Note: This article is republished from February, 2017. You can read Jay’s 2018 Birkie Update HERE.
Many Birkie skiers are at least casually familiar with the Worldloppet, which was started in 1978 to promote Nordic skiing through races for both expert racers and citizen skiers alike. The Worldloppet Ski Federation since has grown into a series of twenty Nordic ski races hosted in nineteen countries throughout Europe, North and South America, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin play host to the United States’ member race, the American Birkebeiner. Worldloppet races are marathon-length, 42 kilometers or longer, events often comprised of shorter races and other events alongside the long-distance races. In a few weeks, the Worldoppet faithful will begin arriving in Hayward for the 2017 Birkie. A special skier named Jay Wiener will be among them.
Worldloppet veteran, Jay Wiener, is a moving target this time of year. For the last two decades or so, Jay has pursued Nordic skiing with a unique passion and has the distinguished honor of holding the most Worldloppet finishes of any American, “One hundred twenty five finishes and a handful of dropouts,” Jay explains. He offers us a glimpse into the rigors and rewards of the Worldloppet. We caught up with him by phone in the beautiful Italian Dolomite Mountains preparing for the popular Marcialonga race held near the Val Di Fiemme Olympic venue.
Jay was born and raised in the America’s deep South. This Mississippi native was captured by the magic of Nordic skiing and has become a dyed-in-the-wool xc fanatic. XC skiing is a seemingly innate talent for many Northerners, but often novelty for others. Jay recounts, “My success with skiing catapulted me further into the sport… and having to make an effort to travel to snow made skiing that much more special.”
He now resides in San Francisco, about a four-hour drive to good skiing when the snow cooperates.
Jay enjoys both Nordic skiing disciplines, skating and classic, equally. “I liken both styles to having two children-you love both, but for different reasons.” In an important lesson for nordic ski racers everywhere, focusing on skating technique for a while tends to help his classic technique. And conversely, classic focus tends to compliment his skating technique. Some Worldloppet races are single technique. The Norwegian Birkebeiner, for example, is classic-only. Many others, including our American Birkie, allow skiers to select which style to use, and some even offer separate courses for both. Jay says, “I let my body tell me which style to use at a given time.”
With so many races under his belt, there were bumps along the way. Lost luggage has become a fairly routine challenge for Worldloppet racers. The race circuit is certainly not all glamour and care-free sight-seeing. Last-minute searches for equipment to borrow or unplanned ski purchases are inevitable. Our experience here at New Moon backs that up with each Birkie bringing a few ‘lost-luggage skiers’ through the door late on Friday evening just before the race. Jay advises would-be Worldloppet skiers, “Use your wits and best judgement in dealing with travel trouble. Race organizers and locals can often help with such emergencies.”
Other memorable but difficult moments often involved severe weather, including recent Birkies that were unjustly cold. Despite occasionally dangerous conditions, skiers are profoundly compelled to finish these races-even when the weather is brutal. Sometimes, there is more valor to dropping out of a race in the interest of safety and self preservation rather than finishing as frostbite and hypothermia can have potentially long-lasting implications for skiers.
Among the rewards for dedicated Worldloppet racers is the completion of the Worldloppet Passport. A passport is completed by finishing ten different races from at least two continents. Passports may be completed over the course of several years with ambitious racers occasionally completing them in a single year. Jay is now nearing completion of his thirteenth Worldloppet Passport and has already started filling his fourteenth and fifteenth passports! Perhaps the greatest reward for Worldloppet skiers are the lifelong friendships with other skiers from around the globe. Each race is a reunion of sorts for old friends-renewing friendly rivalries and ultimately forging new friendships and rivalries.
When pressed on which race might be his favorite, Jay is reluctant to commit to just one. Each event offers its own special atmosphere, history, tradition, and culture. Two favorites, however, are Italy’s Maricalonga with its rich South Tyrolean culture, and Wisconsin’s American Birkie. “The Birkie is Northwest Wisconsin at its best” according to Jay. He is fiercely proud of the his home country’s race and rightly so. The recent addition of the new Birkie start venue “should be the envy of the Worldloppet Series,” Jay says, “and the downtown Hayward finish on Main Street is among the best anywhere.” Of particular importance to Jay’s glowing Birkie critique is the remarkable volunteer effort, race organization, and regional community that backs the Birkie, “The gold standard for Worldloppet events.” In fact, Jay explained, in the end, “each Worldloppet race has its own wealth of special character, and each racer his or her favorites.”
Jay will be back soon for the 2017 Birkie. Enroute to Hayward, though, there are other races to be completed: Lahti Finland’s Finlandia Hiito celebrating 100 years of independence from Russia, La Transjurassienne in the French Alps, and the Gatineau Loppet held in Quebec, near Ottawa, Ontario. Following the Birkie, his busy calendar continues with three famous races: the Swedish Vasaloppet, Engadin Ski Marathon in Switzerland, and the Norwegian Birkebeiner, or “Birken,” as it’s now referred to.
While the Worldloppet endeavor drives Jay’s pursuit, it is his greater love of Nordic skiing aside from racing which defines his most memorable experiences on skis. Topping that list is skiing with a friend up to Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, without the burden of a race timing clock.
Beyond skiing, Jay has a keen interest in culture and literature from around the US and around the globe. He’s also closely involved with the rebuilding of the Mississippi State History Museum badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina and establishment of the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
We truly look forward to further sharing the history and culture of NW Wisconsin with Jay at the 2017 Birkie. Good luck to Jay and all Birkie skiers this year!