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Nordic skiing: CSS grad skies the American Birkebeiner — on sand

Dirnberger nearly covered a grueling 27 miles of Southern California beaches.

St. Scholastica graduate Harris Dirnberger comes down a hill while doing the American Birkebeiner virtually Saturday, Feb. 20, on the beaches of Southern California. (Photo courtesy of Harris Dirnberger)
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St. Scholastica graduate Harris Dirnberger was hemming and hawing until the last minute whether he was going to do the 47th American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon in-person or virtually this year.

“Finally, with travel and the (COVID-19) pandemic, I thought maybe it wouldn’t make the most sense to go all the way to Wisconsin to do this,” he said.

There was just one problem: Dirnberger lives in Los Angeles, not exactly the mecca of Nordic skiing, a place where waxing has a different connotation.

Instead, Dirnberger and his younger brother, Philip, classic skied the Birkie on LA’s sandy beaches, covering 43 kilometers — or just under 27 miles — in 7 hours and 23 minutes. For comparison, he completed the 50K Birkie freestyle race last year — on snow — in 3 hours and 12 minutes.

Skiing on sand? In a word … brutal.


“I never thought about quitting,” Harris Dirnberger said. “However, there was a point where I was concerned I was going to have to find someone with a drill to put a fastener through my boot.

“Barely anyone cared. Someone stopped us along the way and said, ‘Wow, that is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in Venice.’ We took that as a high honor.”

Born to ski

Dirnberger, 26, is from the Minneapolis suburb of Hopkins, where he graduated from in 2013 before coming up to Duluth to attend college at St. Scholastica.

While he played other sports, Nordic skiing was his thing. He qualified for the state meet twice, finishing as high as fifth in 2012.

Dirnberger skied for a few years at St. Scholastica and was one of the anchors behind “Saints Center,” a comedy show that covered CSS sports and helped give him his start to what he’s doing now, a documentary series. He graduated from CSS with a communication degree in 2017 and has lived in LA the past four years pursuing his career in the film industry.

Despite living on the West Coast, he returns to Minnesota quite often and hasn’t gone too Hollywood yet, even keeping a 612 phone number, something he says is a conversation starter for the surprising number of Midwesterners he runs into.

Counting his “Sand Ski Birkie,” Dirnberger has now completed the Birkie seven straight years.

“Anything to make Nordic skiing cool is always a good thing,” Dirnberger said of his latest adventure. “I’ve always looked at the Birkebeiner as a really inspiring race. A lot of the people who I’ve looked up to in my life have competed in it for many years, and I think it’s a great thing to be a part of. Nordic skiing is the coolest thing in the world.”


Dirnberger is a self-described glutton for punishment, so skiing the Birkie virtually this year was the perfect option for him. He said he got his entry fee in early and it was just over $100, and even if it’s not the same, he believes strongly in the event and knows the money is going to a good cause.

Normally, Birkie week attracts upward of 12,000 participants and thousands more spectators but COVID-19 has put a damper on that.

Racing virtually is the next best thing, according to Ben Popp, American Birkebeiner executive director.

“You sign up just like a normal Birkie, and we mail them their hats and their finisher pin and everything that goes with it,” Popp said. “We developed a Birkie app where they can submit their results ... they tell us where they did it and their time and all that kind of stuff, and you can actually track it all right in the app.”

This year Popp said there will be about 8,500 entrants, with about half of those skiing the race virtually. Popp said people are simply trying to make the most of an otherwise tough situation and year.

“Of course it’s not the same, but people are really having fun with it,” Popp said. “They realize it’s probably the one time you can ski a Birkie somewhere else. They can say, ‘Hey, I got to ski it with my buddies in Mt. Ashwabay (in Bayfield) or Spirit Mountain (in Duluth).

“I think it’ll be a one of a kind. We’re hoping this isn’t repeatable (he laughed), but certainly it’s fun to see the bigger community really embrace this and enjoy it. There’s something about the ski community, the culture, that you just want to be part of it. It inspires you year-round and that’s what’s really coming through here. We’re going to get out and be active and enjoy this event wherever we are.”

No easy route

Popp said there are conversions that can be used so that Dirnberger would not have had to ski as far as he did, knowing skiing on sand is far more difficult than on snow.


Dirnberger, however, would have none of it.

“Even if there were conversions that I had known about, I would have felt wrong about not completing the distance,” he said. “Personally I would have felt weird about it.”

But skiing 43 kilometers on sand in Southern California … perfectly reasonable.

The Dirnbergers did their “Birkie” on Saturday, Feb. 20. The route they picked was a point-to-point course, no loops, starting at the Malibu Pier and heading south and ending in Redondo Beach. They were dropped off and picked up later. They left around 5:30 in the morning, as they wanted to get to the start line when the sun came up and have as much daylight as possible to work with.

“We honestly thought we were going to end in the dark,” Harris Dirnberger said.

The brothers dressed like they were racing in Wisconsin in February not Southern California.

While the temperature started reasonably cool it later climbed into the mid-70s.

“It was too hot,” Harris Dirnberger said. “About 20 minutes in we were like, ‘Whoa, what are we doing? We’re wearing underlayers and spandex and it’s like, California.’”

There would be plenty of adjusting on the fly in this one, and they stopped a decent amount on the way.

Dirnberger was asked how much glide can you get on sand.

“Well,” Dirnberger said, choosing his words carefully before drawing a laugh. “It doesn’t work great. It was definitely not efficient in any way.”

Dirnberger said he actually had great kick — there’s no accidental slipping on sand. But the sand was otherwise a problem — a big problem.

The bindings on Dirnberger’s bindings broke pretty early on. He had so much sand stuck in them that his skis were falling off left and right just a few kilometers in.

Philip, meanwhile, had Klister kick wax on his skis and that turned out to be a disaster, getting caked with sand.

“He had no glide for a long time,” Harris said. “So yeah, there were a lot of hiccups, but they were good ones.

“There were definitely times where we were walking. Our goal was to hold the proper form as much as we could throughout the race but there were times where that was just unmanageable.”

There were times where Philip would break away and then Harris would break away and then they’d group up again. They kept track of their distance via a phone app, and then finally, they made it to the finish, living to tell about it. They even put together a video of their experience available at youtube.com/watch?v=-lqXAueh9ak .

As crazy as the experience was, Harris Dirnberger vowed to do a sand Birkie again, even if it won’t officially count as a Birkie.

“It was definitely the most brutal Birkie I’ve taken part in so far, and I’ve had some bad ones,” he said. “I initially kind of liked the joke of doing the sand Birkie. That’s what I was considering doing anyways (even before COVID).

“I’ll definitely do it again. I’ll do it next year. Honestly, it was a ton of fun. It was really brutal but I guess that’s what I was looking for.”


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

When: Saturday (Birkie freestyle) and Sunday (Birkie classic)

Where: Cable, Wisconsin

Cable weather forecast: partly cloudy with a high of 40 Saturday before cooling; high of 28 for Sunday with snow showers early.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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