Loppet ski race will be flashier, with or without snow

Cross-country event plans Calhoun Square finish and will make snow if Mother Nature doesn't

Sporting a splashy new finish at Calhoun Square, the City of Lakes Loppet organization is revving up for the second annual urban cross-country ski race, running from Theodore Wirth Park through Southwest. The race has numerous events for kids and elite skiers on Friday, Jan. 30, but the main 35-kilometer race is Saturday, Jan. 31.

Despite the current lack of snow, organizers are still expecting double the racers and double the crowds from last year, predicting the Uptown finish to be a big selling point for sponsors and fans that will boost the notoriety of winter events.

Local businesses are hoping the race crowds will boost sales. Some retailers and restaurants are planning events to correspond with the race. Meanwhile, the racers are preparing to have fun and ski in what's become an annual tradition for some.

While enthusiasm is high, John Munger, chair of the Loppet organization, said they're also preparing for the possibility of a race with very little snow, forging a back-up plan in case the weather doesn't cooperate.

Race vitals and expectations

The race starts in Theodore Wirth Park, then heads south to Southwest's Chain of Lakes -- first to Brownie Lake, then Cedar Lake and Lake Calhoun. However, instead of ending at Lake Calhoun like last year, the race will end at Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave. S. (also race headquarters.)

Munger said the finish is intended to be similar to Hayward, Wisc.'s annual American Birkebeiner ski race, where the finish occurs on the town's main street.

Playing off the finish, some prizes will be Uptown entertainment packages. However the 35-kilometer race and tour winners receive a free trip to Oslo, Norway to compete in that city's urban ski race, the Holmenkollmarsjen.

Although the Uptown finish is expensive, Munger said, it would raise the race's profile and attract more sponsors. Munger said the Loppet costs between $90,000 and $200,000 to put on -- paid by donations and entry fees. Excess funds go to outdoor youth fitness programs and ski clubs.

Last year, the Loppet featured 750 racers, but this year's organizers expect 1,500 skiers and an equal number of spectators.

Uptown Association Executive Director Cindy Fitzpatrick said more people shouldn't be a problem, considering Uptown's capacity during its July Art Fair. She said parking arrangements would be similar to those during the Art Fair.

Munger said because of bigger crowds, there would be more aid stations and bathrooms.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board trail specialists and organizers are staying tuned to the weather, hoping snow will fall.

Trail preparation

Last year, a lack of snow altered the intended race trail, taking skiers over the lakes instead. Munger said a similar scenario would also be used this year if no new snow falls.

Like last year, he said, the Loppet will use an ice grinder to make 3,000 cubic yards of snow if Mother Nature doesn't deliver. Crews began grinding the snow from Lake Calhoun ice Jan. 18. Munger said there would be at least enough to accommodate racers on the lakes and down Hennepin for the big finish.

The snow shortage is especially disappointing because for the first time, the Loppet organization contracted with the Park Board to groom the lakes and trails. A Park Board staff member even attended a trail grooming school to prepare for the event.

How are racers preparing?

Kenny resident and repeat Loppet racer Pete Moran said he's concerned about the lack of snow but remains excited and has been busy training.

Moran has skied nearly 21 years and is a coach with the Minneapolis Ski Club (He also does race promotions for the Rossignol -- a race sponsor.) Last year, Moran said he placed in the top 15 skiers in the Loppet 35K race.

Like most advanced skiers, Moran begins training in May, through the autumn. He incorporates dry land drills -- running drills mimicking ski strides -- and roller skiing, then actual skiing when the weather permitted.

East Harriet resident Mike Bash said he's more laid-back in his race approach, focusing on the fun. He skied the 10K Loppet last year with his wife, and will be joined by their college-age daughter this year.

"It's a great event and a wonderful sport," he said.

Bash, who has skied for 30 years, has trained skiers at Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St. Despite a recent knee injury that's hampered his training, he's still excited to just get out and enjoy the sport.

"As I get older, it's a sport you can participate in as your joints get more decrepit every year," Bash said chuckling.

When asked for advice for new and relatively inexperience skiers, Bash said it's important to not push yourself too far and to focus on enjoying the race.

Uptown businesses prepare for the event

Uptown merchants are anticipating the race, too. Fitzpatrick said many businesses are hoping the race will ease the typical January business slump.

"The merchants are very excited about the race," she said. "It's a slow time in the economy. We're fortunate (the Loppet organization) came to us."

The Loppet has worked to put together a "Vendor Village," which will serve as a kind of expo for ski crowds.

The village will include Uptown merchants and feature booths from more than 20 exhibitors, including race sponsors such as Lifetime Fitness. (The Southwest Journal is also a race sponsor.) The village will be inside Calhoun Square on Friday

(3 p.m.-9 p.m.) and Saturday (9 a.m.-3 p.m.).

For more information about the race, visit www.cityoflakesloppet.org.