Sunday, June 06, 2010

Ski to Sea, First Good Race of the Season

A week ago, I raced in the Ski to Sea. The Ski to Sea is a funny race. It's a seven-stage relay race incorporating cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, running, road cycling, canoeing, mountain biking and kayaking. I rode in the mountain bike leg.

Teams in the ski-to-sea vary from very competitive teams, with the top competitors completing the race in under six hours, to less competitive teams, with times over ten hours. The team I was racing on was just trying to finish, and I know that finishing before the cutoff time was a pretty big personal accomplishment for at least one of my teammates. All the mountain bikers had to attend a pre-race meeting at 11:30, but I couldn't start until my teammates on the previous leg could pass me the timing chip. I ended up spending a very long time hanging out at the transition as a result, so I got to see some of the cool costumes on some of the less competitive teams.

The race organizers had a spotter stationed at a bridge a little way up the river. He'd radio an announcer at the staging area with the team numbers for the canoes that passed under the bridge. At that point, the mountain biker had seven minutes to get organized to help the canoeists get the canoe out of the water and under a banner and then start his leg. The fastest teams seemed to take a lot less time than that, and then the mountain biker and two exhausted-looking canoeists would run under the flag, and the mountain biker would leap onto his bike and ride away. The fast teams had canoeists who compete as canoeists regularly, a sport I didn't realize was even contested seriously. Competitive male canoeists look a lot like male gymnasts.

As the hours wore on, the canoeists looked less and less like gymnasts or anything else, and the costumes got better and better. More beer was evident. The mountain bikers who'd showed up dressed in spandex and riding cross country racing bikes were mostly gone - they were mainly on teams where everyone else was more competitive too. The ones who were left were starting by straddling their bikes, putting one foot on a pedal, putting the other foot on a pedal, and wobbling off. Of course there were still some Epics and other exotic racing bikes present - anyone who can stomach the price for a racing bike can own one. I keep telling myself it doesn't bother me...

I got a call a little before 2pm to let me know that our canoe was in the water, so I rode around and warmed up, bumped into a friend, and then hid in the car with my favorite person for a while when it started raining. I had a power bar, drank some water, and went to the bathroom more times than I care to admit. I stiffened up a little again, because it had been a while since my warmup. And then around 3:30, the announcer called my team and I leapt into action. Of course, I had seven minutes to do about a minute's worth of leaping, so it was slightly silly to hurry, but I didn't want to be in the wrong place when my team showed.

The canoe showed up at the steep little scrap of beach where the transition was happening that day. The exact launch and transition spots for the canoe leg are subject to the vagaries of the river, and aren't selected until shortly before the race. I helped my teammates get it up the steep part and then jogged under the banner with them while I stuffed the timing chip under my shirt. Then I was in race mode. I ran over the timing gate, grabbed my bike from Adella (the mountain bike racer was allowed to have an assistant hold his bike for him, but not push him,) did a flying mount, and spent the next hour and four minutes riding as hard as I could remotely sustain. Adella saw me a few times because the course wrapped around the park where the transition took place and traffic for cars was quite slow.

The mountain bike course for the Ski to Sea is in a somewhat inopportune location. It starts in Hovander Park, near Ferndale, and runs fourteen miles to Squalicum Harbor, at the edge of Bellingham. There's a total of 250' of climbing, and while there are a couple of parks with trail systems along the way, a lot of the course ran through parking lots, over the little scraps of vegetation between them, through vacant lots, and through unused fields. Near the end, it even ran along a rail line. There's a little park next to the harbor where the organizers decided to make it more spectator-friendly, so it ran up and down a speedbump of a hill four times, made a spiral in some mud, ran over another embankment, and then finally went onto the road and through some parking lots to the transition point for the kayaker. I didn't quite have a perfect race, but I was very close, and that made me very happy - aside from one practice race that went well, it'd been a frustrating season up to that point.

From the results, I passed 36 people. I was afraid I was going to feel like "that guy" for riding fast in that group, but then I decided that it's called a race, everyone who signed up knew they were signing up for a race, and the people at the front were even more serious about going fast than I am. I thought of it more like a time trial against the people who'd raced earlier in the day, although I'd be lying if I claimed not to get some satisfaction moving my team up the rankings by all those places.

Our kayaker took it from there. I think I managed to beat her to the finish line in Fairhaven, but the kayak course involved a lot of buoys, to make it more time consuming, while I rode via the most direct route.

It was raining a little again, so people weren't spending much time at the finish line festivities. But I got to tell everyone on the team that it was an honor to get to race with them. I'm quite proud of my teammates. For some, it was their first time competing in their respective sport. And while I think I'm cool for passing 36 people, our best rank of the day was in the morning, after our runner passed 51.

Each competitor was ranked within their own leg by split time as well as the teams getting overall rankings, so I know how I fit against the other mountain bikers. There were 464 teams in the race and 95 in our division (Recreational mixed-gender;) I ranked 116th for the race overall and 14th in our division. Just because I like to look at this stuff, my time would have put me mid-pack in the Competitive Open division. You can find full results on the Ski to Sea web site. Our team was team 407.

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