This year’s American Birkebeiner won’t look much like most years. But the differences are part of what we hope is a successful effort to keep an iconic event safe.
The Birkie may not be as recognizable to most Americans as some events, but if you know much about cross-country skiing it’s probably on your radar. It’s the biggest cross-country race in North America, drawing thousands whose abilities range from Olympic athletes to those who just want to test themselves against a challenging course.
That egalitarian approach has served the event well for decades. It seems like this year’s event has caught a break, too. It’s not taking place in the lengthy subzero run we had earlier this month and it has enough snow for good racing.
The past year has seen plenty of cancellations. Anti-calendars of cancelled events have been common and those hoping to enjoy favorites have often been disappointed. Much of that has been necessary. Gathering tens of thousands of people in the middle of a pandemic isn’t the best course of action.
Organizers of this year’s Birkie have hit on a strategy they hope will allow continuation of the event in relative safety. It’s the culmination of plans announced last October.
Think for a moment about what a risk that was. COVID cases in Wisconsin were rapidly increasing, headed toward November’s peak. More events were being cancelled at the time than were announcing plans for how to forge ahead. There were no guarantees that the announcement would result in the event actually going ahead.
The Birkie was divided, with classic skiers set for Feb. 26 and 28. Skate skiers marked Feb. 24, 25 and 27 on their calendars. Participants were told they would need to use their own vehicles as warm spaces before and after the race, and would “need to be more self-reliant by carrying their own on-course energy or food.”
The races themselves are staggered this year, a bid to keep large crowds from forming at the start and end of each session. It’s an audacious plan, and we hope it works.
Monday, the start of Birkie Week, was a reminder that progress made in this pandemic won’t be as straightforward as everyone would like it to be. The UW-Eau Claire men’s basketball team’s season was called off amid the need to comply with COVID protocols.
There will be successes and failures in the months ahead. The number of people receiving COVID vaccines is impressive, with more than 1.1 million doses administered in Wisconsin alone. As of Monday, almost 14% of Wisconsin residents had received at least one dose. Most area counties exceeded that pace. But we’re still a long way from finished.
All we can do in the interim is to stay cautious and urge event organizers to act in good faith. There’s not much question that sports and events that aim to take place in the spring won’t be doing so before crowds that even come close to normal sizes. Summer offers a bit more hope. Fall looks good, at least for now.
What we’re seeing with some of these earlier events, including the Birkie, is a willingness to make adjustments. It does events little good to resist the reality that these are not strange days. So tweaks and changes to their approaches make sense. It’s an effort to preserve at least some of the normalcy people are so hungry for, even while acknowledging these are not normal times.
We hope this week’s events surrounding the Birkie are as successful as planned. It will take a while to know. The changes organizers have made seem to give it a fighting chance of success, though, and this year that’s no minor accomplishment.
Good luck to organizers and participants. We appreciate the flexibility shown, and we hope it will be rewarded by a memorable and successful event.