Happy trails for Birkie leader
Feb 22, 2013 (Duluth News Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Ned Zuelsdorff attended his first American Birkebeiner 25 years ago, and it wasn't long before he had "the fever."
Birkie fever is the yearly craving for North America's largest cross country ski race, and the only prescription is more Birkie.
Zuelsdorff has returned to the Birkie every year since, and this is his eighth and final year serving as executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.
Zuelsdorff, 62, will retire in May, but he has certainly left his mark on the event, which is celebrating its 40th year this week. Saturday's race-day field features a record 10,000 registered skiers, up about 600 from last year, and in all, 13,000 skiers are expected to participate over three days.
"I think a lot of our success has to do with outreach," Zuelsdorff said. "I think we put on a very high-quality event that people enjoy. One of the biggest ways to get people to come here is to have their friends talk them into it. That's how I started coming to it. If people have a great experience here, they're not only more likely to come back, but they are more likely to bring a friend back to try it as well."
Zuelsdorff started skiing 40 years ago. He has skied the Birkie 14 times and its support race, the 23K Kortelopet, three times.
"But once I started working here, of course, I was no longer able to ski it," he said. "I just need more time to do some of the other things I want to do in life, and I just want to stay more physically active. I will continue to work part time with the Birkie trail crew, which will allow me to spend more time running and cycling and actually skiing again."
Zuelsdorff worked in Madison as a bureau director for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture before taking the Birkie post. At the time, he and his wife, Kathy, were already building a house in Cable, about a half mile from the Birkie starting line.
"This is my home," Zuelsdorff said.
During his tenure, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation's budget has grown from $720,000 to $1,100,000 and employs four full-time and two part-time workers, as well as additional seasonal help. Zuelsdorff remains very hands on when it comes to working with the trail crew.
"Our volunteer component is huge," Zuelsdorff said. "If you look at the several weeks leading up to the Birkie, we have 2,000 volunteer slots that we have to fill. We've really improved the quality of the race and have done a lot of things trying to deal with the growth."
The Birkie's emphasis on improving conditions for classic skiers has helped fuel the event's popularity in recent years. About 10 to 12 years ago, Zuelsdorff said, Birkie officials began separating the races between classical and freestyle classifications, and between 2006 and 2008, a separate classic trail was built for the first half of the course.
"We went from having one skier in five who was a classic skier to now one in three," Zuelsdorff said. "Everything used to be so crowded that the skaters (freestyle skiers) would ski over the classic tracks. In the second half, people are more spread out, so it's not as much of an issue."
This is the fourth straight year the Birkie has a set a record for number of skiers. The event is 60 percent larger than just eight years ago, Zuelsdorff's first year. This year, there are more skiers signed up for the Birkie alone than combined participation in the Birkie, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon 12K as recently as 2008.
The growth has provided a challenge for the small towns of Hayward and Cable to accommodate roughly 30,000 visitors.
"Hayward is a small town, and we're jamming a lot of people into it," Zuelsdorff said. "The Birkie has a big impact on this area, and traffic gets very congested, but our communities, our volunteers, are what make this all happen. Without that kind of support, there is no way a big event like this could occur.
"I've personally been to several of the bigger races in Europe, and I really think we have the highest quality race in the world. That's something we can all take pride in."
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