Ski to Sea will celebrate its 50th birthday this year on Memorial Day weekend.
While the first official race was put on in 1973, the race’s history dates back to 1911 when 14 people raced to the top of Mt. Baker in the Mount Baker Marathon. According to the Whatcom Museum, the Mount Baker Club, a booster organization composed of Bellingham businessman, used the race as a promotional scheme. Not exactly a marathon, racers were set with the task of racing from downtown Bellingham to the summit of Mt. Baker and back. They were given the choice of taking a train 44 miles to Glacier and running the 14 miles to the summit via the steep Glacier Trail or driving by car 26 miles to Heisler’s Ranch east of Deming and running the 16 miles to the summit via the more gradual Middle Fork Nooksack River route. It was a test of endurance and rival technologies.
The race was disbanded after three years when a racer fell into a 40-foot crevasse in 1913 and wasn’t found for five hours. However, the competition served as inspiration for Ski to Sea.
The race started as it is today: A seven-leg relay from Mt. Baker Ski Area to Bellingham Bay. Racers ski, run, bike and paddle their way into the bay in what has become Whatcom County’s largest one-day event. It draws racers, spectators and tourists from the Pacific Northwest, B.C. and around the country.
This year, to celebrate its 50th, the event set a goal of having all 50 U.S. states represented by either a full team or at least one team member. As of press date, 27 states were represented. States not represented include Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In the lead-up to the race, Mount Baker Experience spoke with two teams with different and yet similar experiences, background and relationship to the race. One team hails from Washington and has been participating in the race for 30 years, while the other is returning for its second year and has recruited another team from Montana to join.
The Tumwater Shadies team formed in the early ’90s as a group of friends who grew up in the Tumwater area. Team captain Gregor Myhr, who has raced under the Tumwater Shadies team name all 30 years, heard about Ski to Sea as a student at Western Washington University and rounded up his buddies to put a team together. All had some experience at their respective legs, they just had to scrounge up a used Coleman canoe. Myhr said they probably finished in the bottom half of the middle of the field, which was around 200-225 teams at the time.
“We had such a great time that we decided to stay with it as young adults,” Myhr said.
Myhr said the team didn’t complete the race one year in the ’90s. The Shadies had to abandon due to a flat tire in the mountain bike that couldn’t be repaired. The team has finished the race every year since, although they have run into other issues, like tipping their canoe and multiple flat tires on the road bike.
One year, there wasn’t enough snow at the ski area to hold the cross-country ski leg so it was made into a mountain run. Myhr did it.
“It was so anaerobic I didn't know how to pace myself,” he said. “I got up to the top and I lost it — puked in front of a whole bunch of people, which was embarrassing. I haven’t done that in awhile.”
The team would host people at their houses in Bellingham and then stayed in hotels on Samish Way after they had returned to the Olympia area. Myhr said as the years went on and they recruited some people they met in the Olympia area they had a couple years of strong finishes in the top half.
Myhr said the team has a core group of four or five racers who have participated consistently over the decades while others have come and gone. He said his wife, brother-in-law and another best buddy all may have missed a year or two each but have been with the team from the start. By the 2000s, members of the team started having kids and as the years progressed the event weekend became more of a family trip.
Dan Jones, a fellow WWU grad who was training for an Ironman at the time, joined the Shadies in the early 2000s to do their bike leg. Jones has competed in every leg of the race since joining the team.
“The Ski to Sea, for me personally, has created a connection both back to Bellingham as well as being connected to the Tumwater Shadies team that is made up of some of the best people I know,” Jones said.
One of his favorite years, he said, was when he did the cross-country ski with zero experience. Jones said he clipped into the bindings 30 minutes before the race and crashed hard. He was fine in the race, but he said that’s what he enjoys most about it — “digging deep and gutting it out.”
Myhr and Jones have been swapping between the different legs since 2014. Myhr said it’s really all about the recreational vibe of the race and pushing themselves to try something new. He said it keeps them young.
“In the last decade, we show up and just race,” Myhr said. “We plan who’s going to do what, and people show up and throw it down. Because we’ve been doing it for so long the logistics aren’t even a conversation. We show up and have a good time at the rental house. The weekend’s a great time, and the race is part of the bigger weekend event that we’re doing.”
Someday, Jones said he hopes the kids of the Tumwater Shadies form a team of their own.
Montana team brings friends
Weedmasters Landscaping, LLC formed out of a group of outdoor recreationists based in Bozeman, Montana. Team captain Cole Herdman grew up in Bellingham. He watched his parents compete in Ski to Sea and raced in the Junior Ski to Sea as a kid.
“I always thought of Ski to Sea as the best of Bellingham, especially when it comes to outdoor activities,” Herdman said. “You cover from Mt. Baker all the way down to the bay. If you’ve got friends coming to town, those are all the spots you want to show folks.”
Having moved to Bozeman, Herdman said he saw the race as an opportunity to show his Bozeman community Bellingham in a fun way.
Most of the team members met or started hanging out at local Bozeman bike shop’s Friday happy hours. When they decided to form a team, they said they had someone to cover all the mountain sports. It was the water sports legs they had trouble filling. Micah Robin said he had little boating experience before he took on the canoe leg, while his partner had been a rafting guide. The Herdmans luckily had a canoe for them to use. Robin said they would have been faster if people hadn’t thrown White Claws in the river, which he said felt like littering not to pick up.
Most of the team drove the 12 hours out from Bozeman, leaving Friday evening, stopping in Seattle and continuing up to Bellingham in the morning, while some flew. The team crashed at Herdman’s parents house and enjoyed the local mountain bike trails in the days leading up to the race.
Weedmasters Landscaping, LLC is not a registered business by the way. Sorry, Bozeman readers, they won’t be trimming your shrubs anytime soon. The team was given their logoed, yellow and green attire from a friend who had it made as a marketing campaign for his outdoor “gear” business Dangle Supply. Dangle Supply sells titanium water pipes and bongs.
Ski to Sea has a history of local companies sponsoring teams. Many of the top teams each year are named after local companies. Some from last year include Birch Equipment, Boomer’s Drive-In, Inn at Lynden and Evil Bike Co.
Robin said when they picked up their packet at registration, a volunteer said as they were walking away, “Oh, cool, they’re all landscapers!”
The landscapers took 63rd overall and finished seventh in the competitive mixed category. Herdman said they had a fun rivalry during the race with COTTON KILLS, a team made up of many of his buddies from Bellingham and college. Herdman said from the downhill ski on they were neck and neck for most of the race and Weedmasters just pulled away in the kayak leg. He said they all hung out and had beers afterward.
Kaeyln Woods, who raced the cross-country ski leg, said some members on the team have discussed switching legs with each other.
“The cool thing about our team is that everyone’s super fit and super athletic and super game to try anything,” Woods said. “At any given moment, someone could change spots and totally boss it.”
The Weedmasters are returning this year, possibly with a different name, and are bringing another group of buddies from Bozeman to add a second Montana team to the race.