"Sisu" is a bit hard to define. But the Ironwood "something for everyone" Sisu Ski Fest shows skiers what it takes.
Just what does "sisu" mean? I've heard the Finnish word translated as "fortitude" and "persistence." And just plain "guts." Whatever the case, sisu is an apt theme for the Sisu Ski Fest, to be held January 13-14, 2012.
I don't know how much sisu it took to first organize the event, but "perfect" seemed to be it's middle name. The race consists of the Sisu 42K - leading from ABR to downtown Ironwood - and Heikki Lunta 21K classic and freestyle races. In the afternoon they hold the 7K Taste-N-Tour, a noncompetitive outing with four food stops catered by local restaurants.
The twin mining towns of Ironwood, Michigan, and Hurley, Wisconsin, that span the state line can always count on one thing in winter, and that's snow. Many of the early miners came from Finland. A Finnish theme pervades the race to the point that the finish line banner is spelled with an extra n. What is known for sure is that they appreciate their Finnish heritage.
According to Bill Richie, a Sisu Ski Fest board member involved in fundraising, the event concept came from Eric Anderson at ABR Trails south of town. "Who knows how many years the idea was rolling around in his head," Bill said. "The key thing is that it's been enthusiastically accepted by the community."
Setting a course for a challenging Nordic ski race in the area was tried in 1980s. There was an 18K loop of trails around Whitecap Mountain designed by Sven Wiik, the same guy who designed the Birkie Trail. The Run O' Rings was either 18K or 32K and was held in mid-December of 1987. Though it had a decent turnout and attracted some very good skiers, it was the first and last. What it lacked was community support.
In those days, the top of the totem pole of winter tourism promotion were ski jumping, alpine skiing and snowmobiling events as well as antiquing. Cross-country ski races lay down at the bottom, holding the pedestal.
The Sisu Ski Fest tells a completely different story. The event enjoys considerable community support and it is held on great ski trails.
On race day last January, Sisu skiers faced a stiff north wind with driving snow that made the winning time a lot slower than the in it's inaugural year in 2010. It was certainly time to dish out a little sisu. Everyone crossing the Finnish line looked like they'd dished a dose.
"It's just like the Birkie with snow on the street at the finish, but no people" said Madison skier Kay Lum. There may have been a crowd in the hours before she arrived, but no one could blame people from seeking shelter on such a cold and windy day. Spectators are forgiven for being a quart low on sisu.
A hundred years ago, during the mining heyday, there were 40,000 people in the area. New mines west of town are now under consideration. They would be an economic shot in the arm, though with modern mining techniques mining would likely only create about 2,000 jobs. One thing is for sure, mines or no mines, the snow will be there come January.
The core of the course consist of the excellent ABR Trails. All things considered, the consistent grooming and trail design there is a big reason for the quality of the race. The full marathon skiers cover a large percentage of ABR's trails while the Heikki Lunta racers only take on the ones immediately west of the trailhead, including infamous sections like the Pit Point and Peltonen Passout loops. Sisu is required on those for sure.
Having dusted off the ABR trails, there are only about 13K to go for both races. The route leaves ABR on an old road along the Montreal River before looping cross country to the outskirts of Ironwood. There it connects to 3K of trail in Miners Memorial Heritage Park, a nicely laid out little system. From there it climbs up to the Hiawatha Indian Sculpture for the last fast kilometer to the finish on Aurora Street in front of the Ironwood Theater.
When the races are over, it's time for the Taste-N-Tour which covers the last 7K of the race route. If sisu was required, it was hard to tell with four food stations. If you didn't spend as much time eating as skiing you weren't getting your money's worth.
Food items were specialities from area restaurants served in heated tents or buildings. The menu choices were as diverse as you could find anywhere. The last stop, by the giant Hiawatha statue, was the dessert stop. No sisu needed there for sure.
After the dessert stop, it's only 1K to the finish. I found myself skiing alongside a guy on nice wooden skis. He'd gotten his a week before at a garage sale. I told him mine were my original first cross-country skis. So once we hit Main Street we had to have a wood ski duel. Sadly, age and experience did not prevail. I didn't have enough sisu, I guess.
Post race fun, other than eating and drinking, centers around the restored Ironwood Theater. They have the awards ceremony there along with much roistering. The event has grown each year and is poised to again, sisu or no sisu.
Phil Van Valkenberg live in Golden Lake, Wisconsin, and is already signed up for Sisu Ski Fest, even planning to do one of the races this year.