The constant chatter of the hundreds of participants lining up for the 25-kilometre race at the Coast Outdoors P’ayakentsut event comes to an abrupt stop when “30 seconds to start” is announced over a megaphone. Waiting in silence for what feels like much longer than just 30 seconds, the field of racers springs into action with the sound of an air horn marking the start of the race.
With the 50-km racers already 20 minutes into their more than two-hour trek, and the 15-km racers set to take off in 20 minutes, the annual Payak event is well underway at Whistler Olympic Park for the first time in more than a year.
The Coast Outdoors Payak, which is a loppet-style, family-friendly cross-country ski race, has been happening each year at Whistler Olympic Park since 2011, save for the 10th anniversary that was unfortunately cancelled in favour of a virtual race thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The race features athletes of all ages and skill levels, from highly competitive national level athletes to people competing in their first-ever organized cross-country race. This year more than 500 people were on hand for the Feb. 26 event.
Approximately 34 minutes after the final set of athletes made their start for the 15-km event, the first athlete crossed the finish line.
Competing in the youth category, Hollyburn Cross Country Ski Club’s Eamon Wilson put up the top time across all age groups in the 15-km event with a time of 34:53.6.
Wilson and his peers from Hollyburn were using Saturday’s event as a competitive training session in hopes of peaking for nationals, which are also being held at WOP on March 20.
“The goal wasn’t to go super hard, so we mostly did it pretty medium pace and I think it went pretty much as I planned. I wasn’t really expecting anything, but at the end it was not a lot of climbing, really fast conditions, so I’d say I’m happy with that time,” said Wilson, who has competed in the Payak pre-COVID and was happy to be back at the event again this year.
“I love how big it is, and it’s a good opportunity for local companies to show off their products and hosting ability. It’s just a great opportunity for local racers to get together and have a lot of fun.”
As people continuously filter across the finish line and start to crowd the area outside of WOP’s cross-country building, smiling, laughing and catching up with their fellow racers over their complimentary bowls of chili, it is evident that Payak chief of race Sherryl Yeager’s best case scenario of “clear skies and happy faces” officially came to fruition.
The fun-first, family-friendly spirit of the race that Yeager and all the other volunteers hoped to see was perfectly encapsulated by the costume-clad, father-daughter duo officially listed on the start list as Gorilla Gorilla and Banana Banana.
“I used to race pretty seriously … I’m in university now, and it’s just a good way to keep with the sport and get out there and have fun and see all your friends again,” said Banana. “It’s low-key but it’s still a little bit competitive, so it’s a good combo.”
On the more competitive side of things, the big winner of the day was Whistler’s Michael Murdoch, who finished the 50-km race with a time of 2:05:10.
For Murdoch, who despite the fun nature of the event said he’s too competitive to not push for the win, the mass-start format did add a little more of a social aspect to the race that he doesn’t often get in the more highly competitive events he competes in.
“[Having] a couple buddies to ski with in the first lap made it a lot more enjoyable. Just having people to push you is always a lot more fun, because you can also draft off of them and work with each other and take turns leading, and you can conserve a lot more energy when you get to ski with someone else,” he said.
“And then on the second lap I was feeling pretty good, so I started to make my move there and just kind of skied alone for most of it. I felt really consistent throughout the whole race and just can’t really complain when there are such good conditions like today.”
Whether attending the event for training purposes, trying to win, or to just have some fun and get exercise, the same excitement and happiness to just be back to in-person events was shared by all the athletes as well as the volunteers who were instrumental in putting the event on.
“Oh it’s fantastic. It actually feels like we are edging into the new normal,” said Yeager. “It feels like we’ve come back full circle now … the Payak is just a fantastic event. People are so happy.”
Find full race results at payak.ca.