Through circumstances beyond its control, Ski to Sea probably will not be able to live up to its name in 2015. It’s doubtful that any skiing will be involved this year in Whatcom County’s annual Memorial Day Weekend relay race, and the sea kayakers probably won’t be the ones ringing the bell at the finish line in Bellingham’s Marine Park.
But the good news for the expected 500 eight-person teams is the race will go on, just in a different format, which the race committee announced Wednesday, April 1.
The same low snow-pack conditions that caused Mt. Baker Ski Area to suspend business operations in February and cancel its own iconic event — the Legendary Banked Slalom — have now forced Ski to Sea come up with alternate plans to run the race without the cross-country skiing and downhill skiing/snowboarding legs that traditionally kick off the event. There simply isn’t expected to be enough snow.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was,” race Executive Director Pete Coy said of the snow conditions at the ski area. “But 93 percent of the snowpack is gone. I don’t know if it’s global warming or El Niño or whatever it may be, but we can’t count on that snowpack this year.”
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Coy and the race committee released their contingency plan Wednesday. The race will start with a new mountain running leg at the ski area and finish with a mountain biking leg on the trails south of Fairhaven. In between, the traditional downhill running, road biking, canoeing, cross-country biking and sea kayaking legs will be staged in their traditional order and locations.
The changes mark the first major course alterations to the race since 2011, when the race was lengthened to 100 miles for one year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Mount Baker Hill Climb. Except for a few minor alterations, the course has had the same seven legs since 1991, when mountain biking — which was later renamed cross-country biking because of its flat terrain — was added as a discipline.
Unlike the current cross-country biking leg, the new mountain biking leg will involve elevation change. Coy said it will start outside the entrance to Marine Park on the other side of the railroad tracks, use the Fairhaven trail system and Interurban Trail to Arroyo Park before climbing a technical single track on the north side of Chuckanut Mountain. Racers will then descend on gravel and paved sections of Chuckanut Drive before climbing the Fairhaven Stinger climb, hopping into the trail system of the Hundred Acre Wood and returning to the finish line near the base of Harris Avenue.
The new leg is expected to measure between 8 and 9 miles and take top riders 20 to 25 minutes to complete.
“This one is actually going to be a mountain bike course,” Coy said. “There’s going to be some elevation gain. There’s going to be some technical things that they‘re going to need to go over and through. It’s going to be a little more challenging. We think this is going to satisfy those people that have been asking for a real mountain bike course.”
After completing the course, teams’ times will be recorded and mountain bikers will have the opportunity to cross the railroad tracks when they are clear and enter Marine Park for a ceremonial ringing of the bell.
The tracks also created the need to use a “virtual handoff” between the kayakers and the mountain bikers to take any passing trains out of the equation. Though this will be the first time the race has used a virtual handoff, Coy said it has used similar logistics with multiple timing chips for early release of racers the past couple of years. It also will mark the first time kayakers will be asked to run from the Marine Park beach to a finish line near the park entrance — a distance of nearly a quarter mile.
While the lack of snow has been a nightmare for the ski area this year, it does present one small silver lining — the road to Artist Point should be cleared of snow much earlier than normal, and Ski to Sea hopes to utilize that abnormality to stage part of its mountain running leg, which is scheduled to start 15 minutes earlier at 7:30 a.m. on May 24.
Coy said plans for the leg, which still must be approved by the U.S. Forest Service, will take runners up the the road from Heather Meadows to the summit of the Panorama Dome — an elevation gain of 800 to 850 feet — and then bring runners back down using a system of trails in the ski area.
“The course is similar to what the downhill ski/snowboard course would be, but it’s in reverse,” Coy said. “Instead of skiers running up North Face, they’re actually going to be running down it. We think it’s about a 4-mile, 5-mile run. We really haven’t put a clock on it yet to figure out the distance, but it’s going to be a challenging run, because you’re starting at 4,200 feet of elevation.”
Coy said he hopes to have permission to use the trail system — a process that usually takes about a year — in a couple of weeks, though he realized there might be some environmental impact questions about staging a large race on the alpine trails. Should that plan fall through, Coy said the race committee has a backup plan to hold the mountain running leg between the downhill run and the road bike legs on the the Twin Lakes trail near the Shuksan Department of Transportation shed.
The lack of snowpack and resulting low spring runoff also likely will impact the canoeing leg on the Nooksack River, which could have unexpected snags and obstacles with lower water levels.
“A lot of racers depend on that current to create good times,” Coy said. “The current at high water moves at about 8 mph. At low water, you don’t know, but it is probably 4, 5 or 6 mph. ... It also means the river is going to be safer, because there are more beaches on both sides for self rescue, but it’s going to be a narrower channel and harder for racers to pass. That’s just the nature of outdoor adventure racing.”
First-year Race Director Curtis Anson attributed the uncertainty over what was going to happen with the skiing legs to the relatively low number of teams that have signed up so far this year. As of Monday, March 30, Anson said 130 teams had completed registration, though another 250 had started the process.
Coy said the race is going to extend its early-bird registration deadline, which includes a lower entry fee, from April 1 to April 24 because of the uncertainty this year. Register and find details at skitosea.com.
This is not the first time a lack of snow has forced Ski to Sea’s hand. In 2005, the race committee had to invert and shorten the two skiing legs.
But even that was not an option this year, forcing organizers to consider everything from standup paddleboarding to swimming and skateboarding as options to keep the race at seven legs before they settled on the current plan.
“We were hoping that we would get a heavy dumping of snow in February,” Coy said. “That didn’t happen, and we realized we’ve got a problem. ... Now we’re in April, and anything that comes at this time is not going to be sufficient to race. If it happened, by some miracle, that they got a heavy enough dusting of snow that we could go race on, we would go back to that course, but I think the chance of that happening is less than five percent.”