Big changes ahead for Birkebeiner in Northern Wisconsin

Big changes ahead for Birkebeiner in Northern Wisconsin

With about 7,500 participants, the American Birkebeiner held annually on the last Saturday in February is the biggest cross country ski race in North America. You could call it the Boston Marathon of XC skiing.

But the Kortelopet, the half-distance event, is no poor stepchild. With nearly 3,500 entrants of its own, the “Korte” qualifies as the second-largest ski race in the country.

The Kortelopet is also growing, with registrations up 40 percent since 2007. It has proven to be increasingly popular with teenagers and first-timers who want to experience a big cross country ski race—not to mention old-timers who no longer want to tackle the grueling 50-kilometer Birkebeiner.

For those reasons and more, race organizers have switched the 28-kilometer Kortelopet to Friday, a day before the Birkie.

Another move is starting the Korte at County Highway OO and finishing the race in downtown Hayward, just like the feature event. And the 15-kilometer Prince Haakon race is also moving to Friday, running from near Mosquito Brook to Main Street in Hayward.

These are the biggest changes in the nearly 30 years I’ve skied the Birkie—but not something that happened without a lot of thought, says Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.

The Kortelopet is attracting young people and first-timers, our two main target groups,” he says. “We need to make sure we provide them the best experience possible.”

One issue long facing race organizers has been the financial struggles of Telemark Lodge the once thriving Northwoods 200-room resort near Cable shuttered since 2013. It once hosted Birkie skiers from around the world, but now sits dark and forgotten like the Stanley Hotel made famous in “The Shining.”

With the lodge closed and access to the 975-acre private property limited, Birkie officials needed an alternative. The race has now secured its own permanent starting area and organizers are looking at more course improvements as part of a $1.7 million fundraising effort [http://www.birkie.com/future/phase-two/].

“Something had to happen for the long-term stability of all our events,” says Popp, who took over as race director in 2013, succeeding former Madison resident Ned Zuelsdorff.

Moving the Kortelopet to a County Highway OO start takes out the biggest hills, but will require skiers to make the windy 3- kilometer trudge across frozen Lake Hayward to the finish line. It also cuts out the narrow classic trail section of the course, popular with those using the traditional ski technique versus the more aerobically taxing skate technique.

But Korte skiers will get the thrill of crossing the new “International Bridge” over U.S. Highway 63 and making the final push up a snow covered Main Street as fans cheer them to the line.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the switch to Friday. Cross country skiers can be a stodgy bunch resistant to change. Many have used the same lodging and schedule for years.

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” says John Tye, 71, of Westport. “This will only separate the older generation from our kids—and we are the ones who got them into it.”
Another Madison area Kortelopet participant, Craig Neuroth, 33, is also wary—although he likes the new plan giving Korte skiers younger than age 20 their own starting waves.

“The logistics of housing up there means we will still have to pay for lodging on Saturday even though I’m not racing that day, and we will also have to leave very early to get up there in time for bib pickup, waxing, grocery buying etc. on Thursday before the race,” says Neuroth.

Still, Popp says Korte skiers were polled twice on different options and most seem content with the new schedule.

“I’d say 75 percent like what we are doing, 15 percent don’t care and 10 percent say it’s the worst thing in the world,” he says.

The changes do offer a chance for skiers to try both events, although Popp says there are no plans yet to offer a “best of both” category or a reduced entry fee. Registration for the 2017 events opened this week with fees at $125 and higher, depending on how long you wait.

Personally speaking, the change to a Friday Korte seems like a great idea. Sure, it might move some old-timers out of their comfort zone or force people to adjust their travel schedules.

But I think it will raise the profile of the Kortelopet, which has long played second fiddle to the feature event. It will also give business owners in the Cable and Hayward areas two days of post-race celebration versus just one.

I’m particularly intrigued with the idea of skiing the Prince Haakon with the family on Friday and then coming back on Saturday for the skate race if my aging body can survive that many kilometers over a two-day period. Now, that would make for a memorable weekend.

“Footloose” is a Madison Magazine blog written by Mike Ivey.