By Kai Vieira de Rosa
Recreation fanatics from across the U.S. will line up at the Mt. Baker Ski Area and begin the seven leg race down to the Bellingham bay for Ski to Sea’s 44th annual team relay on May 29.
Ski to Sea is an annual team relay race starting from Mt. Baker Ski Area, ending in Bellingham Bay.
The race is traditionally held the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Ski to Sea has seven different events; downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, running, biking, canoeing, cyclocross-biking, and kayaking, combining to make the largest multi-sport team relay race in the world.
Inspiration for Ski to Sea came from the Mt. Baker Marathon. In 1911, The Mt. Baker Marathon was created, but because hard snowfall would cause people to get lost on the mountain, the race only lasted 3 years. The exact origin of the race is unknown to Anna Rankin, Ski to Sea Operations Assistant.
“Some people say that Sea to Ski came out of that, it was a different thing because it was just runners, but it was a similar course,” Rankin said.
Ski to Sea was created by the Bellingham chamber of commerce in 1973.
“Whatcom Events took the race over 7 years ago, the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce used to do it,” Rankin said.
Mother Nature is the biggest threat to the continuation of Ski to Sea. Snow levels, river height, and bay conditions are all closely assessed to insure the race can take place.
“2 years ago there was no snow, so we had to scramble to come up with different legs to make it reach,” Rankin said.
Due to low snow in 2016 cross country skiing had to be taken out.
Grant Goheen, a WWU student and Bellingham local, was one of the competitors during last year’s race. Goheen has remembered times like last year when poor conditions closed events.
“I remember last year they didn’t have cross country skiing, luckily they have enough snow this year,” Goheen said.
To avoid any lawsuits, Whatcom Events does hours of safety preparation.
“Safety is a top priority and lots of people are involved, Whatcom County Search and Rescue is the main safety for the event,” Rankin said. “We have a gentleman with the Bellingham Fire Department who is an avid canoeist who has been going down the race twice a week giving us updates as well.”
Whatcom events doesn’t contribute to any of the funding for the race, sponsors are the only resources for the race.
“The only way this race happens is through sponsorship volunteers,” Rankin said. “We use almost a 1000 volunteers and rely on sponsors for funding.”
These sponsors cover all the costs from the sound system to timing and awards.
“It’s crazy how much goes into it and how many little things people aren’t aware of,” Rankin said. “I work ten months out of the year just for this one day essentially.”
Rankin said that funding isn’t a big concern, although last year, Whatcom Events reported their first ever Ski to Sea net loss.
To put the race on, Whatcom events needs to purchase a multi-thousand dollar insurance policy.
“Insurance is crazy, it’s over $20,000 for one day,” Rankin said. “A lot of our expenses have risen in the last few years.”
Participation is also down, around 325 teams registered this year, as opposed to the 450 average in prior years.
“Considering all the preparation it takes to get a team and all the equipment together, I’m pretty happy with 325,” Rankin said.
Goheen is a WWU student and Ski to Sea veteran, including this year he has raced five times total. He has competed in road biking twice, running twice, and cross country skiing once. Goheen was introduced to Ski to Sea through his Kenmore Boy Scout troop 582.
“I was a little hesitant when my troop wanted to do it,” Goheen said. “But it’s just a really good experience, the bond you share with whoever you’re doing it with is really special.”
Goheen is no longer competing with his troop, but that doesn’t stop him from partaking in the event.
“This year I’m doing the race with my team The Squires of Kenmore, some local Kenmore adults that specialize in their respective events,” Goheen said. “We even have two canoers that workout four or five times a week.”
This year, Goheen will be running, which he believes is one of the three hardest events. Runners lose 2,200 feet in altitude in a rapid amount of time running down the Mt. Baker Highway for 8 miles.
“It’s all downhill, I think you lose a couple thousand feet,” Goheen said. “So its kind of tough on your knees.”
The other two events Goheen considers the hardest are canoeing and road biking. Canoeing and road biking are the longest events, together they stretch out over 60 of the 94 miles.
“The canoeing or the road biking are probably the hardest events, they take the most amount of time,” Grant said. “The road biking is one of the most competitive, because there are so many people that bike.”
Ski to Sea is the biggest event in Whatcom County and brings in considerable profits to Bellingham thanks to the work of the sponsors, and the influx of tourism on race week.
“Two-thirds of the racers are doing it for the first time. You have not only racers, but support teams and spectators filling up hotels and restaurant, so of course it helps with tourism dollars,” Rankin said. “More than that, I think it’s really good for us residents just for the comradery and celebration together, it’s a great way for the community to come together and value the place we live in.”
Ski to Sea brings in an average revenue of over $400,000, each year.
Despite declining registration numbers Whatcom events and Ski to Sea race and parade are nonprofit events that benefit the surrounding Whatcom area.
Ski to Sea is a piece of Whatcom’s history and an essential fund collector for local organizations.