Thirty-five years ago, Tony Wise rounded up delegates from eight nations – including himself – and threw some mud at Telemark Lodge in northern Wisconsin.
Five years earlier in 1973, Wise founded the American Birkebeiner, a 48-kilometer cross-country ski race from Cable to Hayward, Wis. He dreamed up the creation to commemorate the Norwegian Birkebeiners, which skied little Prince Haakon to safety in 1206, and the race evolved into the largest ski marathon in North America.
Wise had no way of knowing what it would become, but he had big plans. It wasn’t long before he was thinking internationally and sharing his vision of a Worldloppet with different nations hosting marathons across the globe.
“His concept was to provide average citizen skiers the opportunity to achieve something on a truly global scale,” explained Wise’s former PR director, Tom Kelly, now the vice president of communications at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “Some 35 years later, it’s gratifying to see his dream still growing.”
In March of 1978, nine nations met in Uppsala, Sweden, to officially form the Worldloppet federation. The series drew slightly more than 50,000 participants that year with nine races. The Worldloppet has held an Annual General Meeting (AGM) every year since in each of its member nations, which grew to 16 last year with the addition of Russia and its Demino Ski Marathon.
In 2012/2013, the grand total for race participation in all 16 races exceeded 135,000 people. Last weekend, the AGM returned to Cable for the first time in 15 years, and approximately 45 delegates made one of the federation’s most historic decisions to date.
Four nations were tentatively named associate members: Argentina, China, Iceland, and New Zealand. The idea was to open the gate to more countries eager to host Worldloppet marathons and loosen some requirements, namely the participant minimum.
“It wasn’t too controversial,” said Worldloppet Executive Committee member Dennis Kruse, who represented the overseas nations (U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia) at the AGM meeting from June 13-16.
The federation had been talking about adopting these races since last year’s meeting, when it welcomed Russia as a full member. According to the Worldloppet constitution, a marathon can become part of the circuit if it meets certain criteria (i.e. it’s the only Worldloppet race in that country, has existed for at least five years, has computer timing and has a minimum of 1,000 participants). The size standard was where nations like Argentina struggled.
“In the last few years we’ve kind of adopted a new theme or model,” Kruse said. “We think that Worldloppets should really be the voice of nordic skiing across the world.”
That meant letting Argentina host its race, the Marcha Blanca and Ushaia Loppet, as long as it passes inspection in the coming year. Next June, the AGM will meet again and vote to confirm the associate nations’ status – and if all goes well, those races will be on the 2013/2014 Worldloppet calendar.
Associate members will pay federation dues and attend meetings, but won’t have voting rights. Kruse said that isn’t a huge deal because nations can be promoted to full members if they expand to meet all criteria.
“China, we expect in a few years, will come back to us and say we would like to be a full member,” Kruse said.
Besides the anticipated economic boost to developing ski nations (the American Birkie brings in around $5 million to the area each year), the addition of four nations to the series makes a longer to-do list for Worldloppet Passport holders. Kruse said that’s a good thing.
One man – a Worldloppet Master – has filled his Passport book with the required 10 races 25 times, he said. One woman has achieved 20 Worldloppet Masters, which means she’s completed at least 200 marathons in various nations.
“They just keep doing this repeatedly on a gerbil track, just circling the globe doing world marathons,” he said. “This gives them another challenge.”
The federation hadn’t decided whether Global Skiers needed to complete the four associate races as well as the required 16. Either way, Kruse felt their addition would give avid Worldloppet racers a better shot at getting into capped races.
Some of the most popular marathons, like Sweden’s Vasaloppet, the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet and Italy’s Marcialonga, have sold out in minutes. The Vasa is currently the largest race in terms of participants, limiting registration to 15,800 skiers for its 90 k classic race. The American Birkie recently set its cap at just under 10,000 for its 50 k skate, 54 k classic and 23 k Kortelopet events. For the first time in Birkie history, registration for its 2014 events can only be submitted online.
How quickly registration fills up is actually a problem for Worldloppet race organizers, and its something they’ve been trying to remedy as marathon popularity has grown, Kruse said. For certain races, like the Vasa, Marcialonga and Norwegian Birkie, people have been known to enter their information online ahead of time and press send as soon as registration opens. That can pose a problem for people living several time zones away.
“We’ve said we need to be user-friendly for our skiers coming from outside the country,” said Kruse, a former Birkie president who now serves as competition director. “There’s definitely an effort by every country, and we do the same.”
With races like the Birkie filling up faster every year, one might wonder how long marathons will be a hot item and whether their prime audience of masters is aging with them.
Kruse said the Birkie went through some stagnant years, but has recently seen a resurgence in participation and younger average age from what it used to be in the mid 40s and 50s.
“Our [average participant age] was creeping upward, that’s why I felt like we needed to invest in financial support for youth programs,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, it doesn’t take much to predict the future, and nobody skis the Birkie when we’re all dead.’ ”
More people in the 20- to 30-year-old bracket are doing the Birkie now, he said, but generally, it’s an older population that has the time and financial ability to travel the world and complete Worldloppets.
“Typically people are doing this when their kids are gone, when their career is not on the fast track for promotion any more, or they’re retired,” he said.
But a trip to Argentina might be appealing to anyone, and so might the chance to ski with some of the world’s best.
“There’s not many sporting events where a guy in his 60s gets to line up with Peter Northug, with top international skiers who are doing the same course at the same time,” Kruse said. “Obviously some skiers want to have really good results and some skiers want to have a tourist experience and come visit.”