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A warm winter made preparing for the Cross Country World Cup in Minneapolis difficult


For the first time in more than 20 years, the fastest cross-country skiers in the world are coming to the U.S. for a World Cup race. Thirty thousand spectators per day are expected to check them out in Minneapolis this coming weekend. But a historically warm and practically snowless winter has made preparing for the race an enormous challenge. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker.


DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Earlier this month, volunteers cheered on skiers during a race at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: All right, skiers, you're doing good.

KRAKER: With temperatures in the upper 30s, skier Tim Cowdry (ph) said the conditions were surprisingly good.

TIM COWDRY: Absolutely amazing, yeah. They've done a wonderful job, much better than I expected.

KRAKER: Which is kind of remarkable considering it's barely snowed in Minneapolis since the New year, and for much of that time, it's been much too warm to make artificial snow.

CLAIRE WILSON: We have been on the edge of our seats the entire winter.

KRAKER: Claire Wilson is executive director of the Loppet Foundation, which is putting on the World Cup race at the park. She thought they were playing it safe by scheduling it for February.

WILSON: It was not on the table that it would be difficult to put off this race in February in Minnesota.

KRAKER: Wilson says they're prepared for low snow years. Over the past two decades, the foundation has raised millions of dollars to build an elaborate snowmaking system. Trails manager Robert Ibler says they got off to a good start early this winter.

ROBERT IBLER: Snowmaking this year, and then right around Christmas, we got about three days of rain and 50-degree temperatures where we lost a lot of the snow that we made.

KRAKER: Wilson says they basically had to start over.

WILSON: I mean, we were really seriously concerned that we would not be able to put together a course.

KRAKER: What saved this year's race was a 10-day cold snap in mid-January. During that stretch, it was a 24/7 effort by crews using snow guns to get the track ready.

IBLER: We had probably made about half of the snow on the course that we needed at that point, and in those 10 days, we were able to make probably the other half of the snow that we needed for the event.

KRAKER: Now there's a ribbon of densely packed snow from 1 to 3 feet-thick winding through the trees surrounded by mud and grass. Not ideal, Wilson says, but enough to put on a safe race. When FIS, the international ski governing body, gave the course the official go-ahead, she says her staff was in tears.

WILSON: Because it just felt like, we can't lose this one other thing, right? We've all kind of had our eyes on it in a winter that has felt a little devoid of hope, honestly. So the fact that we can put this race on in a winter where we are all missing winter, I think, has made it even more profound and special.

KRAKER: Especially for the thousands of fans itching to see the world's fastest ski racers up close, including Lisa Garretson of Minneapolis.

LISA GARRETSON: Some of us barely got tickets. You know, we set, like, alarms on our phones to snap up these free tickets because they sold out so fast. But it's great because there's going to be so many people here just, like, losing their minds to watch cross-country ski racing.

KRAKER: The star attraction is Jessie Diggins. The Minnesota native and Olympic gold medalist is currently leading the World Cup standings. She's been advocating for years for a race to be held in her hometown.

JESSIE DIGGINS: It's taken 300 races in every country but my own to finally get to do this in my own country, which is kind of crazy. But that makes it even more special.

KRAKER: And, she hopes, will help further legitimize the sport of cross-country skiing in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF L.A.B. SONG, "TAKE IT AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daniel Kraker