Skylar Tupper, Minneapolis, showed real exhuberance on the Korte trail last year.
Big changes for the Birkie’s little brother
Cross country skiing with Mark Parman
In 1973, the first Kortelopet started in Seeley and finished at Telemark Lodge, but over the years the course has changed considerably. It has started in Hayward, west of downtown, and finished at OO – that’s the course I skied back in 1989 in my one and only Korte. The race has started at Telemark and finished at OO, and it has started and finished at Telemark, as it has in the most recent editions.
Regardless of these course changes, however, one thing has remained constant – the short race has always started on Saturday in conjunction with the longer Birkebeiner.
But not this year, when the Kortelopet starts Friday – the day before the Birkie – at Highway OO and finishes in downtown Hayward. The shorter race gets its own day and will no longer live in the shadow of the Birkebeiner. Korte skiers will now experience the thrill of skiing over the International Bridge (spanning all four lanes of Highway 63) and skiing up Main Street to the finish through the celebration and chaos there.
The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation made the decision to move the Kortelopet – as well as the 15-kilometer Prince Haakon – to Friday after a lengthy process, surveying skiers and considering the interests of the community, local businesses and volunteers. “It became clear that a move to Friday would allow us to provide the best possible Birkie moments for all,” said Ben Popp, ABSF executive director. The Barnebirkie moves back to Thursday at noon.
Despite differing start days, the new Friday Kortelopet shares a few traits with the original short race in 1973. Both share a start line at OO, although the first race skied north to Telemark, while this year’s Korte heads south to Hayward. Both old and new races share a finish line with their respective Birkebeiners, the original Birkie and Korte finishing together in the bowl at Telemark Resort, while this year, for the first time, both short and long races finish in downtown Hayward.
Korte skiers will no longer have to endure the power line the way Seth Cattanach, Lake Elmo, Minn., did in 2016.
The first Kortelopet, billed on the original race flier as a 20-kilometer event (it was probably longer), was intended for women of all ages and men under 20; the longer 50K Birkie was only for men over 20. In 1975 for the third American Birkebeiner, women of all ages as well as men under 20 were allowed to compete in the big event, then 55 kilometers long.
Although older men can and do compete in today’s Kortelopet, the demographic still holds four decades later – women and skiers under 20 make up the majority of skiers filling the Korte waves.
The ABSF hopes the new Korte will attract even more skiers from this demographic and is offering scholarships to the top three U20 skier in each technique. The Korte, though, will continue to attract skiers from outside this demographic. As of this interview in late November, 200 skiers had also signed up to do both the Korte and Birkie, possible now for the first time. The new format would allow a skier the option of going hard on Friday and touring the Birkie on Saturday. In the future, Popp says we might see an award for the best of both races.
The buzz of a downtown finish and all that goes with this will surely attract more skiers to the 29K event and grow it significantly in the coming years. “We don’t want Korte skiers to be an afterthought,” said Popp. “At times, they’ve been underserved.”
The Friday race does present logistical complications, but not as many difficulties as one would think, claimed Popp. On Friday for previous Birkie events, the local police and EMS were concentrated in Hayward, and now some will need to be spread out along the southern half of the Birkie course.
Korte classic skier Abigail Jarzin, of Green Bay, Wis., crests a hill on the old Kortelopet course.
The Birkie and Korte previously shared some resources, like the start line and some feed zones, but according to Popp, the ABSF doesn’t need twice as many volunteers to put on two days of racing. Plus, he says that some volunteer groups have stepped up and shouldered a part of the increased load of the now separate events, and Popp points out the new race week is only three hours longer than the old versions.
For parents who ski the Birkebeiner, the new start date now gives them the opportunity of cheering on their kids who race the Korte the day before – out on the course or as they race down Main Street in Hayward. Several parents have told me they’re happy to be able to watch their kids compete in the Kortelopet on Friday, while their kids can cheer for them on Saturday. The U20 skiers love their preferential waves.
Separating races also means less wave congestion, especially in the early kilometers as skate skiers in particular vied for position on the Powerline hills and those immediately following, a concern of the old Birkie-Korte structure. We should also expect less race-day traffic congestion with the separation of the races.
With all of the change, someone was bound to be upset. Some Birkie skiers are worried about trail conditions on the southern half of the course after 3,000 skiers churn it up during Friday’s race. But this, too, shouldn’t cause a problem unless conditions remain warm overnight and the snow doesn’t get a chance to set up for the Birkie events. One of the best-kept secrets of race weekend, according to Popp, is how great the ski conditions are on Sunday after the Birkie and the trail crews have regroomed the inevitable race-day damage.
Not sure this entrant is going to beat the cutoff times.
Greg Kresse, who runs the Night Gliders youth program for the Wausau Nordic Ski Club and has skied a dozen Kortes, doesn’t mind change, but feels like there were a lot of Korte changes all at once. “There are three big changes for me,” Kresse said. Kresse would have preferred the race to land on Sunday, but said he could live with a Friday race. He also thinks the late morning start could be problematic for classic skiers. “I want the best possible conditions as a classic skier, so an earlier start is better for us,” Kresse said. “Colder is better, and it’s usually colder in the early morning.”
His biggest disappointment, however, concerns the new wave seeding, which puts young skiers of all ability in the front waves. “I don’t want to sound like an old curmudgeon,” Kresse was quick to point out, but as a first wave classic skier he will start in the 6th wave off in the new format. The first adult classic wave follows boys and girls U20 skate and classic waves as well as the Kortelopet Wave 70. Kresse – although let down with his new wave placement – does understand the importance of attracting young, female and new skiers to the Korte and realizes older skiers such as himself should not be the focus of the shorter race.
The Birkie and Korte have been in constant flux since 1973. Look how equipment and technique have evolved. Carbon fiber replaced fiberglass, which had replaced wood. Skating almost killed off classic skiing, but the old technique has recovered its rightful place in Nordic skiing. Change is often inevitable. Even the traditionally-staid Norwegian Birkebeiner is offering a skate race for the first time in its 77-year history – on Friday.
Heather Nagel, of Red Wing, Minn., flashes a big smile during the Kortelopet last year.
Expect other changes besides the new Friday Kortelopet. The Kortelopet gets a new start area at Highway OO and will now travel north-to-south 29 kilometers, although the new race course will not feature as much overall climbing as the old course at Telemark. Gone are those Powerline climbs.
The Birkbeiner also gets a new start area, and this will effectively shorten each race by a kilometer from the 2016 race course. The skate race will be 50 kilometers, the classic 54 kilometers. The first Powerline climb will also be eliminated from the skate course.
The Prince Haakon race, also moved to Friday, gets its own separate start areas off Phipps Road. It will join the main Birkie Trail near Mosquito Brook Road and now has an overall length of 15 kilometers.
The Barnebirkie and Junior Birkie, along with most other Main Street events, will take place on Thursday. See birkie.com for more info.