BEND, OREGON – How would a veteran describe Bend’s five-sport Pole, Pedal, Paddle to someone who has never seen it?
“It’s a circus,” XC Oregon racer Stephanie Howe told FasterSkier at the race’s conclusion. “It’s the biggest logistic nightmare in the world… I just never have stuff lined up ahead of time. It’s always scrambling at the last minute.”
First there’s the equipment: alpine skis, poles, boots, and a helmet; nordic skis, poles, and boots; a bike – for elite racers, most likely a time trial bike, maybe even with a disc wheel – and an aerodynamic helmet; running shoes; and a kayak, paddle, and life preserver.
Then there’s getting all that gear to the right exchange zones at the right time and switching from one setup to another.
Then, of course, there’s the racing – about which Howe was remarkably cautious for someone who had already won two titles.
“You never know,” she said of her competition. “There are so many different legs and places where things can go wrong.”
Howe had a large lead throughout the race, and eventually finished in 2:01:05, more than five minutes ahead of teammate and runner-up Mary Wellington. But it wasn’t until she got in her kayak for the second-to-last stage of the six-part race that she knew just how big her lead was.
“I don’t get comfortable,” she said. “I don’t look behind me, so I just go. I race. I will say that when I got in the boat I did know where I was, so I relaxed. I went hard, but I relaxed.”
Howe had very few obstacles en route to her win. She did crash in the cross-country ski section of the race – “which is not like me” – and was a bit unsure of her bike, which she had only received two days before. She describes herself as not a strong cyclist; through the two skiing stages, Howe was right with the men’s field, but once on the bike, she lost contact.
In the run, though, she caught back up. Although Howe is a successful nordic skier, particularly in marathons, running is her specialty.
“I’m living in Corvallis, so I’ve been doing a ton of running,” she said. “I started racing ultras, and that’s been great.”
In the end, Howe felt the same about victory number three as she had about the first two: exhausted.
“I always say, oh my god, that’s so hard, I don’t want to do it again, but I forget,” she said.
Will she go for a fourth title next year?
“We’ll see. It’s cool because so many people do it – there’s families out here, and that is really cool. Some day I want to do it in a costume and have fun like that.”
* * *
Starting more than an hour after Howe in the team division, two groups of U.S. Ski Team women had a competition of their own, and it was largely against each other.
“We weren’t talking to each other this morning,” Sadie Bjornsen laughed about the inter-team rivalry.
Her squad, which also included Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins, came out on top, but just barely, finishing in 2:00:28 to 2:02:32 by Ida Sargent, Holly Brooks, and Liz Stephen. They were the first two female teams on the results sheet.
While Bjornsen pumped her fist as she crossed the finish line and was exuberant about her team’s victory, Randall, who had raced two earlier legs, didn’t want to brag too much.
“It sounds like Liz maybe got off course a little bit out there, which is too bad because otherwise I think we would have been really close,” she said as she snagged some recovery snacks from the Rebound Physical Therapy tent.
If the race was a logistic nightmare for Howe, it was maybe even more of one for the U.S. Ski Team athletes, who are in Bend for camp and didn’t bring their own equipment for the race. Luckily, Rebound helped them out.
“Andy Fecteau from Rebound got everything together for us besides my nordic skis – those are mine!” Bjornsen said.
Even that didn’t mean smooth sailing though. When Randall arrived at Mount Bachelor before kicking off the alpine leg, she encountered problems.
“We pulled out the skis and I couldn’t make the bindings small enough for the boots I had,” she explained. “And then we realized there was glide wax on the bottom. So we had to quickly rent some skis, but they were awesome because they were tuned and set to go.”
Randall, who raced alpine in middle school, enjoyed getting to do a different sort of competition; she also competed in the bike leg.
“We heard a lot about how turny the course was, but it was actually super straight, so it was really fun – I wish I could have done about ten more runs,” she said. “The biking leg was hard, holy cow. Solid 40 minutes and just burn the whole time. I think it’s always good to challenge yourself in different venues than you’re used to, so hurting for 40 minutes on the bike actually makes me appreciate ski races where it’s hard, but you get little breaks here and there.”