Everything You Need to Know To Race Washington’s Ski to Sea Race

Every spring, a swarm of out­doors­peo­ple con­verge on Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, an art­sy col­lege town locat­ed rough­ly 20 miles from the Cana­di­an bor­der, to take part in the annu­al ‘Ski to Sea’ race. The com­pe­ti­tion (which cel­e­brates its 40th anniver­sary this year) con­sists of a 100-mile route that stretch­es from the slopes of Mt. Bak­er Ski Area to the waters of Belling­ham Bay. The race is divid­ed into sev­en legs: cross-coun­try ski­ing, down­hill skiing/snowboarding, run­ning, cycling, canoe­ing, moun­tain bik­ing, and sea kayak­ing. In oth­er words, Ski to Sea is a relay race of epic pro­por­tions; if you’d like to take part in the 2013 com­pe­ti­tion (which will be held Sun­day, May 26), here are a few train­ing tips to get you started.

1Leg 1: Cross-coun­try Skiing
The cross-coun­try ski­ing leg of Ski to Sea involves two loop trails that cov­er rough­ly 4.5 miles of ter­rain. Accord­ing to Andrew Newell, a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can cross-coun­try team who com­pet­ed in the 2010 Van­cou­ver Olympics, Nordic skiers can sup­ple­ment their work­outs with car­dio­vas­cu­lar con­di­tion­ing. He says his typ­i­cal off-sea­son work­outs include moun­tain bik­ing, street cycling, and run­ning. In addi­tion to ski­ing dur­ing heavy snow­fall months, he rec­om­mends using ‘roller skis’, strap-on devices equipped with wheels that allow the wear­er to mim­ic cross-coun­try tech­niques on hard sur­faces. He also encour­ages rac­ers to mas­ter the dou­ble-pole sprint­ing tech­nique, which involves stand­ing on the balls of one’s feet with hips upright and push­ing off with as much exer­tion as pos­si­ble, using both poles at once. The ‘V’ tech­nique, used to climb hills, is also cru­cial. Newell (who com­petes in numer­ous com­pe­ti­tions through­out the year) says that his typ­i­cal week dur­ing race sea­son involves 15 to 25 hours of aer­o­bic exer­cise and a diet that con­sists of 4,000 to 5,000 calo­ries per day.

When it comes to gear, he urges rook­ie cross-coun­try skiers to invest wise­ly in equip­ment.  In addi­tion to prop­er rac­ing skis (which typ­i­cal­ly cost at least $300), he says com­fort­able boots, secure bind­ings, and a Span­dex rac­ing suit should be includ­ed on the shop­ping list. There are two types of cross-coun­try poles: clas­sic poles — which extend to the user’s armpit, and freestyle poles — which are con­sid­er­ably longer. First-time Nordic skiers should exper­i­ment with both styles in order to deter­mine which poles suit them best. But when it comes to rac­ing, longer poles have a sig­nif­i­cant advantage.

2Leg 2: Down­hill Skiing/Snowboarding
The down­hill skiing/snowboarding leg of Ski to Sea involves a siz­able uphill climb, fol­lowed by a down­hill route that deposits each skier/snowboarder at the start­ing point.

Prop­er train­ing for alpine ski races can be bro­ken up into three cat­e­gories: flex­i­bil­i­ty, con­di­tion­ing, and agili­ty. Flex­i­bil­i­ty is key because long stretch­es of down­hill move­ment are hard on the skier’s joints and ten­dons. Exer­cis­es to help achieve opti­mal flex­i­bil­i­ty include run­ning in place, tor­so rota­tions, and arm cir­cles. Thor­ough stretch­ing of the hips, knees, and ankles before and after the work­out is also cru­cial. Con­di­tion­ing for down­hill ski­ing should focus pri­mar­i­ly on the tor­so and upper leg mus­cles. Core upper-body exer­cis­es will improve one’s cen­ter of grav­i­ty, which in turn boosts his or her speed, while mogul exer­cis­es will devel­op the mus­cles that sur­round the knee and improve his or her bal­ance. Agili­ty train­ing should pri­mar­i­ly take place on the slopes. Com­mon drills involve mov­ing down a grad­ual slope and turn­ing with­out poles, or bend­ing over to retrieve objects from the ground while strapped into a pair of skis. Oth­er exer­cis­es include crossover steps and log-hop­ping, which improve the skier’s abil­i­ty to recov­er with­out falling if he or she los­es bal­ance dur­ing a down­hill competition.

For snow­board­ers, leg work­outs, such as repet­i­tive stand­ing sin­gle leg bends, build endurance and improve flex­i­bil­i­ty. Plank exer­cis­es, as well as rou­tines that tar­get spe­cif­ic mus­cle groups (such as curls or tri­cep dips), strength­en one’s core and boost bal­ance. Lead­ing up to the race, snow­board­ers should also work on tight­en­ing their turn­ing tech­niques; there may be less room to carve dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion, so mas­ter­ing the sharp, suc­ces­sive turn is cru­cial for excelling in the race and avoid­ing a nasty col­li­sion. Final­ly, both skiers and snow­board­ers must climb uphill as part of Ski to Sea — so some car­dio train­ing pri­or to the race is def­i­nite­ly in order.

1Leg 3: Running
The run­ning leg of Ski to Sea involves an eight-mile route that orig­i­nates at the upper Mount Bak­er High­way and ends at the Shuk­san Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion in the town of Maple Falls.

Train­ing for down­hill races should con­sist of rou­tines that alter­nate between flat and steep ground. Dr. Jason Harp of Active.com sug­gests exer­cis­es that boost speed while allow­ing the body to accli­mate to down­hill grades. These include ‘4 x 2’ drills (four min­utes run­ning on flat ground, fol­lowed by two min­utes down­hill) and ‘up and down’ drills that alter­nate between uphill, flat, and down­hill ter­rain in two to three-minute incre­ments. Begin­ners should start small and grad­u­al­ly increase dis­tance and time spent run­ning down­hill in rela­tion to time spent on flat ground. Even­tu­al­ly, the rac­er will be ready to trail with ‘hill med­leys’ (10-mile cours­es that con­sist of six miles down­hill, two miles uphill, and two miles on flat terrain).

Ski to Sea run­ners must con­tend with an ele­va­tion drop of rough­ly 3,000 feet. Down­hill run­ning can wreak hav­oc on the entire body, name­ly the knees and quadra­ceps. Jené Shaw of Triath­lete encour­ages down­hill rac­ers to lean for­ward from the hips (rather than the shoul­ders) to improve cen­ter of grav­i­ty, while lit­er­al­ly flail­ing one’s arms will help achieve bal­ance when mov­ing down a steep grade. To pre­serve knee strength, keep the feet close to the body and avoid tak­ing long strides. Dur­ing the race, run­ners should keep their eyes focused down­hill, rather than at their feet; this pre­vents the neck flex­ors from strain­ing. Steps should be short and light, with the feet always par­al­lel to the ground; Shaw sug­gests run­ning as though the sur­face is cov­ered with hot coals.

2Leg 4: Cycling
At just over 40 miles, cycling com­pris­es the longest leg of the Ski to Sea. The route trav­els through the small towns of Glac­i­er and Maple Falls, even­tu­al­ly end­ing at the Nook­sack Riv­er in Everson.

Like the run­ning leg, the key to the road cycling leg is not so much about com­plet­ing the dis­tance (which is rel­a­tive­ly short) as it is about main­tain­ing opti­mal speed and con­tend­ing with oth­er rac­ers. Accord­ing to Gale Bern­hardt of Active.com, increas­ing one’s lac­tate thresh­old is key to improv­ing speed. Con­di­tioned cyclists can sus­tain their thresh­old for 60 to 90 min­utes — more than enough time to com­plete the 42-mile course. Cruise inter­val exer­cis­es, which con­sist of between three and eight min­utes of peak speed sep­a­rat­ed by brief rest peri­ods, are an effec­tive method of increas­ing thresh­old time. These rou­tines should grad­u­al­ly build to 20-minute ‘criss-cross’ exer­cis­es, dur­ing which the cyclist increas­es his or her heart rate to Zone 4, then fluc­tu­ates between Zone 4 and Zone 5a through­out the rest of the work­out. Bern­hardt adds that any lac­tate thresh­old work­out should begin with a 20–30-minute warm-up phase and con­clude with 15 min­utes of cool-down.

To pre­pare for a first race, cyclists must famil­iar­ize them­selves with prop­er com­pe­ti­tion eti­quette. Accord­ing to Road Bike Reviewgood form dur­ing a cycling com­pe­ti­tion includes:

  • Alert­ing trail­ing cyclists of pot­holes, bumps, or oth­er obstruc­tions in the road
  • Using hand sig­nals to show that rid­ers ahead have slowed down
  • Not mak­ing any abrupt changes in regard to speed or direction
  • Refrain­ing from over­lap­ping wheels until han­dle­bars are even­ly paced and the oth­er cyclist has made visu­al contact
  • Yelling, ‘flat!’ and using hand sig­nals to indi­cate a deflat­ed tire
  • Ped­al­ing and stand­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly when cycling out of the sad­dle to avoid col­li­sions from the rear

8Leg 5: Canoeing
The canoe leg of Ski to Sea stretch­es 18 miles, mak­ing it the sec­ond longest sec­tion. The route trav­els along the Nook­sack Riv­er, from Ever­son to the town of Fer­n­dale. This is the only two-per­son leg of the race.

For­get the notions of pleas­ant­ly dip­ping oars into the water and glid­ing down­stream; the canoe por­tion is con­sid­ered the most dan­ger­ous part of Ski to Sea. The Nook­sack is a siz­able riv­er with strong cur­rents; in fact, the canoe­ing leg was can­celled in 1997 (and near­ly called off in 2009) after exces­sive swelling caused unsafe water lev­els. Trag­i­cal­ly, a woman drowned in 2002 while train­ing for Ski to Sea. For these rea­sons, any­one who par­tic­i­pates in the canoe­ing leg of the race should be famil­iar with swift­wa­ter safe­ty techniques.

Gra­ham Ulmer notes two key com­po­nents of canoe race train­ing: strength and speed. Work­out rou­tines should tar­get mus­cle groups pri­mar­i­ly used to pad­dle a canoe, such as the tri­ceps, biceps, pec­torals, low­er abdomen, back, and shoul­ders. Curl­ing, bench press­ing, lat-pull­downs, and crunch­es are all effec­tive meth­ods of con­di­tion­ing the body for a long-dis­tance pad­dle. Speed train­ing should con­sist of inter­val exer­cis­es (70 sec­onds of ener­gy bursts) and 250-meter sprints, both accom­pa­nied with full rest peri­ods. Use resis­tance tech­niques (i.e., tying the canoe to a dock) to fur­ther build speed.

Because two pad­dlers are required for this leg, it is essen­tial to train with that per­son sev­er­al times pri­or to the race. Prac­tice runs help each pad­dler become famil­iar with the oth­er per­son­’s pace, speed, and style.

3Leg 6: Moun­tain Biking
The moun­tain bik­ing leg of Ski to Sea con­sists of a route that trav­els from the banks of the Nook­sack Riv­er to Squallicum Park, which is locat­ed in Belling­ham Bay. The dis­tance may vary; the course cov­ered 20 miles in 2011, and 13 miles in 2012. The moun­tain bike course is “com­pli­cat­ed,” accord­ing to race offi­cials. “Much of this course is over spongy open fields, sin­gle track, dou­ble track, and vary­ing urban ele­ments, so be prepared.”

Rather than focus­ing on what might be found on the Ski to Sea course, ama­teur moun­tain bik­ers should build skills relat­ed to form and rid­ing in groups. Jen­nifer Eblin of Trails.com notes that group rides and moun­tain bike clubs offer plen­ty of train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, as well as a social com­po­nent; in many cas­es, orga­nized rides will cov­er cours­es that are also used in com­pe­ti­tions. Once the moun­tain bik­er is com­fort­able rid­ing trails with oth­er peo­ple, they can advance to solo excur­sions to improve speed and reac­tion time — arguably the two most impor­tant aspects of moun­tain bike rac­ing. Time spent on the track should be sup­ple­ment­ed with a core mus­cle exer­cise rou­tine that empha­sizes the legs and shoulders.

Out-of-town par­tic­i­pants in this leg should note that the Pacif­ic North­west receives abun­dant rain­fall through­out the spring months, and the sur­faces may be slick and cov­ered with slip­pery obsta­cles, like tree roots.

4Leg 7: Sea Kayaking
The kayak­ing leg of Ski to Sea involves a five-mile route that trav­els across Belling­ham Bay, from Squallicum Har­bor to the Marine Park in Belling­ham’s Fairhaven neigh­bor­hood. This is the final leg of the com­pe­ti­tion. Upon reach­ing the Marine Park, kayak­ers ring the bell to deter­mine their team’s over­all placement.

Almost…there. To pre­pare for a sea kayak­ing race, Ulmer sug­gests a full-body work­out; pad­dling a kayak requires heavy upper-body exer­tion and inter­mit­tent bursts of leg strength, so bench press­es, tri­cep curls, and leg lifts should all play a role in the exer­cise reg­i­men. To build ‘kayak-spe­cif­ic strength’, Ulmer encour­ages a rou­tine that also con­sists of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and squats to prop­er­ly build the core. And in order to achieve pow­er­ful ener­gy bursts, he rec­om­mends pow­er cleans and snatches.

In addi­tion to phys­i­cal strength, anoth­er key com­po­nent of kayak­ing is bal­ance; the ves­sels are much wob­bli­er than canoes, and can eas­i­ly over­turn. The use of physio balls is one effec­tive method of build­ing bal­ance required to keep a kayak upright. But kayak­ers should also famil­iar­ize them­selves with prop­er tech­niques for right­ing the ves­sel if it does over­turn. When done cor­rect­ly, these maneu­vers save lives.

Best of luck to all the 2013 Ski to Sea par­tic­i­pants! Teams can cur­rent­ly reg­is­ter online; the cur­rent fee is $440 for race teams and $480 for cor­po­rate teams, and these prices will increase for teams that reg­is­ter after May 1. For more infor­ma­tion about the race, please vis­it the offi­cial Ski to Sea web­site.