Dan Cnossen Aimed To Set An Example In Tackling Norway’s Birkebeinerrennet
by Alex Abrams
Dan Cnossen and Great Britain's Scott Meenagh pose for a photo at the start line of the Birkebeinerrennet in Norway.
Dan Cnossen’s arms hurt after skiing uphill for more than two hours, and he had to stop at one point and take a quick break.
Even as he pushed his body to its limits, Cnossen couldn’t help but take in the incredible view that was all around him as he made his way over two mountains and raced from Rena to Lillehammer, Norway.
Cnossen, a seven-time Paralympic medalist in cross-country skiing and biathlon, was one of more than 6,000 skiers who competed in the legendary Birkebeinerrennet race on March 18. It’s considered one of the most famous cross-country skiing races in the world, dating back to the 1200s.
It’s also one of the world’s most grueling races. Skiers cover 54 kilometers — or 33.5 miles — of the Norwegian countryside while carrying a backpack weighing at least 7.7 pounds.
Cnossen said the weather was perfect for his first time competing in the Birkebeiner. The snowstorm that had made conditions unsafe for skiers only a day earlier had passed through the area, leaving nothing but clear, blue skies.
“A Norwegian had said don’t forget to look around and don’t forget to look behind you. So as I was climbing, I took that in mind, looking around,” Cnossen said. “I could probably see 20 or 30 miles. It was beautiful scenery climbing the mountains, and then as you descend into the stadium, it was fantastic.”
Cnossen, who’ll celebrate his 43rd birthday on May 17, is at a point in his skiing career where he wants to see new places and experience new things. He also wants to find new challenges to test himself. However, even by his own standards as a former Navy SEAL and a three-time Paralympian, Cnossen admitted the Birkebeiner was “brutal.” He said it was the hardest race he had ever done in a sit ski.
The Topeka, Kansas, native had wrapped up his world cup season less than two weeks before entering the Birkebeiner. And by the time he crossed the finish line in Lillehammer, he was exhausted.
Cnossen finished the ski marathon in 3 hours, 51 minutes, 56 seconds.
“I do think you learn a lot about yourself when you do push yourself to the limit, and in chosen situations like choosing to do a marathon or a 5K or in this case a ski marathon, it’s a different kind of situation than the unchosen suffering,” Cnossen said.
“But by choosing to do something that’s going to really push you, you’re developing these ways of pushing your body, and this is all mental really. Of course, it also has a physical component, how much preparation and training you’ve done, but really how deep are you willing to go?”
Cnossen said he wanted to take part in the Birkebeiner to show that it’s possible for a sit skier to finish the race.
In February of 2016, he competed in the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, also known as the Birkie. It’s considered the longest cross-country race in North America, with next year’s event spanning 53 kilometers.
“I thought I’m going to do the American (Birkebeiner) first, and then eventually I’m going to do the Norwegian one, the real one,” Cnossen said.
His hope is that Para Nordic officials will someday include such grueling ski marathons into their race schedules.
“Certainly in the Paralympic circle, we don’t do 50 kilometers and really don’t often ever do anything more than 20 kilometers,” Cnossen said. “I want to show that sit skiers can do these kinds of races, and ultimately I would like to see on our Paralympic circuit inclusion in these marathons, which they call loppets, but that we can have a presence.
“These races already exist, and there can be an adaptive category. It can be part of our circuit. In order to show that it can be done, you’ve just got to go do it and do it well and hopefully it starts a conversation.”
On March 8, Cnossen competed in his last race at the final world cup event of the season at Soldier Hollow in Utah. He left six days later for Norway and landed there on March 15.
The next day, Cnossen and his friend, British sit skier Scott Meenagh, prepared for the Birkebeiner by skiing what would be the final 10 kilometers of the race. They then had one day to rest before the start of Birkebeiner.
“I was carrying jetlag for sure because I had only been on the ground three days,” Cnossen said.
As it turned out, Cnossen had one of his U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing teammates with him in Norway for the race.
Jake Adicoff, a four-time Paralympic medalist who’s legally blind, knew Cnossen was planning to compete in the Birkebeiner. Adicoff intended to take part in the race as well, and he needed a place to stay while in Norway.
He asked Cnossen if he could stay at the house in Lillehammer that Cnossen and Meenagh had rented on Airbnb for the event.
On the day of the race, the three Paralympians woke up at 3 a.m. in order to take a two-hour bus ride and get to the starting line in time for the race.
“We had to figure out these logistics for sure, and you do learn to appreciate what the (U.S.) Paralympic Nordic ski team does for us because (there were) so many (of these questions),” Cnossen said. “How are you going to get your ski waxed? Who’s doing that? How are you getting it done? How are you getting to the start line?
“We had to figure all this out, so there was a bit of logistical challenge added onto it as well as the physical challenge of this ski race.”
Adicoff completed the race in 3:08:22.3. Cnossen said he didn’t see any other sit skiers on the course other than Meenagh and himself.
Cnossen said the most difficult stretch of the Birkebeiner came around kilometers 20-40 when he started to really feel the toll of skiing uphill, from one mountain to the next.
“It just felt like you’d been climbing for about 2.5 hours at this point,” Cnossen said. “And to get over that second (mountain), I mean at one point I actually had to stop and rest. And that’s not often in training and certainly a Paralympic race where I’ve ever had to stop.
“I had to stop for about 10 seconds to rest my arms and just kind of sum up some more strength to get up and over.”
As difficult as the race was, Cnossen said he’d like to eventually push himself even harder. He hopes to get enough support to compete in the 90-kilometer Vasaloppet in Sweden next March and perhaps again enter the Birkebeiner in Norway.
“The day of, I was thinking after it was over, ‘I don’t want to do that again. That was too tough,’” Cnossen said. “But I’m already kind of thinking, ‘Ah, that wasn’t that bad. I can do it next year.’”