The City of Lakes Loppet Festival is a family affair for Ken and Marcia Nelson.
They have skied the event all the years it's been in existence, and their son and daughter-in-law also will compete. Their 5-year-old grandson even gets to race this year.
The Nelsons, of Duluth, said the festival forms a special community. Every year, they run into people they know along the trail.
"They're all ages, and yet they accept you because you're a skier," Marcia Nelson said. "They cheer you on."
More than 10,000 racers of all ages and sizes will celebrate the bright side of winter this weekend during the festival that boasts 21 events — the most ever — from ski marathon and winter bicycling races to a snow sculpture contest and the popular Luminary Loppet, a candlelit trek around Lake of the Isles. Snowshoeing and dog sledding are on the schedule for the first time.
John Munger, executive director of the nonprofit Loppet Foundation, which organizes the event, said the festival is about getting outside and celebrating Minnesota's climate. It's expected to draw 20,000 spectators.
"You can focus it on winter, but it's really this year-round mind-set that the outdoors always have something to offer," he said. "You just have to get yourself out the door."
Despite some of the coldest days in decades, this year's festival preparations haven't slowed. If anything, the weather has helped things along, said Kristen Spargo, director of advancement at the Loppet Foundation. Frigid air has kept ice sculptures frozen for the Luminary Loppet, and the recent snowfall provided a fresh base for racing.
Marcia Nelson is grateful for the natural snow. She said she remembers skiing a 2 ½-mile loop four times in a row one year because there wasn't enough snow for a full course.
As for the cold, she and Ken aren't worried.
"The coldness really doesn't bother you too much once you learn how to dress for it," Ken Nelson said.
The Luminary Loppet, set for Saturday night, is expected to draw 7,000 people — its largest crowd ever. Participants will ski, snowshoe or walk around the frozen lake amid more than 1,000 illuminated ice sculptures. Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak will ski the event, marking his return to skis after a serious heart attack in early January.
Like the Nelsons, Jack Cheesebro, 62, also has skied at the Loppet Festival since its first year. This year he's racing in two ski marathons and the fat tire cycling race. Though he won't participate in the Luminary Loppet, he can testify that it is "a spectacle."
"Even on some of the coldest nights, it's magical," he said.
Many don't realize what it takes to create that fire-and-ice magic, Munger said.
There will be no motorized vehicles on the lake during the Luminary Loppet, and few lights beyond the pillars.
"For that three-hour period, the lake is this quiet place with candles lighting your way," Munger said.
Marcia Nelson skis every day at a park adjoining their home in Duluth. But she and Ken give up the peaceful solitude to race occasionally because it keeps them motivated, she said.
"The reason we do it is because it makes you practice," she said. "It's so easy to say, 'Oh, not today.' But if you know you have these races, which are long races, you have to get out and practice."
Most events will start and end at a spot near Lake Calhoun.
Those who aren't skiing the route can check out the snow sculptures, food trucks and a beer garden courtesy of Surly Brewing Co. While only registered participants can go on the lake during the event, after 9 p.m., anyone is free to see the luminaries on Lake of the Isles.
Emma Nelson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.