In 1987 the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail was completed after years of public debate and land negotiations. The trail, which follows the Anchorage coastline from downtown to Kincaid Park, intersected the Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek Trail at Westchester Lagoon. Skiers looked at the new trail map and saw the possibility of a "mountain to sea" ski race.
Before then, their only choice of a 50-kilometer race in Anchorage consisted of a number of loops over a short course at Kincaid Park. Only a handful of skiers participated in those early loppets put on by the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage.
But with the coastal trail, a long point-to-point race became possible.
In 1988 the first 50-K ski race across Anchorage started at Service High, went up the Spencer Loop, made its way through Far North Bicentennial Park to the University Trails, the Chester Creek Trail, the Coastal Trail, and finished with a climb up the Lekisch Trail at Kincaid Park.
Skiers could also choose a 25-K race, which started at Russian Jack Park and merged with the 50-K race near UAA. Over the years there have been some changes, but the two race courses are similar today.
About 170 skiers participated in the first Tour of Anchorage. These days it routinely draws 1,500 or more and is usually the second biggest cross-country ski race in the country, behind the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin (with 8,000 entries last year).
In 2007 -- the Tour of Anchorage's 20th anniversary -- more than 2,000 skiers participated. That record could be threatened this year when the race celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Initially there were no dedicated ski trails between trails on the Hillside and the university trails. The early Tour of Anchorage races used the sled dog trails in the Far North Bicentennial Park to make the link.
Crossing Tudor Road was problematic as well because there was no pedestrian bridge until the early 1990s. Prior to the bridge, police stopped traffic and skiers crossed Tudor Road on a carpet.
NSAA volunteers worked for several years to create a ski trail with four bridges through BLM lands in Far North Bicentennial that would be a permanent link from mountains to sea. In the early years this linking trail was only groomed for the Tour of Anchorage, but now these trails are set during the whole ski season. People eagerly await the grooming of this popular multi-use trail.
From the beginning the Tour encompassed two races, the 25-K and 50-K, both freestyle (allowing both the skate and diagonal techniques). In 1994 a 40-K race was added to appeal to skiers who wanted a longer race but did not want to tackle the difficult Spencer Loop of the 50-K course. In 1998 a separate division for classic racing was added to the 25-K race to accommodate the many skiers who choose the diagonal technique.
Only once has the Tour not been held -- in 2003, it was canceled due to lack of snow. In 1990, ash from a Mount Redoubt eruption covered the trails but a last-minute snowfall saved the day.
In its second year, the Tour became part of the Great American Ski Chase, a national ski marathon series. The series later became the American Ski Marathon Series and the Tour is one of 14 races in the series held across the country.
Although the Tour of Anchorage has national prominence, it is primarily a statewide event. Most of the skiers are from Anchorage and about 200 skiers come down from Fairbanks, with almost an equal number from the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su Valley.
The Tour also gets a number of skiers from rural Alaska and a few from Juneau and the Southeast. Anywhere from 100 to 200 skiers have come from the Lower 48 and 10 or 15 from foreign countries.
The race historically starts the day after the start of the Iditarod, which puts it on the first Sunday of March. The past few years this date has conflicted with the Anchorage School District spring break, which had a downward effect on numbers, but this conflict will not occur this year. Becuase of that, and the excellent skiing conditions this winter, we expect a record field.
Those of us involved in the organization of the Tour of Anchorage think of it as more than just a mere cross-country ski race. It has become a major community event with something to offer nearly every skier. It is a top-notch competitive race, a family outing, a party, a Sunday tour and a true celebration of winter.
With this season's snowfall, there has never been a better winter to train for the Tour. Pick your distance, set your goals and get ready for a good time. Come out and celebrate 25 years in one of the finest ski communities in the country.
P.J. Hill has been the Tour of Anchorage race director for 24 years.
Save the dates
Registration is happening now for Anchorage’s two major ski races — the Alaska Ski for Women and the Tour of Anchorage. Here’s how you can sign up:
Alaska Ski for Women
• Sunday, Feb. 5
• Register online until midnight Thursday, Feb. 2 (anchoragenordicski.com/skiforwomen
• In-person registration and bib pickup Feb. 3 and Feb. 4 at REI, noon to 7:30 p.m.
• No entry fee but donations are encouraged. The race is a fundraiser for abused women and children.
Tour of Anchorage
• Sunday, March 4
• Register online until 10 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 (tourofanchorage.com)
• Register by mail through Saturday, Feb. 25 (203 West 15th, Suite 204, Anchorage 99501)
• In-person registration Friday, March 2, 3-7 p.m.; Saturday, March 3, 2-7 p.m., APU’s Moseley Sports Center
• Race-day signup at start line from 8-9 a.m. (Service High for 50-K and 40-K; APU for 25-K).
• Entry fees: $75 online and mail-in ($65 for NSAA members); $85 in-person ($75 NSAA members); $100 race day.
By P.J. HILL
Special to the Daily News