The Ski to Sea race may not have had ski and didn’t end at the sea, but the modified 2015 version still was a hit with many racers.
Two new legs — bookending the race to replace skiing legs canceled by lack of snow — greeted the roughly 350 teams, with the new mountain biking leg getting rave reviews from many racers.
Heather Meadows looked more like meadows than a ski area on race day. The paltry snowfall this winter was gone from the cross-country ski course — the usual first of seven legs of Ski to Sea — but conditions on Sunday, May 24, created an opportunity for a different category of athlete.
Maria Dalzot of Bellingham used the 3.3-mile alpine run — Ski to Sea’s replacement first leg — to warm up for longer runs this year. Dalzot recently made the Senior U.S. World Mountain Running Team, and she’ll represent her country on July 4 in an alpine marathon in Switzerland.
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Dalzot, running in the women’s competitive division for SHEroes, was the first woman to finish and the 14th runner overall with a time of 24 minutes, 37 seconds.
Runners of all levels, including Dalzot, complimented — or cursed — the course for its degree of difficulty.
The alpine race started near 3,600 feet in elevation and ended at 4,200 feet, with all of the 600-foot gain in the first half of the race. Less experienced runners reported starting too fast and getting gassed going up the hill, which they could barely walk up.
“It’s always hard to climb up a mountain, no matter the fitness level, no matter the altitude,” Dalzot said.
Ike Griffith, with Fairhaven Runners, finished the alpine run first overall with a time of 21:15. A senior cross-country runner at Western Washington University, Griffith said the course was challenging. He slipped a lot on the muddy, twisty course.
“We run the Chuckanuts a lot,” Griffith said of his college team. “I’d say they’re comparable, but it was tough.”
It was much tougher for the recreational runners. The last 50 or so teams took at least 40 minutes to finish the leg.
Most of the traditional legs — downhill run, road bike, cross-country bike and kayak — went relatively smoothly for the majority of competitors in the 99 1/2-mile modified race.
The canoe leg, however, was expected to be a bit rougher than usual.
The Nooksack River, already shallow due to a meager snowpack in the North Cascades, dropped another foot overnight. The river was running low and slow Sunday, about 4 mph, meaning fewer places to spill out but more sticks and rocks to run into, and a more intense workout for paddlers. Hundreds of canoes were set up to ship off on a sand bar a few hundred feet from the regular launch point.
At a safety meeting before the canoe leg, volunteer Sue Schwab gave some simple advice to canoeists if they wanted to overcome the sluggish, lake-like 18.5-mile stretch of river: “You need to paddle.”
“What?!” someone in the crowd shouted back in false shock.
Greg Barton of the Boundary Bay Men’s team said the slower river actually made the rapids easier to handle. Ivan English, of Aeromech Sensible Technology, said the river was “a little bit slow, but it was fun.”
Some of the less-experienced canoeists had trouble navigating the logs and snags that stuck out this year.
Peter Krautwald of team MasterBakers said he saw a canoe in front of his run straight into a log and tip over about one-third of the way down the leg. Krautwald came out of his own canoe soaked in water after he fell out just before the finish. He said navigating through the logs and debris was a “little scary.”
Of course, even with the lazier-than-usual river, all canoeists were still required to wear life vests, and some even took it a step further.
“Our costumes are very buoyant, so that’s crucial,” said Kirsten Gardener, who had dressed up like a T. Rex in the theme of her group, All the Spirit Animals. “We also have a sloth on our team, who ironically did the running leg.”
Team Awesome employed Star Wars masks to scare off canoe challengers. “Whoever was passing me, they had to watch out,” said 24-year-old Tyler Sant, who sported a Darth Vader mask.
This year the kayak, traditionally the finishing leg, was moved to the sixth leg. The wind out at the first buoy was measured around 10 knots shortly before the first kayakers entered Bellingham Bay. Seven or eight people capsized, though a lot of people hadn’t done the leg before, said kayak leg official Mac Carter. Despite the chop, organizers didn’t have to shorten the leg, but they did release some kayakers early, before their road bikers came in.
For the first time, the race concluded with a mountain biking leg that took riders along steep trails and switchbacks on Chuckanut Mountain.
Before they could even start their cycle, the bikers had to take the timing chip from their kayaker and run about a quarter of a mile to a bike corral. The run took the racers across the railroad tracks, which made for a dramatic few minutes between the top competitors.
Aeromech Sensible Technology’s Nolan Brady was first to cross the tracks, but when Boundary Bay Brewery Men’s team racer, Russell Stevenson, made his way down the racing chute, the railroad crossing arms had dropped, and he had to wait for more than a minute for a freight train to finish rumbling south.
Volunteers were on hand to time how long Stevenson was stuck there. The wait was to be subtracted from Boundary’s overall time.
Kulshan Cycles’ Kayla Kaiser thought the new leg went well and was not confusing.
“The course was well-marked, though there were some steep parts,” she said. “The running was different — my legs were more like jelly than I’m used to.”
Despite the markings and a volunteer shouting to watch out for a tree in the middle of the biking path, at least one racer slammed into it. Organizers had strapped a thin pad to the tree to lessen the blow, but it still posed a hazard.
Kristen McKenzie, who was riding for Boomer’s Drive-In, was a fan of the new leg.
“We have so many trails in this community,” she said, adding it was great to incorporate some of them into Ski to Sea.
“I loved it,” McKenzie, 38, said. “It was fast and fun. It allows you to hammer.”