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Ski to Sea's downhill run returns, mountain bikers get new course

BELLINGHAM - The annual Ski to Sea downhill running torture test is back.

Ski to Sea race director Pete Coy announced this week that the running leg of the Memorial Day weekend relay from the Mt. Baker Ski Area to Fairhaven will return to its usual place in the race - sandwiched between the downhill skiing and road biking legs. That means runners will once again have to pound their way down the eight-mile course that drops approximately 2,000 feet from the ski area to the exchange point at the Shuksan state Department of Transportation station.

The race committee had announced in November plans to have runners compete on the sixth leg from Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale to Zuanich Point Park in Bellingham - a flatter course that probably would have attracted more top-end runners who would no longer have to worry about the strain put on their legs, feet and joints by the downhill run.

The November plan also called for the mountain biking leg, which has covered the sixth leg from Ferndale to Bellingham, to move onto the mountain in place of the running leg. But time constraints to prepare for the switch and safety concerns over the speed mountain bikers would make on that third leg of the race, especially with most of the course on the pavement of Mount Baker Highway, made the race committee rethink the decision.

"Safety is our No. 1 concern," Coy said. "We did some practice runs, but it would not be the same as race conditions, when you have 425 riders of different abilities going down the hill. We didn't get to take into account the adrenaline and riders pushing themselves to go faster. ... We could have some riders going beyond the speed limit, and we decided it was not ideal to have the bikers going down the highway."

NEW MOUNTAIN BIKING COURSE

COURSE TRAIL MILES ROAD MILES TOTAL MILES
Start at Hovander, south along dike to south end of Nielsen Road 0.75 0.00 0.75
Nielsen trail and road north to Hovander Road 0.53 0.66 1.19
Hovander to Main Street to Labounty Road 0.00 0.53 0.53
Labounty Road south to Smith Road 0.00 0.82 0.82
Labounty Road south to Sunset Avenue to Slater Road at the light 0.00 1.60 1.60
Slater Road to Rural Avenue to Kope Road to the end 0.00 1.00 1.00
Aiport Security Road to red zone lot to Wynn Road 1.95 0.00 1.95
Wynn Road to Marine Drive, including off-road field 0.50 0.25 0.75
Marine Drive to Edens railroad right-of-way trail 0.00 1.60 1.60
Trail to Squalicum Park 0.75 0.00 0.75
Cycle-cross track within Squalicum Park 0.70 0.00 0.70
Squalicum Parkway to Roeder Avenue to Coho Way to finish 0.00 1.36 1.36
Total 5.18 7.82 13.00




REVISED RACE DISTANCES

LEGS MILES
Cross country skiing 4.0
Downhill skiing/snowboarding 2.5
Downhill run 8.0
Road bike 38.5
Canoeing 18.0
Mountain biking 13.0
Kayaking 5.0
Total 89.0

The race, sponsored by the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, features about 425 eight-person teams.

Coy said the race might make the switch or possibly even get the runners off the pavement in future years, but not until there are other options for them to race on.

"There is an upper trail system and a lower trail system," Coy said. "If those two trail systems are ever connected, we might be able to look at moving the mountain biking leg to the mountain. Or we could look at moving the running leg off the highway, which would make it easier on the runners and also mean we could start releasing cars from the ski area earlier."

But for now, the running leg will remain exactly the same as it has been for years.

The mountain biking leg, on the other hand, will have an almost entirely new look in 2009.

Part of the original reason the race committee looked at switching the two legs is because the race will no longer be able to use a portion of the dike along the Nooksack River to stage the mountain biking leg. That would mean a course that some mountain bikers were already complaining was a little too easy would become even less challenging.

But Coy announced a new, longer mountain biking course that will include some cycle-cross features and should better test participants.

The new course will still start at Hovander Homestead Park and head south along the river dike to the south end of Nielsen Road, but it will now turn back and head to Main Street in Ferndale. The course will then follow some county roads near Interstate 5 to land owned by the Port of Bellingham at Bellingham International Airport.

Coy said the airport has agreed on race day to allow riders to follow a course behind the airport to Wynn Road. Riders will then ride down Wynn Road to another off-road section in a field owned by the city of Bellingham near Wynn and Marine Drive. The new course then follows Marine Drive to Squalicum Creek Park before taking to the streets to the final exchange point at Zuanich Point Park.

"This is a new course that riders have never been on," Coy said. "We think it's going to be really fun for them and challenge them. It's longer, and there are now places along the course where we can build cycle-cross obstacles to test their skills."

Those areas include Hovander park, the red zone behind the airport, the city field at the corner of Wynn and Marine and in Squalicum Creek Park.

The new course, which should be a little more spectator friendly than the old one that was staged primarily on private land, also keeps mountain bikers off the beach near Squalicum Harbor where sand and sea water got in bike gears.

The new course will be four miles longer, at 13 miles, with about 40 percent on trails and the rest on roads.

The entire race length will now be 89 miles.

Coy said he expects top bikers to need approximately 45 minutes to complete the new course, an increase from the 30 minutes it took on the old one. For that reason, the overall race start time will remain a half hour earlier at 8 a.m., Coy said.

"We feel we have a course that mountain bikers will have a lot of fun on," Coy said.

"After the 2009 race, I think we're going to sit down and examine the entire course and see if we're on the best routes that we can be. There may be some better places to stage some of the legs of the race that we hadn't thought about before. We'll look at all of those after the 2009 race."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2271.

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