Winning the Sapporo

February 16, 20103

The start of the 30th Sapporo Marathon: winner Seth Downs is center, tucked behind a tall Russian who had holes in his skis.
The start of the 30th Sapporo Marathon: winner Seth Downs is numer 83, second in center line

“Definitely Not the Typical Worldloppet, by any means.”

I caught up with Seth Downs yesterday as he was still trying to process his big win in Sunday’s Sapporo International Ski Marathon. He was still in Japan, but soon to continue on to China before returning to America in time to watch friend and Vancouver Olympian Holly Brooks compete in her last race of the Olympics.

Seth Downs is a self-described average master racer from Anchorage, Alaska, who had never won a ski race in his life.  Downs had competed in three other Worldloppets before the Sapporo Marathon: the Finlandia, the Engadin, and the American Birkie (where he raced to a commendable 32nd place).

As a Fed-ex pilot, Downs is able to put in bids for his upcoming work schedule, and as a “blaster” with a Wordloppet passport he is also always looking for the chance to compete in international marathons. So when he saw an 80 hour lay-over opportunity in Osaka, which happened to fall on the weekend of the Sapporo Marathon, he signed up for the flight.

“I’ve got my Worldloppet passport, you know, and being the good Master-Blaster that I am, I’m going around getting my stamps and stuff.”

Downs made just one small oversight when planning the trip, admitting “I forgot about the timeline, I didn’t realize I’d be traveling 16 hours the day before the race – but it all worked out.”

One unexpected challenge before the race was finding some sort of sports drink to put in his bottle. “Trying to find Gatorade in Japan is fruitless,” said, Downs.  He did eventually manage to find a drink that, when translated, spells “Pocari Sweat”.  Not the most appetizing name for a drink, but at least it was familiar, sweet, and drinkable – unlike two of the feeds he encountered at feed stations on the race course.

The Sapporo Marathon starts and ends near the Sapporo Dome, the site of the 2007 World Championship opening ceremonies.  The Dome is a short 10 minute subway ride outside of the city, but once on the race course – part of which is run on the 1972 Olympic Trails –  Downs says that you could forget you were even near the city.

“You’re next to this big dome, but then it’s Bam!, it’s fields and woods,” describes Downs. “You feel like you’re in West Virginia, you’re kind of going through these rolling hills and they have terraced trails on the side of the mountains and its mostly hardwoods.  They actually have these big, green, waxy-leaved bushes – kind of like rhododendrons, but bigger leaves – so it kind of had a tropical feel.”

Start line of the marathon, with the Sapporo Dome in the background
Start line of the marathon, with the Sapporo Dome in the background

Downs describes the actual race start:

“The race was so different than other worldloppets.  First, they give foreigners almost half the start lanes. So I got out early and put my race skis in the front line and warmed up on my other pair.  Fast forward to 5 minutes before the race and I can’t find my skis!  They seemed to have disappeared, I panicked, then started to look closely at everyone else’s skis… some Russian master blaster was in my skis thinking they were his!”

Shortly after getting his skis back – the Russian racer found his own similar-looking skis three lanes down – the race started.

Downs said he had no clue what to expect of the event, and for the start of the race – which was into a head wind and uphill for 2 kilometers – he dropped in behind a tall Russian who had “the look” of a real racer.
“You know, he had those fancy Fisher skis with holes in the toes,” said Downs (insert tinge of sarcasm) who followed the Russian until, at 12 km, two local skiers caught up. The four-pack stayed together for 20 more kilometers, until one of the Japanese racers made a break for it, and Downs went with him.  After trying to make a break and being reeled in himself, Downs settled in until 37km, when he passed his competitor and skied the last 13 km, “alone, but looking over my shoulder until the finish.”

The lead pack of the 2010 Sapporo Marathon
The lead pack of the 2010 Sapporo Marathon

Downs said one of the weirdest things about the race was that, “During the race, not a word was spoken.”

There was also another familiar sound missing: “There was a bit of cheering, but no cowbells!”

Another difference: “Funny thing with the feeds is they don’t hand it to you…. you have to stop and get one yourself… bad enough with 4 guys, must be insane when the masses hit it!”

One of the feeds Downs tried was very bitter, and he found out later – after receiving several cases of the stuff as part of his prize –  that it was called “Trophy” drink.  He was also surprised to get a feed during the race which nearly gagged him with its saline content. If he didn’t know better, he said, he would have guessed it was just “warm ocean water”.

And then, the finish line:

Never  having won a race, the novelty of breaking through the thick finish line ribbon stunned Downs into the simple realization, “Wow, I’ve never done this before.”

And then the glory, which was also a unfamiliar to Downs:

Right away, a wreathe was draped around his neck, a personal translator was at his side, little kids ran up to him wanting to shake his hand, and a Nepalese man kept repeating, “You are King!”

There were also “people asking for my photograph, asking me if I was going to the Olympics.  I told them I had never won a race before, but I guess that didn’t sink in.”

Sweet press.
Press for Seth Downs of team OIA (Only in Alaska)

There was no cash prize, but Downs said he received so much stuff on the podium that he could barely hold it all. In sum, Downs made out with several hundred dollars worth of chocolate wafers, sports drink powder, and a Japanese equivalent of “a fancy glide wax kit, with 6 pages of what I assume are instructions for use… in Japanese of course.”  Included in the kit was something called “Rescue Wax: Dead or Alive” and also a “Samurai” brand of ski sidewall wax, which Downs jokes is sure to be the key to his next success.

When reflecting on his win, Downs attributes his successful race to one important factor: “Personally I think it was the bidet in my bathroom.  I’ve seen a lot of them in my travels, but I never was brave enough to try one.  Well that all changed today before the race, and look at the results!  A happy ass is a fast one!”

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  • emd

    February 17, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Great article, Aubrey! We really get a sense of the event, through the eyes of a Master Blaster. Congratulations, Mr. Downs!

  • lsiebert

    February 17, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Ever since visiting Sapporo a few months after the World Championships in 2007 on a totally un-ski related trip, I have wanted to return there to ski. They get an unbelievable amount of snow (It snowed every day of our stay there, in mid-April). We met with the governor of Sapporo, and were given a welcome packet including World Championships postcards and an information sheet about the Sapporo Worldloppet. The stadium is truly impressive, and I can see the race being absolutely fantastic. One for the bucket list.


    February 17, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Way to go, Seth! Must have been that early season training in the high mountains outside of Crested Butte. I should send FasterSkier that funny photo of you doing the “funky chicken” freestyle from Master’s Nationals in 2003 — I think you had just moved to Anchorage from where? Tennessee? Despite that, you were still strong in those events…and now look what you won! Congratulations

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