Coureur des Bois cross-country race made in Smilkstein’s vision |

Coureur des Bois cross-country race made in Smilkstein’s vision

Dan Smilkstein created one of the nation's most challenging cross-country ski races in the North Routt Coureur des Bois, which will run for the sixth consecutive year today in North Routt County. Smilkstein cobbled together bits of his own wide endurance sporting background to make the race a unique experience. His methods seem to work, and once again the race will feature a record field.
Matt Stensland

Vail's Wilson Dawes crosses the finish line of the North Routt Coureur des Bois during a past event.

The irony is that Dan Smilkstein can't participate.

He designed the North Routt Coureur des Bois to be the pinnacle of cross-country ski endurance racing, pulling from his vast experience, ideas he'd seen that he liked and traits he wanted the event to have.

He set out to design the perfect race, and if the event's burgeoning participation is any proof, he succeeded.

But it's proved almost too successful.

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"I thought after a few years I could put it on autopilot and go out and do it myself," Smilkstein said. "Now I know there's so much time and effort that goes into it that there's no way."

The Coureur des Bois returns today for its sixth year. In those six years, the gargantuan event — featuring races of 90 and 45 kilometers — has grown from 30 participants to the 190 expected to click in today.

Loving the long race

That astonishing growth hasn't come as much of a surprise to Smilkstein, the ever-present force behind the event.

"I had a feeling," he said.

It didn't come as a surprise because Smilkstein has known all along what he wanted the beast to become, and ever since he started the first race, a comparatively scant 60 skiers taking off from the Steamboat Lake State Park starting line, he's worked to make the event match his dream.

Smilkstein, a Steamboat-based doctor, is a man who knows a thing or two about endurance racing and extreme sports.

He grew up in California and shined as a track and cross-country athlete, continuing running as he worked his way through college at Colorado State University and medical school and the University of California, Davis.

He ran the marathons in Boston and New York, then picked up cycling, first as a training device for running.

He's an accomplished mountain, rock and ice climber as well, having scaled mountains in North and South America.

He competed in the grueling Leadville Trail 100 race the first eight years of its existence.

He only picked up cross-country skiing when he moved to Steamboat Springs in 1984, but he soon was testing himself in that sport, too.

"As much as I love biking and running, there are certain fine points and balances to cross-country skiing that take you a little beyond that," he said. "I like the environment cross-country skiing takes you to. You're always in beautiful spots."

Inspired plans

It was with all that under his belt that he set out in 2005 to start the Coureur des Bois.

The race is long, like Leadville and the marathons, featuring a 90-kilometer (56 miles) event and a 45K.

It is challenging, like rock and ice climbing. The long race sends skiers north to the Wyoming border, then back along the continental divide. It is all at altitude — the lowest point is well over 7,000 feet — and it features tons of ascents and miles of descents.

"Kicked my ###," one racer wrote in a letter to Smilkstein after completing the event for the first time.

It ferries skiers deep into the woods, far from humanity, like mountaineering.

"In the race, people get so spread out that there is a real remote feeling to it. You get a chance to look around. It's really out there," Smilkstein said. "I used to go up there and ski and ask myself, 'How could anyone not go crazy about getting to ski this kind of terrain?'"

Despite its booming out-of-state popularity — the event went from having three out-of-state racers to 60 — the event still has a strong local feel to it.

Smilkstein said the Leadville race serves as an inspiration because of the way the whole town supports it, and that shows in the Coureur des Bois. Aid stations are spread all along the North Routt course, and each is given a distinct identity by its volunteer staffers.

Many are from North Routt and come together for the event, stocking their stations with far more than the usual aid station fare of water, energy goo and light snacks. Most have food such as sandwiches and soups. A station on the Wyoming line staffed by volunteers from that state — an extremely popular station — includes a full bar.

"It's a great thing. We love it," Steamboat Lake State Park ranger Matt Schuler said. "It's great for the community."

The event pays tribute to the region's skiing history.

When Smilkstein was looking for a photo to represent the event on medals, at random he chose an old shot of two early 19th century men with skis. That photo turned out to be of several of Steamboat's earliest settlers.

The event raises money for the care of North Routt Nordic trails and the Steamboat Springs Nordic Council.

No money is awarded to its winners, but Smilkstein estimated nearly $20,000 worth of prizes have been collected and will be given to top finishers or raffled off during the event.

Not done yet

Smilkstein isn't done dreaming big. He said the course can probably handle about 500 racers.

"It's going to continue to grow," he said. "We've had some very high-level skiers do it just by chance and they go back home, talk about it and that has attracted even more high-level racers. We are now getting communities of people from Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Utah, Salt Lake and Park City are huge supporters."

Yet he won't entertain the thought of competing in the race he so loves.

It doesn't scare him. He's covered all the trails used and many more in the area. But in the five previous years he's organized everything, he's found a new endurance event, and he has fallen for it almost as much as any other.

"By the end of the race day, I'm so tired. I always say, 'I don't know if I can do this again,'" he said. "Actually, I really enjoy the preparation of it all.

"It's come this far, and I feel like it's just at the cusp of catching on. I think it finally has a life of its own. I'm still committed for years to come."

If you go

What: North Routt Coureur des Bois cross-country ski race

When: The 90-kilomter race starts at 8:30 a.m. today; the 45-kilometer race starts at 9 a.m. Registration is closed.

Where: Both races start at Steamboat Lake State Park and finish at Steamboat Lake Outfitters.