Being the Birkie Volunteer: A Unique Experience You Will NOT Regret!
Silent Sports Magazine
Fueling the Frenzy: Behind the Scenes at a Birkie Feed Station
Coal shovels, 10,000 cups, and surgical gloves may sound like an odd juxtaposition of items. But the Birkie Fire Tower food station race chief, JB Ellis, uses these items to equip the 35 volunteers he oversees every year.
Coal Shovels: Not only do volunteers need to get racers their hydration and nutrition, but they also need to remove the thousands of cups (although biodegradable) covering the trail.
10,000 Cups: One cup at the feed station for each racer. A total of 100,000 cups are needed during the Birkie.
Surgical Gloves: Wearing them keeps your hands surprisingly warm, not to mention dry, Ellis said, who uses his Navy Medical Service Corps (MSC) background to think outside the box.
For skiers, changing snow conditions is challenge enough without the added handicap of a cup suddenly sheathing a ski tip or sticking to a kick zone. And this is just one example of the monumental task of organizing the American Birkebeiner, which attracts over 30,000 visitors, about 3,400 volunteers, and nearly 11,000 skiers to all of the events at the grandest cross-country stage in North America. “The Birkie requires so many little pieces, and I’m just one piece of the puzzle,” Ellis put in perspective.
Ongoing Prep & Development
Preparations for the Birkie are year-long. The dedicated American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) staff makes improvements based on feedback to maintain a world-class event. One major improvement for 2021 couldn’t have come at a better time: the new open-air stadium will be the home of the 2021 Birkie, Kortelopet, and Prince Haakon looped course finish necessitated by COVID-caused adjustments.
“I can’t say enough about the ABSF; everything is so well organized,” Ellis said. After nearly a decade of operating the feed station, he has yet to run out of anything. And it’s not as simple as providing the same of everything one year to the next. The ABSF’s preparations include modeling different scenarios, many weather-dependent, to ensure adequate supplies.
Although shortened and twice cancelled due to lack of snow since 1973, the Birkie has remained unscathed due to frigid temperatures, requiring skiers and volunteers to be prepared for the elements. Being a world-class organization, the ABSF doesn’t expect Birkie volunteers to fend for themselves in the cold all day either, offering a warming hut, food, and beverages at each feed station.
Everything from raking up thousands of cups to serving hundreds of gallons of water is amplified at the Super Bowl of cross-country skiing. It doesn’t hurt that Ellis spent 20-plus years in the navy, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander. So, in the scheme of things, running a major feed station is low-stakes for him compared to working in a submarine.
Kristy Maki oversees the Birkie’s volunteer program while Ronda Tworek coordinates actual volunteers and the race chiefs. They receive guidance and instruction from Kristy throughout the year. Kristy said, “JB does a great job organizing the feed station to serve so many people efficiently and in a manner that helps volunteers want to come back.”
Early on the Front Lines
Efficiency is essential with the Fire Tower feed station located early in the race, meaning racers are less spread out. After the seemingly endless climb to the high point on the course, anyone who has raced the Birkie knows the vital lift the Fire Tower feed station provides, perhaps making it the most intense feed station.
When Ellis was promoted to feed station chief after a couple years volunteering as security personnel, his can-do attitude made this a manageable challenge along with the support of the well-oiled ABSF. After nearly a decade running the feed station, Ellis can’t recall a single major mishap. Meetings are held throughout the year for chiefs to help each other. “I can’t say enough about the ABSF,” he said. “They won’t set us up for failure. Everyone encourages and coaches each other, with no one left hanging.”
JB described the “method to the madness” at the Fire Tower feed station in a typical year:
07:00: Meeting for chiefs prior to departing to their location
08:00: Fire Tower feed station setup with three dozen volunteers
08:45: Ready for the elite skiers, followed by “organized chaos” ensuing as subsequent waves reach the feed station and then taper as the latter waves arrive.
12:00: Cut off and teardown.
Early Birkie morning, Ellis gathers his equipment out of the dedicated heated storage shed. Since he started volunteering, well water, with solar heat plus a generator, is now available onsite rather than having to haul the hundreds of gallons of water to the feed station, which is all part of an effort by the ABSF to make the volunteers’ jobs easier. A team is constantly raking up cups and gel packets, filling 15 to 20 garbage bags until cutoff. At the end of the day, Ellis’s goal is to leave the area better than he found it, including washing equipment prior to storage. One perk of working the early feed station is that volunteers still have time to make it to the finish line to cheer on skiers reaching their goals, and experience the joy of the Main St. crowds, sights, and sounds.
The Joy of Meeting Goals & Needs
Providing nutrition and hydration isn’t the feed stations’ only purpose. Rather, racer safety is the top priority. A warming hut, ham operator, and ski patrol are onsite for the duration of the event. Spare poles and ski wax are available too.
Ellis continues to live out the motto he adopted from his navy days: “Semper Gumby,” meaning “always flexible.” And in 2021, this mindset will need to be accepted by everyone involved. The courses have been modified to take advantage of the circular route the skating and classic trails provide; race dates are now expanded to five days (February 24th through 28th, inclusive); and a separate area provides a finish not far from parking. All of this is intended to hold a fun yet safe event. (See birkie.com/updates for more information.)
ABSF Executive Director Ben Popp said, “When planning our events, the safety of our participants, volunteers, staff, and the greater community are our number one priority. We go to great lengths both on the trail and behind the scenes to provide a safe race experience for all.”
Although Ellis is considered a local, he finds most volunteers are not; many come back year after year. He considers many of these volunteers his extended family and wishes he could do more than look them in the eye and thank them. Summing it up, he said: “We can’t put a price tag on all the people.” And the skiers recognize this too, often thanking volunteers as they race and remain polite even during bottlenecks. “Volunteers do a phenomenal job representing the Birkie,” Maki said, “and we’re extremely grateful for amazing volunteers and chiefs, like JB, who are willing to take on the task.”
Come Join the Party!
For potential volunteers who may let their lack of skiing knowledge keep them for coming onboard, Ellis serves as the prime example to the otherwise. At first, his resumé had no credentials in the skiing world, unless you count skiing a few laps each year in sweatpants on a frozen lake. Aside from dressing for the weather, he doesn’t require past skiing or volunteering experience. “Volunteers just need to come ready to help,” he said. “They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” and the Birkie doesn’t get bigger in the cross-country skiing world.
“We couldn’t welcome the world to Wisconsin without our dedicated and amazing volunteers,” Popp said. “Simply put, we couldn’t do what we do without them and we are very grateful for their support.”
In a traditional race year, the ABSF’s volunteer program includes an opportunity for non-profit groups to earn a stipend through their volunteerism during Birkie events. All volunteers receive a 2021 Birkie hat, a yearly volunteer pin, and the intangible feeling of helping others. During the race, feed station volunteers get to see the elite men and women in both classic and skating divisions whiz by; their technique, strategy, and determination are incredible to witness in person and up close, and volunteering at a feed station puts you there. Then you’ll experience the determination of skiers working to gain entry into the next wave; and later, those slowing to survival mode, possessing their own determination to get to the finish line. As a volunteer, you get to see as well as help them all. And, in a non-COVID year, there is Volunteer Appreciation Party held at the end of each Birkie week, which is attended by droves of exhilarated, tired, and satisfied volunteers.
Due to COVID-19, volunteer protocols have changed for Birkie week 2021. Skiers are expected to be more self-sufficient so fewer volunteers will be needed on the front lines on each race day. With the 2021 races taking place over five days, however, the ABSF will still need to distribute the volunteer shifts to more volunteers over more days. Also, please consider volunteering by checking out the importance of Volunteer Local, the online platform the ABSF uses for volunteer registration and assignments. Learn more at https://www.birkie.com/volunteer/.