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The Race is On

One of the largest ski races in the West returns to Tahoe in March after multiple years of low snowpack and three cancellations
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Tahoe hit a bit of a rocky patch the last few years; blue skies and bare trails stole away the wintry paradise we all crave. The subtle aura of disappointment was tangible on the warm sidewalks and empty lift lines, but we stuck it out. This year, though, we witnessed a rebirth. It is as if everything we all love about our cherished mountains returned with the weather, and winter slapped a big goofy grin on the face of everyone in town.

Perhaps the most appropriate symbol of this return to bliss is the comeback of one of North Lake Tahoe’s most beloved traditions: The Great Ski Race. Although the long-time patrons of the race might reply, with chapped-lipped smiles and fish-scaled skis in hand, “Don’t call it a comeback, we’ve been here for years!”

The race itself — 30 kilometers of groomed skating lanes and double tracks — hosts 700 to 1,200 skiers of all abilities. There are the pros, the first wave of skiers skating toward the podium and tucking down “Carnage Hill” in a mad dash for the finish line. The next wave is full of skiers simply looking to challenge their own personal best time or kick their buddy’s butt to the afterparty at Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar. Finally comes the “stop and smell the roses” crowd in the third wave. These folks are simply excited to experience the joy of cross-country skiing, and the incredible course that the race volunteers have spent hours creating.

Doug Read, co-director of the race and longtime member of the Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, has been an integral part of the event since the race began in the 1970s.

“It’s been a really iconic event through the years that has grown more and more popular,” Read said. “In the last four years we’ve had such bad weather that we’ve had to cancel three times, so we’re really fired up for this year.”

Read’s wife, Laura Read, is a TNSAR team member and race volunteer herself; she is also one of the race’s famous “cheerleaders.” The women — a group of happy, spunky, and funkily clad ladies — skate ahead of the race to Starratt Pass to heckle and cheer on the racers.

Laura, also a former copy editor for Moonshine Ink, painted a perfect picture of this tradition in a 2009 Moonshine Ink article:

“The course’s terrain serves up clean views of the Sierra Nevada’s spiny crest, but many racers just as eagerly anticipate the visions awaiting them at Starratt Pass, where the ‘official course cheerleaders,’ wearing new entertaining costumes each year, cheer and tease the hard-working athletes over the race’s highest point.”

Laura says their costumes are different each year, and always a secret. So if you want to catch a glimpse of the surprise these beauties have in store, you’ll have to make your way to their outpost 1,200 feet above the starting line.

The race is more than just a good time; it is also the largest fundraiser for Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, an organization dedicated to finding missing persons in alpine environments since 1976. The loss of a boy off the backside of Northstar California Resort in the same year illustrated the need for an organized team of professional searchers, and since then the TNSAR has located more than 300 individuals. They have already participated in nine searches this winter.

Laura said TNSAR President Chris McConnell has done an incredible job bringing in donations in spite of the recent race cancellations, but the return of this event will be a great boon to the team, and the fundraiser will help fulfill their need for effective rescue equipment.  

“We’ve been really active this winter on a lot of searches, we’ve got a really great job, we’re a great group of people, and we just need the community support of joining up for this race,” Doug said. “That would be how they can volunteer to support our search and rescue team.”

After a few years of lackluster snow conditions, the cross-country ski culture around Tahoe took a bit of a hit. This winter, Doug said he’s witnessed the return of skiers to the course, and their attempts to get back into shape.

“They’ve got big smiles on their faces but they’re also saying, ‘Wow, this is pretty tough,’” Doug said. “We’ve just gotta get the people fired up to come on out.”

 
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April 14, 2017