Ski to Sea

After battling the elements, uncertainty the only guarantee for 2015 Ski to Sea Race

Ski to Sea executive director Pete Coy admits he was hoping for a nice, quiet ride off into the sunset on Sunday, May 24. OK, this is Ski to Sea, so maybe it was a hard-charging ski, run, pedal or paddle into retirement, but there is little doubt he’s earned a chance to step back.

Coy has spent 19 years volunteering on the race committee. Among the many changes he’s made since taking over as race director before the 2007 event, he has helped Whatcom County’s signature relay implement electronic chip timing, rework legs, limit its environmental footprint by instituting a green team, and celebrate the centennial of the event that inspired today’s adventure race — the Mount Baker Marathon.

In 2010, Coy also led the formation of Whatcom Events, which purchased the race from the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and watched the race grow to the point where it annually reached its self-imposed limit of 500 eight-person teams.

In 2014, Coy’s biggest goal was to make sure every Ski to Sea racer had an accurate time shortly after they completed their leg — something that had proven quite challenging during the first seven years of using timing chips, due to a variety of technical and logistical challenges — and “We nailed it,” Coy said.

With that in the rear-view mirror, Coy and the race committee entered 2015 with the more modest mindset of improving registration and polishing the race’s online website.

But Mother Nature had bigger plans for the race committee and Coy in his final year, as she and Old Man Winter decided to get stingy with the snowfall totals, effectively melting the “Ski” right out of Ski to Sea and causing a myriad of headaches over the exact course the race would take, some of which lingered until less than 12 days before race day.

This isn’t the first time a shortage of snow has impacted the race, which annually kicks off with back-to-back skiing legs on Memorial Day weekend. In 2005, a lack of snow forced the race to invert the cross-country and downhill skiing legs and stage them on different parts of the mountain.

But even that wasn’t possible this year, as only 128 inches of snow fell at Mt. Baker Ski Area from November to March, according to — about a quarter of the total from the same time frame a year earlier, and almost all of that is melted by now. It was so bad that Coy decided to cut short his winter sojourn to Arizona by a month so he and the race committee could begin working on contingency plans in February.

And keeping seven legs always was vital to those plans.

“It’s part of the tradition,” he said. “We’ve always had seven legs, and those teams that register early had (eight) athletes on their team. It wouldn’t have been quite right for us to have only had only five or six legs.”

Coy said as it became apparent the skiing legs would not be possible in 2015, he and the race committee examined a number of different replacement options — everything from swimming to stand-up paddle boarding.

Ultimately they locked in on two disciplines they had always heard were missing from the race.

“The two biggest complaints we’ve had over the years is the track coaches, both high school and college, won’t let their athletes participate in our race because our running leg was on the Mount Baker Highway on asphalt,” Coy said. “Going downhill like that is hard on your legs. ... So what did we do? We created a new running course where now anybody can be in it, because it’s not as hard on your legs.

“The second complaint is what we in prior years have called a mountain bike course was on level ground between Ferndale and Bellingham. That’s not very challenging for true mountain bikers, so we changed the name of that to cross-country bike, and the mountain bikers have said, ‘We want a mountain bike course.’ So we created one, and now we’ve got one.”

The new alpine running course will kick off the 2015 version of the race in the parking lot outside the White Salmon Lodge and use service roads and trails to ascend nearly 600 feet to Heather Meadows. The challenging 3.3-mile course will then take a clockwise loop around Picture Lake before the handoff zone to the downhill runners, who will take their traditional route down Mount Baker Highway.

“The challenge is catching your breath up there, because you’re starting at (3,600) feet of elevation and going up to about 4,200 feet of elevation,” Coy said of the alpine running course. “Having been a runner before, I can tell you it’s real hard to catch your breath. Those of us that live down here at sea level, our lungs aren’t prepared for that kind of thing. It’s a struggle.”

Coy said he expects the new mountain biking course, a 7.3-mile ride that will now anchor the race, to be just as challenging for off-road enthusiasts who have pleaded for a course on an actual mountain for years.

Mountain bikers will now take a handoff from the kayakers in Marine Park and sprint a quarter mile to their bikes just outside the park, hop on and and ride the Lower Padden Creek and Interurban trails to Arroyo Park. The course will then challenge riders with technical uphill and downhill portions on the north side of Chuckanut Mountain before doubling back. The finish line will be outside Marine Park, and mountain bikers will be able to re-enter the park for a ceremonial ringing of the Ski to Sea finish-line bells and, of course, a pint or two at the expanded beer garden.

“I think they’re going to like it,” Coy said of the new course. “The only negative I’ve been hearing is going up and back on the same path. Other than that, I think they’re going to love it.”

Planning the two new legs was anything but easy, though, as both courses ran into obstacles and roadblocks along the way. Coy admitted there were times when he and the race committee questioned whether they’d be able to keep the race at seven legs this year.

Each course had to be reworked and replanned in the final weeks leading up to the race, and Coy said he’s had many sleepless nights as his mind worked through solutions to any potential problems that popped into his head. Seemingly simple tasks —such as how the downhill runner, who will now drop the alpine runner off at the White Salmon Lodge and continue up to Heather Meadows, gets the car keys and information about where the car is parked to the alpine runner — all need to be worked out before race day, or they could create problems.

“We’ve had our challenges,” Coy said. “Fortunately I’ve got a real seasoned and dedicated group of volunteers that make up the race committee. These people live and breathe Ski to Sea. It’s in their blood, and they love this event. Some of them have been on the race committee longer than I have. So I have to applaud their dedication. They seem to roll with the punches, and whenever we get some kind of obstacle, we figure out how to resolve things.”

In between the two new legs, Ski to Sea will carry on as normal — downhill running to road biking to canoeing to cross-country biking to kayaking.

The speed at which they carry on over the course that now measures approximately 961/2 miles? Well, that’s the million-dollar question.

It’s expected the race will get to the road biking leg much earlier than usual — something that racers, spectators and volunteers on the mountain will applaud, as Mount Baker Highway, which is usually a morning choke point for the race, could be reopened for westbound traffic as much as an hour earlier.

In 2014, the slowest team on the course took 3 hours, 7 minutes, 32 seconds to complete the skiing and running legs of the race. This year, with only two running legs, the maximum time expected to get to the road biking should be at least a half hour faster, and possibly much more. Add to that a 15-minute earlier start, with the blast scheduled for 7:30 a.m.

But after the road biking, things get interesting. And once again, the shortage of snow is the culprit.

Less snow in the mountains means less spring runoff, which in turn means slower speeds on Nooksack River.

“It is interesting that when it’s high, the river runs at about 81/2 mph,” Coy said. “About a third of the field of canoeists takes longer to run the course than the water does. It’s the only leg of the race where you can literally fall asleep and still finish, and some of these people may do that, because the river goes faster than they do. This year, I expect there’s going to be more of those, because the river’s going to be going slower than normal.”

Coy estimated the river current could be near 5 mph this year, depending on rainfall 24 to 36 hours before the race, meaning 3 hours, 26 minutes probably won’t be the slowest time on the leg this year, as it was last year, and 1:43:53 almost surely won’t be the fastest.

That becomes a concern two legs later, considering the need to get kayaks off of Bellingham Bay before afternoon winds whip up some chop.

And the kayaks are not even the final leg of the race this year.

“This has been a real complicated year, believe me,” Coy said. “It’s like re-inventing everything.”

And with all that uncertainty, especially with what was going to happen over the new legs of the race, registration is down this year. Only about 300 teams had registered two weeks before race day, and Coy said he expected it to top out around 350 to 370 teams, as some racers have expressed frustration over not knowing for so long the courses the new legs would take.

There also may not be as many elite teams that recruit world-class athletes from outside the region this year, as teams have had to wait to know exactly what the course would look like.

“It’s always gratifying to see your race sold out, but I understand why that probably won’t happen this year,” Coy said. “With the challenges we have with the first and the last legs of the race, and the uncertainty of how long everything is going to take, that might be a blessing.”

And with as many challenges as the race committee has faced this year, Coy said he has had to take that approach a number of times this spring.

“We’re going to have a race,” Coy said. “It’s going to be a good course. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be challenging for those mountain bikers that have not had enough challenge before. We’re taking lemons and making lemonade.”

And if it all works out — if the new legs go off without a hitch and the river and bay conditions cooperate and everybody has a good, safe time — Coy’s last year of overseeing the race could be something that will be talked about for years to come, just as people still talk about the 2005 race as something different and an overall fun year.

“We’ve had a very difficult situation, and we’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to provide a good race for the community,” said Coy, who said he still plans to be involved with the race in 2016, although not as race director. “I think it will end up being a hit. It’s kind of like Apollo 13, it ended up being their finest day. That may happen here. I don’t know, but I think we’ve got most of the details worked out, and I think it’s going to be a very enjoyable event for the racers and the community.”

Ski to Sea champions the past 20 years

Year Overall champion Women’s champion Whatcom County champion
2014 Boundary Bay Brewery Men’s Boundary Bay Women’s Team Beavers Tree Service
2013 Barron Heating Boundary Bay Women’s Team Beavers Tree Service
2012 Barron Heating Boundary Bay Brewery Klicks Running & Walking
2011 Barron Heating Boundary Bay Brewery Klicks Running & Walking
2010 Boss Construction Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
2009 Bagelry Boundary Bay Brewery
2008 Bagelry Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
2007 Boundary Bay Brewery
2006 Barron Heating Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
2005 Barron Heating Open Boundary Bay Brewery Binyon County
2004 Barron Heating Open Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
2003 Barron Heating Open Boundary Bay Brewery Fairhaven Runners Men’s
2002 Win’s Drive-in Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
2001 Barron Heating Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
2000 Barron Heating Boundary Bay Brewery Beavers Tree Service
1999 Barron Heating Great Adventure Beavers Tree Service
1998 Team Arlberg The Great Adventure Beavers Tree Service
1997 Win’s Drive-In The Oocha Brewers Beavers Tree Service
1996 Barron Heating Win’s Women Team Beavers
1995 Cariers Barron Heating Maid by Fischer Great Adventure


2014 Division champions

Division Team Time Team members
Competitive Open Boundary Bay Brewery Men’s 5:40:08 XC: Brian Gregg, DH: Greg Ruckman, RU: Justin Ricks, RB: Dan Harm, CA: Brad Bauer, CA: Steve Carlew, XB: Russell Stevnson, KA: Greg Barton
Whatcom County Open Beavers Tree Service 5:59:07 XC: Todd Eastman, DH: Brent Molsberry, RU: Matt Cummins, RB: Ian Baldwin, CA: Brian Boatman, CA: David Williams, XB: Brian Ecker, KA: Brandon Nelson
Masters 6:03:13 XC: Rich Dressen, DH: Scott Simmons, RU: Shaun Marshall-Pryde, RB: Todd Gallaher, CA: Trevor Robinson, CA: Joe Manns, XB: Doug Graver, KA: Eric Moll
Veterans Bank of the Pacific Veterans 6:04:45 XC: Kent Murdoch, DH: Michael Hagen, RU: Chris Whan, RB: Rick Benson, CA: Nick Bauer, CA: Jim Bauer, XB: Ian Mackie, KA: Joost Zeegers
Recreational Open The Unorthodocs 6:33:23 XC: Jason Tedrow, DH: Scott Price, RU: Cody Velthuizen, RB: Matt Oswin, CA: Tinh Vu, CA: Joel Hoekema, XB: Matt Studley, KA: Eric Fast
Competitive Women Boundary Bay Women’s Team 6:33:29 XC: Caitlin Gregg, DH: Sabrina Harper, RU: Kendra Harper, RB: Rosalyn Rombaur, CA: Deb Chadwick, CA: Deb Bauer, XB: Janet Lightner, KA: Tracy Landboe
Whatcom County Women Kulshan Cycles 6:46:52 XC: Elizabeth Hartsoch, DH: Amber Morrison, RU: Alanna Steele, RB: Marti Reimer, CA: Veronica Wisniewski, CA: Char Waller, XB: Courtenay McFadden, KA: Heather Nelson
Corporate Bellingham Firefighters 6:46:55 XC: Mark Brennan, DH: Brian Jones, RU: Jake Jarvis, RB: Chris Ellis, CA: Christian Carson, CA: Brian Flannelly, XB: Matt Davis, KA: Jason Sims
Competitive Mixed Boomer’s Drive-In Mixed 6:49:38 XC: Alexa Turzian, DH: Calvin Collander, RU: Michael Molnar, RB: Michael Finley, CA: Linda Warren, CA: Barb Wilson, XB: Mischa Burnett, KA: Debbie Arthur
Whatcom County Mixed Aven Construction 7:07:28 XC: Mikhaila Thornton, DH: Leah Pappajohn, RU: Haida Iikeda, RB: Scott Young, CA: Shekinah Aven, CA: Denise Dibb Thompson, XB: John Clark, KA: Rick Lingbloom
Recreational Mixed BC Ski to Sea 7:27:14 XC: Will Schuurman, DH: Claudia Edwards, RU: Alan Thompson, RB: Pierre Vailancourt, CA: Tomi Johnson, CA: Duhane Lam, XB: Ann Lanari, KA: Iona Fisher
Family Tight Genes 7:30:42 XC: Tret Veltkamp, DH: Trevor Veltkamp, RU: Thane Veltkamp, RB: Jeff Boersma, CA: Keith VanderGriend, CA: Kerry VanderGriend, XB: Luke Boersma, KA: Kurt VanderGriend
High School High Expectations 7:42:36 XC: Nick Taylor, DH: Caleb Hale, RU: Liam Mora, RB: Shannon Mallory, CA: Isaac Day, CA: Scout Mora, XB: Adam Work, KA: Will Hutchison
Car-Free Car Pay Die ‘Em 7:47:05 XC: Tom Caldwell, DH: Dave Hooper, RU: Jennie Pittis, RB: Kieth Lemay, CA: Gib Morrow, CA: Kurt Fuhrmeister, XB: Chuck Pittis, KA: Meg Kelly
Recreational Women The Iron Maidens 8:28:55 XC: Autumn Moser, DH: Tianna Tsitsis, RU: Janine Cook, RB: Patricia Oliveros, CA: Karen O‬keefe, CA: Corie Hodge, XB: Lori Cucksey, KA: Amy Hammer

NOTE: The 2014 race was run on a 93-mile course that including cross country skiing and downhill skiing/snowboarding and did not including the alpine running and mountain biking courses now in the 2015 race. XC-cross-country ski; DH-downhill ski/snowboard; RU-downhill run; RB-road bike; CA-canoe; XB-cross-country bike; KA-sea kayak.