Eric Rabesa competes in the 2013 Steamboat Springs Pentathlon at Howelsen Hill. The event, in its 23rd year in 2014, remains a popular event for Steamboat athletes, but expansion long has been part of the plan for organizers.

Photo by Luke Graham

Eric Rabesa competes in the 2013 Steamboat Springs Pentathlon at Howelsen Hill. The event, in its 23rd year in 2014, remains a popular event for Steamboat athletes, but expansion long has been part of the plan for organizers.

Steamboat Pentathlon remains a local favorite in its 23rd year

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— The Steamboat Pentathlon returns Saturday for its 23rd year, and once again, about 260 athletes will Alpine ski, run, cross-country ski, snowshoe and cycle up, down and around Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs.

The event has morphed in its more than two decades of existence but in many ways has settled peacefully into the local landscape, attracting between 225 and 275 athletes for 10 years annually, drawing from all segments of Steamboat Springs’ diversified outdoor warriors.

But the question lingers for organizers: Could it be more?

“Personally, yes, it could be,” said David Stevenson, sports coordinator with the city of Steamboat Springs Parks, Open Spaces and Recreational Services Department and race director for this year’s event.

“It’s a great event,” he said. “It’s great because it’s a strong locals event, but I think we can maintain that but still grow it.”

The Pentathlon was started in 1992 in an effort to bolster late-winter crowds in Steamboat, and many of the same questions Stevenson considered as he prepared for this year’s version, original event coordinator Janet Nichols pondered in 1992.

That year’s race drew 115 participants, and organizers hoped to double it by 1993 by reaching out to the Front Range.

The race has plenty of world-class athletes in the years since. Vail’s Mike Kloser, an elite adventure athlete, dominated the event, winning the standard course 10 times until he retired from it in 2009.

The occasional flock of athletes has made the trip from Boulder, and there was a short-lived partnership with a similar pentathlon in Aspen starting in 2005.

Expansion never truly has taken hold, however. By the race’s 15th year, the race was still heavily local, and again this year, it largely will be filled with Routt County athletes.

It’s managed to double that initial 115 but hasn’t grown beyond that.

In some ways, that’s some of the appeal as athletes emerge from Steamboat’s various competitive cliques to compete against one another or as teams as they rarely do otherwise.

In other ways, it seems like an opportunity lost for a truly unique event in a region overflowing with what would seem like ideal competitors.

“You’ll see it grow in the next couple of years,” Stevenson said. “My goal is to grow it to 300-plus next year and the year after to 350. It could be more than that. I don’t believe that’s any sort of mountain that’s impossible to climb, it’s just putting in the time and energy into doing it with everything else we have going on.”

Even if the event never truly breaks out of its Steamboat bubble, it will continue to have a loyal following locally.

The Pentathlon, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, challenges racers first with a run up Howelsen Hill, then a dash 400 vertical feet down on skis or a snowboard. A 2.5-mile snowshoe is next, followed by 4 miles of cross-country skiing, 12 miles of mountain biking and finally 5 miles of running.

A short course is also available with a 1.5-mile snowshoe, a 2.25-mile ski race, a 7.4-mile bike segment and a 2-mile run.

“It took me a while to figure the race out,” said Barkley Robinson, the four-time reigning champion of the men’s standard course who hopes to add No. 5 on Saturday. “I always really enjoy it. It’s fun to get out there and try to figure out the transitions and figure out what equipment works best.”

He said a few tweaks to the course — mainly a change to the final 5-mile run on pavement — could help bring back former participants. The elusive Front Range crowd, meanwhile, never may yield huge numbers simply because of the range of required skills, but it still could produce more racers.

“It will always be more limited than a regular triathlon because who has the equipment to do everything? But I do think you could bring in more out-of-town people,” Robinson said.

Organizers hoped to reach the Front Range in 1992 with targeted advertisements, and the hope is similar now. Efforts to accomplish that goal recently have included advertising inserts into racer packets for similar events but could include more extensive advertising in the future.

In many ways, little has changed with the event in its 23 years.

“If we’re going to take it to a different level participant wise, we have to open up the time to do that and likely the checkbook,” Stevenson said.

At the same time, the race is as popular as ever with its core constituents.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

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