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Birkie officials weathering the weather

The first wave of the 2009 American Birkebeiner takes off from Cable. (News Tribune file photo)

American Birkebeiner executive director Ben Popp was asked if Monday was the day he was most worried about, with rain potentially putting a big damper on Saturday's 44th running of the cross-country ski marathon from Cable to Hayward.

"How about Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday?" Popp said, laughing. "Those three days are going to be really critical."

Popp knows he can't control the weather, but he can have his team prepared for anything Mother Nature throws at them.

Temperatures pushed upwards of 60 degrees in Hayward this weekend and the forecast doesn't look good, with rain Monday and mostly sunny conditions Tuesday and Wednesday, with highs in the upper 50s.

Popp said people started arriving in town this weekend for the international event.

"They're asking questions, all those sorts of things," Popp said. "People are here, they're excited, they're nervous, just as we are. 'Birkie Fever' has begun."

Popp has been posting daily video updates at birkie.com. Remarkably, the trail was still in great shape. Despite the warm weather, the dew point has been low, meaning there hasn't been a lot of moisture in the air. Furthermore, about 90 percent of the Birkie trail is shaded by woods.

The ground is frozen, cooling the snow from the bottom up, like floor heating in a home. As soon as the sun goes down, that surface snow starts to freeze again, only for the melting process to start all over again the next day.

"If we could do the race today, it'd be great, but the reality is we still have a long ways to go," Popp said. "We just take it day by day, so if goes to hell tonight, tomorrow's web update will say it went to hell last night. We just call a spade a spade and let people know."

The Birkie has only been cancelled once in its 45-year history — in 2000 due to a lack of snow — but it has been altered nine times due to weather. The direction of the race has been reversed, it's been shortened and it has taken advantage of fields near Hayward as different starting and end points when Lake Hayward starts to look more like it does in the summer.

"Twenty percent of the time the course has been altered in some way, shape or form, but it hasn't happened since 2007," Popp said. "We are coming up on 10 years now, so statistically speaking, we were kind of due for an issue, unfortunately."

In 1981, the snow came late and citizen skiers completed the Birkie on March 7, but Popp said it is very difficult postponing an event of this size, with more than 13,000 skiers and 20,000 spectators involved, hotels and flights already booked. Plus, with the Fat Bike Birkie, the largest fat bike race in the world with 1,500 riders, taking place on the Birkie trail on March 11, weekends start running out.

"For most people, once you've made the commitment, it's kind of hard to redo it," Popp said. "Once that ball is in motion, it's hard to change it."

Popp said the Hayward area has only received about 37 inches of snow this winter.

The Birkie trail was closed Thursday night, about a week before normal.

"The more we stay off it, the better it'll be," Popp said. "This gives us our absolutely best chance."

American Birkebeiner Week begins today in Wisconsin, as proclaimed by Gov. Scott Walker.

While the forecast in Hayward calls for it to cool later in the week, with snow possible Friday, Popp isn't banking on it. He has seen too many forecasts this winter calling for snowstorms, only to get a dusting. He said there are "a ton" of contingency plans being considered, from loops to shorter point-to-point races. If the weather becomes more favorable, some adjustments can be made last-second, but others can't.

"You have to go with the bird in the hand," Popp said. "Right now, it's just a whole lot of wait and see."

44th American Birkebeiner

What: North America's largest cross-country ski race

Where: 50 kilometers from Cable to Hayward (55K for classic skiers)

When: 8:15 a.m. Saturday

Who: More than 13,000 skiers will compete in the Birkie and its support races, in addition to about 20,000 spectators who are expected to descend on Hayward from the U.S., Canada and beyond. The three-day event kicks off Thursday.

Live race tracking/webcast: birkie.com

Saturday's forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 29 and 10 mph wind

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