Rusty Dodge decided he could no longer avoid competitive kayaking.
Five enthusiastic Bellingham guys didn’t want to let their sponsor down.
Five Bellingham women lived up to their reputation, as competitor/sponsor Kae Moe of Kulshan Cycles put it, as “a group of goddesses.”
Of such were champions made in the 13th Annual Bellingham Traverse.
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And it was all in honor of the life cycle of wild salmon as hundreds of human “spawners” enjoyed lots of community fun to celebrate the last weekend of summer on a gorgeous Saturday, Sept. 20.
Dodge, the advertising manager of The Bellingham Herald, was part of last year’s team champion for The Herald, but Dodge decided he couldn’t resist the individual competition.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a few years and I finally decided to paddle,” said Dodge of the final leg, which often confounds individual competitors who are strong runners and cyclists.
Dodge came in at about 2 hours, 53 minutes (times were hand-written by busy volunteers down to the minute, not the second). That was impressive, considering his time was only about 18 minutes slower than his entire five-man team logged last year.
“It was a little windier than we expected on the water. I tipped twice. I got pretty wet, but I managed to get back on (the kayak) pretty well. I was swimming,” Dodge said with a grin after bring the title home convincingly at the finish line at Depot Market Square in downtown Bellingham. “It was a good thing they shortened the course for the kayakers.”
Members of the five-man winning team from Birch Equipment agreed.
“The kayak leg was shortened to a little more than two miles (it’s usually a 3.6-mile paddle) from Fairhaven Boatworks to Cornwall Beach,” said Birch Equipment kayaker Erik Wermus, who estimated the “unexpected wind from the west” at about 14 to 16 miles per hour.
Wermus teamed with Mo Breiter (the 5.5-mile road run leg) Tom Fryer (the 6-mile mountain bike leg), Mike Finley (the 18-mile road bike leg) and Chad Norman (the 3.4-mile trail run leg).
They came in at 2 hours and 37 minutes.
“Mike Finley is too humble to say so, but he’s the guy who really opened it up for us,” said Norman of Finley, a highly competitive category 3 road biker. “He started in third place and gave us a significant lead.”
All five Birch Equipment team members thanked company president Sarah Rothenbuhler for her sponsorship, which they said gave them a boost toward winning.
Birch Equipment, a new team composed of Ski to Sea veterans, came in about seven minutes ahead of the runner-up Wild Kings, who were sponsored by VitalChoice.com, a wild sea food/organics business.
The Wild Kings, also a new team of all Bellingham guys, were Cole Bitzenburg (mountain bike), Matthew McClement (both running legs), Brennan Hartnell (kayak) and Blaine Glasgow (road bike).
Third place went to Matt Cooper (trail run), Brett Gerry (road run), Fred Burnside (both biking legs) and Jordan Malloch (kayak).
Race announcer Lance Romo counted 86 teams entered, so it was mighty impressive that newlywed Kristen Schafer (road bike), Courtney Olsen (road run), Amber Morrison (trail run), Kae Moe (mountain bike) and Elana Ecker (kayak) could place fourth overall as the women’s champion, a new team sponsored by Moe’s Kulshan Cycles.
“We’re just a group of goddesses,” said Moe, 49, whose team proved it by coming in only about a minute behind individual champion Dodge. “It just feels great to be on a great team that’s all local. It‘s an inspiring feeling to be with so many great women.”
Schafer, who recently married Tom Schafer, was well known for years as nationally ranked runner Kristen Carter. The 27-year-old athlete, always a ferocious competitor, is rehabbing a knee injury.
“That’s why I’m road biking,” said Kristen. “I can’t really run yet, but I can bike pain free.”
Ecker, 43, proved to be a tough kayaker, wind or no wind.
“It’s a good thing they shortened the course,” said Ecker, who managed to avoid tipping into the water. “That wind was tough even for experienced people. People around me were tipping, to my advantage.”
Morrison and Olsen, nationally ranked marathon runners, were preparing to run the prestigious Chicago Marathon on Oct. 12.
“I like being on a team better,” said Olsen, a 27-year-old former Squalicum High standout. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel better sharing both successes and failures as a team.”
Schafer said he is excited to see that Olson and Morrison recently started a women’s running club, Bellingham Distance Project.com, for serious runners.
Tandom honors went to Ted Carlson and Matt Davis, who were listed as coming in at 2:51. The husband-wife team of Jacob and Beth Hartsoch won mixed honors and Greg Harnish and Rusty Crocker took master’s recognition.
In all, announcer Romo counted 27 solo starting entrants in the Chinook Division, 29 tandem entrants in the Coho Division and 86 teams in the Chum Division, meaning well over 500 athletes enjoyed one of the highlights of Bellingham’s outdoors calendar.
It’s a low-key, friendly event where so many people know each other and it seems as though thousands of competitors, family members and friends celebrate the day and the cause. The vast majority of entrants live in Whatcom County, where wild salmon are revered.
Times and places are hand-recorded by the entrants’ numbers the old-fashioned way by volunteers, all of whom are a big part of the event. There are no chip-times here, although there is an electronic clock at the end of the course.
The name of winner Birch Equipment was corrected Sept. 21, 2014.