John O’Connell will be starting dozens of races at the City of Lakes Loppet cross-country ski festival.
He just won’t finish any.
O’Connell, a longtime volunteer for the annual urban ski festival, is the event’s official starter. That means he’s the guy who pulls the trigger on the starting pistols to kick off all the waves and heats of the ski races — from the marathons to the sprints.
For the Loppet, which runs from Jan. 27-Feb. 4 in Minneapolis, he also aims to start all the additional competitions that have been added over the years: fat tire bike, snowshoe, dogsled, skijoring and speed skating races.
“I might start close to 100 events over the weekend,” said O’Connell, a 67-year-old retired management consultant from St. Paul. “I’m outside the whole day.”
O’Connell used to be an avid cross-country ski racer himself, a veteran of 25 American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathons, plus several finishes at the City of Lakes Loppet.
He still skis, but in recent years, he’s gotten out of competition and into volunteering for cross-country skiing events with a goal of making sure competitors get a well-run race.
“My customer is the racer,” O’Connell said. “What you owe the racer is an accurate, well-timed event.”
O’Connell said the job takes precision and attention to detail.
“Things have to go off at a certain time,” he said.
O’Connell works in partnership with Loppet chief of start Dave Scott. He said so far he’s never presided over a false start, although the starter’s pistol has failed to fire, and he’s had to shout “Go!” at the racers to begin the race.
“I find it to be exhilarating,” he said. “I like being in charge at that moment when all hell breaks loose.”
Mike Erickson, the Loppet’s events director, said O’Connell projects a sense of respectful assurance that keeps order at the start line whether the competitors are elite athletes, first-time citizen racers, kids or dogs.
“He interacts well with racers and he’s able to keep them in line,” Erickson said. “He’s able to handle a lot of personalities.”
O’Connell also has volunteered at other events, like Junior National cross-country ski race events hosted by the Loppet Foundation.
He manages the finish line at the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wis., and he also works as a volunteer groomer on the cross-country ski trails at Battle Creek Regional Park in Ramsey County.
O’Connell said a recent cancer diagnosis might slow him down this winter, depending on how he responds to radiation treatment. But his cancer is treatable, and he’s confident that the disease won’t mean the end of his starts.
“I intend to do this as long as I can physically,” he said.