Racers focus on fun as Ski to Sea goes off smoothly

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 25, 2014 

The 2014 Ski to Sea race was remarkable for going smoothly.

After three years of woes from timing systems, bad weather and leg cancellations, this year went off without a hitch Sunday, May 25 - at least for most teams.

The biggest news was that the timing system worked flawlessly, with real-time updates for each leg. It was a far cry from 2012, when the system failed at two of the race's seven finish lines when a skier crashed into one timing unit and a battery failed on another. Many teams never even knew their times that year.

Race Day Timing Solutions took over in 2013, but again there were problems. Racers were wearing heavy clothing to protect themselves from what was a cold day with pouring rain. The timing chips didn't read well under all the layers, and only about 92 percent of the racers' times were recorded through that. It took four days for the race committee to piece together correct times for all teams, a delay Race Director Pete Coy found unacceptable.

RDTS and organizers made several changes this year, including reminding racers to make sure the chip was exposed and moving the timing unit target to an optimum height for racers to hit it. They also erected new red tents to funnel racers to the finish line of each leg one or two at a time, instead of the mass crush it had been at the end of some legs. And if that were to fail, three backup systems were at the end of each leg: manual input of bib numbers in two different systems and time-stamped photos of the finish line.

Tracy Landboe, who competed in the kayak leg for Boundary Bay in the Competitive Women division, liked how race organizers handled the timing this year.

"It's really hard to get all these people to swipe this thing just right," Landboe said of timing chips. "This year, I don't know how they could have organized it any better."

She liked the idea of having racers swipe their timing chips up at a bull's-eye instead of down close to the ground as they did last year.

"That's smart," Landboe said of the new approach, adding that she nearly fell the year she had to bend down to swipe the chip.

Even Mother Nature was on board with this year's seven-leg relay race from Mt. Baker Ski Area to Marine Park.

Conditions on the ski runs were better than last year, when competitors labored under a steady downpour after forecasters had predicted partly sunny skies. A low patch on the cross-country course didn't turn into slush this year, and skiers stayed mostly on their feet.

Both ski legs were a little slow, however, with the elite downhill skiers adding an extra minute to their usual times. Brent Molsberry of Beavers Tree Service declared the downhill course "pretty good."

"It finally got cold enough last night. Things firmed up," said Molsberry.

The sky was leaden but rainfall was barely noticeable near noon as kayak racers gathered at Zuanich Point Park. Also barely noticeable was the southerly breeze, which in some years has whipped up enough of a chop to force race organizers to shorten the kayak course. In 2011, almost half of the kayakers couldn't even get on the water because the conditions turned too dangerous, with kayakers overturning into Bellingham Bay.

There was no danger of that on Sunday. Early finishers at Marine Park in Fairhaven described the water as flat and calm, and the heavy rain held off until many of the racers were already out on the water.

While some canoes overturned Sunday on the Nooksack River, perennial onlookers said fewer boats flipped than in recent years. A water rescue team and a search-and-rescue helicopter kept a close watch on one of the most troublesome spots on the river: the Whirlpool, a suddenly swift bend in the Nooksack just north of Noon and Abbott Road.

On the riverbank men shouted words of something-like-encouragement into a megaphone.

"The finish line's just a little ways around the corner! Just another eight or so miles!" (From there, it's more like 15 or so miles.)

Last year, Sehome High School graduates Megan McIntyre and Nicola Morrow capsized in the first two minutes of embarking from Riverside Park. It was a mistake they wanted to avoid repeating. And not just because it slowed the team down to a 10-hour finish time.

"If we capsize again," McIntyre said, smiling, "we might get kicked off our own team."

McIntyre and Morrow, on a team called Un-"Convent"-ional, paddled in nun habits on Sunday, for no reason in particular. It was just a spontaneous thing to wear, they said. As a light drizzle picked up in Everson and turned into a downpour, they flipped back their veils and let the rain drench them, devil-may-care.

Others donned costumes that were more predatory than spiritual. The hammerhead shark costume worn by skier Kirsten Gardner of Seattle ICO Team 1 was anything but aerodynamic. Gardner, whose organization Inner City Outings provides outdoor experiences to underprivileged youths, finished 422nd out of 444.

"I'm not going to be first or fast, so I might as well have fun," Gardner said.

Runner Eli Loomis wore a lion's mane made of yarn, and everyone on his team, Car Free Menagerie, was sporting something in an animal theme. His team, which didn't use any vehicles for transportation, finished somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Their goal, he said, was something less than a division title.

"We're trying to make it back to Bellingham," he said.

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