Those unfamiliar with the American Birkebeiner and cross-country ski culture in the Midwest might not get it.
How does a point-to-point ski marathon in northern Wisconsin sell out in record time year after year? Especially after last season, which was marked by low-snow across the continental U.S., how does it draw 10,000 participants?
For the year-round employees at the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) in Hayward, Wis., it’s not rocket science. They consistently put on a good race from Cable to Hayward, which brings people back.
But a 50-kilometer ski marathon, mostly made up of masters and citizens, is only as good as Mother Nature allows, and last year was no walk in the park. Organizers scraped snow off soccer fields and transported 120 truckloads to Main Street. There, they spread the pristine white stuff 6 inches to a foot deep for the ½-kilometer finish.
The ABSF also made sure the Birkie trail was in tact, unloading 500 totes of snow – each weighing 300 pounds – on the course, and shoveling 75 totes by hand. Despite all the sweat that went into it, groomers and organizers alike emitted a relaxed yet down-to-business vibe. Entering the 40th anniversary of the American Birkebeiner, snow seems to be one of the furthest things from their minds – for now.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Wisconsin, ABSF executive director Ned Zuelsdorff said they had a few dustings recently, but that probably wasn’t driving registration sales. The Birkie (with the option of a 50 k skate or 54 k classic) and 23-k Kortelopet sold out on Monday (Oct. 15) at 3 p.m., more than a month earlier than it did last year on Nov. 21.
According to Zuelsdorff, registration has closed progressively earlier over the last several years – meeting its 10,000 cap this year in record time. That grand total includes Birkie, Korte and 13 k Prince Haakon participants. On Tuesday, there was some room left in the 500-person Haakon race, and the ABSF saved spots for elite and international skiers.
“It’s fun for us to have set this record,” Zuelsdorff said on the phone. Last year, the three races drew about 9,600 people. This year, they’re already at 9,700 or so. According to public relations director Susan Kendrick, 62 percent signed up for skating and 38 percent registered for classic.
“We now can really focus on getting everything together for the 2013 Birkie, the 40th anniversary, and it’s just really nice to see,” Zuelsdorff added. “It’s just an exciting thing that people are so enthusiastic about coming here.”
The hype surrounding its 40th anniversary, known as the “Big 4,” might have something to do with it. The Birkie started with 11 founding members in 1973. They kept the tradition going for 10 straight years, and today, anyone who completes 20 Birkies is dubbed a Birchlegger. Zuelsdorff estimated there were 1,200-1,300 Birchleggers registered for the upcoming Birkie on Feb. 23.
What’s more, he said at least 200 registrants have done more than 30 Birkies.
“The numbers indicate that we have about 15 percent first-time skiers, which says to me that we’ve got 85 percent that have been here at least once before,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that keep coming back year after year.”
However, each year, the race grows slightly and fills up even faster. Zuelsdorff said that was likely because of the growing impact of the Birkie and word of mouth.
“A week ago, I was at the Twin Cities Marathon expo, we had a booth there, and so many people mentioned that the Birkie is on their bucket list,” he said. “Evidently, roughly 1,500 of our skiers are putting a check on their bucket list this year because they plan to be here.”
When it comes to registering for America’s largest ski marathon, one of 16 international Worldloppets, a sense of immediacy has also infiltrated people’s minds. That makes snow less of a concern. Years ago, registration typically picked up around December or January, Zuelsdorff said.
“Now with the way things have been going over the past couple of years, [our registration employees have] been largely in here all summer making sure that people get assigned to the correct waves and that everything is corrected as far as data,” Zuelsdorff said. “I guess there no longer is the option of waiting to see what the winter’s like before you decide to sign up.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.