Skiing circuit courts masters

Mike Campbell

They're old -- but still pretty darned fast.

In an effort to nurture aging cross-country skiers with a little swag, the U.S. Ski Association on Saturday will kick off a new series of races aimed at master skiers more than 40 years old.

The new USSA Masters SuperTour will be linked to SuperTour races, with skiers in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond competing in their own age brackets. SuperTour is a series of races for elite cross-country racers who aren't quite good enough to travel to international World Cup races. Last season, Lars Flora, the two-time Olympian from Anchorage, was the overall men's SuperTour winner. Fellow Anchorage Olympian James Southam won the circuit's Distance Cup. Both ski with Alaska Pacific University's Nordic Ski Center.

After Saturday's opener at West Yellowstone, Mont., masters races continue in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado and Maine. Alaska isn't a stop during the inaugural season.

"I'm not under the illusion that people are gonna buy a plane ticket and go to this and that place, crisscrossing the country," said John Farra, nordic director at USSA. "It's more the idea that they'll look at the schedule and say, 'Hey, that looks like fun; maybe I can get there.'

"If they don't, it's no big deal. But organizers are thrilled any time they have an opportunity to increase the entry field. And most of them can handle plenty of masters."

While SuperTour racers can turn a strong showing into dollars -- earning $750 for a win down to $100 for sixth place -- the best masters can do on the new circuit is take home goodies from such ski companies as Fischer, Rossignol, Madshus, Salomon, Swix and Tok.

And, of course, earn the envy of their peers.

Some older skiers aren't thrilled.

"In the past, USSA Nordic could care less about masters skiing," said master skier Tim Kelley. "I think the ski world has found that masters flock to marathon races with a passion. But for shorter races and race series, the turnout is token.

"I'd guess that less than five skiers over 40 will do the entire SuperTour series. If the USSA thinks they are going to cash in on masters (especially in this economy), I think they will be surprised at the low return for their efforts."

But Farra said the series wasn't built on the expectation that hundreds of masters would hopscotch from one race to the next.

"Tim's always good for a couple of zingers," Farra said. "But saying USSA has stayed away from masters skiing in the past is a fair criticism.

"Quite frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if less than five skiers do the whole series. It's a big country. But that's not the point.

"This isn't designed to pressure somebody to do the series. If somebody sees a chance to do two or three races, maybe there will be an opportunity to get some swag at the end of the year."

Alaska has long had a vital community of master skiers, sprinkled with a dose of former Olympians and collegiate stars.

Among the masters racing at last year's Tour of Anchorage marquee race was Todd Boonstra, 47, a three-time Olympian and four-time Mount Marathon champion and Dirk Sisson, 53, the name behind the popular Sisson's Loop at Kincaid.

But Alaska's community of older nordic skiers isn't united on whether a masters tour is a good idea or a bust.

"I think it would be great," said Boonstra, quickly adding, "Is it going to be in Anchorage?" It isn't -- at least in its first year.

"I would love to, but it's so darn expensive just to get to Anchorage," said Boonstra, a teacher in Galena. "But master skiers generally have some money. Guys are older and retired and have some disposable income."

Don't count Jim Burkholder, 68, among them.

"I'm not going to pay Alaska Airlines airfare for a racing circuit for an over-the-hill gang," he said. "It's not part of my ego.

"I really enjoy cross-country skiing, but we live in isolation up here, and I don't need to repeat what those kids at Alaska Pacific University are doing and train so much."

Last year, Kincaid held the Masters National Championships and both Boonstra and Burkholder competed, with Boonstra winning the 10-K individual race for skiers 25 and older and Burkholder capturing his age group.

The field was full of Alaska masters from Homer to Fairbanks able to drive to the races -- but Burkholder estimated that fewer than 30 skiers flew up from the Lower 48 to compete in the race series that concluded with the Tour of Anchorage.

"If they hold (races) for people within reasonable driving distance, folks will go," Burkholder said. "Every year, we have masters in Anchorage who go to world masters, where you don't need a qualifying time to get in. This year, it's in Falun, Sweden -- and I've got some really fond memories of skiing on their race trails three different times. Not competing, just coaching.

"But I'm not in an economic situation where I can't go to Scandinavia. You've got to be a lot richer than I am."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

SuperTour schedule

Friday at West Yellowstone: 10-K and 15-K freestyle, interval start

Jan. 23 at Minneapolis: 10-K and 15-K classic, mass start

Jan. 31 at Telemark, Wis.: 10-K and 15-K freestyle, mass start

Feb. 14 at Aspen, Colo.: 21-K freestyle, mass start

Feb. 27 at Madison, Wis. (American Birkebeiner): 52-K freestyle, mass start

March 24 at Fort Kent, Maine (U.S. Championships): 30-K and 50-K freestyle, mass start

SCORING: Top five places for each gender earn points in these age classes: 40s, 50s, 60s, 70+