Top finishers talk about the 2016 Ski to Sea Race
Beavers Tree Service turned in a historic Ski to Sea finish, becoming the second Whatcom County division team ever to win the overall race, nearly 30 years after the first all-local team was victorious.
History was less important than memory for team members, who competed in honor of former teammate David Williams.
Williams, who previously competed in the canoe for Beavers, was shot to death April 18 after arguing with someone outside an apartment in Chilliwack, B.C., according to news reports.
“He battled a lot of demons in his life and he did not make it this year to race with us,” said Brandon Nelson, the kayaker who anchored the race for Beavers and was first to ring the bell at the finish line Sunday afternoon, May 29. “David Williams was, he’s a legendary Beavers athlete. He raced with us for years. ... So we carried his spirit with us this year every mile of the race.”
The team wore head bands and tags that read “David Williams River Spirit.”
In addition to honoring their friend, the team managed to do something only one other all Whatcom County-resident team had done before: win not only their division, but the entire seven-leg relay race.
I’ve just been waiting for another local team to finish overall.
Gary Baker, who anchored first local team to win overall race
The first team to do so was “Lake Whatcom Watercraft” in 1987, said Gary Baker, the sailor who anchored that year’s team and sailed into Fairhaven (at that time, the last leg was sailing, not kayaking) before any other competitor.
“It was about 85 miles of racing and we won by a foot,” Baker said of his team’s win in 1987. “I’ve just been waiting for another local team to finish overall.”
Ski to Sea, now Whatcom County’s signature race, was first run in 1973. Baker said it took their team several years of competing and coming in close to the top before they and other teams collaborated to put together a local team with the best shot at being first to the bell.
Nelson said he didn’t realize Beavers was only the second-ever Whatcom County team to win the iconic race, but said it felt great to have won. The team moved into the lead when cyclocross rider Brian Ecker passed the rider from Sensible.Technologies about halfway through the sixth leg. Nelson gave up a bit of ground but held the lead to the finish at Marine Park.
“We always just say every year, ‘It’s just for fun, it’s just for fun,’” Nelson said. “We thought we could maybe be top three this year, and someone was audacious enough to say in a team meeting we could be in the top two, but nobody said, ‘Hey! We could win this frickin’ thing!’”
Flat tire does in last year’s champ
Last year’s winner, Aeromech, had the fastest time in six of the race’s seven legs, but its bid for back-to-back titles was punctured by a flat tire.
The team started out strong. Stian Hoelgaard, a 24-year-old from Oslo, Norway, was the first cross-country skier to cross the finish line, 2 minutes and 33 seconds ahead of the next-fastest racer. Hoelgaard, in an orange ski suit for his Norwegian team LeasePlan, looked like a fit Tony the Tiger in his first Ski to Sea Race.
Aeromech continued its lead through the downhill skiing and running legs. But disaster struck early in the road bike, when the bicyclist’s tire blew out, stalling the team for the better part of an hour.
By the start of the canoe leg, Aeromech had fallen to 31st place. Team members finished with the top time in every other leg, clawing their way back to sixth place overall.
Boomer’s Drive-In overcomes bike woes
The Boomer’s Drive-In team came in third place overall, and first in Competitive Open, but it wasn’t easy.
Boomer’s had moved into third place after the running leg of the race, but then their road biker, Michael Finley, took a bad spill by Silver Lake. His back wheel slid out in a downhill curve, and his front wheel hit the gravel.
“I did a flip into the ditch, clear into a 4-foot-deep ditch, with huge boulders and running water,” he said. “Luckily, I got caught up in the salmonberry bushes. Normally when you crash at 30 mph you’re — you’re in terrible shape.”
Finley guessed it took about five minutes for him to get out of the bushes and onto the road.
He rode the rest of the way, a 15-mile ride, with a police escort and a dislocated shoulder.
How did that feel?
“Absolutely terrible. I thought about quitting about 100 times,” Finley said. “If it wasn’t for everyone else on the team, I would’ve quit, for sure.”
Boomer’s Drive-In continued to encounter bike challenges into the cyclocross leg. For Steve Dempsey, it was losing his bike chain, which he didn’t realize until spectators pointed it out. Fortunately for Dempsey, it only took about 30 seconds to get the chain back on.
Ski to Sea is special to me. Not many places in the country have an event like this.
Steve Dempsey, cyclocross rider for Boomer’s Drive-In
Dempsey also fell over some gates while getting his bike going and was involved in a scramble at the beginning as three canoe teams got out of the river at the same time.
Even with those challenges, Dempsey said he had a great time and enjoyed the challenge.
“Ski to Sea is special to me,” he said. “Not many places in the country have an event like this.”
Even the finish line proved a challenge for Boomers. First-time Ski-to-Sea racer Austin Kieffer exited his kayak and then almost ran into the crowd, rather than toward the finish line to ring the bell. Once there, he hit the rope, but it took a second try with a good shake of the rope to get the thing to ring out for the crowd, which cheered him on.
Boundary Bay, Kulshan Cycles have top female finishers
The first woman to cross the finish was Tracy Landboe of the Boundary Bay Brewery women’s team, which finished in ninth place overall.
It also meant Boundary reclaimed the title of top women’s team. Although Boundary is in the Competitive Women division and Kulshan Cycles competes in Whatcom County Women, the two have been battling it out for bragging rights. After Boundary’s 15 straight victories as the top women’s team, Kulshan snatched the title from them last year.
Landboe said her team ran nearly neck and neck with Kulshan Cycles through the race. Heather Nelson, Kulshan’s kayaker, rang the bell shortly after Landboe; the team came in 12th overall.