Kent Peterson descends a hill at Tsalteshi Trails in a light snowfall during a training session earlier this month for the 50-kilometer Tour of Anchorage race next Sunday. The four-race event is one of the largest ski marathons in the United States and is popular with many local skiers.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kent Peterson never set out to be a renowned ski coach, or even a competitor on skis.
Born the youngest of eight brothers and three sisters in a Minnesota dairy farm family, he attended a small college there and honed his skills as a musician and teacher. His good character traits and personality are a natural product of his upbringing, and after graduation he found himself on the Kenai Peninsula at a school with little to no history of which to speak.
But Peterson, if anything, is a conqueror. Not in the braggadocios sense in fact far from it. He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he does seek challenges and he enjoys the reward of an arduous task.
When Allan Miller asked him to assist coaching the Skyview High ski team, Peterson had the natural response of a man in his 20s who had not played high school sports. It was something to the effect of, “I don’t know a thing about it.”
Friends will tell you, however, that Peterson doesn’t back down from challenges, enjoys competition immensely and has a genuine interest in the success of teenagers.
Which leads to Peterson’s next response for Miller he did it. Eventually, after assisting Alan Boraas for two seasons, he became and still is the Panthers’ head coach.
As for the rest of the story, Peterson is quite the accomplished skier himself and will make his annual trek in the 20th Tour of Anchorage come March 4.
The Tour of Anchorage is a cross-country ski marathon, played out at sea level, which runs through the city. There are four races, each divided into categories by age and gender. Competitors tour courses that are 25 kilometers classical, and also 25k, 40k and 50k freestyle.
The Tour is a part of the American Ski Marathon Series, North America’s longest running and largest citizens’ racing and touring series. But it’s not just locals who compete. Because it’s part of a national series, the event may attract well-known skiers globally some even at the last minute.
Peterson has always competed in the 50k (about 31 miles) and will again next month. The start is at Service High. The 25k starts at the Russian Jack Chalet, near the intersection of Debarr and Boniface. Each race winds around Ted Stevens International Airport and into the Kincaid Chalet off Raspberry.
Peterson has entered the race every year for the past 12 years.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“The first part is a little like Skyview, except bigger and with more downhills,” Peterson said of the course. “For about 25 to 30k, it’s pretty fast without much effort. I’ve heard it’s dangerous, because you’ll go too fast and not realize how much energy you’re expending. You’ll pay for it at the end. There are some hills at the end.”
In the last 12 years, Peterson has been entered each year. It was canceled once and he broke a ski another year. His best finish is 16th, his best time about two hours and 29 minutes.
Peterson said he’s made the mistake of expending too much energy without knowing it.
“One year, I came into the stadium (at Kincaid) and you can’t even react,” Peterson said. “You tell yourself to go faster, but you go the same speed.”
The course is intriguing, taking skiers across Northern Lights and Tudor, through tunnels and is still pretty flat until Earthquake Park.
“You start climbing a little bit,” Peterson said. “You’re starting to feel more tired too. Everybody is tired, too, and you feed on that energy.”
Boraas has done the Tour about a dozen times and knows something of what it takes.
“He’s done well up there, especially when you’re coaching,” Boraas said. “It’s hard to get the kind of work (training) you need. You spend a lot of time standing and organizing. If you’re really training, you’d be off skating on your own.”
‘I just like being out there’
“He’s a very hard worker,” said friend Tom Seggerman. “When he’s not skiing in summer, he’s on long jaunts over the mountains. I’ve been with him on some. He’s a pretty incredible athlete.”
Peterson’s credits also include skiing a 100k race in Fairbanks and a grueling climb on foot up Resurrection Pass (nearly 50 miles).
“He’s a very good athlete, very devoted coach and teacher,” Seggerman said. “My son had him way back in elementary school in Sterling, and he was a very good music teacher, very well-liked by the students.”
Training, Peterson said, is year-round.
“In the summer, I train for running races and in the winter skiing,” Peterson said. “Mostly, I’m coaching the team. Sunday, it’s my day to ski. I usually do two- to three-hour skis on Sundays.”
While coaching the team, he’s totally devoted to his students. However, there is a built-in allowance for his training.
“I get my speed work while I’m coaching,” Peterson said. “I’ll do some of the interval training with the kids, and some of the strength training. I don’t do all of it, but you have to ski with the kids to tell them how they’re doing.”
Kent Peterson guides the Skyview High School cross-country ski team in a weight-training workout in a hallway at the school. As the teams coach, he shares his zest for skiing with others.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Training, Peterson said, is anything but grueling to him.
“I don’t think it’s hard at all,” Peterson said. “To me, it’s really relaxing to be out on the trail. The long distance stuff gives you time to think. I really enjoy it. When you’re done, there’s a feeling of accomplishment. I just like being out there and doing it.”
Peterson also has run the Kenai Marathon (26.2 miles), and he’s run a 50-mile race.
“The distance gives you the endurance to go two to three hours,” Peterson said. “But if that’s all you do, you get used to going slow. So then, I do the speed work the kids do for 5K and 10K races. Speed work is hard to do by yourself. I’d rather go ski for a long time.”
‘Still a good tuba player’
Peterson’s beginning, if nothing else, was humble.
“I studied music in college, so I never did high school sports,” Peterson said. “I was hired at Skyview to be band director, and that fall I bought a pair of no-wax classic skis. I puffed around the trails. I told the ski team I was proud of skiing the green loop twice (the shortest route, which is about one mile). I thought it was a long way.”
The team didn’t discourage him, but Peterson assures they weren’t impressed with their soon-to-be assistant coach, either.
“That summer,” Peterson said, “I bought a mountain bike, and the next year (1995-96) the coach (Miller) asked me if I wanted to be an assistant coach. Then he retired, and Alan Boraas and I coached. I was still learning how to ski then.”
But he did well enough that when Boraas gave up the post after two seasons as the head coach, Peterson was the new coach.
“His college years, he was a band instructor, and he was by his own admission unathletic, not in shape,” said Boraas, who assisted Miller for five seasons before taking the head job. “He hadn’t really embraced that part of life. He figured it was something you do.
“He got him some skis, and he wasn’t in very good condition. His technique wasn’t very good, which is true of most skiers. He loved to do it. He enjoyed it. He’d go out, view it as a challenge, it was just a dimension or part of him that needed to be fulfilled. He worked at it pretty hard.”
After plenty of practice on his own and with the team, he became quite good.
“There are subtle movements, it’s one of those things that is easy to do on a basic level, but it’s hard to do on an elevated level,” Boraas said. “He worked hard at it and turned himself into an excellent skier and coach.”
Bill Holt, who grooms trails on the peninsula’s heralded Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview, has seen just how far Peterson has come.
“I was here the first time he put on his skis essentially,” Holt said. “He was a slightly chubby tuba player. Now he’s a buff skier and still a good tuba player.”
Holt said that Peterson “didn’t seem like much of an athlete, but he may have been more than I suspected.”
“He picked it up pretty fast,” Holt said. “I remember the first clinics we had, I was involved helping coach the junior high school team. We had a clinic, some dry land training, Kent showed up and being completely clueless, he seemed to fit right into the program real fast.”
The students took to him with a natural affinity.
“A lot of it has to do with him being young. It was easy for kids to relate to him. At first, he didn’t have a clue with coaching, but he fit well with the kids, had a lot of enthusiasm. Because he was young, it was easy for the kids to relate to him. He didn’t look as old as he was. He was cheery and open to things.
“He didn’t pretend to be an expert at the beginning, and that was probably one of his appeals. He was essentially learning at the same time.”
Feel the rhythm
Holt said Peterson’s personality blends into the kind of coach practically any student would want.
“He can motivate kids, get them to do stuff, and essentially discipline them without being heavy handed,” Holt said. “They like him and respect him, not because of rules, but he’s steadfast. They see him doing the same things he’s asking them to do. “
Holt said the students have respect for “an honest approach.”
“He’s not necessarily charismatic, but he’s steady,” Holt said. “He doesn’t play favorites, he seems like he has a lot of concern for all the kids no matter their ability. He doesn’t zero in on the best skiers, he’s concerned about all of them. The kids sense that respect for them. He tries to make it a real team thing.”
His girls team has been as high as fourth in the state championships, the boys sixth.
Like orchestrating a musical group, Peterson enjoys finding the balance points for skiing. He also enjoys the outdoors, particularly the winter.
Kent Peterson skate skis a loop at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, where the hills are similar to the first section of the 31-mile race Peterson participates in during the Tour of Anchorage.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The hook for him, he said, was “just the fact there’s a lot of technique, the skate and classic. Since high school has to do both techniques, there’s a lot of fine tuning that goes on.”
Peterson is a rare coach, a rare athlete. He hasn’t had a television in his house since 2001, works with a juggling club at school, and spends plenty of time reading. He enjoys playing classical guitar.
And his friends see the musical talent within him helping him on the ski trails.
“He’s artistic, and that carries to the way he approaches skiing,” Holt said.
Added Boraas, “Skiing is rhythm of the landscape and matching your body to that landscape. It’s not easy to understand, but you’re always making subtle adjustments to what the land gives you.
“Kent, knowing the rhythm of music, would intuitively know that.”
And there’s one other big difference he carries within.
“Its one thing to be able to ski and ski well, and it’s another to coach and coach well, but not many put the two together,” Boraas said. “But he’s done that, and that’s a real tribute.”
Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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