Stretching the limits

Ultra marathon from Steamboat Lake to Wyoming puts skiers to the test

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Everyone survived the first 2005 North Routt Coureur des Bois.

The cross-country ski race that already is gaining a reputation as the toughest in North America drew 70 ultra-fit athletes to the wooded trails of North Routt County on March 19. The race attracted 30 skiers for the 90-kilometer ultra marathon and 40 to the 42-kilometer race. The 90K race stretched from Steamboat Lake all the way to the Wyoming border and back.

"The 70 skiers had a tremendous time on one of, if not the most, challenging course in North America," organizer Dan Smilkstein said. "In fact, the most frequent post-race comment was, 'That was an experience!'"

Steamboat Springs' Dick Curtis, a veteran of many ultra marathon foot races, said a cross-country ski race of this magnitude is an entirely different animal.

"It's a whole different form of physical exertion, using different muscle groups and demanding coordination," Curtis said.

Nearing the finish line, Curtis said he had doubts he would ever undertake the race again. Now, he's contemplating training at a higher level and attempting a stronger finish next year.

Competing in the men's 50 and older division, Curtis completed the race in 9 hours, 51 minutes and 23 seconds.

The grueling ski race was made easier because one of the racers, Dave Mark, led a crew of groomers who used a snowcat to groom the course periodically throughout the winter. A large crew of volunteers and donors, including members of Routt County Search and Rescue, helped with a series of aid and food stations that were critical to hosting a safe race, Smilkstein said.

Encouraged by the response, the organizers already have set March 18, 2006, as the date for the next Coureur des Bois. They will limit the number of entrants to maintain the safety and quality of the experience, Smilkstein said.

"The combination of long, sustained climbs at altitude along with the distance, the scenery, the remoteness of the terrain, (and) the fantastic people who staffed the aid stations will make this event one of the popular races in the country," he said.

Smilkstein estimated the skiers in the longer race climbed 7,000 vertical feet along the way. The top woman, Kirsten Ames of Steamboat Springs, finished in just less than 6:12. Isaac Barnes was the top male finisher -- he completed the distance in 5:34:16.

The trophy for the overall female winner was an antique iron from about 1901, Smilkstein said. The men's trophy was an old animal trap. Both were adorned with the appropriate bronze plaque identifying the accomplishment.

The 90K course began by circling Steamboat Lake through Steamboat Lake State Park, then headed past Hahn's Peak Village before launching the skiers into the first of many climbs, a 1,000-foot slog to the 19th century settlement of Columbine.

From Columbine, the ultra marathoners headed into the Routt National Forest on a 55K loop that crossed the Continental Divide and followed portions of the Continental Divide Scenic Trail on its way to the Wyoming line. From Wyoming, the racers turned south to Little Red Park before returning to the finish line at Hahn's Peak Village.

Among the finishers was Sharon Crawford, a descendant of James Crawford, the founding settler of Steam-boat. She was attracted to the event in part because a picture of her great-grandfather and great-uncle skiing was incorporated in the logo for the race and the medallion presented to finishers who completed the 90K within the 10-hour cutoff. Sharon Crawford, 61, made the cutoff.


-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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