Seven years after discovering the annual Pole Pedal Paddle in Bend, Ore., Santi Ocariz couldn’t shake the urge to try it.
A 26-year-old Wisconsin native, Ocariz visited Bend during his college summers, fell in love with the area, and resolved to come back and one day compete in the alpine, cross-country, bike, run, kayak and sprint race.
Two months before last year’s big event, Ocariz and his wife Carolyn set out for their new home in Bend on rollerskis, raising close to $20,000 to feed impoverished children. They anticipated the 3,000-mile trip would take close to three months, but the couple sped up the pace to get Ocariz to Oregon for the PPP.
They arrived four days before. Ocariz ultimately reasoned he was underprepared in terms of training and equipment, and did not race.
This year, he was ready — maybe not in training hours, but definitely mentally. Last summer, Ocariz launched toward fatherhood when Carolyn became pregnant with their first child. He shifted his priorities to train less and work more in preparation for the hospital bills and additional expenses, and in March, welcomed baby Sonia to the family.
Suddenly, two-a-day workouts were no longer a thing, and he was lucky to ski once a week.
“I don’t think I have trained this little in a year since I was a junior in high school,” Ocariz recalled in an email. “However, what I lacked for in time, I made up in effort.”
Intervals and time trials become his bread and butter, and Ocariz worked with expert paddler Torsten Heycke on kayak-specific training.
He started biking in February to work on his weaker link, practiced transitions and graciously accepted a gift from his friends: a plane ticket to Bend for the event on May 18.
A week and a half before the PPP, the Ocarizes had moved to Moorhead, Minn., where Santi started an accelerated nursing program at Concordia College.
Suddenly, his initial urge to participate had culminated into a driving motivation to beat everyone else — including several defending champions. Ocariz knew his family could use the $1,000 grand prize for winning the elite individual race, and he remembered that as first place started to slip away last Saturday.
“Everyone crushed me in the beginning of the race,” Ocariz wrote of the alpine leg, which involves sprinting to the top of Mt. Bachelor to click into skis before navigating gates on the descent.
With little experience downhill skiing, Ocariz fell behind race leaders Andrew Boone, the 2011 winner, and 2010 champ Marshall Greene. By the start of the 8-kilometer nordic leg, he estimated they had 40 seconds on him.
Ocariz cut the deficit to 10 seconds by the end of the cross-country ski, and early in the 22-mile bike leg, passed Greene up front. A few minutes later, Greene regained the lead.
“Marshall destroyed me on the bike,” Ocariz wrote. “By the time I was out of the running transition, Marshall was 2 minutes ahead of me. From here I put my nose to the grindstone and began working on reeling him in.”
Three miles into the 5-mile run, Ocariz started to lose hope, but only for a moment.
“As soon as I reminded myself how much the prize money would mean for our family, I leaned forward, shortened my stride, and pushed harder,” he wrote.
Forty seconds behind at the kayak transition, Ocariz could see Greene. His friend and supporter, Heycke heaved Ocariz’s boat forward in the water, helping him gain 20 seconds. From there, Ocariz focused on staying smooth and paddling smart, gauging his distance from Greene and how hard he was working behind him.
“By the second turn-around buoy I had almost caught Marshall,” Ocariz wrote. “With about 200 meters to go I put in a surge and passed Marshall. I was able to put 5-10 seconds on him in that last sprint. When I hit the beach I burst out of the Kayak, flung my paddle and life jacket, and began sprinting for the finish. 800 meters later, at the finish, I was 49 seconds ahead of him.”
As a rookie, Ocariz had done it — winning the elite race in 1:44:35 over a slew of local favorites. Marshall was second and Boone finished more than six minutes behind in third.
“With my PPP inexperience and lack of ability to train as I have in the past, I was unsure of my ability to match up,” Ocariz wrote. “I was definitely the dark horse. … Winning the PPP in Bend is viewed similarly to how winning the Birkie is viewed in the Hayward area.”
For women’s runner up Zoe Roy, achieving a personal best in her hometown’s celebrated race was also significant. A 25-year-old skier currently training in Canada, Roy remembered first racing the PPP on a team when she was 9 or 10. She did it solo at age 12.
In 2009, Roy shared the individual podium with her mom, Muffy, a multiple PPP champion.
“She was second and I was third,” Roy wrote in an email. “Pretty sweet to be on the podium with your mom, though!”
She hadn’t raced it since. Back in Bend for an on-snow camp at Mt. Bachelor, Roy decided to enter the 2013 race a week before.
“I banked mostly on leftover fitness from the winter and tried to do a little a bit of everything just to get comfortable with all the different legs,” she explained.
Early in on Saturday, Roy led through the alpine and cross-country ski legs into the bike transition. Her friend Sarah Max caught her on the ride, but Roy got back in front during the run.
“I had about a 20-second lead going in to the paddle and she caught me!” Roy wrote of the kayak leg. “I think my body was so tired from everything else that I could barely hold my arms up, I didn’t know if I was going to make it!”
A back-to-back champion in 2008 and 2009, Max claimed her third PPP title in 2:04:24, a minute and two seconds ahead of Roy in second. Another Bend resident, Mary Wellington finished third, nearly 5 1/2 minutes behind Max.
In a race packed with more than a thousand competitors between tandems and teams, Roy stressed the draw of racing individually.
“The individual is definitely the most team event out there when you factor in the number of people that helped me out, from my awesome support crew (my brother Tosch and my good friend from Bend, Matea) to all the people that I borrowed equipment from,” she wrote. “It takes a village!”
Now, it’s back to skiing, she explained. Roy is hosting fellow independent Canadian skiers Chandra Crawford, Amanda Ammar and Alana Thomas at her house in Bend for 10 days of training.
As for Ocariz, he’s already back in classes. After a season off, Carolyn has resumed full-time training and will race remotely for XC Oregon. Santi explained that he and Sonia, now 10 weeks old, will be her support crew.
“I won’t be training for or focusing on elite racing,” he wrote. “I hope to get to the opportunity to jump into a citizen race or two, but it is not going to be a priority. We have been thrilled with J.D. [Downing] and his organization of the XC Oregon team … The community and team are a perfect fit for us.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.