Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ski to Sea 2011 - A Race for the Ages!

Ahh, Memorial Day Weekend!  For most people, it is a 3 (sometimes 4) day weekend where they don’t have to work, or it means time and a half pay.  For others, it has special meaning.  Especially to those in the US Armed Forces and their families.  Currently, my sister and her husband are serving in the US Navy and I’ve met many of their friends who are serving as well.  Our grandfather is a Pearl Harbor Survivor, stationed aboard the U.S.S. Maryland, as well as several uncles who have served in various branches.  It is a day of celebration and remembrance. And it is a day to say "Thank You" to all the men and women serving as well as those who have served in the past.

For most, it is a chance to break out the grill and pig out on food; which is what I did among other things.  For me, not only is it a day of remembrance and celebration, it is also a day of competition.

Competition?  Memorial Day Weekend?  Yup, you read correctly - read on!

The 2011 Ski to Sea Course Map
Every year for the last 100 years in Bellingham, WA, there has been some form of a race that has evolved over the years.  In its current state, the Ski to Sea race is a 100 mile long relay race with 8 members to a team, 7 different sports, all competing to get from the Mt. Baker Ski Area to the finish line in the Fairhaven district of Bellingham.  This year, 500 teams competed - what a blast!

Here's how the race works:
There is one timing chip for each team that is passed between teammates at exchange points.  Beginning at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, the first leg begins at promptly 8 AM with cross country skiing.  The cross country skier glides through the trees for 4 miles around the base of the ski area, going up some minor (although our cross country skier will dispute this description) hills before handing the chip off to the waiting downhill skier.  Oh if only this competition was kind enough to allow us to ride the chair up for this leg.  

Yeah, right.

The “uphill” skier receives the timing chip, skis a couple football field lengths to the base of the slope and looks up the hill wondering what the heck he got himself into (can you tell I did this leg before?).  The skis come off and thus begins the long hike, all 1500’ elevation gain.  After reaching the top, the “uphill” skier finally becomes a downhill skier and skis back down to the base where the chip is handed off to the runner.

Ooh, running?  The run is 8 miles long.  I  can hear you saying, “Pfft, 8 miles?  That’s nothing.”  You’re right, it isn’t much.  But try it with a 2200’ elevation drop and get back to those who have done it.  If you’ve ever gone skiing in the mountains, you understand how steep the road can get.  It is murder on the quads.  At the finish line, the road cyclist is waiting for the burning thighs to cross the exchange point and get started on a 42 mile bike ride.

Egads, 42 miles?!  While I’ve never done this leg, it can be quite a challenge, especially if people aren’t avid cyclists.  However, people who compete live for this leg!  They ride from the Washington DOT building on Highway 542 and head towards Riverside Park, in Everson where they pass the timing chip to the canoe team (the canoe leg is the only leg with two people).

Canoeing sounds fun, doesn’t it?  We all remember going for canoe rides at summer camp at the lake, very leisurely, right?  This is a competition.  There’s no leisurely pace here, folks.  These people mean serious business, despite paddling for a distance of 18.5 miles down the Nooksack River.  Conditions have an impact on the race, such as high water levels, winds (this year’s race had windy conditions).  When the canoeists reach Hovander Park after meandering through the bends, they hand off the timing chip to the waiting mountain biker.

Bobbing and weaving through single-track, getting bogged down in marshes, dealing with the jackhammer sensation of riding on train tracks, grassy fields that act like sludge slowing down your bike, these were no easy 20 miles.  The majority of the mountain bikers looked like they had a blast - covered head to toe in mud.  At the finish line (the official finish for the mountain bikers, anyway), they hand off the chip to the kayaker.

After sprinting 200 yards from the mountain biker/kayak handoff point, they must find their kayak among a whole sea and carry their kayak down to the dock.  This is the final stretch!  The calm conditions inside the marina are misleading - once they’re out in open waters, there’s high waves and strong headwinds.  The course is lined with boats of the Whatcom County Sheriff Dept, Bellingham Police, and even the US Coast Guard, ready to bail out any who needed help.  On this day, quite a few people capsized due to the conditions.  After paddling for 5 miles, the finish line is finally in sight, lined with teammates and supporters cheering everyone on.  Getting out of the kayak is harder than it looks, especially when you’ve got sea legs.  There’s a short sprint of 20 yards up the beach, where the kayaker rings a bell to signal the team’s completion of the grueling 100 mile race!

In the last two years I’ve done this race, we’ve had two different, but unique groups that made up the team.  One of the best things about these teams we’ve had is sometimes we are meeting for the first time ever, and we finish the weekend feeling like old friends.  Our team, DEAFinitely Awesome, was compromised of 8 incredible individuals (7 of 8 have hearing losses of varying degrees), mainly from the Pacific Northwest, with one woman from Iowa City, Iowa, and another woman from Washington, DC.
Kevin (in center, wearing all black)

Kevin Meirose of Tacoma, WA was our team captain the last two years and competed in the cross country leg both times. He set the pace for the entire time here and had to fight through a mass start that contains a few former Olympians.  This race, he improved his time by 6 minutes - incredible!

Jason (in all black) climbing

Jason Tang of Bellevue, WA did the downhill skiing leg and was a first time racer.  He enjoyed it tremendously, despite the challenges (and a couple of amazing photos!) Next year, he vows to be back even stronger.  Also, he improved on my time from last year’s race by 5 minutes - great job!

Lindsay smiling
Lindsay Buchko of Washington, DC is another first timer, but a veteran runner, smoked the 8 miles of running down the mountain and improved our team position by 44 places.  Rock on, girl! And she can do it with a smile on her face!
Trevor has his game face on
Trevor Kosa of Olympia, WA and a competitive cyclist who won a gold medal in the Deaflympics competed in the road biking leg.  This was his first time and he crushed the field, passing 129 cyclists - what an animal!

Sara Beth and Corky Collier of Portland, OR returned with a vengeance on the canoe and came back stronger than ever, making 45 canoeing teams eat their dust.  Or wake, however you want to call it.  You guys are a force to be reckoned with!
Corky and Sara Beth trying to pass

Gotta add something in here - during the transition between the canoeists and mountain biker, Carly ran down to the river to help Sara Beth and Corky carry their canoe up to the exchange area since their arms were going to be tired from paddling 18.5 miles. As soon as the canoe reached shore, Sara Beth jumped out and starting lifting the canoe on one side while Carly helped on the other side (on the front end, mind you) before poor Corky even had a chance to get out. He managed to get out and carry the back end up the hill, but not for long. Both Carly and Sara Beth felt the canoe dragging so they looked back and saw Corky had trouble keeping up with these determined ladies! Only wish this whole thing was captured on video, otherwise I'd post it on here.

Carly breezing through the woods
Carly Armour of Iowa City, Iowa (land of no mountains) competed on the mountain bike leg for the first time.  Despite losing her water bottle in the early part of the leg, she managed to finish strong and vows to squash the competition next year!  Bring it, girl - wouldn’t want to get in your way next year! Plus she had to ride an additional 4 miles to the actual finish line - wow!

Andy in the final stretch
Andy Nelson of Bremerton, WA competed in the kayak leg for the first time (he did the downhill skiing the previous year), and despite helping two people who capsized, passed two people on the way to ringing the bell for a final time of 9:46:35.  He plans on doing even better next year!

Since each year is a different story as far as conditions go, participants, no two races are alike.  This year, race officials and the Coast Guard made the decision to stop allowing kayakers enter the water after 4:30 PM due to high winds and large waves.  We got lucky, I was able to start my leg at 4:17 PM; nearly half of the teams were unable to finish the race.

Here’s to DEAFinitely Awesome in 2012!  I look forward to having each and every single one of you guys back on the team and I enjoyed spending an incredible weekend with y’all!

DEAFinitely Awesome 2011 Team (L to R, back row: Corky Collier, Sara Beth Collier, Jason Tang, Trevor Kosa, Lindsay Buchko; L to R front row: Andy Nelson, Carly Armour, Kevin Meirose)

Til next time,

Regular Joe Cool can be reached at regularjoecool@gmail.com. Shoot him an email - he'll think you're cool.