Volunteers on the trail keep Birkie skiers going2013 AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER: The calls of volunteers holding cups of energy drink out to passing skiers rang above the ever-present din of cowbells Saturday at the American Birkebeiner’s Highway OO food station.
By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
ON THE BIRKIE TRAIL — “Energy!” “Energy!” “Energy!”
The calls of volunteers holding cups of energy drink out to passing skiers rang above the ever-present din of cowbells Saturday at the American Birkebeiner’s Highway OO food station.
While that liquid energy reinvigorated the bodies of the skiers, the pep and energy shown by the 50-or-so volunteers at the checkpoint boosted the spirits of participants in the annual 50-kilometer race from Cable to Hayward.
“They work like maniacs for our benefit,” skier Allen Anway of Superior said of race volunteers as he paused at the food station, en route to completing his 37th Birkie. “Everybody is cheering the others on.”
And that gratitude shown by skiers fast and slow — many of whom shouted “Thanks!” to everyone and no one in particular as they went on their way — is one thing that keeps people coming back to help year after year.
“They’ll say, ‘Thank you for volunteering,’” said Donna Neuman of Hayward, volunteering for a fifth Birkie. “They can’t breathe, but they’ll say thanks.”
That thanks would be for handing out water, raking discarded cups off the trail, peeling bananas, providing replacement poles, shouting encouragement and performing any number of other tasks large and small for the army of skiers gliding through the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin.
The Highway OO food station, one of eight on the course, is about the halfway point of the race, about three miles east of Seeley.
With relatively easy road access, it was a popular place for spectators to gather as the race marked its 40th year this winter.
And it’s a gathering point for skiers, too, as separate routes for skiers using the skate and classic techniques merge briefly to cross the highway before diverging again. Skate skiers in the Birkie cover a course of 50 kilometers; classic skiers, 54 kilometers.
The Birkebeiner and its companion races Saturday — the 23K Kortelopet and the 12K Prince Haakon — had a combined 10,000 skiers registered.
Volunteers started gathering at the checkpoint not long after sunrise, brushing several inches of newly fallen snow off tables and gear.
Before the arrival of the first elite skiers, prep work continued as volunteers filled paper cups with warm energy drink and water, sliced bananas and cut the tops off foil packets of GU energy gel. Having volunteers do that ahead of time, rather than letting skiers tear them open, cuts down on litter, said food station chief Kathy Zuelsdorff. It’s one of many time-tested lessons that kept things running efficiently.
Volunteers and spectators alike kept their eyes and ears on the trail, waiting for the first sign of approaching skiers. And then shortly after 9 a.m., in a blur of bodies and poles and skis, the top athletes started sailing through.
“The early guys, you actually have to run with them” to hand over food and drinks, said Judy Vandenbrook of Madison, volunteering for the first time after 15 years of skiing the Birkie.
“It’s really a stitch,” Neuman said of trying to make successful handoffs. She and fellow Hayward resident Marilyn Gorney took spots at the head of the line of volunteers handing out drinks to skate skiers, getting a workout as they handed out two or three cups, then ran to get more.
Light snow continued to fall on-and-off during the morning in relatively balmy conditions, with temperatures in the 20s. While some skiers reported the trail to be a bit mushy, the weather was received well by people who remembered past races in subzero conditions.
As the morning wore on and the skiers thinned out, things got a little more relaxed. More and more skiers took time to catch their breath, visit with family and friends and chat with volunteers.
Judy Griesedieck of Minneapolis was skiing with her daughter Taylor Healy, also of Minneapolis. They paused to take a photo of themselves and prepare for the second half of the race.
“It really keeps you going, otherwise I’d never get through the whole race,” she said of the checkpoint crew. “They’re amazing.”
As midday passed, volunteers started tidying up the area ahead of the 1:45 p.m. cutoff. After that time, any skiers not yet across Highway OO would have to leave the trail. And that’s when Zuelsdorff and her remaining helpers would scrape the snow off the highway, marking the end of a hectic day in that corner of Sawyer County.
Chances are, most of the people who spent time there on Saturday — skiers and volunteers — will return next year, drawn back by memories of the excitement and camaraderie.
“The skiers appreciate us being out here,” Zuellsdorff said, “and the volunteers feel like they’re contributing to a successful race.”