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Video: Birkie is back! The iconic race is spacing out for socially distant skiing.

Feb 25, 2021 06:50AM ● By Editor

Watch the WDIO-TV Report here

Photo: WDIO-TV

By Meteorologist Brittney Merlot of WDIO-TV - February 24, 2021 

The legendary American Birkebeiner cross country ski race began Wednesday, while looking a lot different because of the pandemic.

Ben Popp the Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation said, "In March last year when this hit, we said there is going to be a Birkie but we don't know what it's going to look like.  It could be completely virtual or it could be normal. Or something in between. The planning has really been full speed ahead since then and continuing to evolve and change, sometimes daily as you can imagine. But it was really important that there was going to be some sort of Birkie experience in 2021."

This year the race was expanded to 5 days long, where anywhere from 500 to 1500 skiers per day, in order to keep everyone socially distant and safe. There was also the option to ski virtually, with your time recorded and put into the race. Some skiers wondered how accurate that would be, considering the different snow and weather conditions. But for those who chose to ski on the Birkie trail this year said, "It's weird, I’m used to tons of people and finishing on the street in downtown Hayward and it's just completely different. It's so much more relaxed. It's like no one in the woods and just skiing through the woods peacefully. Totally different but still great." explained David Olheiser from the Minneapolis area. 

He brought along his friend Jon Toftoy, for his first time skiing the Birkie.

"I would say you want to ski before, obviously, but they have other options like the half, the Korte and I feel like anyone could do it! I want to bring my kids up for the kids race Friday night!" said Toftoy.

Skiers this year had to be self-reliant on themselves, carrying their own nutrition and water as aid stations were limited, in order to really reduce touch points during the pandemic.

"The thing about Birkie is everyone is extremely positive all the time, 100% of the time. It's a really amazing organization. Even during a pandemic they can put on something like this and do it right, it's good, really good, it's casual." Said Brian Knapp from Green Bay who was skiing his 6th Birkie.

Most years participants come from all over the world, but this year it was limited to just within the United States. With enrollment down for 2021, over 90% of the participants were from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota this year.

"There was less people out there on the trails so you didn't have to worry about people coming in on your left or your right side or vice versa or worry about picking the best track on the hill. You also don't have people pushing you and motivating you either… the last 45 minutes I was completely alone." explained Knapp. 

This race is about accomplishing a huge athletic feat and one couple from Maryland actually finished the race together!

"We couldn't of done the math to try to figure out how to finish together but it happened, we, just stumbled into it! I could hear him coming up from behind me, he breathes so loud I knew it had to be him" they laughed.

One Northland lady even skied with a broken arm! Learning how to adapt during training, she finished the race strong and proud. 

 “I put the weight back on my heels, which allowed me to not need my arms as much.” explained Kimberly Mathews from Sparta, Wisconsin. "I was at a bicycle seminar and they said something like shut up legs, so I used that a few times too, shut up legs!"

A 63 year old man rode his bike 100 miles just to ski the Birkie. He even built a custom ski rack on his bike, so that he could carry his skis and poles along with him. Camping the night before, in a tent, he raced today and then rode all the way back home afterwards, for a 10 hour ride.

"We're all about nature right and silent sports. I just think the more we can celebrate the environment and celebrate life and nature and rely less on fossil fuels, is good. We like the snow and if global warming persists, we might not have all this snow." explained Stephen Clark of Cushing Wisconsin. "Or maybe the real reason is so I have an excuse when I don't do well in the Birkebeiner, I can say well I biked here, right?” He laughed and said, “It feels better getting on the bike and using different muscles after such an intense race, rather than getting stiff muscles in the car ride.”

As for the trail conditions, some skiers were thrown off with the snow overnight. They had already waxed their skis for colder temperatures, but then highs hit an unseasonable 40°, with the sun shining bright. For the non-competitive racers, they were happy for the comfortable temperatures!
Another change due to the pandemic, was the race route. Instead of ending traditionally in downtown Hayward, they were routed back to Cable, to keep them out of the crowds. No spectators are allowed this year but fans and event directors all hope to be back to normal by next year, cowbells and all! But a common theme out there, Birkie Fever is still alive!

To see the original report and read related stories, follow this link to the WDIO-TV website.

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