Birkie roots run deep
It’s no wonder that Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, has such a burning passion to get children and families outside and on cross-country skis. He started skiing with his family in Phillips, Wisconsin, not long after he had learned to walk.
“I was on skis at age two,” he said. “I don’t remember (skiing at such a young age), but I’ve seen pictures of it.”
Popp’s parents started skiing the Birkebeiner in the mid 1970s. “On weekends, we would drive up and ski the Flambeau Hills,” Popp said. Popp’s father was also head of the Bill Koch League, a youth ski organization, and at the time Phillips had the largest chapter in Wisconsin.
In 1981, Popp made his first Birkie memory, participating in the Barnebirkie and being impressed by Telemark Lodge at the infamously warm ninth Birkebeiner, which was postponed two weeks.
“I remember meeting Bill Koch in ’81,” Popp said. “Wow. That was something.”
Popp’s mother and father are still “super active,” and his mother, Toni, is still skiing the Birkie, last year finishing second in her age group in the skate race. She is also secretary of the Birchleggings Club, an organization for skiers completing at least 20 Birkebeiners.
Young skier & coach
In 1987, at age 13, Popp skied his first Kortelopet, and he did his first Birkie at 18. After a strong high school skiing career, Popp attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he joined the cross-country ski team. (Incidentally, Allan Serrano, now event director for the American Birkebeiner, was Popp’s coach at St. Olaf.) After college, Popp coached the Carleton College cross-country ski team for three years, before leaving Northfield to coach cross-country skiing and soccer at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona.
Popp then got involved in cycling with his characteristic enthusiasm and raced in the 2009 Race Across America. He also formed Endurance Athlete, a private coaching service, and later he took over Ahvo Taipale’s SISU coaching groups in the Twin Cities and formed the SISU Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, which in late 2013 was rebranded Endurance United.
“We wanted to put together a Nordic foundation for all ages and abilities,” Popp said. Popp has carried over to the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation many of his SISU ideas – promoting community and family involvement, as well as a focus on an active, outdoor lifestyle.
Under Popp’s leadership, SISU took off, greatly expanding its programming and introducing new events and races. When Popp took over as executive director of the Birkie on June 1, 2013, he brought along his experience in fundraising, programming and managing large projects.
Former elite skier, now Birkie promoter
At this time, Popp was also putting together a string of impressive Birkie finishes as a member of the Skinnyski.com team. “I think my best finish was 26th in 2004,” Popp said, a year the race was shortened and finished in Duffy’s Field. Popp has skied 15 Birkebeiners and hopes to do the race again someday if he can fit it in among his numerous duties as executive director.
“Starting next year, one staff member is going to ski the race every year. We need the feedback,” he said.
Popp, however, doesn’t seem to regret not skiing the race, pursing top 50 finishes and all of the training hours that involves.
“I get to ski with more people now, which is the part I really enjoy,” Popp admitted. “Now I’m part of an organization that promotes a race that is so important to so many people.”
In order to protect and ensure the future of the Birkie, and a race that’s the motivation for thousands of skiers, Popp has not only focused on young and beginning skiers, he has also launched an aggressive fundraising campaign. He hopes the ABSF can raise $650,000 by the start of the 42nd American Birkebeiner on February 21. This is part of a three-phase campaign that runs through 2019.
Funds this year will purchase 80 acres for a permanent start area in Cable. “The land was a big deal,” Popp said of securing the start area north of the defunct Telemark Lodge.
In addition to locking up the land for the start, the ABSF looked into improving traffic flow on race day. According to Popp, it took him two hours to detour through Hayward last year during the race. This past summer, Popp also brought in students from Georgia Tech University to study the traffic patterns and to make suggestions for improving traffic efficiency.
In phase two, Popp hopes to raise funds to enhance the trail and improve its sustainability in an era of climate change. Popp and the ABSF will look at extending the classic trail past Highway OO as well as smoothing out the trail so it is skiable with a minimal amount of snow.
“The Birkie inspires so many people’s lives. Cancelling it is a killer,” Popp said. (When we spoke on December 22, it was raining in Hayward, and a World Cup race in France the previous weekend had been cancelled due to the weather.
Phase three envisions the ABSF building a permanent structure at the start line and enhancing the Kortelopet course.
Encouraging active lifestyles
The physical and capital improvements, however, don’t seem nearly as important to Popp as the people involved, what he calls the Birkie community – from staff and skiers to volunteers and spectators. He encourages every one of them to get outside and exercising.
“We want to change people’s lifestyles,” he said, “so we get more people who want to ski, run and bike.” After all, Popp acknowledges, one of the biggest risks to the Birkie is nobody signing up.
Popp doesn’t have plans to ski this year’s Birkie, but his family does. His sons, Luke and Grant, both 8, will line up for the Barnebirkie as he did over 30 years ago.
Despite not racing, Popp skis the trail as frequently as he can, often with his family.
“We need to get families involved so they won’t be intimidated to get out there,” he said. “That’s how (my family) got started.”
With Popp’s vision and infectious passion, the American Birkebeiner no doubt will continue to motivate thousands of skiers, including many new families.
“Every day I feel unbelievably fortunate to get paid for doing what I do,” Popp said.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.