Steamboat Springs Outside of Sweden, there's nothing like the North Routt Coureur des Bois. When it comes to Nordic pain fests, this 90-kilometer cross-country ski race is in a class by itself.
"It's a very, very stiff endurance test," chief of course Dave Mark said this week.
The Coureur des Bois begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at Steamboat Lake State Park and takes athletes all the way to the Wyoming state line. After swinging back to the south, the course returns over the Continental Divide to Routt County Road 129 and the finish line at Steamboat Lake Outfitters. Race organizers offer two different courses -- the "short" 42-kilometer loop and the mind-boggling 90-kilometer (55.8-mile) loop.
The entire course is being meticulously groomed, and the 90-kilometer loop will take place on a new route this year, meaning every kilometer will be fresh -- skiers retraced their strides for about 15 kilometers on last year's inaugural course.
Mark, who served as chief of course and completed the 90-kilometer last year, has advice for first-time entrants.
"Start out slow and then begin to taper off," he suggested, only half-joking.
Organizer Dan Smilkstein agreed.
"What most people learned from last year is that unless you are in the elite group, you need to slow it down and enjoy the scenery and the food," he said.
The race will be staffed with multiple aid stations to make sure skiers stay hydrated and avoid the dreaded bonk. In addition to the standard fluids, gels and energy goo, there will be soup and one noteworthy station where Dave Carley will serve double espressos on the Continental Divide.
Mark and two course workers will be pulling groomers with snowmobiles so they can retouch sections of the course used by touring snowmobilers. Mark said the course is laid out so that racers will be beyond the primary snowmobile routes by 11:30 a.m.
The best known 90-kilometer ski race in the world is the Mora Vasaloppet, which is held during the last week in February between the towns of Mora and Salen, Sweden. More than 15,000 skiers typically enter the 90-kilometer, and many thousands more enter the shorter races.
Smilkstein expects a much smaller field for the Coureur des Bois this year -- perhaps 75 skiers. However, everyone who finishes can take pride in the fact that this is a more difficult test than the Swedish race.
What makes the Coureur des Bois so hard?
After starting at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet at Steamboat Lake, the course climbs 1,000 feet in elevation to the hamlet of Columbine. And that's just the warm up.
After turning around at the midpoint, the course tackles an even tougher climb, Mark said.
"When you go to the Wyoming State Line and come back over the Continental Divide, there's another 1,200 foot climb between 44 kilometers and 60 kilometers," Mark said. "And at that point, you've already skied a marathon."
Not everyone who sets out to ski the 90-kilometer will be up to the challenge. Course workers already have strict criteria meant to avoid the possibility that athletes will hit the wall in the remote backcountry along the return route.
Skiers who don't make the 25-kilometer cutoff station by 11:30 a.m. will be required to cut the 90-kilometer short and return for a time in a 45-kilometer loop, an accomplishment any skier should be proud of.
"It's a mercy cutoff," Mark said. "If you don't make 25-kilometer by 11:30 a.m., you aren't going to finish the race before dark.
In 2005, just three racers completed the 90-kilometer in fewer than six hours, and a half-dozen made it in before the six-hour, 30-minute mark.
Smilkstein said the most competitive skiers may choose to enter the 42-kilometer race, in which a blazing time would be less than 2 hours, 30 minutes.
"Three of the top four women from last year's race -- Deb Rose, Marianne Osteen and Stephanie Scholl -- are returning in the 42K," Smilkstein said. "It should be a great race."
Most organizers hosting such an ambitious Nordic race in March would be worried about snow cover, but that's the least of Mark's concerns. If anything, he's a little worried about the possibility of a blizzard. Safety concerns would demand that he cut the 90-kilometer back to two 45-kilometer loops in the case of extreme weather. That would keep the skiers from stringing out over a long stretch of backcountry in a blizzard.
But snow? North Routt has ample cover this winter.
"People have been calling me to make sure we have enough snow," Mark said. "It's laughable. We have 15 feet of snow on the Divide, and it's not going anywhere."