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Nordic skiing: The Birkie goes on, bigger and better than ever

Recent snowfall bodes well for some great racing this weekend.

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Norway’s Anders Gloersen (9) held off a huge pack to win the American Birkebeiner men’s race by 2 seconds, finishing in 2:02:29.6 on Saturday in Hayward. Photo courtesy of American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation
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DULUTH — American Birkebeiner executive director Ben Popp was reached by phone Tuesday night, Feb. 22, and asked about the weather conditions that had gripped Hayward and the surrounding area the past two days.

“There’s still some light snow coming down but it looks like it’s starting to wrap up, which is, you know, time to start digging out,” Popp said.

Yes, the Birkie has dug out from upwards of 15 inches of snowfall and is back, bigger and better than ever after “Birkie Fever” was tempered last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, last year 9,000 cross-country skiers took part in Birkie events, but only half of which were in Birkies in Cable, with the rest participating virtually.

This year, more than 13,000 people, including the youth events, are expected to take part, with the grand finale being Saturday’s 48th American Birkebeiner itself, that 50-kilometer annual grind from Cable to Main Street in downtown Hayward (for those scoring at home, 55K for classic skiers).

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Until they can make a virtual beer that tastes the same, celebrating an accomplishment like that isn’t quite the same unless done in person. After all, nothing beats the real thing.

“Thirteen thousand people — for real, in the flesh humans,” Popp said, drawing a laugh, “coming down Main Street, just loving life and celebrating winter in the northwoods.”

Yes, the Birkie is back.

“More than ever,” Popp said.

The Birkie shares some similarities with another long standing Northland tradition, Grandma’s Marathon, held each June from Two Harbors to Duluth. Among those similarities is the fact both events, more often than not, seem blessed with rather ideal conditions.

That’s the case again this year with the Birkie. Imagine if that storm that hit earlier the week came four days later? It’d be a disaster.

Photo courtesy of American BirkebeinerMinnesota native Alayna Sonnesyn crosses the finish line Saturday to win her first American Birkebeiner race in Hayward.
Minnesota native Alayna Sonnesyn crosses the finish line Saturday to win her first American Birkebeiner race in Hayward in 2019. Sonnesyn is the defending champion after claiming the title again in a pandemic-affected 2021 Birkie.
Photo courtesy of American Birkebeiner

“The temps are starting to come up and now I’m seeing forecasts as high as 33 degrees for Saturday,” Popp said. “Oooohhh, this could shape up to be one of the best … just an amazing day of ski racing coming up.

“They say sometimes they say even the blind squirrel finds a nut. Well, we ran into just a great opportunity here with good snow and I’m excited. Let’s get to ski racing, man!”

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This winter has been one of the coldest in a decade in Duluth and had below-average snowfall levels before this latest dump; now it’s slightly above average.

“This winter, there just was no moisture,” Popp said. “It was too cold to snow, so to speak, so while we haven’t been losing snow, it’s been so cold that it hasn’t been snowing.”

Until earlier this week, when the skies opened up and brought down the frozen atmospheric water vapor otherwise known as snow.

Popp admitted parts of the Birkie trail would have been thin and organizers were bracing for Plan B. In other words, grab a shovel and get ready to patch spots, especially under the pines where it can be a little thin even on a good year.

“There were places where the base was less than two inches deep so we were getting ready for the contingency of having to do some shoveling, moving snow and setting tracks not quite as deep for the classic track.

“This was just in the nick of time. It’s a little bit like Walmart’s JIT inventory system, just in time. This was just-in-time snow.”

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The American Birkebeiner from Cable to Hayward. (News Tribune file photo)

With the snow still coming down Tuesday, not to mention blowing and drifting all over, Popp was asked why the Birkie had groomers out there working the trail in what from the outside might appear to be a futile effort.

But with everything starting Wednesday this year for new “open track” events that were open to up to 1,000 skiers — Popp said there was no time to waste.

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While the trail conditions maybe wouldn’t turn out perfect for those Wednesday’s races, they were going to try.

“The more you can groom it, the firmer and firmer it gets,” Popp said. “So if you groom it as the snow falls, the better the conditions are. It’s definitely costly in time and labor and money but that’s what you do if you want to put on the best race in the world.”

Popp said after last year he can tell the energy is up this year, the atmosphere around town starting to feel more electric.

Saturday will be a big day, no doubt.

“People are just smiling, they’re excited to be here, they’re excited to see their friends,” Popp said. “They come from all over the country to celebrate this sport, and the community. Now everyone is coming back together after not seeing each other for two years, it’s pretty darn exciting. I’ll tell you what, by Saturday afternoon, it’s going to be a huge party in downtown Hayward.”

48TH AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER

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

Where: Cable to Hayward

Friday’s schedule: ParaBirkie, 9:15 a.m.; 29K Kortelopet, 10:15 a.m.; 15K Prince Haakon, 1:15 p.m.

Saturday: 50K/55K Birkebeiner, 8 a.m.

Weekend forecast: Partly cloudy conditions Friday give way to mostly sunny conditions Saturday, with a high of 33 and 16 mph wind

Related Topics: SKIINGNORDIC SKIING
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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