Ski to Sea focusing on perfect timing in 2014

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 23, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - With 500 teams of eight competitors each competing in seven different disciplines across a 93-mile course on a Memorial Day weekend with unpredictable weather, there are way too many moving pieces to give anybody much certainly about much of anything when it comes to the annual Ski to Sea Race.

Usually it would be a pretty safe bet that a team from Barron Heating will win the overall title - a crown it's claimed three straight years and 10 times since the turn of the century - but Barron does not have a team entered in 2014. Boundary Bay is a virtual lock to claim its 15th straight Women's Open championship, and post-race festival organizers guarantee cold beer.

But that's about all that can be counted on for Sunday, May 25.

Race director Pete Coy would like to add one more element to that list of certainty - everybody who finishes a leg in Whatcom County's biggest annual relay race gets an accurate time for how long it took them to complete their leg.

"Timing is the big thing this year," Coy said. "I really want to get that right. It hasn't been perfect before, and there's no reason it hasn't. We brought Race Day Timing Solutions back this year ... and with what they have learned and what we have learned, we're going to get it right. And with the backup systems we have put in place, we're going to get them all. No doubt in my mind, we're going to get them all. I'm determined, so we will do it."

Race Day Timing Solutions (RDTS) is in its second year of handling the timing duties for Ski to Sea, after it took over for Milliseconds following a 2012 race that saw the timing systems fail at two of the race's seven leg finish lines when a skier crashed into one timing unit and a battery failed on another, Coy said.

Before signing RDTS, Coy and the race committee made the company guarantee not one, but two independent timing systems for the 2013 race. As a further backup, the committee instituted a pair of manual backup systems.

But what they thought was going to be a sure bet last year turned into a giant headache when Mother Nature quite literally rained on their parade.

"It was the ugliest day I've ever seen as race director," Coy said. "I don't think I've ever seen another Ski to Sea Sunday where it rained all day long."

Turns out, the timing chips used to trigger a finish time don't work all that well when they're buried beneath two or three layers of clothing or under a life jacket by racers trying to stay warm on a chilly, wet day.

The result was the timing systems logged about 92 percent of the racers crossing finish lines, and it took four days for the race committee to piece together times for the remaining 8 percent that was missed.

"That's not a high enough percentage for us," Coy said. "We needed to develop a plan where we get 100 percent of the times."

RDTS and Coy discovered that the timing system did not log times when the chip wasn't exposed, so hiding it in a racer's fist or even a pocket limited the chances it would register.

"This year we're telling our racers to make sure that the timing chip is exposed," Coy said. "It's a bright, orange chip - don't cover it with anything."

To further increase the chances that the chips trigger the timing unit, Coy said the race's new timing committee will be asking racers to pass it through at an optimum height to increase their chances of having their time record. He's built bull's-eyes that will be at every finish line. Each finish line will be located under new red tents that will funnel racers down to one or two at a time as they cross the timing mechanism.

"Basically, if you have the timing chip exposed and you hit the bull's-eye, we're going to get your time," Coy said. "It's going to work."

Coy said pictures of what takes to register a proper chip reading are available on skitosea.com, leg chairs will discuss it at their pre-race meetings on Sunday and there will be a timing gate at the race packet pickup so that teams can see exactly what is needed and make sure their chips are functioning properly.

And for those few instances that still don't get logged, either because of technical issues or racers not following directions, the race committee has instituted three backup systems at each finish line.

RDTS will have someone manually inputting bib numbers into the timing system as racers cross finish lines, Ski to Sea will have a group of volunteers logging bib numbers on iPods and time-stamped photos will be taken of every racer crossing every finish line.

"I've never been so confident," Coy said. "It's because we've got so many backup systems in place that we've never had before. ... Racers want to know their times and compare them to how they did last year and to the times of their buddies for bragging purposes and betting and drinking and whatever else is important to them. ... It's our goal this year to make sure they have those times. It's going to happen."

And if the race committee can provide that, the 2014 race will be considered a success.

Beyond that, they've only made a few tweaks here and there this year.

One of the biggest also came about because of the rains in 2013, which caused all the cars parked on the grass near the start of the canoe leg to tear up Riverside Park in Everson and turn it into a muddy mess.

"We did a lot of damage to that park, and I felt bad about that," Coy said. "It cost a lot of money to pay for the damage to that park. I met with the mayor, and I paid for it, and he and I agreed that we would no longer park cars on the grass at Riverside Park. ... It tarnished the reputation of my race. We have a policy that we will leave every park that we use cleaner than we found it."

Coy said repairs cost more than $12,000 and took about a month of prime usage time to complete.

To eliminate the potential for that to happen again, a local farmer near the exchange point has volunteered the use of his field for parking cars. Harder packed soil should prevent similar damage from being done.

While parking will still be done on the grass at Ferndale's Hovander Park, a change to the race course should make it an easier exit.

Rather than heading south from the park, the renamed cross-country biking course - formerly known as the mountain biking leg even though it wasn't within shouting distance of a mountain or even a foothill - will head north out of Hovander and avoid crossing paths and delaying exiting cars.

"We're going to send them through a new cyclocross course in a field between Hovander Park and the boat launch," Coy said. "It will be the same distance as they went before, but it will be more cyclocross-oriented, and it should be really good for spectators."

The Marine Park finish line near Fairhaven also received a tweak, and this time you can actually thank Mother Nature.

With tide tables predicting high enough waters to avoid some rocks, kayaks will be brought in a little farther north on the park's shore, and the finish line will be in the north-central portion of the park, rather than on the south. The move will allow the park to accommodate two or three times as many kayaks as the 100 that race organizers constantly had to ask racers to move in past years, allowing everyone to enjoy the finish line festivities a little longer.

Improved early-release procedures also will allow race volunteers to get the kayakers from slower teams on Bellingham Bay earlier. Any teams that have been given early release on a previous leg will be allowed to start the kayaking leg early, as well, helping alleviate a bottle neck at Squalicum Harbor and ensure all racers are off the course and enjoying the finish line festivities by 6:30 p.m. - one half hour before the beer garden's new closing time.

"We're just trying to make the race better than it's ever been before," Coy said. "Quality is our No. 1 factor."

Reach David Rasbach at 360-715-2286 or david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com .

RACERS' TIMETABLE

This timetable was designed by experienced racers to help new racers with consideration to road closures. It is also suggested that both skiers, the runner and the road biker travel together. Drop off the biker on the way up the mountain. Pick up the runner after the completion of that leg and continue down to pick up the road biker at Riverside Park. Please note that Mount Baker Highway closes at Glacier at 7:30 a.m

RACERS' TIMETABLE
 Leg  Depart from Bellingham  Pre-race meeting  Meeting site
 XC ski  4:45 a.m.  7:15 a.m.  Mt. Baker Ski Shop
 Downhill  4:45 a.m.  7:15 a.m.  Mt. Baker Ski Shop
 Run  4:45 a.m.  8 a.m.  Heather Meadows Lodge
 Road bike  4:45 a.m.  7:45 a.m.  Shuksan DOT station
 Canoe  7:30 a.m.  9:30 a.m.  Riverside Park, Everson
 Mt. bike  10:30 a.m.  11:30 a.m.  Hovander Homestead Park, Ferndale
 Mt. bike  11 a.m.  Noon  Zuanich Park, Bellingham

2013 WINNERS
 Division  First-place team  Time
 Competitive Open  Barron Heating  5:42:02
 Competitive Women  Boundary Bay  6:47:26
 Competitive Mixed  Bank of the Pacific  6:47:38
 Whatcom County Open  Beavers Tree Service  6:03:35
 Whatcom County Women  Kulshan Cycles  7:03:42
 Whatcom County Mixed  Aven Construction  7:04:39
 Recreational Open  Greatest American Heroes  6:57:18
 Recreational Women  The Iron Maidens  8:35:43
 Recreational Mixed  Aunt Janie's Roadtrip  8:13:19
 High School  High Expectations  8:12:18
 Masters  Barron Heating Legends  6:03:24
 Car Free  Car-Free Slug Nuts  8:08:32
 Family  Tight Genes  7:38:07
 Corporate  Bellingham Firefighters  7:09:39
SOURCE: skitosea.com.

RECENT OVERALL WINNERS
 Year  First  Time  Second  Third  Top Whatcom (overall)
 2013  Barron Heating  5:42:02  Team Aeromech  Barron Heating Legends  Beavers Tree Service
 2012  Barron Heating  5:33:29  Team Aeromech  R.B. Wick's Warriors  Klicks Running and Walking (6th)
 2011  Barron Heating  6:11:22#  Boss Construction  Bagelry  Klicks Running and Walking (5th)
 2010  Boss Construction  5:47:55  Barron Heating  Boss Construction Masters  Beavers Tree Service (7th)
 2009  Bagelry  5:45:43*  Barron Heating  ClipperCanoes.com  RunningShoes.com (6th)
 2008  Bagelry  5:29:26+  Barron Heating  ClipperCanoes.com  Beavers Tree Service (4th)
 2007  ClipperCanoes.com  5:43:08  Barron Heating  TeamForACause.com  RunningShoes.com (4th)
 2006  Barron Heating Open  5:46:05  ClipperCanoes.com  TeamForACause.com  Beaver's Tree Service (4th)
 2005  Barron Heating Open  5:37:40  Clipper Canoes  Binyon County  Binyon County (3rd)
 2004  Barron Heating Open  5:32:37  Win's Drive-In  Moving & Storage Solutions  Beaver's Tree Service (5th)
 2003  Barron Heating Masters  5:35.20  Barron Heating Open  Win's Drive-In  Beaver's Tree Service (4th)
 2002  Win's Drive-In  5:28:47  Barron Heating Open  Barron Heating Masters  Beaver's Tree Service (4th)
 2001  Barron Heating Open  5:39:44  Win's Drive-In  Beaver's Tree Service  Beaver's Tree Service (3rd)
 2000  Barron Heating Open  5:28:13  Team Win's 2000  Clipper Canoes  Beaver's Tree Service (4th)
# Course was lengthened to 100 miles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Mount Baker Marathon.

* Revamped, 14-mile mountain biking leg first used.

+ Canoeing leg cancelled due to fast river conditions (two hours added to each team's time), and kayaking leg shortened due to high afternoon winds.

Barron Heating's team status in 2014 corrected on May 25.

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