The Birkie is the biggest marathon in the country *

In 2017, as has been well documented on this page and elsewhere, the Birkie will split off the Korteloppet and run it on Friday, leaving Saturday alone for the Big Race. It’s a question of congestion: the Birkie has grown from 4,500 to 7,000 participants in the past 10 years. The start has been congested, but the real rate limiting factor is the finish; there are only so many people you can process through a town like Hayward, Wisconsin. Which got me to thinking: are there any other large, long-distance races which have such a high ratio of participants to local population? And, no, not just ski races, but races of any kind at least marathon distance.

I found a list of the 50 biggest marathons in 2015, with about 2000 or more participants. The Birkie, if ranked among these marathons, would rank the 11th biggest race in the country. But the other marathons are in big cities. 50,000 people run New York, but that’s just 1/165th the population of the city. Even races in smaller cities (like Grandma’s in Duluth) account for less than 1/10th of the local population. (There’s a marathon in DisneyWorld which has a very small official population, but the park itself hosts 50,000 visitors per day, and is basically in Orlando, so it doesn’t have crowding issues. Also, why in God’s name would you want to run a marathon at 5:30 a.m. in Florida? No, please, someone explain this to me.)

Hayward? There are three finishers for every resident of the town. It would be as if 24 million people ran New York, or 250 thousand ran Grandma’s. The only other race close is the Bataan Memorial Death March race in New Mexico, but even it has only two finishers for every resident of the town of White Sands. Otherwise, Big Sur has about a 1:1 ratio, and every other marathon is at least 7:1 or more. So by this measure, the Birkie is, relative to the size of the largest town on the course, the biggest race in the country.

There’s a chill in the air … and a new podcast

A few weeks ago I sat down (electronically) with Birkie director Ben Popp to get the lay of the land for this fall’s race (and to preview the trail run, which has already happened; I’m good at getting these posted, apparently). The trail has survived the summer rains, and now we need some cold and snow. Hear about all that and more on your favorite streaming service, or download the episode here.

Caitlin Gregg Podcast!

Caitlin Gregg has won the Birkie four times. Four.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s four more times than I’ve won the Birkie. Or you (well, almost all of you).

And she came on the fourth BG Podcast! (See what we did there?) It’s pretty great. Hear about the Birkie, and last year’s World Champs, and all else.

Oh, and when she says the second place woman’s name Dabudyk and it sounds like “dabooty” and I don’t laugh, it is a testament to restraint on my part (or we edited it out, you’ll never know). So enjoy that moment.

2017: the year of the Friday Korteloppet

It’s happened: the Birkie has outgrown two races on the same day. (Remember, as many people skied the Birkie alone in 2016 as skied the Birkie and Kortie combined in the mid-2000s.) So starting in 2017, the Korteloppet will be on Friday. There are certainly pluses and minuses to this and while I think the Korteloppet would do better on Sunday morning, I understand why that might be a no-go. But with Telemark closed, it certainly makes sense to shift the finish of the race towards Hayward for all the races, and the recent additions to the Birkie trail help as well.

Update: here’s the official announcement email from the Birkie. We’re talking to the Birkie about a longer podcast discussion about these changes; stay tuned!

In any case, here are some pros and cons for having the Korteloppet on Friday:


  • Main Street finish. Now that the Birkie Bridge is in place, the race can use the Main Street finish for more activities than just a few hours on Saturday. This is pretty cool, since Main Street was otherwise underutilized on Friday.
  • One finish area will better utilize the resources the Birkie has.
  • Busing is a lot easier. On Saturday, there will be much less demand for busing since it will be Birkie skiers only. On Friday, most Korteloppet skiers will be able to park near Hayward, ride a bus to the start, and ski back to their cars. Currently, all Korteloppet skiers have to park remotely and ride a bus to and from the start/finish area. This will save everyone time, money and headache.
  • The Birkie Trail, where it is shared between classic and skate skiers, is wider than the Kortie trail. Unfortunately, the shared section starts much earlier than the current situation (2k, maybe, instead of 9k; see below).
  • The Birkie start will be much simpler for non-elites (it won’t change for elites) who will have smaller waves and won’t have some waves led out by skiers going at a different pace in a different race.
  • Some crazy skiers might try to ski both races. Those of us obsessed with our wave placement (that’s pretty much all of us, right?) probably won’t, but I’m sure some folks will. (This from a guy who’s flown to Minneapolis to ski the Loppet Challenge, twice.)
  • The Korteloppet will get significantly longer, from the current 24km to nearly 30. Of course, there won’t be any major climbs for the first 10km, although several after that point (Bitch Hill included).
  • Birkie skiers will have the opportunity to go and cheer Kortie skiers on Friday, and Kortie skiers will be able to return the favor on Saturday. (Or volunteer!)
  • During a year like this one, the Korteloppet trail would be a good option for skiing on the days before the race when the main trail is closed, although current maps show most of the Kortie Trail closed except for race day, so it may be subject to land issues.


  • The start area for the Kortie will be … constrained. I’m guessing that the Kortie start may use the field to the southeast of the start area, which is about 150m long and 25m wide. This could, in theory, stage enough skiers for the start, but the trail gets pretty narrow pretty quickly, so I’m not sure how it would transition in to the race. The Birkie may have to widen the course and carve a new start area out of the woods at OO.
  • There is no longer a separate classic trail for the first 9k of the Korteloppet. Classic skiers may be separated for the first couple of kilometers on the OO trails, but will pretty quickly rejoin the skate race. If the classic trail is extended south from OO to or past Mosquito Brook, however, it would be a boon to both skate and classic skiers.
  • The Picnic Table hill may be a mess, with a steep, curving downhill 1k in to the race. Good luck with all that.
  • The Korteloppet gets a little easier, although with the removal of the Power Lines on the north end and the new hill on the south end, this might be a wash.
  • There’s no feed for the first 9 km of the Korteloppet between OO and Gravel Pit. For the beginning of a race, this is a relatively long stretch to not have a feed.
  • The Korteloppet will have four road crossings (Mosquito Brook, Highway 77, Wheeler, Duffy’s) where today it has none. This might be a chance for the Birkie to improve snow conditions at the road crossings, and in the long range look in to grade separation for the roads.
  • In the case of a low-ice year (which hasn’t happened in a while) the race would have to end on a field shy of town.
  • The purpose-built Korteloppet trail will have only lasted for about 15 years, although it will still serve as a recreational trail (and for races such as the North End Classic).

As a Birkie skier, I am mostly unaffected by these changes, but they will by-and-large be positive for Birkie skiers. The main issue is that many Korteloppet skiers may not be able to take the day off on Friday for the race. However, there are probably just as many who will come early to ski Friday and watch Saturday, people who are now spectators but may decide to ski as well. It will be an interesting experiment, hopefully the Birkie will pull it off.

Good thing the Birkie was last week

This year, the Birkie was held a week “early”, i.e. not the last full weekend in February.

It’s probably a good thing. Here are the temperatures in Hayward for today the 27th (clear and sunny the whole time):

7 a.m. 28˚ (and several hours under 28 overnight = frozen and fast)
8 a.m. 31˚
9 a.m. 34˚
10 a.m. 41˚
11 a.m. 46˚
12 a.m. 49˚
1 p.m. 51˚
2 p.m. 54˚
3 p.m. 53˚
4 p.m. 46˚

So, that would have been a pretty fast course for the elites, but even some of the south-facing hills (downhills, mostly, like the one at 34k and a couple after Mosquito Brook) would have probably been baking and slushy. But for later starters, anything out of the shade would have been corny. Which isn’t bad: it would have been fun, spring skiing. But no “better” than last week.

On the other hand, it would have been an excellent day for drinking beer on Lake Hayward.

A week already? Podcasts and more!

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a week since the Birkie. Well, six days. With the leap year, it’s only 365 days until Birkie 2017. But who’s counting.

By now I usually have a race recap up. And I will! But I’ve mostly been working on two (2) more podcasts. And by working I mean sending sound files to the producer and saying make these sound happy! By the way, you are now legally bound to listen to his podcast, Outside/In, because I want him to love me and if he doesn’t, my podcast would sound terrible.

Okay, so podcasts. You can find podcasts here, or click the button up there that says “podcast” or use this iTunes link. If you are having trouble downloading them (maybe because people after the race used some bad language and we had to put an explicit tag on them) here are links to episodes 1, 2 and 3. Episode 2 was recorded at the pasta feed that I have attended for 9 years or so (and it’s been around longer than that!) and episode 3 is me talking to people on Main Street. This was a lot of fun, and no beer was involved in the making of the podcast either!

One other thing: The Birkie maybe could have been held tomorrow, since it’s still the last full weekend of the month (I’m not sure why it wasn’t; it might be because the Gatineau Loppet was pushed back because of the Canadian Ski Tour, or something). If it had been, it would have been interesting weather. It is going to freeze overnight tonight, but tomorrow should be sunny and top out in the mid-40s. That would have been about as interesting race weather as we had last week. But it would have made for great spectating.

Panic! Everybody panic!

Okay, don’t panic too much. It’s raining. It’s warm. It is going to be interesting.

As far as the weather goes, the last couple of forecasts have pulled down both the amount of rain (0.1 to 0.25″) and the overnight temperatures (in the 33˚ range, yes, that’s right, 33˚). But the rub is that the snow may be quite a bit colder. The underlying snowpack is very cold—it was -20 in Hayward earlier this week, and -13 even after the most recent snow—and the Birkie hasn’t groomed the snow on top to attempt to insulate the base.

In other words, East Coast conditions. So what might this mean? If there is enough warm temperatures and rain, the entire snowpack may transform and soften. But it might not get quite so warm and the top of the pack may transform while the bottom stays a bit more frozen. And in either case, even if it doesn’t drop quite to freezing on Friday night, if it’s calm enough the temperature of the snow may fall enough to freeze it up, which may vary over different parts of the course. The cold base and cold ground will radiate cold temperatures through the base and perhaps in to the air slightly above, and in sheltered areas the snow could freeze up quite nicely. It’s certainly possible to have packed, icy conditions even with temperatures above freezing.

Or it could be a slushy mess. And if the temperature only goes to 36 or 37 during the race and the sun doesn’t come out (likely) then it might stay pretty solid through the race. All things considered, this would not be the worst outcome given the weather. We’ll see at the start line.

Weather speculation: the picture gets … clearer?

We’re going to have a ski race on Saturday.

The weather is going to be … interesting.

The Birkie hasn’t flirted the freezing mark at the start, except for the 2007 debacle, in nearly a decade and a half. The last few years have been cold. And this year? It is not going to be cold. It is going to rain. It’s not going to be warm enough and rain enough that the course will melt off and disappear, but it’s not the usual ski forecast of “soft ski, fine grind, hard wax” for glide and “something in the neighborhood of blue” for kick.

So let’s get to weather. It’s been cold in Birkieland for the last few days. Like -20 overnight cold. So the base—a foot-plus in the woods packed on the trails—is cold, and the ground below it cold. That’s good. It’s going to get warm. Not hot, but certainly warm. On Thursday, after a chilly start, temperatures will rise in to the mid-30s in the afternoon, and won’t go down overnight, making a run towards 40˚ in the overnight hours. On Friday morning temperatures will be in the high 30s with a burst of precipitation, about a third of an inch of rain, falling (maybe less, maybe as much as half an inch; the models aren’t particularly congealed yet). This will be with a passing cold front but that will usher a drier but still Pacific-origin air mass, so it won’t get much colder.

Friday will stay in the 30s or maybe low 40s during the day, which may vary across the trail. What this does to the snow will be interesting. The rain will fall and percolate down through the pack, but may freeze in to the snowpack more than anything since it will retain a lot of cold. There should be enough time for it to freeze in and drain away before the race on Saturday, but it will be interesting. Friday night will be very interesting: temperatures in the 34˚ range will make for a much different race than temperatures in the 29˚ range. Although if the trail is packed, it might freeze up well enough, at least for earlier racers. Right now, it looks like it will drop to right around freezing, maybe a little above, but different parts of the trail may behave differently. So, really, all bets are off in regards to trail conditions.

Saturday appears to be in the mid-30s, breezy, mostly cloudy with a west-northwest crosswind. It will be like 2007, actually, except without a) a shortened race and b) a snowstorm in the evening.

As for the base, it should be fine. In 2000, a fifteen inch base was vaporized over the course of a week before the race (see the chart below). This year, luckily, the meltdown will be much more muted, we won’t have three days with temperatures staying above 40 overnight, and won’t have highs at or near 50 for most of the week before the race. About the same amount of rain, but 15˚ colder and falling on to snow that hasn’t been pre-warmed by a week of warm weather. In other words, it’s not perfect Birkie conditions, but we should be fine.

2000: not a happy time for the Birkie (data from Spooner via NWS):

2000-02-20 38 5 21.5 3.2 43 0 0.00 0.0 14
2000-02-21 43 17 30.0 11.3 35 0 0.00 0.0 11
2000-02-22 52 28 40.0 20.8 25 0 0.00 0.0 10
2000-02-23 48 24 36.0 16.4 29 0 0.19 0.0 8
2000-02-24 56 40 48.0 28.0 17 0 0.00 0.0 5
2000-02-25 51 41 46.0 25.5 19 0 0.33 0.0 1
= No Race 52 40 46.0 25.1 19 0 T 0.0 T

Paul Huttner is calling this a mega-thaw. Well, that was a giga-thaw.

So freak out about wax, and how your body will do in these balmy conditions. But don’t sweat (ha!) the course, we’ll have snow from Cable to Hayward. It just won’t be soft and powdery. But we’ve had eight Birkies in a row with good snow and Main Street finishes, and this should, barring a major downturn, be a ninth.

Weather Speculation: Warmer

So, uh, don’t panic.

But get a little worried.

The Birkie Trail should be fine for the race as long as it doesn’t rain too much or get way in to the 40s (but, uh, it might, which could be very, very interesting). It will be warm for the 24 hours preceding Saturday morning (but it might—might—dip to freezing on Friday night) and it is not going to have the usual squeaky-snow Midwestern feel to the race. Welcome to the East Coast/California, folks! Warm and slushy or maybe icy, too.

Fluoros? Yeah, they’ll matter. Flex and grind? Yup, them too. Rilling? Oh, yeah, you’ll want to rill. Wax? Ha, klister, all klister. Get our your blowtorches, classic skiers.

And for god’s sake do not ski on the trail on Thursday or Friday.