There’s no one way to do the Loppet

The City of Lakes Loppet cross-country ski festival returns Jan. 30–Feb. 1

Skiers participated in a pre-Loppet race at Theodore Wirth Park in 2013. Credit: File photo

There’s more than one way to do the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival. What Muffy Ritz has planned might be called the hard way.

A cross-country ski coach in Sun Valley, Idaho, Ritz is flying back to her home state to ski the Hoigaard’s Classic Marathon, a 42-kilometer race from Theodore Wirth Park to the Loppet Village on the north shore of Lake Calhoun. Then she’ll wake up the next day to do it all over again in the Loppet Skate Marathon.

“I’m hoping to be able to make it the second day,” said the Wayzata native. “That’s a long way to ski.”

Ritz is attempting the Loppet Challenge, back-to-back races requiring skiers to use both the classic and skating cross-country skiing techniques. It’s a feat only the toughest competitors will attempt during the three-day festival, returning for its 12th year Jan. 31-Feb. 2.

A former member of the U.S. Ski Team who won Wisconsin’s famous American Birkebeiner cross-county ski race twice in the 1980s, Ritz knows what she’s in for. She recalled skiing a classic race one day and a skate race the next once in Germany, where the course was 55 kilometers long.

“One-hundred ten kilometers later, I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Ritz, 57, still competes about 10 times every year, but this will be her first trip back for Minneapolis’ winter extravaganza. She’s usually in Idaho for the Sun Valley Nordic Festival on the first weekend in February.

“It’s nowhere near as big as the Loppet,” she said. “We hope to get 1,000 people, but we don’t have a big center of population around. We’re just a town of 300.”

For comparison, about 11,000 people signed up for at least one of the Loppet’s 21 events last year, Kristen Spargo of the Loppet Foundation said. The Luminary Loppet, a candlelit nighttime ski around Lake of the Isles that is the festival’s most popular event, drew 7,000 participants alone.

Of course, you don’t even have to ski to join in the Loppet festivities, as the kubb players and snow sculptors well know.

Bring a cowbell down to the racecourse and shout as competitors kick, pedal or mush their way to the finish line. Maybe while away an hour in the Surly Brewing Beer Garden. No skis needed.

Over a dozen years, the weekend’s schedule has expanded to include snowshoe, bicycling and dogsled races. And it keeps growing this year, with the debuts of a Friday-night fireworks show above the Loppet Village and a new crew ski competition.

“We like to say that the favorite word at the Loppet is ‘and,’” Spargo said.

The crew ski pits teams of six racers all strapped to the same pair of 25-foot long skis in a head-to-head competition. The event is a fundraiser for the non-profit Loppet Foundation’s skiing and bicycling programs for middle school students.

Jeff Richards, a friend of Loppet founder John Munger, made the two sets of the special king-size skis at his home in Deephaven. With help from a friend who makes wooden skis, Richards laminated together quarter-inch ash boards, shaped the skis and then attached bindings salvaged from a dozen pairs of snowshoes.

“They’re kind of hard to handle, but they really probably only weigh 50–60 pounds,” Richards said.

Retired from a family business, Richards is one of the behind-the-scenes people who make the Loppet run. In addition to building furniture for the Loppet Foundation’s office and a bench for the Theodore Wirth Park stadium, the starting point for the festival’s cross-country ski races, Richards made many of the awards handed out to top finishers.

He recently put the finishing touches on a new award that will go to a winning musher in the Dogsled Loppet.

“I went to the local butcher shop and got a bone and painted it,” Richards said. “It’s painted gold, so they better not eat it.”