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Triathlon on snow: Skimeister Challenge combines three winter disciplines

Lisa Maloney

Ski season is ending soon, and while that may be occasion to mourn it's also a great excuse for a party. Witness Arctic Valley's Merry Marmot Festival, Alyeska's Spring Carnival and now the AK Skimeister Challenge -- a collaboration between Challenge Alaska and Alyeska Ski Club that's in its second year.

If you want to win the Skimeister title this Saturday you'll need the fastest overall time in three legs of competition: Alpine skiing from the top of the mountain, a 6-K cross-country ski loop and a 10-K fat bike course. The whole event will be hand-timed, with video as a backup to resolve any close calls.

It all runs together

For years, Challenge Alaska and Alyeska Ski Club each had their own long-standing, end-of-season fundraisers. The event's genesis was as simple as someone saying "Hey, why don't we do this together and turn it into a community event too," explained Jeremy Anderson of Challenge Alaska, who organized the event with Aaron Stiassny of Alyeska Ski Club.

And just like that, a race was born. The inaugural 2013 event consisted of three separate races, one for each mode of transport. This year the three legs will be run continuously, like a typical swim-bike-run triathlon. There will be two all-around Skimeisters -- one man, one woman -- with the fastest cumulative times in all three legs, plus separate juniors and masters prizes. Participants can also run the event relay-style as part of a team.

The race is scheduled for a mass start at 10:10 a.m., starting from the top tram station at Alyeska Resort. But before they turn downhill, racers will boot -- that is, run -- partway up the Mighty Mite run from the top of the Alyeska tram, a tactic meant to ease the crush of having everyone start at one time.

It's hard to say how Anderson feels about making racers sprint uphill before they come rocketing back down; he sounded pretty calm about the whole idea, but I know I'd be turning gleeful mental cartwheels if I'd come up with something like that -- it's just the right combination of practicality, challenge (or sadism, depending on how you feel about running in your ski boots) and fun.

From there, it's a ski down to the hotel through panel gates that control both the speed and flow of the course. The run ends at the single exchange station near the hotel. That's where racers either swap their downhill skis for cross-country or tag their teammates to tackle the Nordic leg; since the Nordic portion is a loop, the transition from Nordic to fat bike is in the same place. The fat bike leg ends at the true finish line, the Challenge Alaska building.

Must I shred?

Southcentral Alaska cranks out some elite-level winter athletes -- but Anderson promises that skiers don't have to be expert to participate in the Skimeister competition. "If anybody skis from the tram down, they're in [the Alpine competition]," he said. Some of the racers will be out there to make serious competition; others are just out to enjoy a day on the mountain with friends and family, or to have a blast while supporting Challenge Alaska and the Alyeska Ski Club. (Proceeds benefit both organizations and donor contributions are tax-deductible, Anderson says.)

And while the 6-K Nordic loop on Girdwood's new cross-country ski trails has a reputation for being hilly, Anderson holds firm: almost anyone can do it. "Advanced people loved it [last year]... intermediate and beginners got worked a bit, but they had fun. It's not out of anybody's reach," he says.

Ditto for the 10-K fat bike course, although the challenge there may be mostly financial -- fat bikes are expensive. If you're not already a devotee, your most affordable option is renting a bike from one of the local bike shops, or trying to snag one of the two loaner bikes Anderson still had left when we spoke.

What about conditions?

We've had our share of wacky weather this year, but Anderson is quick to offer reassurance that the spring conditions in Girdwood are actually great. "I personally have been riding my fat tire bike where the race is going to be held; the snow is firm and easy to ride," he says. Conditions on the Nordic loop are "primo," thanks to shade from Girdwood's rainforest canopy. "Despite the fact that there's no snow in Anchorage, we do have snow in Girdwood. This is called Glacier Valley for a reason."

There are prizes for the winners in each division. The big one is a $500 Alaska Airlines voucher for the male and female Skimeister. Another part of the draw is the $35 full lift ticket that competitors have access to (half off the full price for a day pass). There's a big gap in the proceedings after lunch is over at 2, so that participants can make the most of the limited ski time remaining before coming back for the awards ceremony at 6 p.m. An after party with live music kicks up at 8 p.m. until "whenever."

Organizing an event this big is no simple task, but the AK Skimeister titles -- and all the effort behind them -- are at least as much about community as they are about competition and prizes.

If you go

Bib pickup and staging is from 8:30-8:45 a.m. at the Alyeska Beacon Park. The first tram heads up the mountain at 9 a.m., and the mass start at the upper tram station is scheduled for 10:10 a.m. There will be a hot lunch after the race at the Challenge Alaska building (free to participants, by donation to the public). Full lift tickets are available to racers at a reduced price of $35.

Full details, registration and any last-minute changes will be available at akskimeister.com or on Facebook (search for "AK Skimeister"). The event is capped at 200 participants, so don't wait too long if you want to join in. Event questions can be directed to ski@challengealaska.org or 907-783-2925.

 


By LISA MALONEY
Daily News correspdent