A Conversation with Ben Popp of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation

Jason AlbertJuly 15, 2020
Start of the men’s elite 50 k skate wave at the 46th Annual American Birkebeiner. (Photo: ©2020 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

Last week, FasterSkier connected with Ben Popp, Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) based in Hayward, Wisconsin. It’s mid-July and needless to say, some of our readers are already thinking about the 2021 Birkie. Amongst the topics we discussed were the possible modifications for that marquee race and how the organization is preparing for several possible scenarios. We also touch upon the ABSF’s agreement to purchase and develop Telemark Lodge.   


FasterSkier: Can you describe how dependent the rural communities are in your region on cross-country ski events?  

Ben Popp, Executive Director of the ABSF. (Photo: ABSF)

Ben Popp: Talking in general, there was an economic study done back in 2014, and cross country skiing and mountain biking, in our two counties was estimated between 15 and 20 million dollars a year as the economic impact. That includes the Birkie and that week’s events. But during the winter there is a ski event here almost every weekend, literally every weekend. And then in the summer many mountain bike events as well. 

Events are so critical to our area because it brings in those day travelers. And it has now created a second home buyer experience here in Hayward, especially people from the Twin Cities, Chicago, Milwaukee — for people that like to ski and bike this is like waterfront property.

It has really driven a second home buyer market in the area that continues to evolve. So when you are not bringing people here to mountain bike and ski, it is not only just that daily traffic, that weekend traffic, then also there is the residual effect you get from second home buyers saying, ‘hey that was a really cool weekend trip we should buy a lot on the Birkie trail,’ or something like that. I think we are going to see a rippling effect here. 


FasterSkier: Can you explain how you are trying to organize some small scale events and learn how to bring people together while still meeting standard protocols for Covid-19 avoidance?  

BP: Now that all the events of course to this point have been cancelled, we are going to try to hold our first in-person event coming up on August 1st. It is a little 5 k run that we do every year as part of another festival in town, the Lumberjack World Championships. We have worked really closely with the state and a public health officer here on how we can create a safe experience.

This is not something huge, this is 200 to 300 hundred runners and it is not drawing people from all over like a big Birkie event would. So it is very much a more local event. It is not maybe apples to apples, but still we learn how to create an event that people are going to come to and be safe, and volunteers, if you have any, are safe. 

We created an event health-readiness document that race director Kristy Maki put together in collaboration with the public health officer here for the county. We are going to spread out the start, we’ll have a touch-less check in, and we are not going to have aid stations. There is no award ceremony. 

The timers will have the wire set up, there will be a board there so you can see your time, and the time will upload and you will see live results online. 

Athletes basically show up and run. 

It is a lot of the things you technically would always do for a running event, but for all intensive purposes, really it is not nearly what a typical experience would be when you are running a 5 k or any event where you are hanging out and talking to people shoulder to shoulder, or going to bib pick up shooting the breeze. 

Even though it is sort of a quote-unquote live event, it really will be much more of a skeleton of a live event. You have to start somewhere — baby steps as I like to say. We will see how it goes. 


FasterSkier: That brings up the American Birkie of course, your marquee event. In a fast moving environment where the spread of the virus changes daily, how are you envisioning that event and preparing for several possible looks?

BP: I think one of the really hard parts and I think everybody is realizing this, is that it is really really hard to plan into the future right now. Things are so dynamic and changing so quickly. I mean no joke, I bet we have 25 different scenarios that we have come up with for February, and then we kind of look at each and are like ‘well, ah who knows?’  

The thing that is going to drive our hand are time lags. When we are ordering 11,000 or 12,000 bibs, when you are ordering 12,000 hats, when you are ordering all these things in volume, they do not get produced over night. And so for us, we are going to have to make some pretty serious decisions realistically just after Labor Day. We can push some stuff off to say November 1st, but by then we are going to have to start ruling out things simply because we won’t have time to react past that date. 

So there will certainly be a lot of educated guessing going on, but it will be in some degree maybe helpful, because we can take certain options off the table at that point. And like a lot of events are trying to do, we are going to have this big long list of things that we can try knowing but eventually we are going to have to start ruling some out. 

It will be interesting to say the least.


FasterSkier: A few follow ups on that. First, you are a non-profit, and you rely on Birkie registrations to sustain your foundation. Have you discussed how you might motivate skiers to register despite the unknowns so that the foundation remains viable? And without perhaps running through all the options, which might include maybe only an elite wave with the top-30 ranked SuperTour skiers to a traditional look Birkie — I could imagine a spectrum of what the race might look like. What is your vision now, knowing that it will most likely change? 

BP: We have been talking a lot about all of this, and even publicly saying, ‘listen your registration is what allows us to function year round and ultimately whether it is the funds that help groom the Birkie trail or help keeps the lights on in the nordic center, or make sure that you have staff to answer your call, that all comes from the events and the sponsors and registering. And  a lot of those expenses happen whether we do an event or not. 

I think it is really important and an important part of what we are telling people is to say ‘listen, when you register for the event this year, there will be a Birkie of some kind.’ In other words, you will get your hat or your schwag, you will get a bib, and you will get credit for the race. We have even gone as far to say you are going to get credit for Birkie 2021.

Now, the question is what does the Birkie 2021 look like? It might be that to your point, there is a normal Birkie on one end of the spectrum and on the other end of the spectrum is a sort of virtual Birkie in that you might have to ski it in Bend, Oregon or Milwaukee or Chicago or even Oslo Norway. We are in the process of developing some tools and an app type based thing so that you are not skiing the same 50 k, but the 50 k that you ski and record in West Yellowstone is going to be your Birkie – that could be the on the far end of the spectrum. 

These are some of those bookends of the spectrum. But we really have to look at everything in between from aid stations, and all the possible hot spots in terms of person-to person contact. Those are going to have to be looked at first? Things like public transportation and aid stations. We obviously cannot have 11,000 people all touch the same things. 

So, like I said, those are the variables in between, like doing a loop, or racing over multiple days, doing it with less support; those are all viable options that will be based on what the climate looks like as we get closer to the first of the year. 

The other part that is interesting, that goes to the other part of that question, is we have anywhere from 11,000 to 13,000 skiers every year during those four days when we have the Birkie weekend. I would say half or three quarters are die-hards, they come back every year they do it, they love it, it is part of their lifestyle. So there are far more people that want to be part of something they do year after year, and they know it may not be a traditional race, but that has happened before where they had open track versions of the race or they shortened it down to 20 k. The die-hards understand that change. On the flip side, the other 30 percent, or whatever, and it is maybe their first Birkie, they might do it on and off, they are far less likely to say they are in no matter what.

That also leads to a bunch of the financial uncertainty of moving into the future, or thinking about the appetite for people wanting to be part of an event. Do they feel safe? 

Do people think it is not an event unless it is totally normal? You know, they finish in downtown eating brats, drinking beer, hanging out on main street. That experience could be different this year and that is one thing we want to convey to people: While Birkie 2021 will happen, how it is going to happen is really an unknown. 

We are fortunate that unlike the Boston Marathon, New York City Marathon, the Twin Cities Marathon, events that have cancelled, a big part of that is because you cannot close down New York for two weeks to try and run an event and shut down traffic for two weeks. That is one of the beauties of the ski trail here and a lot of the infrastructure we have been able to put in place over the past five years, with bridges over roads and trail head buildings. From a safety standpoint we have some flexibility in how we run the event and when we run the event and the timeline in which we run it. 

Some of these infrastructure pieces that we have been fortunate enough to put in place through the generosity of our entire community through fundraising, now it is going to give us a little leniency on saying we can only run the Birkie from 7:30 in the morning until 4 PM on this one day and that is it. We are really lucky in that regard. That might really save us this year in being able to have a few other options. 


FasterSkier: I was going to ask a bit about the major marathons, Boston and New York etc., and what you have learned. They have all been cancelled. Can you learn from their organizational structure in terms of what might make your organizational more flexible and keep it safe? 

BP: We learned a lot of medical information. Our medical director is amazing, but we are isolated here — we are this weird thing up here in Northern Wisconsin. But we were able to connect with those events and ask about their concerns from a medical standpoint. We could ask what were the things you were concerned about? We connected with the IIRM, the International Institute for Running Medicine

The guy that started the IIRM is also the medical director for the Boston Marathon and he has been a huge wealth of knowledge for a lot of events. He could explain this is what we learned in Boston, this is what we are trying to do. He created a coalition through that institute to discuss best practices, and ask what can we do to help volunteers be safe and what can we do to look at modifications?

There is a silver lining: it might really help all of the events big or small around the world to create some really good protocols for what are best practices and what are some resources that can be created whether you are a big event or scaling down into a 200 person 5 k. We will see, that is the goal or the hope. 

The other part that I think could be helpful, might be the World Loppet. We just had our meeting, virtually like everybody else, and there was a lot of talk about OK, we are all going to be very different, they have cancelled the races, the summer races in Argentina, and New Zealand, and  Australia. But, maybe we can learn what is going to happen at the Birken in Norway or Vasaloppet in Sweden, to determine if there is anything we can do as a family of races to start creating best practices for ski events. Because if we can help out in any way, and the sooner we can get ski events back online, the better it is for the whole ski community. 

Whether that goes somewhere or not I am not 100 percent sure. But again, trying to create some togetherness might really help us out. 


FasterSkier: Let’s pivot away from the big race. Your foundation has been involved with the purchase and revitalization of Telemark Lodge. Can you fill us in on some of those details and what may be the long term vision for the property? 

BP: The lodge has been closed since 2013, and it obviously has been a really integral part of our history. Tony Wise, the person who helped get Telemark going, also started the Birkie in 1973. He started the World Loppet in 1978. So there is a historical component there. 

Fast forward to now and the American Birkebeiner start line is adjacent to the Telemark property. We actually bought that property from the current owners of Telemark. And the Telemark property houses all of the original World Cup trails, I don’t think a lot of people realize that the very first World Cup ever was in 1978, at Telemark. 

And so, the trails, the history and now all of our snow making trails are on a lot of that property. It really became that this property is really important to our future. And over the last seven years, since it has been closed, a bunch of entities have come and gone saying we are going to buy and we are going to put in a huge hotel and hey Birkie we want to partner with you.

Everyone of them has come and gone. They promised huge things and nothing has happened. Eventually our organization decided we are going to take the lead on this and get it done because we know we can. 

We signed an option back in 2019, a two year lease with an option to buy with the intent of buying it and redoing all of the trails and building out a new competition stadium, redoing a bunch of the snow-making loops. That was our goal. We also knew that other investors and developers would want to come in and put in a little burger joint, or a little brew pub, or a boutique hotel or a campground. That is not us, we want to stay in our lane, we want to do skiing and mountain biking and running events, 

We dove into it and said we need to see if this is feasible and then, we had the fortune from our fundraising past and some donors come forward. A donor said we will guarantee the purchase price of this opportunity but you have to figure out what to do with the building. We know the building needs to come down. 

That gave us the confidence to say, ‘alright, we are going to move forward with this.’ So now we are in the process of moving forward on closing on the property hopefully this fall. It is really a difficult title and convoluted because it has gone through bankruptcy so many times. But, we are hoping to close on the property this fall. 


FasterSkier: You are talking about the entire 700 plus acre property, correct?

BP: Yup, it is about 725 acres it will end up being the entire property. Working with the state of Wisconsin, we just submitted what is called an idle site grant that the state has from their economic development corporation. They have grants to help mitigate what they call idle sites — something that has been idle for five years or more. The money is meant to prepare the site for development. Basically this old lodge is completely decrepit and falling apart, it is full of mold. We can utilize that money to remove a majority of the lodge so it is attractive to developers.

We have already had seven different developers come forward and say, ‘consider this idea, consider this idea.’ We do not want to put the cart before the horse here. We’ll finish the purchase, remove the lodge and then we’ll be excited to discuss the different opportunities. 

We are excited. We have talked with US Ski & Snowboard a little bit about the concept of trying to bid for a 2024 World Cup. It would be our 50th anniversary and it would be bringing the World Cup back to where the first World Cup was. And again, that is obviously well, well, well down the road. But, there really could be this revitalization of that property from our community standpoint and from a skiing standpoint. 

We have been working closely with Alan Serrano, he will be here tomorrow, on building out a new competition stadium, the snow making loops, the sprint course, a 2.5 k to 3.3 k loop. Building them so we can host not just the Birkie, and obviously we have been hosting JNQs here and those sorts of things, but the highest level of competition as well. 

And I think it is really important not only for our organization and our future, but I think it could be really an important part of the ski community within the entire US.

Right now in the Midwest we only have a couple of venues that can host big competitions. Whether it is at Michigan Tech, or the Loppet in Minneapolis, we just need more venues here that are really good and can host quality competitions. But also it can be a place on the weekends people can go with the family and they can tour around and have fun. 

That is the goal and what’s in the pipeline. Stay tuned.


FasterSkier: Your organization is set to host, as part of a larger trail running festival, the USA Track and Field 2020 Half Marathon Trail Championship on September 25 and 26. What is the current status of that event? 

BP: Right now it is still a go. That is partly why we are doing this 5 k as well —  to test some of these protocols that the health officials have put in place. For us and our race director to determine if this works or not on a small scale. The trail running series of races is still not huge, it is about 1200-1500 runners. But it is bigger than 200 people on a 5 k course. We are already starting to look at modifications for that. We have been working closely with USATF and asking what do you want and what are your protocols? Things like separating it out so it is smaller waves of runners, 30-50 runners that are starting versus 350 in a half-marathon or something like that. 

We are fortunate that there are bunch of events on that weekend, the 5k, the half marathon, the ultra, the relay, those are already spread out into waves. We have the fortune of being able, because it is all on trails, we don’t t have to worry about roads or shutting them down. 

And  it is on the Birkie trail, so it is 40 feet wide. We feel like once people are on course they are really safe because there is plenty of room for passing. 

We still have to determine what an aid station looks like. Does it become that there are no aid stations and it is a modification to be self-sufficient as a runner? What does it look like for bib-pickup, or in common spaces? Do we mail everybody their race packet ahead of time and have no bib pick up?

We will have no after party. Literally you are coming to run.

We will not provide a big warm common space – your car is your common warm space. We have the fortune to park 1500 cars here – your car is your safety zone because that is private and it is not a common space. Mask wearing will be required in all common areas.

We are hopeful and confident in a lot of the modifications that we are looking to install, but there is still this huge unknown as we are seeing these hot spots and hiccups in different places. 

If hot spots are boiling up everywhere, the likelihood of wanting to open up a bunch of travel and bring in 1500 people gets pretty low. Then we have to decide if it turns into just an elite race so you can have the national championships. That is a really small field, maybe 25 men and 25 women or something like that.

The other thing that the public health officer looks at is how much time is spent here by the runners. For our trail run, there is a lot of day tripping versus the Birkie where people are often coming from a long way away and staying here. 

They look at things like people that drive up for the day and leave are likely not going to a hotel, maybe not buying meals. So their touch points might be a whole lot less in the community. At the end of the day, we only have 15,000 residents here in the county. The whole county is 15,000 and we have not a single ICU bed in our hospital. 

So the health of officials are conscious of that. We are really low right now for COVID, a low rate, which is great. We cannot afford high rates because we have no way to take care of them. 

They, the health officials, are going to direct us, and if they give us the most conservative guidelines we will go with that. We can make that work great. We understand we may have to go to more of that quote unquote virtual option where people are having to run it from a distance. Or again, we can possibly do the elite race, and for the larger trail runs we can mark the trail run course and have it marked for a 10 day period and say come run the course over this 10 day period. Like I said before, we are developing a new app that will be utilized for timing. 

I think there are going to be some fun things out of that weekend. It is really advantageous that we can set a course out for 10 days and not have to worry about shutting down cars or traffic because it is out on a ski trail and we are pretty darn lucky in that regard.


Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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