While most of the spotlight was focused on Lake Placid this weekend, about 60 skiers from around the country toed the line in Duluth, MN for the first ever North Shore Rollerski Marathon on September 17. Topping the podium for the 26.2 mile point-to-point tour of Lake Superior’s north shore were Duluth native Andre Watt (Rossignol), who won a close race against Central Cross Country’s (CXC) Brian Gregg, and Jennie Bender (CXC), who beat runner-up Audrey Weber by less than a second.
Watt completed the course in 1:18:46, with Gregg only a second behind. Watt said ski speed played a huge role in how the race went—there was no restriction on wheel speed on an extremely flat course.
“I had slightly faster skis today, and [ski speed] allowed the third place finisher to stay with us for quite a ways,” said Watt, who is on Rossignol’s marathon team and assistant coaches at The College of St. Scholastica.
The route started in Two Harbors and ended on Lemon Drop Hill in downtown Duluth. The final kilometers included a stretch of concrete on I-35, which was closed off to traffic for the duration of the race along with the rest of the course. Racers made a sharp downhill 180-degree turn on the highway roundabout ramp to come into the finish, the only place Watt says they had to check their speed.
The wheels that he and Gregg used were faster than they were used to training on. “We were using urethane wheels with really fast bearings,” said Gregg. “We were all pretty nervous being on skis that quick…we practiced on them the night before. But when we were actually racing, it didn’t feel that fast.”
Twenty-six miles in 1:18 works out to an average speed of about 20 miles per hour. Fast skis weren’t the only factor at play, however. The flat, exposed course made drafting a significant part of race strategy as well.
As a result of the high race speeds, both the men’s and women’s race came down to a sprint at the finish. “Andre worked most of the race, skiing faster. I was happy to hold on until the sprit at the end,” said Gregg.
On the women’s side, Bender said she and Weber made a decision to share drafting duties, and switched the lead every mile. While sharing the burden of breaking the wind helped both skiers save energy, it also made it hard for either of them to pull away, and their race also came down to who could cover the final meters fastest.
“Audrey is a good sprinter, so I knew I’d have to fight for it,” said Bender. She just edged Weber at the line; both clocked in on the results at 1:32:26.
All in all, the top finishers enjoyed the new race, and look forward to being able to wear the founders bibs in future years.
The marathon was more than just a brand new rollerski event, however. A field of 60 may seem small, but racers were part of a major race atmosphere. Skiers shared the pavement with over 2,000 inline skaters competing in the 16th annual North Shore Inline Marathon, the largest event of its kind in the U.S. The winner of the inline race, Yann Guyader of Canada, averaged 23 miles per hour to finish in 1:06:33, almost six minutes ahead of second place.
Rollerski competitors started a half hour behind the last wave of skaters, and with souped up wheels and greased bearings, caught up to some of the later open waves and weaved around racers who had never seen rollerskis before.
“We had a lot of people at the finish asking us about [our rollerskis],” said Watt. “I think it’s great for overall awareness.”
Bender agreed, and proposed that open rollerski races like this one be actively used to promote and fundraise for Nordic skiing in the US. “This is a great way, instead of just trying to fundraise, to promote Nordic skiing in this country; to get people to recognize what we do, and to promote the sport,” she said.
According to Watt, the plan is to hold the race again in the future. CXC Director Yuriy Gusev proposed the idea for this year’s rollerski race to the inline race director, who will apply feedback from this weekend’s inaugural run to plans for next year.
Click here for full rollerski and inline results.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.