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Feature - A Whistler tradition

Everyone who competes in the Appleton Rum Peak to Valley has a story, but the race itself is also a story about Whistler

By G.D. Maxwell

The best time ever posted in a full Peak to Valley race was 4:52.03. That's four minutes, fifty-two and three one-hundredths seconds. The year was 2000, the course was more or less 5.6 km long and the math works out to an average speed of just about 70 km/h.

The slowest time ever recorded in the race was 29:03.50, almost half an hour. The course was shorter and the average speed was on par with a brisk walk.

Chris Kent enjoys the distinction of holding the first record. Rita Pollack, who rumour has it stopped part way down the course for a few revitalizing swallows of some mysterious liquid sloshing around in a wineskin, can lay claim to the second. Both are reputed to have had a howling good time setting their respective records.

It's just that kind of race.

The details of Rita's race are a bit sketchy. It was held on a single day, March 22, 1985 and sponsored by Schloss Laderheim, billing itself as "Canada's Favorite Wine." Forty teams of four people ran the race, 160 in total. The start line was near the top of the T-bars in Glacier Bowl and the finish line was at the Creekside base. It was the very first full-blown Peak to Valley race.

The Dynasties

Aside from being the first real Peak to Valley - 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. The aforementioned slowest time on record was one. The race's instant success was another. And, from a historical perspective, the fact it spawned what would become two of the longest running team dynasties in the race's 20 year 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 quicker than Rita's solo run. The team consisted of Sue Boyd who clocked the fastest time of any woman that year, 6:14.23, exactly 20 seconds off John Kindree's fastest men's time, 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 - most notably the acquisition of the lightning fast June Brandon, later Southwell, who'd raced with the B.C. provincial ski team - 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 eighth 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. And in 1993, Bob Switzer, who's still terrorizing his age group in most any race he enters, 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 second 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", 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 Janet Rodger, Vicky Bunbury and Tracy Bauman each skied with the team a year, perhaps proving Bob's point about Leanne's tolerance. 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," Bob explained.

For the record though, Beauty was resurrected in 2000 with Lauralee Bowie taking the female lead and Bob Switzer - guy gets around - standing in for Bob. They took second in their category.

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.

Since 1994, it's been a virtually foregone conclusion that the Peak to Valley is going to 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 has stitched together team after team of winners. Generally built around the Chris 2 threat of Chris Kent and Chris Gruber the teams perennially include Tommy Thompson, Liz Thompson, Gregg Vollett, Ricky Lewon and a roster of carded, formerly-carded and nearly carded racers, a/k/a ringers.

Not that there's anything wrong with ringers. When he conceived of the race, Dave Murray was keen to embrace the whole spectrum of skiers bumming around Whistler. The Peak to Valley was to be a race in which everybody and anybody could take part, have a good time and feel like they've accomplished something. But it was also a race the best skier was going to win, a point Wild Willies has proven consistently since appearing on the scene.

Perhaps to prove the point about everybody and anybody taking part, since 1988, a caravan of U.S. invaders have trekked up from the tiny enclave of Bainbridge Island on Puget Sound to enter upwards of seven teams. They ski hard, party harder and generally lay waste - lay 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 Peak to Valley weekend searching for good cigars, good scotch and memorably good times.

The teams - Bainbridge Bamboo Chewers, Top Gun Hosers, Mrs. Doubtfire and Her Boy Toys among them - share a common philosophy and outlook on both training and the race. It can best be summed up as eat everything in sight, drink everything in sight, party like there's no tomorrow and whatever you do, finish the race. I'm sure it sounds better in Latin.

The Rush to Glory

But I digress. Let's get back to the race itself.

Now proudly sponsored by Appleton Jamaica Rum, mon, teams consist of four racers, if you haven't figured that out already. Teams must/may include at least one female and no more than one carded racer, respectively. A team's category is determined by its cumulative age. Currently, the youngest grouping belongs to teams totalling 144 years or less while the oldest category was recently raised from 200+ to 225+ and may have to be raised again soon given the number of pensioners who haven't bought into the myth that skiing's a young person's sport.

Two teammates run on Friday and two on Saturday. The oldest racer gets the lowest number and the youngest racer gets the ruts. Everybody and their spouses head up to the Roundhouse for a rip-roaring party on Saturday 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 to honour his two friends.

Oh yeah, and the race itself? Billed as the longest GS race in the world - and who's to say it's not - the Peak to Valley is a finely tuned event. 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, racers cover 5.6 km and descend nearly 1,400 metres. The terrain includes steeps, flats, sweeping rollers, crushing compressions and somewhere in the neighbourhood of 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 rest and still be in aerodynamic position. It's a good cheating position."

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

And continues. "Coming off the first section, you're gliding across the flats before Upper Franz and you're beginning to really feel your legs. The first time I ran it, about there I was thinking, 'Oh my God, how can I possibly finish this course?' This is where you have to start getting tough.

"Going into the first pitch down Upper Franz's, the course really 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. You have to be right on it. 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 before I lose it so badly I have to start sliding, then 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 because I've got nothing left. 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, Lower Franz's is flatter and rolling and widens up. You're carrying a little more speed through there. The gates are always set so you can carve 'em but you really have to dig deep and stay low. By now, I've said 'no way' about 10 times. Then, finally, you come into the last pitch and can 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 a powerful position and look ahead. Oh yeah, and breathe."

The astute reader will have noticed it took longer to read Chris' description than it actually takes him to cover the distance he's describing.

So that's the race from the racer's perspective. Simple, eh?

The Enduring Myths

Except that, well, historically weather has been a factor in the Peak to Valley race. 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 continued, "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 running and the Olive and Orange chairs running. We finally had to close the Orange 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 close 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 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."

Weather was also a factor the only year the race was run from Whistler Peak, 1988. To understand the gravitas of that one day in the 20 year history of the event - the next day the start line had to be moved down because of weather - you have to understand the almost mythological importance of the guy who started it all. Dave Murray, Crazy Canuck, Whistler Mountain's Director of Skiing and godfather of the whole race culture still alive in Whistler today, hatched the idea for the Peak to Valley race from 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 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?"

Dave thought so. Cate and YP agreed. The Mountain bought into the idea. And the rest is history. History and memories. Mostly memories of Dave standing in the starting gate, putting a calming hand on the racers' shoulders and giving them gentle words of encouragement.

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

June Southwell, who replaced Sue Boyd on Frankie Goes to the Valley and was the chick to beat for many years thereafter, 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. Safety was always paramount in his mind. The poor guy would tell every person, 'Just take it easy.' That's all he wanted. It was always about finishing and being safe."

But alas, no one explained that to poor Miss Japan. No one remembers who thought it would be a cool idea to have petite Miss Japan be a forerunner that day. At least no one's owning up to it. Bob Dufour remembers what happened next though. "She was in a pink ski suit. A very pink ski suit. She was very small, very delicate. A tiny, beautiful Japanese woman. She, well, she tumbled. down. all the way down. Pretty much from the top of Whistler Bowl to Shale Slope. It was pretty sad. watching that little pink suit just tumbling, tumbling."

Already an annual favourite, 1988 probably marked the passing of the Peak to Valley from being simply an event to anticipate to being a legend larger than life. Or for some people, life itself. Having grown to 80 teams, a number Cate considers a manageable maximum, the race sells out within 48 hours of going on sale. Teams actually practice, get way technical about ski setup, wax, speed suits and strategy.

But still.. The spirit of Dave Murray and his hope this race would be one for all ages and all levels of seriousness clings stubbornly to life .

"It's maintained a comfortable balance between competition and just getting out there and doing it and having fun," Cate observes. "The party still goes off, people are still dancing, it's maintained that special feeling."

Dufour adds, "The Peak to Valley's a very important race. When you look at Whistler Mountain, the length, the vertical, the variety, the uniqueness of Creekside, this is an incredible tradition. You've got racers who have been in it for all 20 years. As this place is developing, we find we're often losing touch with the old traditions, the old-time Whistler. But during Peak to Valley weekend, you can get that feeling back, no matter how modern this place gets. The memories come out that week.

"We say Whistler's changed a lot but in the Peak to Valley race, once you've crossed the finish line, you stop to talk to your buddies and realize this hasn't changed one bit. For those who've been here for a long time, that's important. And for those whose first time it is, to see that energy and enthusiasm, it just seems to be catchy. For us, keeping that tradition alive, remembering where we came from, is important."

So, racers ready?