Ski to Sea

‘It’s like skiing on a Slurpee’ – Ski to Sea challenges racers

Watch the start of the 2016 Ski to Sea Race

Cross-country skiers take off from the starting line of the 2016 Ski to Sea Race under gray, rainy skies at Mt. Baker Ski Area on Sunday, May 29.
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Cross-country skiers take off from the starting line of the 2016 Ski to Sea Race under gray, rainy skies at Mt. Baker Ski Area on Sunday, May 29.

Ski to Sea started with a drizzle that turned into a downpour as the relay race returned to its classic format Sunday, May 29.

Racers huddled inside the Mt. Baker Ski Area lodge and under small tents and umbrellas as they waited for the 7:30 a.m. start time.

Competitors said the snow was soft and sticky, even slushy.

“It’s like skiing on a Slurpee,” said Sabrina Grecu, a 36-year-old downhill skier competing for Boundary Bay Brewery Women.

The rain led to some interesting fashion choices along the seven-leg, 93-mile relay that is Whatcom County’s signature race.

A few people turned plastic trash bags into temporary raincoats, including Austin Ruf, a 38-year-old former Bellingham resident with The Monkey Wrench Gang who was waiting for his running leg to start.

“Thankfully, it’s letting up,” Ruf, now living in Ballard, said as he stood under a drizzle with his upper body covered in a dark bag. (A few minutes later, it started raining harder.)

Ruf, who’s competed before, said the bag provides some warmth and helps keep him dry. Before he starts running, he takes it off to give to a teammate. And if the bag happens to end up in the lost and found, it won’t be as though he lost an actual rain jacket, he said.

Bellingham resident Alyson Carlyon, 31, was easy to spot in her yellow outfit.

“It’s just my pre-race onesie. It keeps me warm,” said the member of SheRoes.

Return of the classics

Many racers were happy the race had returned to its classic first two legs of cross-country skiing and downhill skiing/snowboarding. A dismal snowpack last year forced the cancellation of those legs, which were replaced by an alpine run at the start and mountain biking at the finish. That gave the race two running legs and three biking legs, along with canoe and kayak.

“It’s a Ski to Sea again – last year it was like the bike-run-paddle,” said Tracy Landboe, kayaker for Boundary Bay Brewery Women. “It’s not the same, you know?”

Several volunteers with the race sported T-shirts that read “The Snow Pack is Back.”

Mike Hagen, the downhill skier for the masters team Sensible.Technology, stayed home last year because of the leg changes.

“It was good to be back,” said the 53-year-old from Breckenridge, Colo.

‘The whole river’s uphill’

All canoeists were required to disembark about 1½ miles downriver and carry their canoes over an island, in what’s known as portage, because organizers wanted to avoid a treacherous channel at a spot called Maddog Corner.

It’s what you call Type II fun. Kind of sucks while you’re doing it, but you tell good stories afterwards.

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, canoe racer of team #calmerthanyouare

But portage seemed to be the least of the canoeists’ worries, by the end of the leg. The Nooksack was flowing lazy and low, meaning a lot of hard paddling.

“It’s what you call Type II fun,” said Jackie Caplan-Auerbach of team #calmerthanyouare, while drinking from a CamelBak. “Kind of sucks while you’re doing it, but you tell good stories afterwards.”

One of the car-free racers, Daniel Gamble of Slugñuts, tried to raise his sore arms afterward but couldn’t go much higher than T. Rex level.

“We were cranking it out,” he said.

Even in the slow waters, at least one competitive team, Neiner Neiner Weiner, capsized on the river. Paddler Brady Gustafson said he’s still not sure how it happened. Their boat started leaning on a seemingly basic stretch around mile 13, and the canoeists couldn’t recover. They got dumped out.

“The corners that are tough, you’re focused,” Gustafson said. “You’re looking at everything. But when the water hits you and you don’t see it, that’s when it’s bad news.”

Other than that, how was it?

“It was awful, man,” he said, deadpan. “Super long, super hard. Just feels like the whole river’s uphill.”

His team came in 22nd overall.

Beer break

The sun broke out by the start of the sixth leg – cyclocross, which required riders to dismount and carry their bikes over obstacles along the cross-country course.

Bonnie Larson of Bellingham handed out plastic Dixie cups of beer to passing cyclists who looked to be of legal age.

“Is that IPA?” asked one passing biker, on a team sponsored by Wenatchee Valley Brewing.

No, it was warm Rainier. He grabbed it and downed it nonetheless.

Bay lets up

Participants in the kayak leg were fortunate the race was not held on Saturday, May 28. Mac Carter, coordinator of the kayak leg, was out at Zuanich Point Park on Saturday afternoon when the winds were around 20 knots on Bellingham Bay and the waves reached about 3 feet high.

“It was a windy, messy bay,” Carter said. “We probably would have canceled the (kayak) leg if it was held on Saturday.”

The conditions were dramatically different Sunday, with a steady wind in the morning giving way to calm water and a sunny sky in the afternoon.

Too much elbow room

While the race was dramatic and fun, it was missing something. Or most notably, 1,416 someones.

At its height, Ski to Sea had a self-imposed cap of 500 teams of eight people each. It had that many in 2011, and 495 teams registered in 2012.

This year, only 323 teams competed. The drop is likely the result of a combination of factors, including disappointment with late changes to last year’s race and increased entry fees.

Many veteran racers waiting for the start around Mt. Baker Ski Area early Sunday commented they had a lot more elbow room.

So did some newcomers. Andi Zolton of Kirkland, in her first time participating in Ski to Sea, was doing the cyclocross leg for Boomer’s Drive-in, a team in the competitive mixed division. She had heard about Ski to Sea for years and was happy to finally participate, but was a little concerned about fewer teams than in past years.

“It was a really fun event for me to participate on a team, because cycling is usually an individual competition,” Zolton said. “I hope next year more teams return.”

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