For the love of snow, it’s Loppet time

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January 16, 2013 // UPDATED 9:51 am - January 24, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
Even after rain and warm temperatures in mid-January, snowmaking at Theodore Wirth Park ensured a solid base for the Peace Coffee Pre-Loppet race held Jan. 12.
Photo by Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
The annual ski festival is just one way the Loppet Foundation promotes a love of the outdoors in Minneapolis.

Say this about the organizers of the City of Lakes Loppet: You can’t keep ’em down.

Last year, freakishly warm weather forced them to curtail the main event of the festival, the cross-country ski races between Theodore Wirth Park and Uptown. Instead, racers skied a few laps around Wirth Park, where snow machines created what was the only reliable cross-country trail for much of that muddy, balmy winter.

With about 7,000 participants, it was still the second largest ever Loppet.

So what do they do this year? Plan an even bigger Loppet, of course.

New events this year include the Ski-O Loppet, an orienteering competition on skis, and the Penn Cycle Fat Tire Loppet, a fat-tire bicycle race following the same course skiers take to Uptown from Wirth Park. A “Fattest Athlete” award awaits the man or woman who can post the lowest combined time after skiing the entire course, then hustling back to Wirth and biking the trail to Uptown, all in the same day.

It’s all in the spirit of the Loppet, which encourages fitness, a love of the outdoors and fearlessness in the face of freezing weather, said John Munger, executive director of the non-profit Loppet Foundation.

“Enjoy and celebrate winter here instead of run away from it,” Munger said. “Any of the ways people can do that, we’re here to help them celebrate.”

Expanding opportunities

For Munger and the rest of the team at the Loppet Foundation, the goal is to keep that celebration going year round. While they’ve collaborated with the Park Board to bring improved ski trails, lights and snowmaking to Wirth Park, they also run programs for both adults and young people in the summer, spring and fall that emphasize other endurance sports, including running and mountain biking, said Ingrid Remak, the foundation’s outreach coordinator.

“So many people are just so head over heels for cross-country skiing and canoeing and obsessively passionate about being outside, and there’s this real desire to share that with people in the community who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance,” Remak said.

The foundation’s outdoor sports programs reach hundreds students each year at more than half-a-dozen Minneapolis Public Schools sites, including Anwatin Middle School. Anwatin’s community education coordinator, Jennifer Pilon, said some of the students who recently went to ski camp in Michigan were the first in their families to ski.

“They offer so many opportunities to the kids that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Pilon said.

Aiming higher

While the Loppet’s education and outreach programs promote the idea that anyone can benefit from incorporating outdoor activities into a healthy lifestyle, the foundation is also working to build a local community of elite skiers. It took a big step in that direction this spring, when it brought two local for-profit cross-country ski clubs under its nonprofit umbrella.

Piotr Bednarski, who runs the new Loppet Nordic Racing program, said the Midwest has historically underperformed in producing top-level skiers. Designed as a “cradle-to-grave” program for skiers of all ages, Loppet Nordic Racing creates a ladder for promising young skiers to move up to elite-level competition, Bednarksi said.

Wirth Park is the lynchpin of that plan. It’s “the only place with snowmaking and high-caliber terrain, terrain that’s difficult, so athletes can learn to ski really good courses,” he said.

As anyone whose attempted to find a parking spot at Wirth on a busy January weekend knows, though, skiers of all ability levels are getting a lot of use out of one of the park system’s crown jewels.

In December alone, the Park Board recorded sales of 1,776 season and 918 daily ski passes, more than double the early season totals in 2011. Just 192 season ski passes were sold in December of 2010.

To Munger’s eye, the future of cross-country skiing in Minneapolis is looking as bright as fresh-fallen snow.

“I think when you fast-forward 10 or 20 years, there’s going to be a much bigger and much more diverse pool of people … out skiing,” he predicted.

Ski Minneapolis

There is no better place to cross-country ski in Minneapolis than Theodore Wirth Park, but it’s not the only place in the city to get out and enjoy the snow.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board maintains about 20 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails for both classical and skate skiing, the majority of them within Wirth Park, which has the most extensive and varied terrain. It’s also home to the Hap Trail loop, where lighting allows for skiing after dark and snowmaking ensures a solid snow base through most of the winter.

Fairways become ski trails in the winter at three of the city’s golf courses: Columbia Golf Course, 3300 Central Ave. N.E.; Gross National Golf Club, 2201 St. Anthony Boulevard; and Hiawatha Golf Club, 4553 Longfellow Ave. All three are suitable for beginning skiers, with 2–3 miles each of groomed trails over rolling hills.

The Park Board’s system of trails nearly doubles in length once the ice is thick enough on the Chain of Lakes. A trail over Interstate 394 allows skiers to continue south from Wirth Park onto Brownie Lake and ride groomed trails around Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles and even onto Lake Calhoun.

Cross-country ski passes ($45/season, $8/daily) are required for all skiers age 13 or older. They can be purchased at Wirth Chalet, Wirth Par 3 Club House or Columbia Clubhouse, or ordered online at minneapolisparks.org and picked up in person at any of those three locations.

Equipment rentals ($11 for skis, boots and poles) are available at Wirth Par 3 Clubhouse and Columbia Clubhouse.

Go to the Park Board website for information on trail conditions (via links to skinnyski.com), lessons, children’s camps and adaptive ski programs.

if you go

The City of Lakes Loppet runs Feb. 2–3 at various locations in Theodore Wirth Park and in Uptown. For a full listing of events and registration information go to loppet.org/events/cityoflakesloppet.