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In An Unusual Year, American Birkebeiner Carries On And Aims To Inspire

No Buses, Tents And A New Route, The Birkie Will Look Different This Year

Sergio Bonaldi, of Italy, crosses the finish line to win the American Birkebeiner in 2015
Sergio Bonaldi (4), of Italy, crosses the finish line to win the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wis., on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. Paul M. Walsh/AP Photo

For nearly 50 years, the American Birkebeiner has been a beloved tradition in the Wisconsin Northwoods when professional and recreational skiers from around the world have descended on Hayward to participate in the event.

But like so much since the COVID-19 pandemic began, this year is going to look different.

Logistically, safely planning the event that can bring upwards of 30,000 people to the small communities of northern Wisconsin was a challenge, said Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.

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“The races this year, they do definitely look different,” he said. “But they’re still happening and it allows people to still thrive off that energy, get excited about getting outside and being active and coming and doing an event.”

In a typical year, skiers would race on the same day, but this year the event will be spread over five days from Feb. 24-28, Popp said. Cornerstone features of the event will also be put on pause this year, including buses transporting skiers to and from the race and the large tents for celebrating with beer and brats after the races.

Because there are no buses, organizers had to change the racecourse, Popp said. This year’s race will be a loop starting in Cable so participants can park their cars where the race begins and ends.

Participants will also have the option to do the event virtually, Popp said.

“One, it reduces the number of people that are going to travel here, which makes it safer here,” he said. “And for those that can’t travel, it means so much to them. We want to give them this opportunity to do it virtually.”

birkie, birkebeiner
From left, Barry Knapp, Darald Bothun and Nikolai Fornear, all from Minnesota, compete in period costumes during the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race in Cable, Wis., on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. Paul M. Walsh/AP Photo

In 2020, nearly 11,000 skiers participated in the Birkebeiner, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon events. This year, about 8,300 skiers are expected to participate in the events — about 30 percent have chosen to do it virtually, so far.

Race organizers expect less than 5,000 skiers to travel to the northwestern Wisconsin area over the course of the five-day event. And as the event gets closer, more and more skiers are switching every day to the virtual option.

The foundation established virtual partnerships around the country so people could ski areas near them, Popp said. Olympic cross-country skier Kikkan Randall and Jessica Yeaton, last year’s champion, will each be doing the race virtually this year.

“The idea is, you can’t be here physically, but you can be here emotionally as part of the community,” Popp said. “We sent everybody their bibs and their hats and their ski ties and all the things they would normally get here as part of the Birkie, and then they get to ski it wherever they might be.”

For those skiers who live in snowless areas, the foundation created an app that translates what it would take to do the Birkie if you were swimming or mountain biking, for example, so participants can record their 2021 Birkie no matter where they are, he said.

“It’s exciting and it’s fun,” Popp said. “But it’s also, I hope … the first time and only time ever that you’re going to get to see the Birkebeiner not in Cable or Hayward, Wisconsin on the Birkebeiner trail.”

Cross-country skiing is booming this year, Popp said. He’s hopeful that as people spend more time outside and try new things this year, they’ll carry that forward even when the pandemic is over.

“That’s a big part of the Birkebiener, and the lifestyle and what we want to do with the event is get people excited about being active outside because you’re going to get to do it the rest of your life,” he said.