Nature can't stop skiers

Rain, falling trees, subzero temps fail to cancel relay race

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mother Nature tried to stop high school skiers from having a relay race on the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday. She failed.

The Soldotna boys and girls swept the Skyview Relays on Saturday at Tsalteshi Trails. Soldotna's Kailey Mucha and Colony's Mason Wick had the fastest 4-by-5-kilometer freestyle relay legs of the day.

The meet first encountered problems when rain and heavy snow dumped on the central peninsula at the tail end of last weekend and the beginning of the week. The storm brought down so many branches and trees on the Nikiski Community Trails that Nikiski decided on Wednesday morning the Nikiski Relays would have to be canceled. The decision came after a day of labor cleared less than a kilometer of trail. The clearing effort stopped when the crew encountered a downed cottonwood lying frozen into the trail.

Upon hearing about the cancellation of the Nikiski race, Skyview ski coach Kent Peterson set about trying to organize the Skyview Relays for Saturday. Thanks to a network of parents and volunteers, the race was all set to go Saturday morning.

One problem. On Saturday morning, temperatures across the peninsula were minus 10 degrees and lower. Soldotna ski coach Dan Harbison said it must be at least minus 4 to race.

So the organizers of the meet postponed the start from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., allowing the temperatures to work its way up to minus 2.

"It was so close to regions that we really wanted to give the kids a chance to get a race in," Peterson said, referring to the region meet that is just two weeks away. "They put in a lot of hard work to get ready to race, so they deserve to get a chance to race."

Harbison said a network of volunteers from Kenai Central, Soldotna and Skyview high schools have race organization dialed in, so things came together quickly. The perfectly groomed trails and elaborate fencing system that was set up did not have the look of something thrown together at the last minute. Peterson said the core of the group of volunteers is Erin Lockwood, Pat Johnson, Pat King, Renee Merkes and Bill Holt.

"Like I said, I think we have world-class ski trails here and they do a great job of putting on a race," Peterson said. "It's something they can be proud of giving the kids a chance to learn a lifetime activity like skiing."

The one thing the volunteers have no control over is the temperature. Subzero temperatures affect the race in two ways.

First, skiers must figure out a way to stay warm. They have had plenty of practice this season, as a race in Talkeetna saw temperatures at about minus 4 and the Kenai Klassic at Tsalteshi Trails featured temperatures in the single digits.

"They wear a couple of extra layers and we are really careful about any exposed skin," Harbison said. "We even sent a couple of them out with hand warmers in their gloves."

Harbison said his team used a barrier ointment called Warm Skin to protect against frostbite. The coach also said breathing the cold air at a fast rate can be troublesome. Skiers who might have trouble with their breathing are sent out with balaclavas that can be pulled over the mouth if discomfort occurs.

The other way the cold affects the race is by robbing the snow of its glide.

"It's kind of like skiing on sandpaper," said Kenai Central ski coach D'Anna Gibson. "It makes the skiing harder."

At least Mucha's teammates thought so. Mucha had the fastest relay time of the day for the girls, clocking 17 minutes, 25 seconds. Kenai's Molly Watkins was next at 18:31.

"My teammates were all saying that it was slow," she said of the skiing conditions. "I don't know. It didn't feel that slow to me."

Mucha said there was another reason she did not mind Saturday's cold: "It's a lot better than when it's 40 degrees and raining."

Mucha, D,Anne Martin, Mandy Smith and Jasmine Clock finished in 1:16:47, about seven minutes ahead of the runner-up Palmer squad of Dottie Hoople, Jessica Odegard, Amanda Del Frate and Kimberly Del Frate. The Kenai team of Becca Ford, Maya Johnson, Kristi Louthan and Watkins finished 50 seconds behind Colony with a time of 1:24:40.

Harbison said the victory for his girls was expected because Homer was at a meet in Anchorage. The Stars and Mariners are expected to duel for the region crown.

On the boys side, the Stars continued what Harbison termed a surprisingly strong season by cruising to victory. The team of Aaron Chase, Gabe Murray, Jordan Merkes and Ryan Sanders finished in 1:06:50. Runner-up Colony, made up of Robert Wise, Dave Gray, Jon Mastroyanis and Wick, was at 1:09:29, while Skyview's Tommy Honer, Leif Danielson, Brayden Holt and Johnny Cook were two seconds behind Colony.

Harbison wasn't sure what to expect from his boys team when the year began, but the Stars have put themselves into the discussion of region favorites.

"I have a core group that's very committed and dedicated to improving," Harbison said. "A lot of them were working out in the program all summer, and all that extra strength and cardio is paying off."

Colony was able to nip Skyview for second place largely due to Wick, who skied the anchor leg in 15:34. Cook Inlet's Lars Arneson, whose mixed team finished seventh, had the second fastest time of the day at 15:41.

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