(Video by Mike and Kathy Tuggy)
In a fitting setting for the the inaugural Ski to the Sun Marathon and Relay, hundreds of skiers emerged from a fog-blanketed morning dreamscape in Mazama, Washington as they cruised down the Methow Valley to brilliant sunshine and the finish at Sun Mountain Lodge. Kent Murdoch, who splits his time between Mazama and Fall City, Washington, took advantage of his familiarity with the final climb to lead the marathon field over the 41 km course, passing a fading Liz Stephen in the last kilometer, to finish in 2:09:30.7. Stephen, the recently retired three-time Olympian who hails from Park City, UT, lead the women’s field in 2:10:20.4.
(Murdoch passes Stephen less than a kilometer from the finish. Photo: Mitchellimage)
Rounding out the podium in the men’s division were Logan Wetzel of Bellingham, Washington in 2:09:56.2 and former NCAA All-American for the University of Denver and National Championship runner-up Mike Hinckley, who also resides in Bellingham, in 2:10:32.7. For the women, all three steps were filled with past Olympians as Methow locals Laura McCabe and Leslie Hall crossed the line in 2:10:43.3 and 2:25:43.0, respectively.
In the relay division, Chomper Bomper, a group of four junior skiers from the Methow Valley Nordic Team – Garrett Butts, Travis Grialou, Bodhi Kuzyk and Walker Hall – lead from the first kilometer to finish in 2:03:38.3, besting Shasey a duo of former national team biathlete Casey Smith and local mountain guide Michael Hutchins.
Despite fading at the end of the final climb – a 12 km stretch that stair-stepped its way from the floor of the Methow Valley up 1000 feet (300 meters) to the finish at 2,890 feet above sea level – Stephen glowed about the event, saying “we could not have hoped for a more beautiful day, more beautiful weather or more perfect tracks… I couldn’t be more excited to be here, especially with it being like a winter wonderland…. [The Methow has] been on my shortlist of places to [visit] for a long time. The race went off so smoothly… It was so fun and beautiful to ski through the trees and to end at such a perfect place like the Sun Mountain Lodge.”
(The finish area at Sun Mountain Lodge. Photo: Mitchellimage)
Throughout the entire field, the buzz at the finish line was much the same, as smiling competitor after smiling competitor exalted about the weather, the course and the conditions. Jim Kelly, a veteran of twenty-two American Birkebeiners – the largest cross country ski race in North America – agreed with Stephen, saying “it was awesome out there… it was like a Birkie!”
For many, the course, which showcased the variety of natural beauty in the Methow Valley, was a real highlight. Todd Eastman of Putney, VT and US Race Program Director for Madshus skis commented: “Stunning scenery, beautiful course and track, and an honest challenge.”
“I think it might be the best way to experience the Methow trail system and get to know the valley,” said Jenny Abraham of Boise, Idaho. “The trails are so beautiful meandering through the trees and along the river, and getting cheers from volunteers all along the course and seeing the relay teams at exchange zones was really fun.”
Her friend Larissa Swain from Leavenworth, Washington agreed, saying, “I loved how the low sun showed through the middle section, streaming across the snow. And it was so fun to have the course pop out of the woods near the river with the sun lighting up the whole valley! But,” she added, “my favorite part was skiing it together, enjoying each other’s company on a beautiful winter day.”
Jim Gregg, father of 2014 Olympian Brian Gregg, and a resident and racer in the Methow Valley for decades agreed about the camaraderie on the trail, commenting “that was a true citizen’s race.”
The event was organized through a partnership of Methow Trails, the nonprofit that grooms and manages 200+ kilometers (120+ miles) of trails in the Methow Valley, and Methow Valley Nordic Ski Educational Foundation, another nonprofit that focuses on delivering skier programs from classes, clinics and camps, to junior learn-to-ski and cross-country and biathlon racing programs. The vision for the event was a hybrid of ideas from the two organizations: create a marathon event that is a true testament to the level of skiing in the valley with a relay that has opportunities for skiers of all abilities to participate. A true community-based ski event.
(Enjoying the day together. Photo: Mitchellimage)
For Methow Trails Executive Director, James DeSalvo, the collaboration not just between the two nonprofits, but the entire community was a critical aspect of the event, noting “The most thrilling part for me was seeing our trail community sharing a very high impact and fun experience. Everyone who makes our trail system possible was represented and enjoying the trails together; landowners, kids, pass holders, visitors, business members, board members, ski instructors and agency partners. The vastness of our 120-mile trail network typically encourages trail users to find their own little piece of trail to enjoy. While I wouldn’t give this up, there is something very inspiring about seeing hundreds of trail users all moving together, smiling and sharing their joy of the trails.”
The event’s appeal was clear to those on the sidelines as well. Kathy Dalton, who was filming the start and finish, said it made her want to begin racing, and she jumped into a local training group within days after the event.
For more experienced racers, the event had the draw of an annual highlight. Brad Bauer of Edmonds, WA exclaimed, “The Pacific Northwest has found its signature race!”
Runner-up Wetzel agreed, “It feels like something that’s been missing for us. Every other major ski destination has their big event. This is ours.”
With just shy of 400 competitors and a successful start in its first edition, the second Ski to the Sun Marathon and Relay is slated for late January or early February 2020. Stay tuned to methowtrails.org and methowvalleynordic.com for more info.