Talk to the top female athletes competing in Ski to Sea and they’ll tell you they love it when the races are close, when they’re fighting for the lead from the top of the mountain all the way down to Bellingham Bay.
Never mind that they might not even be in the same division. They don’t care. They want to go all out, and have a good time doing so with their teammates in the seven-leg relay race.
Take the SHEroes, which is in the competitive women division.
They came in second last year to Jack’s Bicycle Center Queens of Dirt.
“That was really fun last year, honestly. We were pretty neck and neck, a lot of it. We would trade off leads with Jack’s. That whole aspect of it makes it fun,” said Alyson Carlyon, the SHEroes captain who won the downhill ski/snowboard leg for the division.
Jack’s isn’t fielding a team in 2019. And this will be the third year that Boundary Bay Brewing isn’t entering a women’s team, after maintaining a streak of 17 straight wins in the competitive women division.
Look for Boundary Bay to return to Ski to Sea in 2020, when the brewery turns 25, said Janet Lightner, its general manager.
This will be the seventh year for the SHEroes and it will have two new racers in the road biking and running legs, while Megan Northey, who has won first or second for road biking in the division the past three years, will switch to cyclocross biking.
The change comes after keeping the same team members together three years in a row for Ski to Sea, a rare feat.
Carlyon will return to the downhill ski/snowboard leg, which she competes in with a snowboard. The leg is infamous for the 1,000-foot climb that racers must first do before they can ski or snowboard down.
That’s a challenge that Carlyon likes, even if she feels a little sick and her legs are on fire as she nears the top.
“You just start thinking about your teammates and that carries you over the top,” said Carlyon, a 34-year-old Bellingham resident and obstacle course racer.
SHEroes goes in hoping to win its division, but the greater goal is having team members excited about their legs and how well they did in them, Carlyon said.
“I love the competitiveness of it and how the community comes together for it,” she said.
An Olympian returns
Ski to Sea is also known for attracting Olympic-caliber athletes.
That includes Kikkan Randall, a five-time Olympian who will return for the third year on team Delicate Flowers, which won the competitive mixed division last year. Randall was the third cross-country skier to complete that leg in 2018.
In 2017, she whipped up extra excitement for Ski to Sea when she won the leg – not as the first woman to win that segment of the race but as the first person to win it, period.
The next year, she and Jessie Diggins won gold in the women’s cross-country ski team sprint at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, becoming the first Americans to do so in cross-country skiing.
Randall, who battled breast cancer after winning gold, returns this year to not only compete in the cross-country ski leg of Ski to Sea but also in the 8-mile run leg, which drops 2,000 feet from the Mt. Baker Ski Area to Shuksan Department of Transportation shed.
A pool of local talent
Spectators at Marine Park, where Ski to Sea ends when racers get out of their kayaks and run up the beach to ring the bell, know Heather Nelson’s name.
The 47-year-old Bellingham resident anchors team BNP Realtors, which is the perennial winner in the Whatcom County women division.
Nelson was the 13th kayaker to come in to Marine Park last year and the second woman.
The team won its division and also had a better time than Jack’s Bicycle Center Queens of Dirt, meaning it was the overall winner across the different women’s divisions. That also was the case in 2017.
Nelson has competed in Ski to Sea for 16 years, all of them but one on the kayak leg. In her first year, she did the canoe leg.
The team, which for a long time was known as Kulshan Cycles for its previous sponsor, has won the Whatcom County women division at least 12 times.
Nelson wanted to compete in that division because she wanted to showcase the athleticism of local women.
“We have this incredibly talented, deep pool of really cool women here in Whatcom County. I wanted to celebrate that,” said Nelson, who captains the team and has had six of the same teammates for 10 years.
New to the team this year is Josie Jacques-Maynes, a cyclocross and mountain bike racer who moved to Whatcom County in November. She will compete in the cyclocross bike leg.
To Nelson, it’s motivating and inspiring to be surrounded by other people with the same goal.
“It’s a huge part of the reason that I do the race,” she said.
Ski to Sea is about camaraderie, a chance to be surrounded by her team at the end, and a whole bunch of other emotions rolled together.
“Paddling, it’s an individual sport and this is an opportunity to do a team sport but still do what I’m passionate about. There’s that excitement and that energy. So many people have a Ski to Sea story.”
“They call it the Bellingham Olympics,” Nelson added. “It’s such a part of the culture.”
And like the Olympics, Ski to Sea is most exciting when there’s drama of the athletic variety, interspersed with lots of yelling and screaming and cheering as teams race, just seconds apart.
“I thrive on the energy,” Nelson said. “We love having teams we’re flip-flopping with.”