If you stood on the shore of Lake Calhoun in late December and looked out across the acres of choppy, unfrozen water, you might have thought: This doesn’t look good for the Loppet.
Luckily, the weather changed, and not a moment too soon.
The City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival returns Feb. 5–7 for another weekend packed full of outdoor adventure. And festival organizers say things are looking up: the Chain of Lakes finally iced-over in early January, and with less than two weeks to go there was just enough snow to pull off the cross-country ski races from Theodore Wirth Park to Uptown.
That will please skiers who last year had to settle for a few laps around the snowmaking loop at Wirth — and not for the first time in the festival’s recent history.
Despite Minnesota’s frosty reputation, it’s probably easier to plan a waterskiing event in July here than it is to plan a cross-country skiing festival in February. Or at least it seems that way.
Was the Loppet Foundation’s executive director sweating just a little back in December?
“No,” replied John Munger. “Unfortunately, I was sweating a lot because it was so dang warm.”
“December was horrible,” Munger continued. “Our registrations are still behind, but they’ve been catching up now that it’s getting colder again.”
Festival organizers expect to draw 11,000 participants over three days, roughly the same number as 2015. Munger said registration was “notably behind” for the 42-kilometer marathon ski races, perhaps the weekend’s most snow-dependent activities, but other events were beginning to fill up.
The Comcast Luminary Loppet draws a crowd even in warm years, and organizers said tickets to ski, snowshoe or hike around a luminary-lit Lake of the Isles were likely to sell out once again. As of mid-January, mushers had already claimed every open slot in two skijoring races, the bracket was full for Captain Ken’s Kubb Tournament and registration for several other events, including the snow-sculpture contest and fat tire bicycle races, was about to close.
Whatever the final two weeks would bring — and the forecast included some rain — the Loppet would go on. There is the “aspirational event,” Munger said, and then there’s the festival that happens, every year, come what may.
“That’s a core value of the organization, that you should be outside and active every day,” Munger said. “And some days that’s skiing, and some days that’s biking, and some days that’s running.
“You take what the weather gives, and that’s one of the points of the whole event.”
When that January cold snap finally hit it hit hard, and that was good news for speed skaters — especially the kind who like to skate outdoors.
Loppet organizers plan to create a 1-kilometer skating loop on Lake Calhoun for the festival’s first-ever marathon speed skating events. Long-blade skaters can sign up for 25 or 50 laps around the oval. A separate 1-kilometer event is reserved for those with short-bladed hockey or figure skates.
Dorothy Bialke, who serves as a board member for Twin Cities Speedskating, said outdoor marathons are popular in Europe and Canada, but climate — particularly in recent years — means they’re less common in the Lower 48. Events like the Loppet races attract “a different breed of speed skaters,” Bialke said.
“The people who really like to do the marathon, they like the outside experience,” she said. “You’re skating for an hour to three hours, depending on your speed and ability.”
Bialke said Bemidji played host to the U.S. National Marathon Championships for several years in the 2000s before the event was moved to an indoor ice arena. Skating outdoors makes all the difference for marathoners, who have to make fewer turns on the big ovals and get to experience the changing weather conditions.
“I’m not a runner so I can’t relate it to running, but I’m sure the people who run a marathon would say the same type of thing: It’s the journey, it’s the outdoors, it’s the adventure — and maybe more (those things) than it is your speed,” Bialke said.
It’s not the only new experience on tap for this year’s Loppet.
The Loppet Foundation partnered with Minneapolis radio station Go 96.3 to put on a Saturday night post-Luminary Loppet concert on the lagoon between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. And back at Wirth Park there are plans for a telemark clinic on the sledding hill that morning.
Telemark is a downhill skiing technique defined by graceful turns. Those turns are made possible by equipment that more closely resembles cross-country than alpine skis.
Maree Hampton of the Loppet Foundaiton said the idea for the clinic grew out of a cultural exchange program that is bringing a small group of secondary students and teachers from Telemark County, Norway to Minneapolis. They’ll be putting on the clinic with ski equipment borrowed from Three Rivers Park District. And in March they’ll host a group of Minneapolis students for a week back in Telemark.
The Loppet Foundation’s executive director has a first planned for himself this year, too.
Munger said he was planning to enter the two marathon ski events, both the 42-kilometer classic race on Saturday and the 42-kilometers skate-ski race on Sunday. Usually, he’s too busy managing festival events to actually participate. But the Loppet Foundation recently hired a new race director, Mike Erickson, meaning one of the people who founded the Loppet back in 2003 will finally get a chance to ski the course on race day.
“I look forward to it,” Munger said. “There’s something special about not ever having to take your skis off the whole way.”
IF YOU GO:
City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival
When: Feb. 5–7
Where: Locations vary. Most events are located in Theodore Wirth Park or near the Calhoun Executive Center, which also serve as the start and finish line, respectively, for the weekend’s races.
Info: For a schedule of events, or to register, go to loppet.org