Once a humble contest of 30-some skiers that began in 1973, the American Birkebeiner ski race weekend is again pulling thousands into its winter orbit. This year’s Birkie on Feb. 20, which races from the northern Wisconsin towns of Cable to Hayward, might be described as a race of more.
• More challenges. The marathon route has slightly changed owing to a new housing development near the trails, adding a kilometer for skiers at the 45-kilometer mark and also a “pretty significant climb,” said Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. “A lot of people that have been up here, that has been the talk.”
• More international skiers. This year’s Birkie has been thrust into the Worldloppet Cup, a subset of races in the Worldloppet League (a sports federation made of up of 20 ski marathons, including the Birkie.) Lack of snow canceled a cup race in Estonia, and the Birkie filled the void. Popp said about 200 skiers from Europe — many elite — will instead ski the northland Wisconsin trails.
• More snow: Popp said the last two weeks and their relatively light snowfalls have improved trail conditions. “The trail is in mint condition right now,” he said Monday. “But it doesn’t have a lot of insurance under it.” Nevertheless, the trail has seen a steady stream of skiers and fat bikers in recent weeks, he added. Currently, next week’s forecast in the region calls for more of this week’s weather: frigid cold and the possibility of more snow.
• More star power. Four-time Olympian Kikkan Randall, who with her husband, Jeff, are expecting their first child in April, is the torchbearer for the opening ceremonies and the official race starter. Randall has her sights set on the 2016-17 World Cup season and the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Also, the Birkie will be the site of the North American premiere of a nordic adventure film, “The Last King,” which tells the story of Birkebeiner warriors who use their lives (and skis) to protect an infant prince. In doing so, they inspired the Birkie marathon folklore. The film stars “Game of Thrones” actor Kristofer Hivju, and will screen Feb. 20-21 in Hayward.
• More height. Newly constructed for last year’s race, the “International Bridge” over Hwy. 63 and into the finishing run on Main Street in Hayward is back and higher to allow all traffic to flow.
“The more that we can bring these different things to the table, the better, I think, and get more people excited about it,” said Popp. “You work hard because you want everyone to have such a good experience. You’re hoping that inspires them to want to change their lifestyle to be a part of it year-round. So you just want everything to be just right.”