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A Whistler tradition

Everyone who competes in the Peak to Valley race has a story. But the race itself, about to be run for the 30th time, is also a story... a Whistler story.

The Streif is considered the toughest, most demanding race course on the World Cup skiing circuit. Plunging down the north face of Hahnenkamm, in the Kitzbühel Alps in Austria, the course has been both good and bad to Canadian racers, depending on whether you're Ken Read — the first non-European to win a World Cup downhill race on the course — or Brian Stemmle, who was almost killed in a crash there nine years later.

The course is 3.3 kilometres long and has a vertical descent of 860 metres and features, along with some hairy airs, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 to 35 gates. The record for the full course is 1:51.58, set by Fritz Strobl in 1997. The math works out to an average speed of 106.9 km/h.

With all due respect to both the World Cup and the Streif, the boys and girls who run Whistler mountain's Peak to Valley course would consider that a warm-up run. The P-to-V course runs, at its full length, 5.6 kilometres, drops 1,385 metres and, depending on the sadism of the course setters, has upwards of 180 gates.

The best time ever posted for a full P-to-V happened in 2000. The winning time was 4:52.03. That's four minutes, fifty-two and three one-hundredths seconds. And while the math works out to an average speed of just about 70 km/h, those extra three minutes would have left even Herr Strobl's thighs screaming for mercy.

Perhaps even more interesting though, the slowest time ever recorded in the race was 29:03.50, almost half an hour. It happened in 1985, the first year the race was run. The course was shorter and the average speed was, well, not important.

Chris Kent holds that record for the fastest run; Rita Pollock can lay claim to the slowest. Both are reputed to have had a howling good time setting their respective records.

It's just that kind of race.

What kind of race?

The P-to-V is billed as the longest GS race in the world. So is the Gardenissima race at Val Gardena in Italy. The Gardenissima is, technically, longer — six kilometres as opposed to 5.6 kilometres. But its vertical is just over 1,000 metres and they set somewhere in the neighbourhood of 110 to115 gates. No offence, Val Gardena, but pffft. Sounds a little girly to me.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you want to run the P-to-V you have to get a little girly. Which is to say the four-person teams have to include at least one racer of the XX persuasion and may include no more than one carded racer, read ringer.

A team's category is determined by the cumulative age of its members. Last year, the youngest category was 149 years and under, the oldest, 250 and up. Two teammates run on Friday and two on Saturday. The oldest racer gets the lowest number and the youngest racer gets the ruts. All team members have to post a clean run; one person DSQs, the team is hooped.

Everybody and their spouses head up to the Roundhouse for a rip-roaring party on Saturday night — frequently a continuation of the party that started Thursday night — where the overall winners of the race are awarded the coveted Stephan Ples trophy and the winners of the oldest age category are awarded the even more coveted Dave Murray trophy, both of which were graciously donated by Fred Zeilberger, a P-to-V legend, to honour his two friends.

Weather permitting, the race starts near the top of the Saddle overlooking the expanse of Glacier Bowl. It ends within a beer bottle's throw of Dusty's. Between the start and finish the terrain includes steeps, flats, sweeping rollers, crushing compressions, a couple of opportunities to fly like a bird and, oh yeah, those 180 gates. The formula generates a lot of excitement and turns even the staunchest competitor's legs to jelly.

I could tell you what it's like to ski the course, but Chris Kent can tell you what it's like to ski the course and win.

"I divide the course into three sections," he explains. "The first section is from the starting line to bottom of Old Man. The challenge is to ski fast off the steep pitches and carry your speed onto the flats. It's tricky, you have to mentally ski the right line. Not go too straight but really race it. In ski racing, it's a sin to rest your elbows on your knees in a tuck but in this race, that's what you try to do, so you can actually relax and still be aerodynamic. It's a good cheating position."

That's right folks, you heard it here. Chris cheats.

And he continues. "Coming off the first section, you're gliding across the flats before Upper Franz and you're beginning to really feel your legs. Going into the first pitch down Upper Franz's, the course changes. It gets narrow, and steep and the snow texture changes. There's probably been some melting and freezing and you can get almost anything through there. If there are deep ruts, they seem that much deeper. As someone who's trying to win the race, I go into that section and try and carve for as long as my legs will let me. I find if I can carve several gates past the point where Highway 86 enters Franz's I'm usually going to have a good race.

"Past Highway 86, my legs begin to turn to jelly. I begin to slide my turns. It feels awful to be sliding through there, losing speed. I get angry and carve a couple of turns, pick up speed and then have to slide a few. Carve, slide, carve, slide. What I'm really keying on at this point is to hold my line, so I can carve off the last pitch.

"In the final section you're carrying a little more speed. The gates are always set so you can carve 'em, but you really have to dig deep and stay low. Finally, you come into the last pitch and see the finish line. You try to let your skis run and try not to ski so straight you ski off the course. But when your legs are that tired, it's easy to do if you take too straight a line. Keep focused a couple of gates ahead. Keep your head from bobbing. Keep your legs in powerful position and look ahead. Oh yeah, and breathe."

Is he surprised his 2000 time has held up so long? "I'm not that surprised. That year conditions were perfect, sunny and frozen on race day. And, I was in my late 30s and still quite strong."

Rita, not surprisingly, tells a somewhat different story. The details of her race are a bit sketchy, lost in the fog of time. It was held on a single day in 1985. Forty teams ran the race. The start line was near the top of the T-Bars in Glacier Bowl and the finish line was at the Creekside base.

Rita was the forth racer on the course. With racers starting every 60 seconds, she was passed numerous times in her epic, record-breaking run. It has long been part of the race's mythology that her leisurely time had something to do with her thirst and strategically placed wineskins along the length of the course. As much as I hate to destroy popular culture — especially popular culture I've repeated in print — I'm here to say it ain't necessarily so.

As Rita tells it, "That race was one of my first introductions to ski racing. I was forty-four years old at that time and a novice skier who didn't naturally take to the slopes. I began by being afraid of heights.

"I was not imbibing from a wineskin; I was doing my best but I was constantly falling and struggling. I doggedly kept getting back up and going on. Quite an accomplishment considering the weather that day was abominable.

"Before I started I remember having a conversation with Dave Murray, asking about the average time down the course. He said it was about six minutes but told me to just take my time. Because of the conditions, Dave said they were considering cancelling the race, but the skiers urged him not to. He stated he thought they were crazy but it went forward. At the awards presentation, he made a joke about my time but complemented me in good humour and encouragement for even trying the race. That was his style and it endeared him to everyone."

Dave's Still Here, Man

Yeah, the P-to-V is Dave's race. Since time only moves one direction and there are a whole lot of people here who, shall we say, don't have a solid grasp of history, allow me to digress.

Dave Murray, Crazy Canuck, Whistler Mountain's first Director of Skiing and godfather of the whole race culture still alive in this town today, hatched the idea for the Peak to Valley race from an egg of pure passion.

"David and I used to ski top to bottom together," remembers Stephanie Sloan, who ought to know since she married the guy. "We loved doing it. It was a challenge. Our legs would burn and it was just pure fun. So one day, standing on the peak, looking down at Creekside through the tips of our skis, we were thinking, wouldn't it be great to have a race from top to bottom and set gates and make it exactly the way you'd ski it naturally... but throw in a little control so people wouldn't kill themselves going straight?"

Heck of an idea, eh?

But it only happened that way once. In 1988, the first day of the race was run from the Peak. June Southwell, who for years was the woman to beat, was lucky enough to be one of the people who started that Friday from the Peak.

"There were huge, massive ruts right from the start," she remembers. "Dave Murray was there, like he always was, to send people on their way. It was just so cool and at the same time so terrifying because it was so rutted. Huge, monstrous ruts. And there's Dave at the top and Dave's primary focus was always safety and people having fun. The poor guy would tell every person, 'Just take it easy.' That's all he wanted. It was always about finishing and being safe."

Weather — and perhaps the realization that starting at the Peak was insane — moved the start further down the mountain. Still, who, other than a few people in Val Gardena, are going to press the point. It's called the Peak to Valley and it shall always be thus.

And it's still Dave's race. "The spirit of the race really is Dave Murray," Shawn Hughes reminisces. "He put it together. It was his dream."

Who the heck is Shawn Hughes?

Aside from being the first real P-to-V — there had been a race in 1984 after the World Cup but it was run just from the top of the downhill course — the 1985 race was notable for a number of other reasons. Rita's record was one. The fact the race was an instant success was another. And, from a historical perspective, the fact it spawned what would be two of the longest running team dynasties in the race's history is a third.

The race was won, if that term can really be applied to the Peak to Valley, by a team called Frankie Goes to the Valley, reputedly named after the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Their combined time was 24:42.79, or nearly five minutes faster than Rita's solo run. The team consisted of Sue Boyd who clocked the fastest time of any woman that year, 6:14.23, Bob Boyer and the two men who would prove to be the team's enduring nucleus: Julien Soltendieck and Shawn Hughes.

Frankie raced as a team, with a few personnel changes, for 16 years. In 11 of those races they won their age category. In 1985, '86, '88 and '92 they won the whole race. Aside from a DSQ in 1993, the team never finished lower than 8th place, a remarkable feat considering for many of those years they were granting a substantial age handicap to the winners and at least some of them were reputed to be fuelled by substances better left unmentioned, but generally not considered performance-enhancing. Their accomplishment is all the more remarkable considering the team lacked what were generally regarded as "ringers."

The team roster boasted more than a few well-known names around the valley for a year here, a year there. Rob Denham, Eric Pehota, Dean Moffit, Renata Scheib and Kelly Nylander all made appearances. In 1993, Bob Switzer, who terrorized his age group in any race he entered until 2010, became a permanent fixture.

As noteworthy as Frankie, and perhaps even more in keeping with the race's spirit of embracing all comers, was another team cobbled together that first year. Qualifying in an older cumulative age category, Beauty and the Beast never won the race. What they did though was dominate their class. For 10 years, with the exception of a single 2nd place finish, Bob Dufour, Kurt Karka, Fred Zeilberger and, most frequently, Leanne Dufour simply kicked butt.

Bob, who was director of the ski school in the early '70s — and to this day, the most confident man on the mountain — explains the genesis of the team. "In Austria, being ski school director is like being a ski god. I became very welcome with the Austrians. We'd ski all day and hang out in the parking lot drinking schnapps in the afternoon. I just became one of the crowd. When the Peak to Valley started, I thought it would be a great event to get into so a couple of us got together and formed a pretty consistent team. I don't know how my wife put up with us."

But she did... for five years, after which Janey Rodger, Vicky Bunbury and Tracy Bauman each skied with the team a year. Jacquie Reck lasted two years.

Bob last skied with the team in 1994. He quit because, "I just didn't fit in my downhill suit anymore. Every year, I borrowed one of the yellow downhill suits and zipping it up became an increasing challenge until finally, when I'd get down in a tuck, I'd just spring right back up. It was time to quit."

His timing was impeccable. The next year, Fred Zeilberger DSQ'd and that was the end of the dynasty. "We couldn't accept defeat," was Bob's explanation.

The race has spawned two other dynasties of note; one with a sincere penchant for winning and one who might be said to have a solid lock on the middle ground, but who stand on the highest step of the podium when it comes to having fun and living the spirit of the race.

From 1994 until it closed its doors, it was virtually a foregone conclusion the race would be won by one of the teams sponsored by Wild Willies. An avid supporter of racing at all levels, and a not half-bad racer himself, Bill Lamond stitched together team after team of winners. Generally built around the Chris Squared threat of Chris Kent and Chris Gruber, the teams frequently included Tommy Thompson, Liz Thompson, Gregg Vollett, Ricky Lewon and a roster of carded, formerly-carded and nearly carded racers.

And perhaps to prove the point about the P-to-V being a citizen race where anyone can come out and play, a caravan of U.S. invaders have trekked up from the tiny enclave of Bainbridge Island on Puget Sound to enter numerous teams since 1988. They ski hard, party harder and generally lay waste — waist? — to their collective New Year's resolutions. Headed by Chris Otorowski, a merry prankster sans LSD who, no doubt, broke his parents hearts by becoming a lawyer, the group hunkers down in Base Camp 2 in Alpine Meadows and ransacks the town during P-to-V weekend searching for good cigars, good scotch and memorably good times.

Some Enduring Myths

Historically, weather has been a factor in the P-to-V. The official race log for 1991 lists Friday's weather as "YUCK." That's not so bad considering Saturday's weather is entered as "DOUBLE YUCK." Yet, even in adversity there is mythology.

"YP (Peter Young, longstanding head of Whistler's race/events department) called me around three o'clock in the morning on Saturday," recalls Bob Dufour about that year's race. "The groomers had called him and told him conditions on the mountain were insane. YP said we were going to have to cancel the race. We'd never cancelled the race before and even though it was only a few years into its history, it was already a fixture."

He continues, "I called the groomers and told them we just had to run the race that day and to do the best they could to groom the course. We ended up closing the rest of the mountain to the public, but we kept the Gondola and the Olive and Orange chairs running. We had to close the Orange after a while though and ran the racers up to the start (foreshortened to the top of Franz's) with snowcats."

Cate Webster, Queen of the Peak to Valley and in the eyes of many a true sorceress for pulling it off each and every year, picks the story up. "The first day was horrible. The mountain was so stormy we went to the top of the T-bar to set up and when we brought the start tent out of the trailer the wind lifted it and we found it in June in Harmony Bowl. We couldn't even use the alternate start at the top of Old Man. It was raining in the valley, windy and snowing higher up.

"The second day, they closed the mountain. I'm on the radio with Bob (Dufour) telling him he can't close the mountain, we have a race today and a party tonight and we have to crown some winners. We end up running the Olive Chair and get the snowcats to pick people up at the top and drive them to the start of the course.

"In the midst of all this craziness, one of the competitors decides he'll just walk up from the chair to the top of the course. Simon Wirutene was a skier on the New Zealand National Ski Team, and he knew he was the last racer of the day. So he walks up Franz's, watching all the racers go by, gets to the top, steps into the start gate, clicks into his bindings and cracks off the fastest time of the day. He's our Maori legend."

And a hopeful future

Whither racing? While the P-to-V used to sell out mere days after going on sale in July, such is no longer the case. But there's some bright spots on the horizon. While the cumulative years of the oldest teams keep growing, and there are numerous names you can find in programs going back to the beginning — among them, Owen Owens, Herb Grubel, Andree Janyk, John Kindree, Jules Lajoie — the fire seems to be catching with a new generation of racers too.

The fastest team in last year's race included familiar last names belonging to a new generation: Davey Barr and Julia Murray. Yeah, that'd be Dave's daughter.

"Sure, I'm doing it again this year," she says. "Is it fun? It's nerve wracking! I'm really nervous about it. I didn't think we'd win last year but since we did there's more pressure than ever. I know it's supposed to be a fun race but don't be fooled; it's competitive. That's just the mindset of people who do it.

"And yeah, there are a lot more of my friends racing this year. The next generation is kicking in and we want to be a part of this. It's really the highlight competition left for locals."

Asked if she had a secret to winning, she didn't miss a beat. "Jules Fuel!" (Murray's just released cereal)

If Whistler believes culture is one of the pathways to success in the future, it might want to keep an eye on the Peak to Valley. The race is a touchstone of Whistler culture. Yeah, the dress might tend toward spandex, and the party may get a bit rowdy, but if you want to know who we are and where we came from, look no further than the action on the west side of the mountain this weekend.

Racers ready?