Given the vagaries of Wisconsin weather, it’s somewhat surprising the American Birkebeiner has only been canceled once in its 44-year history—and hasn’t seen course changes due to low snow conditions since 2007.
So the nation’s most prestigious cross-country ski race—the Boston Marathon of Nordic skiing, if you will—was probably due for a taste of what a warming planet might look like.
Three consecutive days of record high mid-February temperatures, including a mind-blowing 57 degrees in Hayward on Sunday, ruined what had been great snow conditions. Rain on Monday put the final nail in the coffin.
As a result, the race will not enjoy the traditional finish on a snow-covered Main Street in downtown Hayward. Instead organizers are scrambling to pull off some sort of shortened event around Cable where hard-packed snow remains on the wooded portion of the 50-kilometer race course.
“We’ve had a pretty nice run here, but the truth is the race has been changed before so this isn’t completely out of the ordinary,” says Ben Popp, who took over as American Birkebeiner director in 2013 and hasn’t had to make many tough calls until this year.
Shorter Birkies in years past
This marks the 10th time the event has been shortened, meaning roughly one out of five races have been affected by weather. That includes in 2000 when a rainstorm the Friday before the race forced organizers to cancel it for the first and only time since the Birkie was established in 1973. It was a close call in 2007 when the weather reduced the Birkie to an untimed 25K “tour.”
In 1981, there was only enough snow for elite Birkie skiers to race around an 8K course at Mt. Telemark. The full race for recreational skiers was held two weeks later in March after more snow arrived.
Birkie veteran Dean Hanke remembers that epic 1981 event. Those were the days before the “skating” technique, meaning classic skiers had to apply to their skis any sticky wax that would work.
“We were going over grass and mud. You could literally see the snow melting under your skis,” recalls Hanke, 70, a retired salesman from Fort Atkinson.
Even with 32 Birkies and two Korteloppets (the half-distance race) on his resume, Hanke says he still gets butterflies come race week. He has been watching the weather updates closely and hoping for some kind of event so he can log another Birkie finish. His goal is to complete 40 or more.
“I’m as paranoid as anybody about what will happen. It’s a big deal,” he says. “But as a skier in southern Wisconsin, I’ve learned to take it all in stride.”
Planned race changes scuttled
The latest meltdown was a particularly disappointing development for race officials since 2017 was to have marked the first time the 29K Korteloppet would run on Friday before the Birkebeiner, the main event, on Saturday.
The Korte was also slated to finish in downtown Hayward just like the Birkie. It was arguably the biggest change in race history, designed to give a higher profile to the Korte while also reducing trail congestion on Saturday.
“A few people weren’t happy with the move to Friday, but the vast majority of Korte skiers liked the idea of having their race on a separate day,” says Popp.
In fact, the Korteloppet attracted a record 3,178 entrants this year out of a total of 11,200 skiers registered for one of the weekend events, including the Birkie and 15K Prince Haakon race. Nearly half of the registered Korte skiers are women or under age 23.
“We’re anticipating significant growth in the mid-distance race, especially with millennials and younger skiers,” says Birkie media director Nancy Knutson.
Plans now call for holding the Barnebirkie kids race and Junior Birkie as foot races at Fish Hatchery Park outside Hayward on Thursday.
The Birkie and Korte will then be held on some sort of shortened course north of County Highway OO. More snow is forecast for Friday but organizers say they can’t make plans based on a weather prediction. Further changes to the weekend events will be posted on the Birkie website here.
“The safety of our participants is first and foremost in our minds, followed by our goal of creating the best possible participant experience for all,” says Knutson.
Race could be in peril in years to come, too
Still, with record-setting temperatures all around—of the 17 hottest years ever recorded, 16 have now occurred since 2000. A main discussion topic among many cross-country skiers is what the future holds for a sport that is so weather dependent.
Birkie skier John Greenler of Stoughton, who works as director of education for the Wisconsin Energy Institute, says it’s a tricky issue. He cautions that it’s hard to attribute any particular weather event, like 60-degree temps in February, to climate change.
At the same time, Greenler says there is definitely something going on.
“What we do know for sure is that, due to global warming, we are seeing more such extreme weather events, and they are frequently more intense,” he says. “In the big picture, yes, we can expect to see more weather of this ilk.”
Despite the challenges, however, expect hundreds of Madison area skiers to still make the trek north even if skiing takes a back seat to partying with old friends. Dane County residents historically account for about 10 percent of total race entrants and the largest number outside the Twin Cities.
Kay Lum of Fitchburg missed skiing the Birkie last year due to a knee injury but will participate this year in whatever kind of event is held. She has 20 Birkie finishes to her credit.
“Last year was supposed to be my 21st but I fell and tore my ACL so is my comeback year,” she says. “I don’t care so much about speed anymore, I’m just am happy that I can ski and want to have fun.”
This writer will be looking to have some fun at the Birkie, too, after less than ideal training this winter. This will be my 29th Birkie (if they let us count it), which means next year I will among those who gets to wear a gold bib, given to those who have skied 30 or more Birkies.
Hopefully the snow gods will be shining on us in 2018 and I can cruise down Hayward’s Main Street once again.
Mike Ivey, a Madison writer, contributes the Footloose blog to madisonmagazine.com.