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Finlandia celebrates 30th: Ski race events set for Saturday at Buena Vista

From left, Minnesota Finlandia board members Polly Merhar, Alvin Hymes and Bill Grundy stuff race bags Wednesday evening in preparation for the 30th annual Minnesota Finlandia Saturday at Buena Vista. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The Minnesota Finlandia will celebrate its 30th anniversary Saturday at Buena Vista Ski Area. That's 30 years of fun, freezing, thawing and fellowship for cross country ski enthusiasts.

Weather has not been kind in recent years. In 2000 and 2003, the race was canceled because there was no snow. In 2007 a shovel train was formed, using dump trucks to gather snow, and the course was shortened to make the race possible.

This year there's plenty of snow, and despite this week's balmy temperatures, organizers are excited about the prospects for a successful day.

On Wednesday evening, chief of trail grooming Mark Morrissey skied the course and reporting good snow, even on the "wall," a challenging hill on the west side of the course.

Morrissey says he is looking for a window of opportunity when temperatures fall between 30 and 20 above to conduct the final grooming.

"The course is surprisingly very clean of debris," said Morrissey.

Race director Mike Huerbin says his concern is over the parking lot. "If we don't experience a freeze, it could get sloppy," he said.

The Minnesota Finlandia began in 1979 as a 100k two-day race that required an army of volunteers, about 500 of whom included members of the National Guard. The race started in Bemidji, traversing Buena Vista, only to return the next day. In 1985, it was changed to a circular 60k race, held solely at Buena Vista, and later to its current 50k loop, which requires about 90 volunteers.

The race has evolved, expanding to include Buena Vista 25k Classical, Bemidjithon 25k Freestyle, Finlandia 25k Pursuit and Finlandia 50k Freestyle, plus a Bryce Ronnander Memorial Northwoods 10k Tour.

Kathy Rauch was the chief of race for the Minnesota Finlandia for the first five years of the race, 1979-1984.

"With every good organization you get burnt out. I built a strong core so I always had someone to lean on," said Rauch, who now lives in Woodstock, Ill.

Rauch returned to last year's race and again this year to watch her husband race and reconnect with old friends.

"It's great to see the enthusiasm on board and to know the vision is alive," she said.

Rauch can be easily spotted Saturday, as she still proudly wears the special Finlandia coat and hat that were presented to her in those early years.

Following Rauch were Mary Lou Muyres-Norbie, Vickie Brown, Bruce Manske, Bruce Slinkman, Andra Vaughn and current director Huerbin.

According to Rauch, she had many challenges. She had to be USSA-certified, so she did the course because it was part of a five-marathon national series. The toughest year, she said, was 1981, when the race was renamed "Footlandia." It was held in the first week in March when there was no snow, and because it was part of the series it could not be canceled.

"We asked a lot of the skiers that year," Rauch said. "Not all great skiers are runners."

"It seemed we always had goofy weather -- it made it tough for our groomers," said former race director Vicki Brown. "We have an excellent course. It's too bad it didn't get a lot of skiers -- the numbers hit a peak around 500 and stayed there. The whole town was flabbergasted how our races put us on the skiing community map. We experienced great fame with skiers from Norway, Alaska and the factory teams."

Most of this year's Finlandia skiers will arrive in time for race registration and a spaghetti feed late Friday afternoon at the Keg N' Cork.

Bruce Slinkman noted that two 50k Finlandia charter members -- Kris Nelson of Gonvick and Lisa Boulay of Bemidji both will ski this weekend.

"Every year it's different," Slinkman said. "That makes it history. We will carry on."