More than 11,000 expected for the Birkie; country's largest cross-country ski race

More than 11,000 skiers are expected this week in northwestern Wisconsin for the American Birkebeiner, the country's largest cross-country ski race.
Paul Huttner | MPR News

Organizers of the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race in northwestern Wisconsin are preparing for the biggest “Birkie” ever, despite a major winter snowstorm making it tough for participants to travel to the country’s largest Nordic ski race.

More than 11,200 people are expected to take part in a range of events this week, culminating in the Birkie ski marathon on Saturday. It’s a 55-kilometer race (50 kilometers for those skiing the freestyle, or skate, technique) that begins in Cable, Wis. and ends in downtown Hayward.

Prepping the trail

A couple inches of fresh snow fell over the course Monday night. The National Weather Service is predicting another 7 to 11 inches in Hayward by Thursday, with possibly more in Cable.

That’s no problem for the Birkie’s full-time team of four trail groomers, who began prepping for this week back in November.

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“From our end of things, the snow coming in is not a huge deal,” said Birkie spokesperson Blair Flickinger.

She said there’s already a deep, well-packed base of snow covering the length of the trail. Even the heavy rain that fell a couple weeks ago didn’t do extensive damage.

“So any new snow we get, they can go on there and push off any of that excess snow, and just till in to that top layer and soften it up a little bit for our skiers, so it’s not an ice skating rink out there.”

Travel, not skiing, woes

The storm will likely have a much larger impact on the thousands of skiers and spectators traveling to Wisconsin for the race, many from the Twin Cities. While roads should be in decent race for the marathon on Saturday, travel could be tricky for smaller events on Thursday and Friday.

The storm has also disrupted plans for some skiers traveling from afar. Participants have signed up from 49 states (only Louisiana isn’t represented this year), and 20 countries.

Many skiers fly in from western states.

“And that’s been problematic,” Flickinger said, adding it’s likely that some competitors won’t be able to make it to this year’s race. “Personally we have a friend coming from Colorado whose original flight was canceled, but luckily was able to snag a different one coming in earlier.”

Good years and bad years

While the Birkie has never been canceled for too much snow, several races have been shortened because of a lack of snow, including several years in the 1980s.

Twice, the entire event was canceled, most recently in 2017, when winter rains and warm temperatures made an already meager snowpack unusable.

Organizers are hopeful for another banner snow season next year, the Birkie’s 50th anniversary.

“It takes a special breed of individual to be a cross country skier to begin with,” Flickinger said. “You’ve got to have a lot of grit, a lot of willingness to get out there regardless of the conditions, and that’s proven true many different years when we’ve had inclement weather and thousands of skiers still show up.”