Conditions were soggy but competition was fierce at this year’s Ski to Sea, in which 500 teams skied, ran, biked and paddled the brutal 90-mile racecourse from Mt. Baker Ski area to Bellingham Bay.
Our Mt. Baker Experience team, though inexperienced, performed decently well. We placed 183rd out of 500 teams overall, and 13th in the Whatcom County Open division.
Sara started off the action on the cross country leg, which must have been wild because it was a mass start of 500 people with long, unwieldy sharp things on their feet and in their hands. Sara somehow battled through the mayhem, and managed to finish ahead of a majority of the other racers even though she snapped a pole in half during the race.
Casey O'Brien was our standout athlete. He crushed the alpine skiing leg, practically running up the mountain and skiing down in a blazing 27 minutes and 52 seconds to place 44th in the leg overall. He gained 79 spots, a major feat considering you have to hike outside the boot pack to pass people on the uphill.
The rest of us performed admirably on our respective legs considering we're all amateurs and had varying levels of training leading up to the race. For Kat and I, the rain and cool temperatures were a mild annoyance, but the four athletes who went up the mountain at four in the morning (Sara, Casey, Lael and Mark), must have been frigid. Lael had to be especially tough, contending not only with the downhill run that shreds up knees, hips and ankles but also the lack of a jacket at the bottom while she waited for the rest of the runners to finish so Casey and Sara could pick her up. Luckily Ski to Sea had a heat lamp, and Lael bonded with her fellow runners while struggling to keep warm.
Our biker Mark Cionek had flown back to Washington after a two-month campaign on Denali in Alaska literally the night before the race. He was guiding a 60+ year-old woman, and for weeks they were pinned at 14,000-ft. by winds and -40 degree temperatures. They made a last-ditch summit bid, but the lady forgot her helmet and Mark turned her back at the fixed lines just below the summit. Anyway, his post-climb, superhuman mitochondria were bathed in sea-level oxygen for the race, and Mark powered through the 42-mile bike route despite wearing parachute-like Carhartts on his normal road bike while everyone else wore unitards, had front wheels without spokes (just a disc of pure carbon) and helmets that looked like Alien's head.
I talked to Allen Finston from team Whatcom County Physical Therapy & Fitness, who competed for his sixth time as a paddler in the canoe leg. He said the rain was unprecedented in his Ski to Sea experience.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it rain through the whole race, and it definitely upped the challenge. Every leg was tough, but I think the cross country skiers and mountain bikers had it the worst,” he said. “The skiers were wiping out on the puddles of water, and the mountain bikers were slogging through mud.”
As for the canoe leg, which saw 1,000 racers in 500 canoes travel 18.5 miles of the Nooksack River from Everson to Ferndale, Finston said the river was running slightly higher than average and the rain wasn’t much of an issue. Finston and partner Greg Manning paddled for two hours and 22 minutes, relying on experience and what Finston called a “Jedi mindset” to coordinate paddling without the military-esque “Hut!” that some other teams employed.
“If he sees the bow going one way, he’ll switch and then I’ll switch to the other side,” Finston said. “When we both have to paddle hard, we can dig because we’re not in a race boat and we don’t have to worry about balancing too much.”
Kat and I were similarly vague in our communication. I steered by switching sides without using the jay stroke once, and she paddled on whichever side she was comfortable with. At times I tried to mimic some of the faster canoes who were paddling with rapid strokes, but Kat eventually convinced me that synchronized paddling was the most efficient mode, and for the last few miles (which were painful) we were on point. I didn't notice how much I was using my legs to brace until I hopped out of the canoe and they refused to work. I grabbed one end of the canoe and Tom grabbed the other, and he basically hauled us both (the canoe and me) up the bank as I hobbled along. Kat had bruises on her knees from bracing against the canoe. Pure dedication.
Despite the height of the river being an ideal 7’6” at the start of the race, Finston said there were still challenges, including a permanent boil in the river known as the “Mix Master,” where the river bends to the left near Noon Road and snags create obstacles for paddlers.
“We came through there and it pushed us sideways pretty good. If you didn’t keep it straight, it was easy to flip and they had a boat there with rescue crews for that purpose,” Finston said. “A lot of people flipped, and that upped the entertainment factor.”
Kat and I didn't really notice any troubles on the river. It was wide and open. Snags were highly visible and easily avoided. New Hampshire's Saco river in the summer is a far greater challenge to navigate, not just because we're invariably drunk with large groups of friends while paddling it, but because there are actual rapids sometimes.
The mountain bike section was next, and many bikers struggled to contend with thick mud that worsened as the day went on. Tom said it slowed a lot of people down on the uphills, when many people started walking their bikes. Tom's dual suspension Rocky Mountain Slayer was burlier than most bikes on the course, and may have helped him beast through the mud.
The kayakers paddled a five-mile zigzag across Bellingham Bay in the final section of the race. By the time they entered the water, the rain had subsided and the surface of the water was glassy smooth.
“The kayakers had a dream run,” Finston said. “It looked flat as a millpond.” Adrian was middle of the pack for the kayakers, which is unbelievable because he had kayaked maybe three times in his life before the race. Raw talent and desire.
The Whatcom County Physical Therapy & Fitness team placed 140th overall, and 25th in the Recreational Open division, with an overall time of 8:24:43. The Mt. Baker Experience team's overall time was 8:52:07.
The Barron Heating team came in first overall for the 11th time since 1996. Their time was 5:42:02. Team Aeromech placed second with a time of 5:46:42.
Problems with the timing chips that recorded times for each leg caused errors in the final results for some teams, but Ski to Sea officials said results would be fully accurate by the end of the week. Welcome Race Day Timing Solutions had five backups in place at each leg, including video cameras and volunteers recording times.
Tom hauls the canoe (and me) up the bank after the canoe leg.
The race was insanely fun, but also exhausting. Amy and Molly greeted us at the end of our leg with the most delicious orange slices we'd ever eaten. I was on the verge of collapse, but very excited to see how Tom and Adrian fared, and to meet up with everybody at the beer garden in Fairhaven. We strapped the canoe on Tom's car and went to pick him up and head to the finish line, but the line of cars leaving Hovander Park was at a standstill. By the time we got to Fairhaven, Ducky was just crossing the finish line.
Adrian rings the finish bell with joy after the kayak leg. Yes, that's a terrible picture of Ducky's face. No, he isn't having a seizure. He was just happy to be done with the race, and who looks good when they're levitating off the ground like David Blaine?
Here's the whole team:
From left to right: Marl Cionek, Tom Pauza, Kat Thorney, Ian Ferguson, Lael Bialek, Adrian Duckett, Sara Baker and Casey O'Brien.
Photos: Louise Mugar, Amy Weaver, Molly Earnst and Nick.
Many thanks to Point Roberts Press for sponsoring and supporting the team, and for the cool t-shirts! Tom will be in South Africa with the Peace Corp next year, but hopefully the rest of us will be around, and now we have a solid and easily attainable goal: improve.
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