race against time. When the cannon sounds and they kick off toward toward Hayward, Wis., they are thinking: Will I move up a wave? Will better skis, more expensive wax or an extra helping of spaghetti help me shave a few minutes off last year’s time?

Karl Andresen is among those who have high expectations each year. However, he doesn’t measure his Birkie finish in minutes, hours or personal bests. As the races and years come and go, he accepts that he will take more time, not less. He just wants to finish — year after year after year. Just get there. Just keep piling up the years.

Barring sickness or injury, Andresen will start the 30th Birkebeiner hoping to finish it, as he has all of the previous 29.

He is one of a handful who has done every Birkie, but at 79 he is their elder. In 2002, Andresen’s time of 8 hours, 51 minutes and 17 seconds put him in last place among all Birkie finishers. No one among his many admirers seemed to notice. The only thing they wondered was if Karl had made it, if Karl had added one more year to his record. When you’re approaching 80, just finishing matters.

As we spoke in the basement of his home in Eau Claire, Wis., about 100 miles south of Hayward, we were surrounded by Birkie and skiing memorabilia.

A cross country ski wallpaper border ran around the top of basement wall. He hedged on whether 2003 would be his final race. “I haven’t 100 percent made up my mind about that,” he said. “Thirty is a nice round figure.” Then, with a laugh, he added. “But in 2004, there’s the temptation of going into a new (80-plus) age class, and most of my competitors are in their graves.”

It would be premature to predict that he won’t be back. He’s a man who has beaten the odds often. In 1980, he had surgery to remove the largest lobe of
his right lung as a result of a serious case of pneumonia years earlier. Although he was cut open in a semicircle from abdomen to backbone and couldn’t lift a canoe paddle when he started his recovery, he still skied the 1981 Birkie. He has done all of them since, despite breathing deficiencies and advancing age. He gets breathless, but he keeps going.

And in so doing, Andresen has become a Birkie institution, a legend, much like the race founder and his good friend, the late Tony Wise.

That is true even though he isn’t the oldest to finish the race. That distinction goes to Gunnar Lillieroth of Sweden, who was 83 when he completed the 1997 Birkie. The oldest in 2002 was Ed Harjala, 79, of Copper City, Mich.

Andresen downplays his place in the history of the Birkie. “There is only one founder: Tony Wise,” he said. “I often think during the race of Tony Wise. I wouldn’t be out there without Tony. I wish I could shake his hand and say thanks again.”

With Wise gone, however, many regard Andresen as the grandfather of the Birkie. He was there at age 49. wearing wool and using wood, when the skiers
lined up in 1973. He planned to be there this year, wearing polypropylene and using high tech equipment.

It is inspiring for many a skier than to see the slightly-built Andresen,wearing his familiar No. 1 red Founders’ bib, smoothly, mechanically striding through the forest and hell-bent toward another Birkie finish line in Hayward.

He frequently is greeted by skiing friends and well-wishers as they pass him on the trail. (He gets a preferred start in the first wave as a Founder.) He
particularly relishes the moments when female skiing friends stop and give him a hug during the race. “That beats Clif Bars,” he says, a twinkle in his eyes.

It is a special time for some when they see Andresen coming up Main Street, the finish line in sight, darkness coming on and his friends and onlookers cheering him. “People are still there shouting my name. It makes me feel like I’m winning a world championship race. I wave my poles and everything. That’s a moment I treasure,” Andresen says.

He stays in shape throughout the year by canoeing and kayaking, hiking with poles and lifting weights. The Eau Claire River runs by his back door. “I own eight boats, none of them with motors,” he said.

There is joy in surprising people who think a 5-foot, 7-inch, 125-pound man can’t be an athlete, he says, and pleasure in the pure exhileration of skiing. “I say to people who are from Wisconsin and have never skied, ‘Why only sing about America the beautiful? Why not get out and experience it? America is no more beautiful than when you’re skiing on a beautiful winter day,'” Andresen said.

He said he is inspired by the race volunteers, whom he thanks profusely, and by his wife, Helen. She was the only person there to greet him when he finished the first Birkie. Now she is there at the halfway point each year to offer encouragement and a dry hat and shirt to help him ward off hypothermia.

Beyond the achievement of finishing and the camaraderie of the race, Andresen said the Birkie is a way to connect to his past as an orphan in Drammen, Norway, before and during World War II.

At age 5, he was put into an orphanage when his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Germans occupied Drammen on April 9, 1940. He remembers the trucks rolling into town. And he recalls that he was forced to pick potatoes for German soldiers but often stomped them into the ground so they couldn’t be found.

An excellent student, Andresen earned a scholarship and arrived at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, in 1947. He earned his bachelor’s degree there and went on to get a master’ss and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in political science. He was hired in 1957 to teach political science at what now is the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he remained until he retired.

Andresen learned to cross-country ski as a child while on outings in a forest near the orphanage. He never skied the Norwegian Birkebeiner, but he has remained close to his Nordic roots through skiing. He narrates the official Birkie documentary, “The Birkebeiner Tale: The Spirit to Endure,” produced in 2000 by Wisconsin Public Television. His rich accent lends authenticity to the tale of Prince Haakon.

He continues to inspire skiers, and the challenge of the Birkie continues to inspire him at age 79. “Finishing the Birkie is an ego builder,” he said. “It’s the satisfaction to know I still can do something physical when I’m getting so old. It’s nice to know that there’s still some life left in me.”