Skiers Battle Warming Temps, Melting River Ice in Fairbanks’ Sonot Kkaazoot

BrainspiralMarch 31, 2016

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – As Mike Campbell famously said in The Sun Also Rises, he went bankrupt two ways: “Gradually and then suddenly.” Alaskan breakup – the season known as “spring” in other parts of the world – proceeds much the same way.

A field of nearly 300 skiers experienced a little of both in the Sonot Kkaazoot family of races, held last Saturday, March 26, in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the end of the day, Fairbanks skier Rebecca Konieczny and Anchorage skier Seiji Takagi came away victorious in the flagship 50-kilometer skate races. But the real victory may have been that the races were held at all.

Sonot kkaazoot comes from the Athabaskan (indigenous language group) words for “springtime” and “to slide your feet across the snow.” The race with this name has been held in Fairbanks on the last weekend in March every year since 1988. Reflecting the cold winter temperatures of Interior Alaska, as well as Fairbanks’s location at 65° N latitude, the race has never been canceled despite this late date (although the course has occasionally been modified).

Traditionally, the race starts on the Chena River in the heart of downtown Fairbanks, travels 10 k east along the river, proceeds inland to Birch Hill Recreation Area, spends 30 k covering most of the trails in the renowned trail system, and then returns to the river to finish 10 k west in central Fairbanks. The 2016 race covered this full course. Barely.

A field of 106 racers started the combined 40 k and 50 k races at 10 a.m. The first water hazard came approximately 300 meters into the race, as the field had to negotiate overflow several inches deep (the video shows the 20 k start). Once past the water crossing, a lead pack of a dozen racers quickly formed, including five skiers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), five skiers from Alaska Pacific University (APU), and two junior skiers from Fairbanks’s West Valley High School.

Takagi, a sophomore skier for UAF, set an honest pace from the start.

“I know a lot of these guys will be mad at me for doing that but I kind of like doing that in mass starts, going out a little fast and then kind of settling,” Takagi told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in an in-person interview after the race.

Takagi led for much of the initial 10 k down the river, occasionally trading off the lead with other skiers. Despite his desire to push the pace, the lead pack remained intact 10 kilometers and approximately 25 minutes into the race, as all 12 skiers who had made the initial break continued to ski in a pack.

Shortly after leaving the river, the race course proceeds to the base of the Ft. Wainwright downhill ski area, then takes a series of switchbacks to the top of the alpine hill.

Takagi put in a surge immediately upon reaching the base of the hill.

“I just worked on trying to open that gap after that and maintaining it,” Takagi told News-Miner. Although his energy flagged considerably over the remaining 39 kilometers – “I had about less than 10 percent left, negative 10 percent left” by the finish, Takagi later said – he skied relatively unchallenged to the end. He would finish first by over two minutes in 2:20:30.2, taking the victory in his first time racing the Sonot.

Behind him, there was heated competition for the remaining podium spots.

“Soon after we started up the downhill resort the pace increased,” wrote eventual third-place finisher Fischer Gangemi of Takagi’s move. “As we rounded the first corner [going uphill] I could see Seiji already making a gap.”

APU skier Andre Lovett, who would eventually finish fourth, tried to stick with Takagi. Two chase packs formed behind the leaders. Gangemi eventually bridged the gap to Andre Lovett and the two 40 k racers.

“By that point,” he wrote, “Seiji had a considerable lead but we could still see him.”

The next time Gangemi saw Takagi, he was at least 2 ½ minutes back of the UAF skier. Gangemi skied alone for some time, until he was eventually caught by UAF skier Nick Lovett (no relation to Andre).

“We skied together [through Birch Hill, back to the river, and] all the way until the last 1 kilometer mark,” Gangemi wrote, “trading drafts regularly in the very hard push down the river and around the overflow. Both of us tried to make futile pushes a couple times. Finally Nick had much more gas in the last kilometer and slowly gapped me to the finish.”

Nick Lovett finished second in 2:22:34.5, 2:04 back from Takagi. Gangemi was third in 2:22:45.0, roughly ten seconds behind. Andre Lovett came in fourth, nearly three minutes later.

The top nine men’s finishers were split between UAF and APU, with five members of the UAF ski team and four from the APU university and masters teams. (The APU Elite Team was busy contesting its own slushy 50 k in Craftsbury.)

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While Takagi skied away early for the solo win in the men’s race, the women’s race featured heated competition throughout. In a battle between UAF past and present, UAF past took the narrow victory. After 50 kilometers of head to head racing, Konieczny, a former Nanooks skier who now coaches for the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks, finished first in 2:42:00.7. Ann-Cathrin Uhl, a sophomore skier for the Nanooks from Mühlenbach, Germany, crossed the line less than six seconds back in 2:42:06.6. Third place went to Anchorage’s Sarah Freistone, who finished roughly eight minutes later in 2:50:07.4.

Konieczny won the race for the third year in a row, but was thrilled to have some competition, and some company, this time. “I actually want to thank Ann Uhl,” Konieczny told the News-Miner. “Usually I follow the men for 20 k-ish, not even, and then I have to ski the whole race by myself. So it was really fun to ski with her and go back and forth.”

Konieczny added, “I was excited to ski with a couple of the UAF ladies. Thought it would make it a little more fun for me.”

Although Freistone finished some distance off the podium, she hardly had to ski by herself.

“Throughout the race I was skiing in small packs of people,” she wrote in an email. “Whenever I felt the pack I was with was slowing down or if I thought I could go faster, I tried to make a move to the next group of people.”

Freistone also had a personal source of motivation: “I was also trying really hard to catch my mom before the finish,” she wrote. “That kept me motivated when the skiing got rough and slow. She competed in the 40k and finished about a minute in front of me.”

In the day’s other races, Maria Bray won the 40 k for the women in 2:21:21.7, with Jenna DiFolco second and Alyeska Daniels third. Local high school skiers Ti Donaldson and Benjamin Koenig were first and second in the men’s 40 k, with Donaldson setting a winning time of 1:52:29.3. Pete Leonard was third.

Kaya Ratzlaff was fastest in the women’s 20 k, with Emma Jerome second and Anna Rix third. Mike Kramer, Jonathan Burrell and Jacob Moos were the top three in the men’s 20 k.

Lynne Petersen was the winner, and only entrant, in the women’s 50 k classic race. Daniel Serventi won the men’s 50 k classic in an impressive 2:49:48.1 solo effort, with Bill Husby and Owen Hanley second and third.

All skiers in all races had to contend with conditions that may charitably be described as variable. Fairbanks began experiencing a dramatic springtime freeze–thaw cycle somewhat earlier than normal this March. Temperatures on the Birch Hill section of the course were never lower than 36 degrees Fahrenheit during race grooming the night before, and were still as high as 52 degrees at 2 a.m., eight hours before the 10 a.m. start. They then fell to slightly below freezing by 6 a.m.

Between the springtime conditions, the initial 10 k on the river, the groomed trails at Birch Hill, and the final 10 k back on the river, plus temperatures that climbed at least 15 degrees during the race, racers encountered a range of conditions. There was standing water, flowing water, sheet ice, bulletproof crust, melting snow, dirty snow, perfect midwinter corduroy, and what appeared to be midwinter corduroy but was in fact soft and painfully slow groomed snow. Then came the final 10 k on the river, when the sun came out, the morning’s ice broke down into slush, and even the top finishers faced a grinding trip to the end.

Strategies for dealing with the range of conditions varied. One racer was heard muttering at the finish that he literally would have saved time had he skied with a Structurite tool in his water belt the entire way, then stopped before returning to the river to quickly hand-structure his skis.

For her part, women’s winner Konieczny told the News-Miner, “My skis were fast when the conditions were right for it but then up at Birch Hill, especially, it got really really soft. It made it actually more interesting too because you had to be more tactical and find spots to pass.”

Gangemi, who was on eponymous RCS Plus skis, was slightly less sanguine. He reported that he waxed with Holmenkol Betamix Red, plus “whatever structure tool Mike Hajdukovich from Trax [Outdoor Center] made available.” He added, “I think I should have used a graphite wax as well to improve the durability because it seemed they became slower as the race progressed not just because of variable conditions and fatigue.”

The challenging conditions were reflected in the finishing times. Konieczny was more than 18 minutes off her course-record time of 2:23:40 from 2015. Takagi, similarly, was over eight minutes slower than last year, when APU skier Jack Novak won in 2:12:10.

Three-time winner Konieczny was not the only frequent contender. Second-place skier Uhl had finished only one second off the podium in the Oosik Classic 50 k the weekend before. Third-place finisher Freistone was also third in the 2015 Sonot Kkaazoot, first in the Kachemak Nordic Ski Marathon earlier this month, and first in this winter’s season-long Anchorage Cup series. Among the men, Nick Lovett was third and Takagi fifth in last weekend’s Oosik, while Gangemi won the Kachemak Marathon.

But the real story of the 2016 Sonot Kkaazoot was the weather. Despite race organizers’ assiduous attention to ice conditions in the days leading up to the race, including drilling at several sites to check for ice thickness near the start and delaying a final decision on whether or not to ski on the river until the morning of the race, everyone was surprised when a small portion of the Chena River experienced breakup during the race.

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Overflow on the surface of the Chena River, following a partial breakup of the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, on March 26, 2016.  The groomed trail originally went through the foreground of this picture.  Two skiers can be seen in the background safely detouring around the overflow on the established detour route. (Photo: Stella Wisner)
Overflow on the surface of the Chena River, following a partial breakup of the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, on March 26, 2016. The groomed trail originally went through the foreground of this picture. Two skiers can be seen in the background safely detouring around the overflow on the established detour route.
(Photo: Stella Wisner)

A relatively small piece of ice went out at some point while the lead 50 k skiers were traversing Birch Hill. The Chena River promptly began flowing over the ice for a stretch of several hundred meters. While skiers had blithely skied down the groomed river trail earlier in the race, on their return they were met with a lengthy stretch of overflow.

No one was injured. A detour route was quickly established, requiring returning skiers to head inland for approximately 100 meters, traverse around the farthest reaches of the overflow, step up on to some shore-fast river ice along the bank, duck under some alders, and return to the established race course on the far side of the overflow. (Two skiers can be seen on the detour route in the above picture.)

In a blog post on the race website, race organizers wrote, “Huge thanks to David Frey, nordic ski coach at Tanana Middle School who alerted Sonot Kkaazoot officials of the major disruption of the Sonot Kkaazoot trail on the river and provided standby guides around the hazardous area until Sonot volunteers could set up an alternative course.” (Organizers declined further comment on the breakup incident.)

As the race director told skiers in his pre-race remarks, imploring them to stay on the set course, “If you go off the course, you may die.” It appears he may have been correct.

Or, as third-place finisher Sarah Freistone observed in an email, “I was really happy with how my race went this year despite the tough conditions.” She added, “I have never really worried about falling into a river in a ski race before, but I guess there’s a first for everything.”

Complete results

The reporter would like to thank local skier Max Kaufman for his sterling hospitality all weekend long, as well as for taking all the racer pictures in this story.

About the Author: Gavin Kentch lives in Anchorage.  He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney.  He was probably on snow this year before you were.


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