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June 13, 2018

Ski to Sea: The Largest Multi-Sport Relay In America

The last two weekends have been filled to the rim with quality track and field meets.  A 17-year old ran a 3:53 mile at Prefontaine, the NCAA Regional and National Championships were run, Portland Track Fest snuck in the back door, as it always does. Across America athletes were competing at the highest level of track, chasing times and places, to push their seasons forward. With the eyes of most fans trained on Oregon, Sacramento, or Tampa, there was one not-so-small race that – like the town in which it takes place – was content to receive minimal attention.  

Memorial day weekend, in my home town, Bellingham, Washington, The Ski to Sea was run for the 45th straight year.  The race itself is a 94-mile, seven-event relay race that covers a large portion of Whatcom County.  For the first time in five years, I was home for the race and festival. I’m going to to tell you about my experience – an experience that I think you need to have – but first let’s do some background on the event itself.

Bellingham is a town of about 85,000 people located in Washington’s northwestern corner, 20 miles from the Canadian border and 90 from Seattle. Prior to its official establishment Bellingham was four smaller settlements: Fairhaven (now a historic district of the same name), Sehome, Whatcom, and Bellingham. The town sits right on the Puget Sound, with easy access to the San Juan Islands. If you’re willing to drive the couple of hours, a weekend trip to North Cascades National Park is waiting for you, or if you are looking for something closer, Mt. Baker is a short drive east. The list of of famous people with Bellingham roots is an eclectic one: Doug Peterson of the Philadelphia Eagles, Hillary Swank, Jake Locker, Luke Ridnour, and most famously the band Death Cab for Cutie.  Lastly, per a 2015 Priceconomics article, Bellingham was listed as the snobbiest beer city in America – a moment of surprisingly intense city pride and validation.  

The Ski to Sea owes its existence to The Mount Baker Marathon, a single person race that round trip journeyed from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mount Baker, in the early 1900s.  The route from Bellingham to Mt. Baker is around 50 miles, which means the runners traveled at least 100 miles and climbed a 10,000 ft mountain before finishing. Unsurprisingly the marathon was short lived, only running from 1911 to 1913 before a racer fell into a crevasse. The following year the event was cancelled. In recent years there has been a push to revive the event, which at this point exists mostly as an item of local folklore.  

Sixty years after The Marathon’s death, The Bellingham Chamber of Commerce approved a derivative event named “The Ski to Sea in Sixty Minutes.”  The premise was that a team of athletes would complete a multi-sport relay race from Mt. Baker to Bellingham Bay. The event highlights the range of Whatcom County’s outdoor exploits with skiing (alpine and downhill), biking (road and cyclocross), running, canoeing, and kayaking legs.  An instant success in 1973, The Ski to Sea has become an institution in Bellingham, running every year since. This year there were nearly 350 relay teams, and a rule change allowed teams to vary in size from 3 to 8 racers, permitting participants to complete multiple legs for their team.   Along with the race there is a parade, a junior race, and a festival that radiates out from the finish line.


The Ski to Sea officially begins at 7:30 am with the cross-country skiing leg at Mt. Baker Ski Area, the previously mentioned 50 miles east of Bellingham on WA-542.  Mt. Baker serves as the backdrop to Bellingham, and holds the world record for snowfall in a single season.  After the 4 mile alpine skiing leg, a timing chip is passed to a downhill skier, or snowboarder, who, through a combination of hiking and skiing, covers a total of 2.5 miles through the ski area.  Importantly, as any good Bellingham powder-head will tell you, Baker was the first ski area in America to officially allow snowboarders. So while the choice of snowboard over skis is often a submission to a slower time, it seems significant in a different way, sewn into the fabric of the mountain.  These  legs are the hardest to observe because of their distance from town, but there is something poetic about starting the Ski to Sea on the mountain, the apex of the marathon from whence the modern race was born.

After a combined 6.5 snowy miles of alpine, and downhill, the second skier hands the timing chip to a runner who will take the team further down the mountain.  The last three words, “down the mountain” are essential. The running leg of the Ski to Sea is notorious for the burden that it places on the runners’ bodies, descending approximately 3,000 feet in elevation over 8 miles of road.  

From a runner’s perspective, this leg of the race might be the one that fails on the largest scale in terms of showing what makes Bellingham special. Functionally, the runner has to move the chip 8 miles down the road, there is no getting around that, but pounding concrete sells the great running in Bellingham short.  Being that this is a running website, it only feels right to pause and take stock of how impeccable the running in Bellingham is. So I’ll just leave this here, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this (which is mostly a shout out to Ben Gibbard), and maybe even this.  Bellingham’s trail system is varied, and soft, and gorgeous across the board, spanning the entire city, and beyond.  I have long wondered why it doesn’t attract more serious runners.  But, then maybe that would change the charm of the city, or maybe not.  

Ok back to Ski to Sea.

8 miles of running later the team still has 80 miles before the finish. Runners hand off to their teammate with the largest chunk of land to cover: road bikers.  Each biker will ride 40 miles toward The Nooksack River covering ground through Maple, and Glacier Falls, small towns on the periphery of Bellingham, verging on Mount Baker.  Both towns are riddled with day hikes, views of the mountain, summer flower blooms, and the potential for livestock-based traffic stops.

Once out of the saddle, the biker hands to a team of two canoers who will navigate their way down The Nooksack.  This leg is often cloaked in misunderstanding based on the river’s reputation as a pleasant summer float. A successful run of the 18.5 mile canoe leg requires skilled rowing, and deft understanding of the breaks and seems of the river.  More commonly teams will put racers that aren’t a natural fit for another event in the canoe. Rest-assured the post race stories of capsized boats and bone soaked rowing will flow almost as freely as the beer over which they’re told.   Possibly drenched, certainly elated, finished canoers pass their chip to a second biker, who is poised to cover a 14-mile cyclocross leg.

Muddied, maybe bloodied, the final chip hand off is made to a kayaker, who will make their way 5 miles across Bellingham Bay – the face of the city.  The sea kayak leg, most visible to spectators, finishes in Bellingham’s Marine Park where the rower will pull up on the beach, work out of their boat and wobble their way to the finish line to triumphantly ring a hanging bell, and announce to the world that their team is done.  On the grass above the beach, the long-finished members of their team, as well as droves of spectators, greet finishers with a hug and a cold beer.

Saturday nights in Bellingham, particularly the night before Ski to Sea, are meant to be spent quietly meandering downtown from brewery to brewery, so that’s what I did.  My brother, a local friend and I showed some buddies who were passing through on a bike trip some Bellingham staples. By 10:30, full of burritos and beer, the only thing left between us and long day of outdoor bliss was an expectant night of sleep.  The majority of the city was already in bed.

Unfortunately, the next morning, our friends had to make their way out of town before the festivities started, so we rode with them.  They were headed south for Fort Casey, by way of Chuckanut Drive, and the Skagit Flats, a stretch of riding that you’d be crazy not to join your friends on.  Alongside the ocean and the Chuckanut Foothills, with regular views of the San Juan Islands and cutting through moss-covered evergreens, we rode.  30 miles of perfect morning later, my brother and I walked through our childhood front door to find our dad searching the radio for Ski to Sea coverage.  

Around noon – after an earned nap, and some coffee – it was finally time to drag ourselves down to Fairhaven to watch finishers and join the party.

As we walked through the festival it was easy to drown in the crowd.  There was everything from vendor tents for the local shoe stores, to artists, to car salesmen.  There were food trucks for Bellingham pizza joints, shaved ice, ice cream stuffed fry bread, and more.  There was even live xylophone music on Fairhaven’s Village Green, more commonly a venue for outdoor movies.

A second band two blocks over covered the Black Eyed Peas.  Admittedly this seemed out of place, but charmingly so. Of course, there were unmistakable Bellingham landmarks, like a restaurant run out of a red double-decker bus, famous for its fish and chips and wedge cut fries.  

ski to seaOnce we’d finally edged our way through the tents, picking up BBQ corn on the cob on the way, we ambled toward the finish line.  On the walk down Harris Ave.toward the park there is a dog friendly bar, and a ferry terminal, where travelers start their trips north to Alaska.  We crossed train tracks, and through a second wave of tents, finally able to see the ocean.  

On our way I overheard a dad ask his very young daughter a question: “Sophie, if you get lost, do you know your last name?” It seemed silly until I thought about all of the ways that my parents had taught me to remember my address and phone number at that age.

The finish line itself is best described as a large family picnic.  There are hundreds of people sitting in Marine Park, waiting for friends or loved ones to cut through the bay, and run up to the beach.  

A couple hundred feet up from the beach there is a large beer garden, serving local swill. It’s the type of spot where you’re guaranteed to talk to a friend’s parent, half a beer drunker than you wish you were.  

Adjacent the garden there is a stage with an announcer/DJ calling out kayaker numbers, and team names.  In between flurries of finishers he shouts out the children who are trying to follow along with the Cha Cha Slide, or a some other wedding anthem.  It all starts to sound a little less grating after you finish the second half of that drink you’ve been nursing.

Back down to the beach, I met up with my little sister, who got there earlier than me, and filled me in that Boomer’s Burgers, a local burger joint, had won the whole thing.  Ski to Sea is split into categories – by age, competition level, etc – but to win outright gains publicity and bragging rights for the team’s sponsor.

Bellingham has carved itself a corner of the sporting world that is occupied by weekend warriors, and rec superheroes.  It’s an identity that many residents are proud of – everyone can play, as long they’re willing to take their spills. That said, pride in our recreational culture creates an opportunity for the few elite athlete in the field to propel their teams to victory, and rest assured, they do.  

Case in point, the Kayaker for Beaver’s Tree Service, this year’s second place finisher, is the world record holder for distance paddled in 24 hours.  Similarly, the runner for Branden Nelson Partner’s, Courtney Olson, is an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon. Unsurprisingly, her team won the women-only division.  The top finishing teams regularly complete the 94 mile event in about 6 hours. This year being no exception, the Boomers team finished in 6 hours and 6 minutes.

Although the excitement of the first finishers are over, part of the joy of the weekend is watching kayaks spill in over the course of the next 6 hours.  Thousands of aforementioned weekend warriors will celebrate their finishes at the festival throughout the day. Whether they won, or took 12 hours, they made it and that’s good enough.  A hard earned beer, and a hard won beer are both just a beer. At least, the person halfheartedly checking IDs in the beer garden won’t know the difference.

After catching up with some of the friends I wanted to, and a lot of the ones I didn’t, I snagged my brother, and we started to make our way back toward our car.  We’d been at the festival for a few hours now, a modest effort compared to loyal teammates and family members who wait all day to watch loved one’s finish.  We both had to catch planes the next day, so it made sense to go home, pack, and have a casual dinner.

Half-way up the street, nearly back to the village green, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned around to see my dad.  “What’re you doing here?” I asked. “Oh I got volunteered to pick up kayaks for the teams at work. We have a truck with racks, you know how it is.”  He walked with us for a couple blocks, before flipping around to play his part in the event.

ski to sea 2018

Two blocks up the festival was still rocking, and would continue to as long as kayaks were still finishing…  

“Everybody, everybody, let’s get into it

Get stupid

Get it started, get it started, get it started

Let’s get it started (ha), let’s get it started in here”

…the cover band pumped, as an unfortunately small number of Bellingham lifers, halfheartedly, entirely-awkwardly, danced along, fueled exclusively by local brew.  Bellingham is not used to this much noise but once a year.

A couple of weeks ago I spent 1200 words arguing for a mile race near the beach in Los Angeles, but more broadly for elite track to embrace more interesting events.  Races are the purest of athletic contest, but at times boring. That’s why it’s important that track recognize the non-Prefontaine Classic races, for the health of the sport.  The unpolished gems in endurance athletics.

Ski to Sea embodies a community in a way that few events ever could.  Its ubiquity in Bellingham is surreal – everybody plays their part – even if they just happen to “have a truck with racks.” It shows off every unique geographical feature of the county in which it takes place, has a rich history, and means an unfathomable amount to so many people.  It’s deep roots, and organic rise aren’t immediately replicable, and I don’t mean to suggest that they are. What I mean to say is that I love the Ski to Sea because it represents the pinnacle of what running, and racing, can mean to a group of people. You don’t have to win, or even compete, to understand how resplendent the day of  Ski to Sea is in Bellingham – in fact, you might not even need to know your own last name.

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