COVID-Adapted American Birkebeiner Skis On

The course is closed to spectators to avoid spreading Coronavirus, and skiers can participate virtually.

CABLE , Wis.- The 47th American Birkebeiner Ski Race, the largest cross-country ski race in North America and third largest in the world, began in a completely new way Wednesday.

Skiers for each race started in waves over five days in Cable, Wisconsin. Participants who come from across the globe can still take part virtually if they couldn’t make it to Cable.

The course is closed to spectators to avoid spreading Coronavirus. But according to organizers, the energy of the athletes is still alive.

“I think people feel really safe out there,” said Event Director Kristy Maki. “There’s a lot of people in each start wave so they feel really comfortable and physically distanced.”

“Having a great time, they know times don’t count this year so they can go out and just enjoy the race and enjoy the scenery and either be here in person or do it virtually and have a different experience this year,” she said.

The course was changed to a loop, starting and ending at the trailhead in Cable. “It was super. It was one of the better courses that I’ve skied on for Birkie,” skier Steve Wikner said.

The new start and finish sounded oddly quiet compared to the normally raucous crowd of 30,000 spectators.

“Lot smaller than normal I’m used to people shouting, a lot of bells, and it just all started out kind of quiet.” said 3rd timer Lily Engebretson, one of several choosing to come to cable to race.

38% of participants are competing virtually this year, allowing the skiers.

But Engebretson couldn’t miss gliding through the scenery of Northeast Wisconsin. “It’s a huge deal. The Birkie’s my favorite day of the year.”

“So I was really thankful to be able to do the Birkie this year and it’s a great community everyone out here just loving the sport, loving working hard,” she said.

Racers say temps around 20 degrees are ideal for skiing so this year’s course is much warmer. But for some it’s helping.

“It actually made, I thought in my opinion it made the snow faster,” said Engebretson. “I was kind of lost ‘cause I’ve done it before the other way so I didn’t quite know where I was on the course.”

“It was really firm, fast,” Wikner said. “Second half was a little warmer little slower but still for a typical Birkie, the Birkie’s usually a little softer.”

Completing his 31st Birkie, Wikner said he was relieved to travel from Kenosha, Wisconsin to come — thanks to organizers working hard with precautions for the pandemic.

Masks were required for all participants and volunteers this year. Everyone was also required to compete COVID e-screening, and bring their own water bottles or sources of hydration out on the trails.

“I think they really did a nice job trying to work with the virus,” said Wikner, “and yeah that’s one thing I was worried about winter. I didn’t want to get the virus ‘cause I wanted to come up here.”

With skiers of all ages the Birkie is one of a kind, and some like Wikner prove age is just a number.

“Getting older, but when you can go close to 3 hours for Birkie, that’s pretty good,” he said.

Despite all of this year’s changes Engebretson said she still felt triumphant coming into that same grand finish line.

“I love the bridge coming in, that was really special to still have a bridge to finish with all the flags and the big uphill, down to where a crowd would normally be,” she said.

And for many others nothing going on in the outside world can change the experience of skiing out on the trail.

“Once you get in the race, all that, all the chaos goes away and you really enjoy the race,” said Wikner.

This year the race can be livestreamed on the Birke website.

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