“Multiple Sclerosis, Vikings and Nordic Skiing”

As I was writing my post yesterday about my sweet ski “adventure” I remembered a rune of a Viking on skis with a bow and arrow and I wanted to put it in my post. I googled it and found it, yay! (should I end this here?) I also found a program on PBS that caught my attention, “Multiple Sclerosis, Vikings and Nordic Skiing.” How could ANYONE not be caught by a title like that? For me it was especially provocative. My dad suffered from MS and, beyond that obvious hook, who isn’t fascinated by Vikings and, yeah, Langlauf. ❤


I already knew that MS is more prevalent among people from Northern Europe. It has a much higher incidence in Scandinavia and among those of Scandinavian descent. Science has now tracked it across the North Atlantic, a disease of the central nervous system carried in Viking Ships. My dad’s mother was from Sweden, and Ancestry tells me I am mostly Scots, Irish and Scandinavian, all parts of the world where MS is comparatively common. Yay Vikings!

MS is an autoimmune disease that most often shows up in young adulthood, but people can have it for a long time without knowing it. The film goes into detail about the diagnosis and the science behind the progress of the disease. It can now be accurately diagnosed with an MRI, which didn’t exist when my dad was alive. My dad’s MS was diagnosed with certainty in an autopsy. If you’re interested, you can learn about MS here, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society webpage.

Dad, me, Aunt Martha 1963

The program followed six people in the United States and Norway who’d been diagnosed with MS. One of the points of the program was how exercise can help people with MS. The problem with exercise is that heat — even a rise in body temperature — can be debilitating, causing fatigue and a relapse of symptoms. The obvious sport for a person with MS is the national sport of Norway; Nordic skiing.

In 2012 and 13 (I believe) the American Birkebeiner worked in partnership with the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation to raise money for MS. Three of the skiers in the program did the American Birkebeiner race. At the same time, three Norwegian women skied the Norwegian Birkebeiner.

Both American Birkebeiner races drew Norwegian Olympic champion skiers to Wisconsin to race and raise funds. One of those champions has a mom who suffers from MS.

As I watched them race, I was lost, thinking, “Birki WHAT?” I had no idea…

It started in 1206. Birkebeiner skiers, so called for their protective birch bark leggings, skied through the treacherous mountains and rugged forests of Norway’s Osterdalen valley during the winter of 1206, smuggling the son of King Sverresson and Inga of Vartieg to safety. The flight taken during the Norwegian Civil War took the Birkebeiners and prince from Lillehammer to safety in the town of Trondheim. Inga of Vartieg never became queen as the prince’s father was killed before he could return for her in Vartieg. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners’ bravery with preserving the life of the boy who later became King Haakon Haakonsson IV and forever changed Northern Europes’ history by his reign.

The story and painting of the flight were the inspiration for the first Birkebeinger ski race held in Norway in 1932. To this day, Norwegian skiers still carry a pack, symbolizing the weight of an 18-month child, in the Worldloppet’s Norwegian Birkebeiner Rennet race from Rena – Lillehammer. Thousands of skiers commemorate the journey with annual Birkebeiner races in Norway, Canada, and the United States.

The race known today as the American Birkebeiner began in 1973 as the dream of the late Tony Wise. Thirty-four men and one lone woman were on the starting line clad in woolen sweaters and knickers for the 50-kilometer race from the Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward to Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wisconsin. Nineteen more women and juniors would ski a shorter race from “OO” to Telemark. Few knew they were going to make history. There were no U.S. Ski Team members or foreign skiers, just a handful of enthusiasts from a couple of midwestern states, out to try something new. Many of the entrants were on cross-country skis for the first season – some for the first time.

Today, over 13,000 skiers of all ages and abilites and 20,000 spectators fromaround the world gather every February in the Cable-Hayward, Wisconsin area to celebrate “The Birkie”, a race which has become a legend in the cross-country ski world. We look forward to you joining us!


The six racers with MS all made it. One of the Norwegian women said she hadn’t expected the race to be fun. “All along the way people cheered me on, gave me coffee, water, food. My time was better than I thought it would be, and I never felt alone. I had so much fun!”

Another Norwegian woman said that the race kept her training every day, even when she didn’t feel like it. When race day came, she was nervous, but ended up having a great time.

A young Wisconsin racer, a former competitive skier who’d been dismayed by her diagnosis (naturally) explained — as the camera followed her awkward little pink tight-clad form around the 25 mile course, “I stopped worrying about my time or competing. I was there to have fun and to make it all the way. It was wonderful. I hope I can keep having fun like this way into my 80s!”

A young man whose main symptom was arm weakness, said, “I felt my arms going about half way so, for a while, I just poled every other stroke.” He stood beaming with the Birkebeiner medal around his neck.

14 thoughts on ““Multiple Sclerosis, Vikings and Nordic Skiing”

  1. As a sufferer myself from MS that was very interesting. I am one of those that had it for many years, but was only diagnosed about three years ago. I am interested in information about the disease and noticed myself that I am more comfortable in Winter than Summer, with the result that everyone around me at home is freezing with open windows and I feel fine. Exercise does help very much so, and I try to combine my exercises with daily tasks. Although I live in Switzerland, skiing is not my thing I must say, but I did know that the more north you live the more chance you have of getting MS. Thanks for that Martha, I have no Norwegians i the family or Scaninavians, just Huguenot, but they left their mark on GB where I grew up.

    • I think anyone with British ancestry is likely to have been plundered by a Viking somewhere along the way. 😉 If the program works in CH, you might enjoy it.

  2. Interesting. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world, and we are also known for our winters and skiing. In fact, Saskatchewan, the province my husband and I are from, is said to have the highest rate in Canada – I know this, because my husband was diagnosed over 20 years ago. He, however, loves the heat and does not ski. But thankfully he is doing fine.

  3. That’s really heartening. I know a LOT of people with MS, including me – but I’m remitted, hopefully until after interment. It probably helps if the person with M.S. learned to ski before passing age 65, but hey, why not? If my back weren’t crumbling, I’d give it a try. We actually have a lot of skiing in this region, some of it very nearby. Cross country you can do on the golf courses, all three of which are about half a mile away by road and even closer less if you walk rather than drive. The Blue Hills (not far from Boston) have downhill trails, cross country trails, and lots of bunny trails. And if you want to get crazy, head up to Vermont and Maine. THEY have snow, even if we don’t.

    • I think one of the points of the program — though not stated directly except by one patient — was how exercise helped them feel they still had some power over their life. The other thing I know about cross-country skiing is that it shoots the feel good stuff into the brain very quickly. It really makes people feel happy. It’s easier than running and less damaging to the body and being outside is another positive. Despair is a huge problem for people with MS, both biochemically and as a result of the diagnosis and resulting life changes, and cross country skiing gives a lot of the people who do it a real high.

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