As some buddies and I stood in the rain at Mount Baker Ski Area anxious to start the 7-stage Ski to Sea relay race, the guy handling our anchor leg was sleeping in.
While we ticked off the cross-country skiing, climbing/alpine skiing and running portions of the race, Rick Beitelspacher rolled out of his hotel bed, smeared peanut butter on toast and logged on to YouTube to watch “How to kayak” videos.
We’d started racing in the mountains at 7:30 a.m. on May 29 and by that afternoon we’d hand off to Beitelspacher, who’d paddle 5 miles across Bellingham Bay to the finish line and the eternal glory that comes with completing Washington’s oldest relay race.
There were plenty of ways our plan might unravel. Our cross country skier hadn’t clicked into a pair of Nordic skis for several years. Our canoe team was led by a guy paddling for the first time in 30 years. And Beitelspacher had only kayaked twice in his life.
We weren’t a threat to win or even be consistently competitive. But, really, that put us in the majority. For most, relay races are simply an enjoyable way to turn individual sports into a team experience.
Ski to Sea, held annually since 1973, bills itself as “America’s original team relay race.” This year’s version started with the two skiing and running legs, then was followed up with road biking, canoeing, cyclocross and kayaking legs.
The fastest teams needed 6 hours, 22 minutes to cover the 93.5-mile course. The slowest needed nearly twice as much time. Our team of eight took 9:51.
Sea to Ski might be the state’s most famous relay race, but it is hardly the only offering. Among this summer’s races is Olympia’s Capitol to Bay Relay, a four-sport race on Aug. 6.
If you’re tempted to sign up, it’s worth doing right. Here are some things we learned during our mad dash to 209th place.
1. Pick a cool team name
Our team came to be because our captain, Russ Meyers of Puyallup, had long aspired to do Ski to Sea. He attended Western Washington University, not far from the course, and since graduation has become a strong cyclist.
As team captain he got to pick our name. He went with P-town Papas, immediately creating a divide in the team.
Meyers is 47, with the fitness level of a college kid, so he’s immensely secure in his middle age. I, however, am not. I still cling to delusions of youth despite counterarguments from my knees and back.
“Papas?” I asked him. “How old are we?”
I pitched much better names: The Disgraceful 8, Gaits of Hell and 7 Studs and Rick Beitelspacher.
Capt. Meyers didn’t budge.
When teams with names like Dukes of Haphazard, Cirque de Sore Legs and Worst Pace Scenario entered the race, Meyers still didn’t change his mind.
Even when we added runner Paul Beitelspacher, a Boise State University student way too young to be a papa, the name remained the same.
There was nothing we could do. Well, almost nothing.
The day before the race as I checked into the hotel, the manager asked what my team was called.
I hesitated. Then I lied. “We’re the Disgraceful 8.”
He laughed. “Cool name.”
2. Know why you’re there
When I called Brian Devereux of Puyallup to see if he was interested in doing the 4-mile cross-country leg, his response was immediate: “As long you’re not expecting to win.”
We weren’t. Essentially we were just looking to have a good time. And Devereux is one of the few people I knew who could figure out how to have fun even while Nordic skiing in the rain.
Had the Disgraceful 8 (That’s right. It’s my column, I’ll call the team what I like.) been assembled with the intent of trying to win our division, Meyers wouldn’t have been interested in most of us.
That’s not to say that we didn’t have some solid performances. Meyers finished 18th in our division in the road biking leg. Howard Wiley of Boise finished in the top half of the cyclocross field. And Paul Beitelsbacher posted the fastest 8-mile run time (one hour) of his life.
The fun-first objective meant there was no pressure. It gave permission for those doing sports with which they were unfamiliar or out of practice to focus on more important things than winning. Like fun and safety.
So, when Jason Hopkins exited the canoe awkwardly and dumped Dirk Pettitt into the Nooksack River nobody cared that we lost a few seconds. We were just happy to have a new set of jokes to tell about our friends.
3. Work on the little things
When Devereux finished the cross-country leg and handed me the team’s timing chip, I immediately started losing ground. Instead of zipping down the small hill and starting to climb to the top of the ski area, I stood in place for about two minutes attempting to affix the timing chip to my wrist.
The Velcro strap on which the chip was attached was impossible to manipulate while wearing ski gloves. When I removed a glove and held it in my teeth, I couldn’t see the strap. Finally, I dropped my gloves, finished the job and got around to racing.
These minutes could have been spared just by inspecting the strap before the race. This wasn’t my only mistake.
I didn’t bother to wax my skis, costing me speed on the wet snow.
And I declined to take a test lap on the course the day before the race, because it was raining, foggy and I was miserable. My plan was to settle into a comfortable climbing pace then push hard up the final pitch.
However, because I didn’t take the time to scout the course and visibility was so poor, I was left to guess exactly where this final pitch was located.
I guessed wrong and found myself clicking into my skis knowing I could have gone much faster.
4. Plan ahead
Much goes into a point-to-point relay race. In the case of Ski to Sea: Eight athletes, two boats, two bikes, two pairs of skis and usually three team shuttle vehicles.
It takes planning to coordinate all of this and we were glad we started five months before the race. We lost two team members to busy schedules several months before the race and used the extra time to find their replacements.
I was certain we were going to send an athlete off with the car keys during the race, leaving the rest of the team stranded. But several team meetings allowed us to iron out details and avoid any major mishaps.
As it turned out, Rick Beitelspacher took the term “anchor leg” a little too literally.
Shortly after shoving off for his paddle across Bellingham Bay he was in the water. He’d capsized his rented kayak.
It seemed the Disgraceful 8’s chances for success were sinking.
But calling on the knowledge and experienced he gleaned during a morning of YouTube instructional videos, Beitelspacher was able to get back into the kayak. He paddled across the bay and rang the finisher’s bell.
It would be easy to say maybe Beitelspacher and the rest of of us would have done much better if we’d practiced.
This is true. But I look at it differently. We all learned enough that we can just declare this race our first practice for our next relay race, whatever that might be.
Summer Relay Events
Northwest Passage: Ragnar Relay
Blaine to Langley
Capitol to Bay Relay
Ragnar Cascades Trail Relay
Loup Loup Ski Bowl
The Big Hurt
Maybe Next Year
Three popular relay events to consider putting on the calendar for 2017.
Ski to Sea Relay
Mount Baker to Bellingham
June 3, 2017
Rainier to Ruston Relay
Mount Rainier to Tacoma
June 3-4, 2017
Gap 2 Gap