Wasatch Citizens series starts despite warm conditions | ParkRecord.com

Wasatch Citizens series starts despite warm conditions

Anita Merbach rounds the final curve of the 1 km sprint course as she approaches the finish line of the TUNA Wasatch Citizens Series cross-country skiing race at Soldier Hollow Saturday morning, December 16, 2017. (Tanzi Propst/Park Record)
Tanzi Propst |

Canceling Nordic skiing races is bad form — just ask anyone that’s organized one.

That’s why Charlie Sturgis, Mountain Trails Foundation director, former White Pine touring director and volunteer at Saturday’s Black Diamond Wasatch Citizens Series Nordic race, says “Every flake is sacred, do with it what you will.”

Just how sacred was apparent at the Soldier Hollow race where, because of a warm winter and snow making difficulties, the track was reduced to a 1K sprint format instead of the 10K race it would have otherwise been. The track ran as a broad ribbon of white over a brown landscape.

Though turnout reflected the conditions, the race still drew roughly 120 skiers between ages 5 and 79, with skill levels just as varied.

“We’ve got snow, thanks to some engineering I think,” said David Stice, a longtime Nordic enthusiast and Utah Nordic Alliance volunteer. “It’s white, it sounds like snow, it skis like snow, so it’s fun to be out on.”

But each season, the races in December seem to get pushed back further and further.

Race organizer Dave Hanscom said usually by this time, Soldier Hollow has 4 or 5 kilometers of track built.

“Maybe 3 at the worst,” he said. “Unfortunately they had a break in their pipe a week ago.”

The leak meant the park had to delay snow making for several days, the resulting track put to use as two sprint sessions (a qualifier in the morning and a finals after lunch) instead of one longer race.

“Since we didn’t have that many people and wanted to give them as much opportunity as possible, we let everyone go into the final heat,” Hanscom said.

That included learners and recreational skiers to competitive college athletes and former Olympians.

“Some of the old guys are really fast,” Hanscom said. “One of the Park City guys, Paul Smith, just turned 60 this year and he would have won all the day down to the 25-year-old class. … He was the fastest of any of the adult skiers other than the open class.”

In the past, the race has avoided cancellation through aggressive snow making and improvisation, and though the most recent race certainly used those tactics, it was by no means the only close call in the Nordic community’s history.

“One year we went up and down the tubing hill each lap and we had a five lap race,” Hanscom said.

Sturgis reflected on the great lengths the community goes to avoid cancellation. He recalled buying a snowblower for White Pine in 1993 and using it “almost exclusively until the end of its life to blow snow onto the track. We spent hours and hours blowing snow off the (golf) course and onto the track.”

For one race, Sturgis recommended using a “Le Mans finish.”

“It’s just like a Le Mans start, but when you get to the crappy snow, you take off your skis and run to the finish,” he said.

Perhaps the most hair-raising solution was for a North American Cup event a couple years ago, which both Hanscom and Sturgis recalled with a faint sense of horror and reverence.

“These are guys from all over the world, but there was no snow anywhere else (in Park City) except Gorgoza Park,” Hanscom said.

He said skiers climbed up one tubing and sledding lane and skied down the next across the whole five-lane park.

“It was so icy the race workers had to wear Yak Tracks on their shoes to get to the start,” he said. “(Skiers) get down to the bottom and … going 100 miles an hour and you have to make a U-turn.”

Sturgis said the racers had a brutal course, making a giant zig-zag up the tubing hill.

“It was a crazy event,” he said.

Saturday’s race had the saving grace of being uncomplicated for racers and staff, and for some, the shortened nature didn’t matter much.

“The race is good,” Stice said after his qualifying run. “Mercifully short and sweet. My pride doesn’t sit well with a (did-not-finish) so my guess is that I will race again (in the finals). Lunch and a nap and I’ll be back out.”

Mix Broadhead, a racer for the Soldier Hollow team, said he was just glad to have somewhere to train.

“This season has been sucky, but hey there’s enough snow to go 1K up,” he said. “That’s all I really ask for, is a chance to ski.”

The next race is scheduled for Jan. 13 at White Pine Nordic Center.

Hanscom said all the local skiing venues needed to make a successful season is a couple good storms, though until that happens, the season is still up in the air.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say that,” he said, considering a weather prediction. “I’ll put a jinx on it.”

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