Five the hard way

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— Lower Long John is the snow-covered service road that winds up the steep pitches of Howelsen Hill.

Normally it is used by the snowcats that groom the trails on the face of the ski area or by the skiers who are looking for a less direct way to make their way down to the lodge.

But on March 8 more than 100 athletes will test their will when the road is transformed into a narrow pathway that leads to the starting line of the downhill ski race for the 12th annual Steamboat Pentathlon.

This thigh-burning climb has a reputation for making some of the most powerful legs in Steamboat feel like rubber, but it's the only way for the athletes to reach the start of the pentathlon.

"It's very steep for a service road," said Christina Freeman of the city's Parks and Recreational Services Department. "Especially when there are that many people on it."

In this race, the person who arrives at the top of the hill first will gain a slight edge on the field when starting the five-event trek through a winter wonderland that includes Alpine skiing, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, biking and running.

But first the athletes will have to survive the climb.

The ascent is a chaotic scene that begins at the base of the hill and resembles recess at an elementary school the day before a holiday break.

Athletes tell stories of close calls with misguided ski poles, spiked shoes and lots of swinging elbows.

Betsy Kalmeyer knows all about the climb, the snow, the poles and the elbows. It's a lesson she has learned from nine years of competing.

"It's a mad dash to the top of the hill," Kalmeyer said. "You're getting hit by snow, ski poles and elbows and the idea is just to try to survive to the top of the hill. It's more like roller derby than a pentathlon."

But the race up Howelsen is just the beginning.

In the hours following the climb, the individual competitors will change sports four more times. The top endurance athletes will cover 24 miles, and 400 vertical feet in a race where the final goal has more to do with finishing than winning. There is also a short course, which stretches a little less than 14 miles.

Individuals can take part in either the standard or short course. Athletes can also join male, female, coed, dynamic duo and youth teams.

The list of athletes who have taken part includes veteran endurance athletes like Kalmeyer.

Her biggest goal is to finish this year's event and become the first female competitor to compete in 10 pentathlons.

Bob Dapper has the longest running streak for any athlete. He has competed in 10 of the 11 events before this year as an individual.

In his 11th pentathlon, Dapper will join fellow veteran Dan Smilkstein in the dynamic duo division.

"It's just a great event," Dapper said. "It's kind of the same crowd every year, but that says a lot."

The Steamboat Pentathlon will begin at 10 a.m. March 8. Competitors and teams can enter the event through March 5 and Alpine practice runs will start at 8:30 a.m. the day of the race.

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