Merry Christmas Eve Birkie skiers! I’m writing this snuggled up next to our cat and Christmas tree, and even though there isn’t any real snow on the ground at my house, the lack of white fluffy stuff can’t stop my Christmas spirit. Last night we had our annual fondue dinner (because cheese and bread definitely CAN be dinner), and today after a Hart family strength session we will begin the rest of our festivities in earnest.
But before I jump into my reindeer antlers, here is week 16 for the Birkie Countdown. While last week was “OO,” this week is “PP.” On my way to Houghton for my sister’s Junior Nationals Qualifier races, we stopped in Cable at our cabin to split up the drive. This meant I had the chance to stop by the Birkie offices and sit down with the Birkie Executive Director Ben Popp. Among other things, we talked about Phase 1 of the fundraising campaign (maybe this week should have been a “PPP”) and more specifically the need behind a permanent start. Take a couple minutes and read his interview, and then make sure the cat isn’t attacking the ornaments (our cat’s latest move). Thank you to Ben Popp for all that you do, and also for answering my questions!
What did your path to the Birkie foundation look like?
I grew up not far from here in Phillips, and some of my earliest memories are of the Birkie– coming over with my parents in the late 70s, doing the first Barnebirkies, meeting Bill Koch in 80, so it was always a big part of my life. After I graduated from St. Olaf I coached at Carleton and St. Marys, and then we moved to the Twin Cities, Megan (Ben’s wife) went to medical school and I started endurance athlete training programs. I really liked it and wanted to do more big group stuff. That’s when Mike Nightengale and I started the Sisu foundation in the mid 2000s. That was like the Birkie foundation but a lot smaller and I loved it. Moving forward, we were living in Lake Elmo, our kids were young, it was great, but it just wasn’t for us. Skiing was a huge part of what we did, and then Ned Zimmerman (Ben’s predecessor) said he was going to retire. And then we thought maybe we should move to Hayward. We’d bought some land up here, and we thought when the kids graduate we’ll move up there. But Megan was switching jobs, Ned said he was going to retire, and we said, gosh I should apply, that would be really cool. It would be like Sisu but bigger. And then I got the job, Megan got a job here as well working for Essentia, and it was like a dream come true. It was a great medium to really promote skiing. To me it isn’t just a big international ski race. It is much more the possibility of the Birkie being a really strong leader in sport development, and getting more people living the lifestyle we find so exciting and fulfilling.
Coming into the Executive Director position, what have been your goals and initiatives?
The race has been really successful, it has been here 41 years and it fills up. When I came the biggest thing was that the organization was a non profit with three very clear goals. One, put on a great race. Two, maintain the Birkie trail, arguably one of the biggest assets to northern Wisconsin. And the last part was promoting the lifestyle we all live and love, and the sport of cross country skiing. We knew we could make the race a better experience by creating better bussing, better flow, wider trails, tactical things. We knew we could evolve through that. The third part of the mission was what I thought the organization could really step up in and take a leadership role not just in Wisconsin but in the whole US. There are a lot of people that say, “oh we want to get more people moving or active,” but we had a medium to really do that. So that’s where I wanted to put the focus. The foundation always had sport and skier development grants, but I felt like we could take a more active role in that. That’s the next generation of skiers, and having my wife in the health care industry and having a first hand look at the obesity epidemic, and I want to play a role in changing that. Now we don’t just have skier development grants, but also birkie ambassadors to act as role models, which is important because sometimes there aren’t a lot of skiing role models. There are a lot of football mentors and basketball role models, but the infrastructure to support skiing role models was something really important to cultivate. We had to figure out ways to create entry points for people, taking down barriers to get into the lifestyle, whether through programs or reducing barriers to cost. And those are the initiatives I’m taking on. It is also realizing that these goals are not a 1 year, 3 year, 5 year project but that it is going to be a process.
In your mind, what makes the Birkie different and special?
That’s such a good question. One, the fact that it has all this iconic history and story back to 1206 and saving the prince, it is just a fun story. Two, it is this really epic challenge- something that is really very difficult. Three, there is this amazing hospitality of the Northwoods welcoming the world here and everything that brings with it. Four, there is all this camaraderie that builds around it, and it does, it inspires a lifestyle and drives people year round, and I don’t really know why other than it is just this crazy event. Funny enough that’s something we as a staff and board talk about all the time– what the Birkie is, so we don’t lose that. We want to make things better and improve them but we don’t want to get rid of something that’s a really integral part of making it the Birkie. So we want to add the bridge that will make the race experience better, and also that creates an iconic thing. The bridge has a real history because Tony Wise had the international bridge and everyone talked about the really cool international bridge. The Birkie has all these little components that add up to make this really cool event.
What is the need for a permanent start?
When we looked at risk versus opportunity, the obvious thing that hit us in the face is it doesn’t matter how great the middle of the race and the end of the race are, if there is no start line there is no race. The owners of Telemark have been really great to work with in giving us the opportunity to buy a permanent start line, so then the whole trail is in a permanent easement or public land through the county. Consequently it became an obvious place to start the campaign. Because now we have a place to create a really good infrastructure for race morning. It will be a warm place that won’t fall down. There will be power, heat and water–it will really make the race experience better. But also it is important because the race is for sure going to happen. There were years where we had some tenuous relationships with the land owners, it was easy to create that tense situation, so that’s why the need for a permanent start became really obvious. And there are other sites to look at, but again so much of the history was about Hayward and Telemark. So now we have the opportunity to cement that relationship forever.
So the permanent start is part of Phase 1, what do the other phases look like?
This is part of a 5 year strategic plan. We broke the phases down in terms of priority in risk versus opportunity. The second phase is all about the trail and making it sustainable and safe. The trail is 50 years old- there are issues with erosion. We want to make sure we can ski with low snow, make the trail much smoother, upgrade the safety of the aid stations like OO and get permanent aid stations at timber trail and power lines and gravel pit. As an example, last year we almost didn’t get water at an aid station because of the road leading into it. We’ve identified these things as being important, and also have looked at the trail and it’s sustainability, the classic trail, and the Korteloppet trail. The third phase, which is really the most exciting to me, is building and having a Nordic center, an outdoor recreation center. It goes back to the third part of our mission by enabling the active lifestyle by having a place to run, ski mountain bike, skate, and sled from. 80% of birkie skiers will come back to the area at least once in a year. This facility would be a gateway to get outside–someone who is just learning might need an easier entry than a car. Or even with a family, I might want to ski for an hour, kids for 30 minutes, Megan for 2 hours- this would give families the flexibility and ability to enjoy the active outdoors. It would involve working with partners, for example the county and CAMBA, but we’ll take the lead.
How have you approached fundraising for the phases, and how is it going?
We started November 1st, and our goal initially was to spend the year to fundraise 650,000 dollars with our first priority to build the bridge over Main Street. At the minimum we would need enough to pay the bridge by the start of the birkie, then by May have enough money to buy the land to start the work on the permanent start, and then paying for the work through the second year. Our initial goal was to spend 12 months fundraising for phase 1, but since November 1st we’ve almost reached 50% (in just 6 weeks!). So I think that shows that the Birkie community realizes the value of the event and what it can bring to the region. The economic impact is huge- it brings 32 million dollars a year to the region. Now that we’ve settled with the campaign our goal is to look for big donors, but if all 10,000 Birkie participants gave 20 bucks it would go a really long way. One of the strategies we’ve found to be really great is going out in each of the communities and doing fundraisers at ski clubs. Not only do we get to go out into their communities, but they also get to ask questions and really get involved with our organization and campaign. We’ve really enjoyed it, and something that we are going to try and do year round and keep adding clubs, anywhere a club wants us we’ll go.
Beyond donating money, how can people help with the fundraising?
One of the biggest things is to tell your friends, I think the Birkie skiers are really passionate people who don’t just believe in the race but also the lifestyle. Just by telling your friend, “oh you know the Susan G Kommen is great, please help support it,” people will go out and support it. I think the same message can be said for the Birkie and the Foundation. You know tell your friends, “Hey, these guys put on a great event, but they are also going to work really hard to promote skiing and a happy, healthy and active lifestyle.” Help spread the word from our a little community to the big world.
Thanks Ben! And the happiest of holidays to you and yours, may the snow fly and the smiles stay.
Ho Ho Ho!