Loppet embraces home court advantage

Racers take off at the start of the cross-country ski skate -style marathon in 2018 at Theodore Wirth Park. This year the racers will start at Bde Maka Ska and ski north toward The Trailhead. Photo by Daniel Johnson.

Last year, the Loppet Foundation had a lot on its plate. It was playing host to the cross-country ski Masters World Cup and spreading its annual festivities out over two weekends to incorporate Minneapolis’ hosting of the Super Bowl.

Now, they can focus more on their own event, which for the first time will be hosted right in the nonprofit’s back yard.

“This year, I would say, is shaping up to be a little bit more sane,” Loppet Foundation executive director John Munger said.

The opening of The Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park is a game changer for the City of Lakes Loppet Festival, which is celebrating its 17th year Jan. 31- Feb. 3.

The new 14,000 square-foot adventure center on the border of North Minneapolis and Golden Valley is the central hub for winter sports in the city and has been bracing itself for the festival by hosting hundreds of prep athletes and recreational cross-country skiers every day this winter.

This year’s ski, bike and snowshoe races will start at Bde Maka Ska and end at The Trailhead. Sprinting races, the Minne-Loppet, Junior Loppet and skijoring will all be hosted at The Trailhead. Snow sculptures will line the entry way to the building; the Big Tent, Surly Beer Garden and Vendor Village will all be on-site.

“Those things might sound mundane, but those courses for those events down at Bde Maka Ska, were not really good courses,” he said.

The new Trailhead space also came with a lot more snowmaking infrastructure, so while the winter hasn’t been cooperating with planners thus far, they’re confident the courses will be race ready for the festival.

“Now this year, it doesn’t matter, “Munger said. “If there’s no snow, all the energy is here, and if there is snow, the energy is here.”

With The Trailhead moving the center of the festival a couple miles north, The Loppet is hoping to see many new faces enjoying this year’s event. The Junior Loppet will racers from the Trail Kids Program, which includes students from nearby Anwatin, Franklin and Northeast Middle Schools, who have been taught to ski on the Wirth Park trails.

“The event will be much more focused on Wirth Park and the neighborhood, and we’re hoping much more of a North Minneapolis event than one focused on Bde Maka Ska,” Munger said.

Reversing course

With The Trailhead complete, the typical course of the Loppet’s non-sprinting races has been reversed. Racers will start this year on Bde Maka Ska, work their way north through the lakes and then finish on the hills of Theodore Wirth Park. Munger thinks it will be interesting to see how skiers pace out the energy with the most challenging portions at the end.

“The course being reversed is really going to make for a different, and I think better experience for the racers,” he said.

New racing events this year include skijoring spring— that is dog-skier teams mushing through the snow— Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. and classic ski team sprints, an event that captured Minnesota’s attention in 2018 when Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2018, which will take place Jan. 31 at 6 p.m.

Previous years have created situations where planning the race route is a last second ordeal depending on snow conditions, this year everything except the exact marathon route has been mapped out for weeks, Munger said.

One for the record books

Jim York has been familiarizing himself with the Loppet race course. York, a co-owner of Northern Lites Snowshoes, is trying to find the best spots along the course to set the Guinness World Record.

Two years ago, Duluth-based snowshoe runner Eric Hartmark, an athlete sponsored by Northern Lites, finished the 10K Snowshoe Loppet at a 5 minute, 25 second per-mile pace, finishing well ahead of the second-fastest runner. Hartmark, a five-time national champion on the 10K race, is hoping to enter the record books at this year’s Loppet, York said.

When Northern Lites reached out to Guinness, they learned the metric-favoring company doesn’t keep a record for fastest snowshoe mile, but they do have slots for fastest 1500 meters, 5K and 10K. On Feb.3, Hartmark will go for all three in one race.

To be recognized by the World Snowshoe Federation, the sport’s governing body, runners are not allowed to snowshoe over ice in record setting events, but York said Guinness has no such restrictions. The plan is for Hartmark to do a recorded 1500-meter sprint about an hour before the 10K race, then try to set both the 5K and 10K record in one shot.

York said a premier winter sports festival like the Loppet with all its resources is an ideal place to try to set the record.

“In terms of winter sports events, this is huge,” York said.

A celebration of outdoor art

The Loppet, of course, is about more than the elite winter athletes. For those inclined more toward recreational activity and partying on the ice, the Luminary Loppet, now sponsored by UCare, returns Saturday night to Lake of the Isles.

After the skier’s complete their illuminated trek, stick around for the REI Luminary Party, headlined by Minneapolis soul and R&B group Dr. Mambo’s Combo. Free for Luminary Loppet participants, the party is $10 for other attendees. Surly Brewing Co. will be serving beer on the ice until 10 p.m.

This year, the foundation is inviting back ice sculptor Trevor Pearson to create instruments out of ice. Percussionist Marc Anderson will play the ice drums, horns, whistles and shakers at a cold concert made possible through a Minnesota State Arts Board grant.

Also courtesy of the Arts Board are ice art installations such as IceHenge, IcesterIslanders (like Easter Island Heads, but colder) the Icecropolis and new for 2019, the Spires, an ice tree forest that attendees will be able to explore.

“I think a lot of people think of the luminary as a skiing event, but I really think of it as outdoor art,” said Loppet marketing and communications coordinator Alora Jones.

If you go: 

City of Lakes Loppet Festival

Dates: Jan. 31-Feb. 3

Time: Thursday 5- 9 p.m., Friday 5-9 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Parking: People coming to watch this year’s events are asked to park at the Mortensen parking lot, 700 Meadow Lane N., Golden Valley, which is a short walk from The Trailhead, and will also have a shuttle service to bring parkers to the venue.