Note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct time between Holly Brooks and Alysson Marshall, and include quotes from Pate Neumann.
One was a native. Another was a ringer.
Both Brian Gregg and Holly Brooks found themselves at the front of the pack in the first of the Ski to Sea seven-leg relay on Sunday in northern Washington.
Like several cross-country skiers at the U.S. and Canadian team camps in Bend, Ore., last week, Brooks drove more than seven hours to Bellingham, Wash., to take part in the 91-mile race.
For the second straight year, she completed the four-mile nordic leg at the Mt. Baker Ski Area. That race was followed by a 2.5-mile downhill ski/snowboard, 8-mile run, 42-mile road bike, 18.5-mile canoe, 13-mile mountain bike and 3.5-mile kayak (usually around five miles, but shortened this year because of wind).
Last year, Brooks competed in the family division with her husband, father, uncle, two brothers, sister and sister-in-law as team “Aint no big deal.” This time around, the 30-year-old took it a little more seriously.
Awarded the “top gun” after the 2011 Ski to Sea, Brooks said she was recruited back to race for the newly formed Team Fast and Female in an effort to dethrone the 12-time competitive women’s champ: Boundary Bay Brewery. On Sunday, the Boundary Bay females clinched their 13th straight title, but not without a run from Brooks and a few of her seven teammates.
Brooks was the top woman in the nordic race. Gregg of Winthrop, Wash., was the overall winner. Born about 150 miles east of Bellingham, Gregg estimated this was his 10th Ski to Sea.
“Who wouldn’t want to do a cross-country ski race in late May?” Gregg wrote in an email. Not long before, he injured his wrist mountain biking and reviewed the X-rays with a trusted orthopedist in a coffee shop on his way to the race.
“It swelled up about the size of a baseball and has been pretty tender,” Gregg wrote. “The x-rays show that nothing is broken and we think it is just a slight ligament tear.”
He wore a brace at the race.
“The pain is pretty minimal,” Gregg wrote. “Skiing with the brace helps protect it.”
Gregg finished the hilly 6.5-kilometer leg in soft conditions in 17:37, one minute and 11 seconds off his winning time last year. His team, Barron Heating, went on to win the overall title.
Another Washington native, 2010 Olympian Torin Koos followed Gregg’s lead and clocked the fastest downhill ski for Barron. The team’s kayaker, Zsolt Szadovski, anchored the victory after its mountain biker, Colin Cares, took a wrong turn and lost the lead.
Team Aeromech Takes Flight, which included nordic skier Matt Liebsch of Minnesota, placed second. Liebsch initially finished fourth and the team climbed to first when its mountain biker, Steve Fisher, capitalized on Cares’ mistake on near the end of the sixth leg.
Szadovski regained control and sealed Barron’s 10th win since 1996, according to The Bellingham Herald. It was Gregg’s second year on the competitive-open team.
“The other guys on the team are really fast and it is fun to follow their competitive seasons throughout the year and catch up on Ski to Sea weekend,” Gregg wrote. “The team battle is extra exciting because Alaska Airlines puts up a round trip plane ticket for each member of the winning team. I follow the entire race on the radio and with the splits online.”
For him, the race is a family affair that brings him back to the mountains. The night before the relay each year, Gregg and his relatives camp on Mount Baker, giving him a taste of the terrain he misses while living in Minnesota.
“Normally I would prefer not to sleep in a tent before the race but the mountains are so cool at dusk and dawn that it is totally worth it,” Gregg wrote.
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Two months after last year’s Ski to Sea, Brooks signed up for another at the request of race organizer and supporter, Tony Velasco. According to Brooks, Velasco assembled eight teams and she agreed to join Fast and Female.
After Brooks put the team in first, downhill skier Jessie Young kept the momentum going, finishing 2-½ minutes ahead of the second woman from Boundary Bay.
“I had quite the head start,” Young told the Herald. “My cross-country skier kicked some ass.”
Brooks finished 1 minute and 7 seconds ahead of Boundary Bay’s nordic runner-up Alysson Marshall, a Canadian senior development skier, in 19:59. Fast and Female’s runner fell two minutes off her time from last year while another Canadian, Brooke Gosling, made up three minutes for Boundary Bay, overtaking Fast and Female for good.
Despite remaining close through the transition, Fast and Female’s road biker wasn’t able to catch the draft that Boundary Bay’s did.
“Ours had to do an individual 42 mile [time trial] which is tough!” Brooks wrote in an email. “From there it was a bit downhill and the girls from Boundary Bay spanked us. Maybe next year?!”
Other Nordic Notables
Brent Knight of Alaska Pacific University finished second, 10 seconds behind Gregg in 17:47, and Pate Neumann (Canmore Nordic Ski Club) was third in 17:58.
“The race was really fun,” Neumann wrote in an email after competing in his first Ski to Sea with Team Northwest Sleep Solutions, which finished 10th.
He was recruited by the team in its second year in the relay. Last year, Neumann did the Snow to Surf adventure relay race on Vancouver Island, which he said was similar to the Ski to Sea.
“The course was a challenging … ‘figure 8’ loop with some monster climbs,” Neumann wrote about Sunday’s race. “Conditions were great with tons of snow and a relatively hard track. I think the best part of the race was the atmosphere. The whole town gets involved and everyone is cheering for you. It is fun having some of the top Super Tour and NorAm racers on the start line, it gives the race some serious excitement. It is also great to catch up with racing friends you haven’t seen for a while and hear about their spring adventures”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.