Astute observers might have noticed: the American Birkie, the biggest cross-country ski marathon in the United States, is not on the FIS Marathon Cup schedule next season.
According to Birkie Executive Director Ben Popp, the Birkie has been on the circuit for the last several years and has had top international marathon skiers in attendance as a result. But it’s actually not precedent for the race to be part of the series every single year.
“This year we fall on the same day as [Estonia’s] Tartu Marathon, and Tartu can’t do it next year because of the way the World Cup schedule works,” he said. “And so they asked us if we would take a year off so Tartu could do it, and we said sure. We understand. We’ll be back on it next year.”
In the past, the Birkie alternated the honor every year with the Finlandia Hiihto. Then, four seasons ago, it alternated to a structure of rotate every three years. Last season, the Finlandia-Hiihto turned down their spot, so the Birkie got three years in a row of FIS Marathon Cup recognition.
It only seemed fair to share the opportunity when the need arose for the 2016 season, said Popp.
“There’s now 20 Worldloppet races and nine race weekends on the calendar, so there’s always that give and take to try to give everybody that opportunity to host the Marathon Cup,” he said.
Popp says that the Birkie will be part of the circuit again in 2017, and in the meantime it’s important to race organizers to try to maintain the international flavor of their race, even if Cup points aren’t on the line.
“That’s one of the unique things about cross-country skiing and marathon running, are two of the examples that come to mind, where you can have really elite-level athletes racing shoulder-to-shoulder with just popular athletes,” he said. “Like a couple of years ago when Northug did the Marcialonga… You can’t go out and shoot hoops with Michael Jordan, for instance.”
Part of the Worldloppet mission is to let skiers experience other cultures, and that’s part of the Birkie’s mission too.
“We also want people from other countries to come here, and experience skiing in the Midwest and see the culture here,” he said.
In terms of top racers, organizers were hoping to snag some World Cup athletes before they head to the Tour of Canada, the last period of racing which will span the entire nation. That turned out to be untenable.
“Instead of having the World Cup athletes, now because there’s a pretty big break in the schedule when the World Cup is off in North America, is allowing some of the Continental Cup athletes to come over,” Popp said. “So we’re working with some of the different federations to make that possible, maybe from Scandinavia and some of the other European countries.”
Popp just returned from the Worldloppet annual meeting, this year held in Champagnole, France, where this was actually a major discussion point. Last season, the Birkie sponsored U.S. skier Holly Brooks as an athlete ambassador. Brooks competed all season on the FIS Marathon Cup, where she finished third overall.
Along the way, Brooks blogged about each of the Worldloppet races she attended.
“When I went to the Marcialonga a few years ago, I had the help of their organizing committee because we knew them through the Birkie,” Popp said. “But I was thinking the whole time, if I’m just calling up from Minneapolis and want to go ski the Marcialonga, I don’t know anything. How can we break down some barriers?”
Brooks’ blog posts about not only her racing, but the experience of getting to, staying at, and experiencing venues in many different countries proved popular. Both Brooks and Popp hope that the accounts will be a guide for Americans who want to race in marathons overseas.
And so Popp urged other WorldLoppet races to do something similar. After all, there’s no foreign-language guide for how to come to his own race, the Birkie.
“We didn’t ask Holly to write about the Birkie, we wanted her to write about the Transjurassienne, or one of the other different races so people could see that it was really accessible,” he said. “So we want Benoit [Chauvet] to write about coming to the Birkie and how easy it was so the French group can really see that.”
And in another step towards accessibility, on their website the Birkie has identified ambassadors – Popp is one, as are board members – who Americans can email with specific questions about how to arrange trips to each different WorldLoppet race.
“When the WorldLoppet was founded, the whole idea was to travel the world through skiing,” Popp said. “We want to help Americans do that.”
A few other major changes at from the Worldloppet meetings:
- The name of the race series was changed from the FIS Marathon Cup to the FIS Worldloppet Cup.“Certainly, a higher level of athletes brings more media attention,” Popp said of FIS’s involvement in the series. “So it is important to have them in the title. But I wanted to make sure that since Worldloppet is the one that funds it and administrates it, that they are part of the title as well. FIS doesn’t organize it, FIS doesn’t fund it, FIS doesn’t do anything with it other than give us the go-ahead to do it. So to call it the FIS Worldloppet Cup was really important to me.”
- FIS points will also be awarded at all WorldLoppet races. Points have long been calculated for some of the most famous marathons in major ski countries, such as the Birkie, the Birkebeiner in Norway, and others. But all 20 ski marathons will now offer points. There had been technical limitations with timing holding back some organizing committees especially in the southern hemisphere, according to the Worldloppet website, but those appear to have been solved.