Saturday, June 4, 2011

Valdez Summit to Sound - Race Review

Fog doesn’t get a whole lot thicker than it was at the start line for the first annual Summit to Sound adventure race on May 29th.  At 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning, when my teammates and I arrived at the Thompson Pass parking area, the air was so dense we couldn’t see the bright orange snow cat sitting 20’ off the highway or the flashing lights of safety vehicles until we were a car length away.  “Well, it could be snowing.”  One team member commented as we began gearing up.

Regardless of the 100% humidity and 0% visibility, the mood at the starting line was as excited and upbeat as any race:  volunteers hailed traffic emerging from the fog, race officials scurried about talking on two-way radios and participants darted in and out of the mist laughing and comparing race day strategies.  Everyone was ready to roll.
Carol Simmons paddles into the beach during the
Valdez Summit to Sound Race

The Summit to Sound was promoted as a four-sport quadrathon with ski, cycle, kayak and running legs.  I appreciated that the organizers avoided billing the race as “Extreme”, though in good Valdez style, they did add the line “Be There…We Dare You”, to the bottom of posters.

Valdez and the surrounding mountains and waterways are a classic venue for such an event.  The area features gorgeous scenery, a late season snow pack, a long smooth highway with wide shoulders, a deep ocean fjord, a bounty of shore side launching and landing sites, and looping city streets and trails.  Of course, the area can also pack a punch with rain, fog, snow, or wind—even on Memorial Day weekend.  Competitors in the 2011 event got a healthy dose of both the finer aspects and the challenging characteristics of the area.

The race route was to start with either a Nordic or alpine ski at the summit of Thompson Pass, followed by a 28-mile bike ride down the grade to Allison Point, a 3-mile ocean kayak paddle across the Port of Valdez, and a 3-mile run through town.  The name of the game for anyone planning to participate in this event is Flexibility.  Because of the potential for variability in weather and snow conditions, the specific routes for some sections of the race were not set until the week of the race and changes were made right up until the starting bell sounded.  The Nordic track was set just a few days prior to race day and the alpine ski route was cancelled the morning of the race due to the fog.  Just an hour prior to starting the race, the Nordic route was shortened.  Even at lower elevations, race organizers hedged against the possibility of strong ocean winds by having a plan B (which they didn’t use) for the kayaking route that would have changed both the end point for the biking and the beginning point for kayaking by several miles.  Race organizers mitigated these modifications by sending updates by email to all registered participants, holding a two-hour briefing the night before the event, and even allowing skiers to change from the alpine to Nordic division at the last minute.  In addition, organizers were prepared to move all 36 kayaks to a new transition zone by trailer if needed.  For future events, wise racers will arrive at the starting line ready for anything.

When the starting bell rang for the last wave of racers, my team’s cross-country skier, Karen Weiland, took off on her waxless skis and immediately disappeared into the heavy fog.  This wasn’t going to be a spectator event!  After cheering her on, our kayaker, Carol Simmons headed down to the Allison Point launch and I geared up for the chilly bike ride down the hill to sea level.  About a half hour after she started, Karen re-appeared through the mist and I pedaled off.  Later, Karen told us that the packed and flagged trail had been easy to follow, even in the fog, and that, though it was soft, was more suitable for skating that she’d thought it would be.  She’d been the only one of us who had to make serious strategic decisions about gear—she’d been up to the Pass several times over the past week to check conditions and each time she’d been up, the snow was significantly different.  In the end, she’d gone with diagonal gear.  Others ski gear seen on the Nordic track that day ran the gamut from skate skis to classic skis to Telemark skis with skins.

Tabitha Gregory cycles into the transition zone

Cycling through fog was exciting, especially on the steep downhill.  I could see about 20 feet ahead and pulled the brakes here and there until I descended below the fog line around the 2,400’ elevation.  From there, the coast was clear and I hit 35 mph on the glide down.  Behind me, volunteer, John Engels, drove a truck with flashing lights and a sign that read “CAUTION:  Bikes in the Road.”  Cars passed safety and slowly.  My support vehicle, driven by Karen and our runner, Bonnie Cudnohufsky, leap-frogged me all the way to Allison Point.

Carol, dressed in her dry suit and spray skirt, met me at Allison Point.  She tagged me and slid away from the shore onto the steel gray waters of Port Valdez.  For kayakers, the weather was perfect.  Overcast skies here almost always mean calm waters whereas sunny weather typically indicates that a strong sea breeze will be pushing up whitecaps by noon.  The Port of Valdez is a deep water fjord and from the Allison Point beach, you can see town and the small boat harbor.  To aid in navigation and safety, numerous boatloads of U.S. Coastguardsmen and volunteers marked the way.

By the time Karen and I arrived at the kayak-runner transition, Carol was visible in her sleek yellow kayak paddling towards the dock.  Bonnie, bundled up in her warm-ups, stretched and chatted with the timers.  The transition zones were somewhat confusing and I expect that by the second Summit to Sound, race organizers will have the hand-offs for teams and soloists smoothed out and better defined.  In this first event, each transition zone was managed a bit differently by the volunteers in charge.  For some relays, physical contact between the two racers was required and at other zones, such as at the ski-bike relay point, the skier just had to cross her finish line and a volunteer would yell to the outgoing racer to “go”.  The timing was also somewhat indistinct.  We heard some volunteers telling soloists that they could take their time in the transition zones because their transition times weren’t counted while other soloists weren’t aware of this, so blasted through the transition zones.  These types of bumps are to be expected in a first year event and, based on the high standards obvious throughout the race, I’d expect these things to be settled by the time the race kicks-off next year.

Bonnie Cudnohufsky sprints the Dock Point Trail
Even with these issues, the transition zones were also strong points for the first event.  The volunteers cheered and encouraged each racer who passed through and assisted racers by holding gear, making sure kayaks were lined up on the beach, pushing kayaks off the beach, and hauling bikes back to town.

At the small boat harbor, Carol pulled up to the beach and Bonnie sprinted off on her 5K run through Valdez.  We caught up with her as she turned into Dock Point park where she ran along a trail lined with blueberry bushes, Sitka spruce, and cow parsnip.  The rain had stopped and the roads were dry for her final leg of the race – up and over a hill and down the wide paved street toward the John Kelsey Dock.  Raucous spectators, event officials, and other racers cheered Bonnie on as we watched her stride across the finish line and pull the clapper to ring the heavy brass bell. 

The event continued on that day with a free fish fry, door prizes, awards ceremony, and live music.  Racers milled about that afternoon, comparing experiences from the day: skiing in the fog, cycling at break-neck speeds down from Thompson Pass, paddling across the bay and hitting the beach seconds before another competitor, running through Valdez.  Racers from Valdez commented to one another how great the event was for their town and participants from out of town swore they’d be back for more next year.

Where to Stay:  Blueberry Lake State Park campground is the closest developed car and tent camping to the starting line.  Located at mile 24 of the Richardson Highway, it has RV and tent sites, a covered pavilion, and outhouses.  $12/night.  Allison Point campground (also $12/night) is located at the bike-kayak transition.  This campground is a large gravel pad with RV/camper sites and outhouses.  Most bed & breakfasts and hotels in Valdez are open on Memorial Day weekend.

Gear:  Be ready to switch ski gear at the last minute if conditions change.  Though it is possible to use a mountain or touring bike, to be competitive you’ll want a road bike.  Use a kayak you’re comfortable with. 

Clothing & Weather:  Be prepared for anything from 45 – 70 degree temperatures.  Be prepared for rain and wind.  Bring layers and be ready to change your clothing based on race day conditions.

Communications:  Two-way radios were banned for racers.  Cell phones can be used almost the entire route, with the exception of a few short sections such as at the start line on Thompson Pass.

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