79-year-old cross-country skier finds solace in 50-kilometer Sonot Kkaazoot

FAIRBANKS — I spent the better part of Saturday trying to catch up with Alan Delamere. The 79-year-old skier and engineer completed the 50-kilometer Sonot Kkaazoot ski race in less than five hours.

He skied from downtown Fairbanks on the Chena River to the top of Birch Hill and back in 4 hours, 48 minutes, 12 seconds. He has 18 years on me, which doesn't explain why I was 5 minutes behind him, except he is an athlete and I'm just somebody who likes to ski.

The 31-mile course begins in downtown Fairbanks and winds its way along the Chena to the top of Birch Hill and back. He crossed the finish line still moving like a lad of 40 or 50. A bit stiff, perhaps, but not out of breath or ready for a rocking chair.

A year ago, he did the 40-kilometer race, but later he was mad at himself for skipping the longer course and taking the easy way out. He didn't do that this year. He said that tracking his time per kilometer helps him stay sharp as the hours pass and limits the distraction of daydreams.

He turns 80 in the fall and hopes to return to do the full 50-K race again in 2016. It's not a stretch to say he is to long-distance skiing what Norman Vaughan was to long-distance dog mushing. This is not a stunt or an aberration with him. Delamere has long been the senior skier at the Sonot, a race with a long history of support from the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks, Denali State Bank and Fort Wainwright.

"We've all got our own different characteristics and mental approach to things," he said. As for advice to others, he said, "Listen to your body. If your body tells you that you should not be doing it, then fine. Don't."

He and his wife Sheila live in Boulder, Colo., but have been in Fairbanks this winter, staying with their son, UAF physics professor Peter Delamere, and his family, on the west side of town.

The senior Delamere credits his ability to keep going to a healthy dose of good luck, not to mention decades of climbing mountains, riding his bike to and from work year-round, running, skiing and otherwise staying active.

"None of us ever knows how long we have," he said afterward. "But we have to make the most of it."

I finally caught up with him Monday and we talked about his career, his thoughts about Alaska's current situation and his experiences in taking on difficult challenges, only some of them connected to skiing.

An engineer, he has spent his life hearing people describe problems that seem insoluble. "A colleague described Delamere as having the 'spark,' the sort of energy it took to do great things," wrote author Todd Neff in "From Jars to the Stars: How Ball came to build a Comet-Hunting Machine."

Neff summed up Delamere as "charming, incisive and radically creative."

Delamere grew up in England just outside Liverpool and learned how to fly in the early 1950s as a 17-year-old volunteer reservist in the Royal Air Force. Delamere went to Canada and later moved to Boulder, Colo., where he had a long career at Ball Aerospace.

Steven Squyres, the top scientist on the Rover Mission to Mars, once described him this way: "Elfin, wiry and built like the cross-country ski racer he was, Alan had a mop of white hair, a middle-class British accent and a pleasant smirk that made you feel like he knew something you didn't."

While he is officially retired from Ball, he is still working on the space and science projects that have long captivated his interest. That morning he had two teleconferences about analyzing data from Mars.

Delamere led the team that built a camera for a European Space Agency expedition that explored Halley's Comet in 1986. He played a key role in designing the equipment for the Deep Impact mission that hit a comet after a journey of 268 million miles with an 800-pound object. At Ball, he led a team that built the high-resolution camera now operating on a Mars-orbiting satellite, providing spectacular images that continue to transform our understanding of the Red Planet.

It is the essence of engineering to identify tough problems in need of solutions. You get the right people together and brainstorm options. With enough effort, something will materialize.

After months of reading about the financial situation in Alaska and what that might mean for his grandchildren in Alaska, Delamere suggests that something similar is needed to deal with the economic challenges brought on by the collapse in oil prices.

Recognizing the potential for natural resource development, as well as developing fiscal and tax policies that will keep the economy strong and support education and other vital services are essential steps, he said. The political structure needs to adjust, painful as it may be.

"I've got great faith that Alaska problems can be solved by sensible people taking the right level of action," he said.

Something tells me it will be hard, but not as hard as finishing a 50-kilometer ski race at age 79.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.