NENSA Rollerski Series Gains Momentum: An Interview with Justin Beckwith 

Rachel PerkinsSeptember 16, 2021
Jessie Diggins takes a first crack at NENSA’s rollerski ramps, which will be featured in the sprint qualifier and rounds in Lake Placid this weekend. (Courtesy photo)

On the heels of our coverage of the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival and the Alliansloppet Action Week, we turn our attention to the Northeast where the burgeoning New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) rollerski race series is well underway. The next round of racing will take place this upcoming weekend, starting with a freestyle sprint event dubbed “The Keys to the Castle” on September 18th at Mt. Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, NY, followed by a freestyle distance race the on the rollerski track in Jericho, VT the next day. Men and women will each race 15-kilometers in the open division, while juniors will have the option to race 5k. 

For those interested in seeing the show, in-person spectating is encouraged at the Lake Placid stage, however, as the ski track in Jericho is at a Vermont National Guard base, names must be submitted for entry prior to the event. Events will also be live-streamed on the NENSA Facebook Page, and live timing will be available through Bullitt Timing. Updated COVID considerations for participants and community members can be found here

Building from past years, the series features nine events beginning with the Lost Nation Roll in Craftsbury, VT in July and ending in mid-November with the NENSA Invitational in Stowe. Captaining the ship and still rocking the mullet-mustache combo is competitive programs director Justin Beckwith, with whom FasterSkier connected in mid-August to learn more about this year’s widened scope of event offerings, supporting a thriving culture of skiing in the region, and whether the dream of a New York City rollerski event is still alive. 

Beckwith explained in the call that one of NENSA’s objectives as the rollerski series evolves is to reach more athletes and to make opportunities for rollerski racing more accessible. Given the high density of cross country skiers and high level clubs in Vermont, the well-attended and highly competitive App Gap Challenge, and the designated rollerski tracks in Craftsbury and Jericho, past events have primarily taken place in that state. However, these venues can be quite a drive for skiers living in Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or Maine. 

NENSA Competitive Programs Director and rollerski race series organizer Justin Beckwith with his son, Red, at an event in Craftsbury. (NENSA photo)

One of the first steps to expanding opportunity in the region? Outreach. Rather than bringing more people to Vermont, bringing the races to the people. 

“One of the primary goals was to try and bring our programming across the entire Eastern region,” Beckwith said. “So we’ve done a race in Southern Maine, which Clare Egan so eloquently said at awards that she doesn’t think anyone’s had a rollerski race in Southern Maine before. And just this weekend, we’re going over to New Hampshire. It will be the first event we’ve done in New Hampshire on rollerskis. So that’s really cool.”

The first event he mentioned — the Good Times Roll in Cumberland, ME in collaboration with NonStop Nordic — featured a 4.3k freestyle race for Middle School and beginners, and a 7.5k open race on a closed roadway. The start and an agility course took place inside the Cumberland Fairgrounds.  The second stage, The Rollins Roll in Warren, NH, led classic skiers up the Mt Kearsarge auto road, which was closed during the event. Bringing together the community, both events saw participants from the junior level through the 50+ age bracket. 

In the Lost Nation Roll, which was co-hosted with the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, youth skiers had the opportunity to race the same course as elite athletes from the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (GRP) whom they admire. Likewise, the GRP athletes had the opportunity to ski their home track with outside stimulation. This event was followed by a learn-to-rollerski clinic and a free biathlon clinic to bring in additional members of the community who were not up for racing or wanted to learn more about shooting.

Now, midway through the series, the events are catered more toward the top juniors and seniors in the region, though some are still open to all levels. Beckwith explained that NENSA was “lucky” to have such a high density of top skiers in the area, including regional high-performance junior clubs, elite teams like SMS T2 and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, and EISA collegiate teams including Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont. 

“We’ve had pretty good success incorporating at least the college programs that are within striking distance — driving time — and who can participate in the races that sort of start in September, October and then in the November.”

From left to right, Greg Burt, Raleigh Goessling, and Luke Brown go head-to-head during the 2021 Lost Nation Roll in Craftsbury, VT. (Courtesy photo)

In addition to new venues, the series is also incorporating a more diverse array of events, including sprint stages. Beckwith explained that the first round of sprint rollerski racing took place at the Eastern REG camp in early July in Lake Placid. 

“At Mt Van Hoevenberg — that was really our first sprint course. It was actually our first sprint event that we’ve done in total since Junior Nationals 2020. But it was also the first heat format we’ve ever done in rollerskiing. And it’s an excellent venue for it. I think you can’t make a track wide enough [for rollerski sprints], so we actually pared down [the heats]. And I think the event we’ll do on September 18th… we’ll probably be running heats of four again in that. So it’s a little different than a winter format just because of the track width. But yeah, it’s exciting.” (Beckwith added that long-term, a wider track is something NENSA hopes to develop.)

More specifically, the events will still feature the typical structure of qualification followed by three progressive rounds, only modified to four skiers per section. Lucky losers will be incorporated based on time, as Bullitt Timing is providing a FIS level timing system. Juniors will compete in a mixed gender “Kings Court”-style sprint in order to ski more rounds, gaining more tactical experience. 

The events this weekend will include athletes from the Sun Valley Gold Team, the Bridger Ski Foundation Pro Team, and SMST2. (The Craftsbury squad is currently in Germany training in the ski tunnel in Oberhof.) Because the number of athletes on course is limited, these events will have a bit more “vetting of the competition” — i.e., being current U.S. Ski & Snowboard members and holding a current FIS license. However, recreational skiers still have the opportunity to test their mettle at Climb to the Castle in Lake Placid on October 3rd or the Mount Greylock Rollerski Race on November 7th in Adams, MA. Both are uphill classic challenges. 

“We created a permitted opportunity to ski up a closed State Park Road. So why not? Even if you’re not racing, go try it out, right?”

NENSA athlete Evelyn Walton on course in Lake Placid during the Eastern REG camp. (Courtesy photo)

Before the pandemic, the series averaged roughly 100 participants in each stage across all ability levels. While numbers have been lower in 2021 thus far, a summer series still remains a valuable touch point to keep the ski community engaged until the snow flies.

“A lot of these races this year, the focus is kind of building — not just out of COVID and building back into events, but into thinking about how we can better support the community and create opportunities. That’s our mission statement: to support a vibrant ski culture.”

To bring in people from all aspects of the community, NENSA is partnering with ORDA — Olympic Regional Development Authority — to organize an Eastern Coaches Symposium and a TD training opportunity in concert with the Climb to the Castle on October 3rd. Climb to the Castle is co-hosted with NYSEF, the New York Ski Education Foundation.

While this race up the Whiteface Toll Road in Lake Placid has plenty of history, it is also quite a grueling and climbing 2,300 feet in five miles is not universally accessible. Beckwith explained that they’ve considered a shorter distance where beginner or youth skiers could start further up the road to make it more manageable, or perhaps supporting a fleet of fast or “juiced” wheels to reduce the load.

Speaking to the concept of growing and sustaining the nordic community across all ages through the rollerski series, Beckwith recalled a conversation with longtime Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation coach Rick Kapala, who had contacted Beckwith to learn more about putting on the series in hopes of putting on similar events out West. 

“The idea I think Rick hit on the head is just that you’re creating excitement, to keep the kids engaged, right? And adults — all of it keeps skiers engaged throughout the year, and I think that’s really the goal. There’s no qualification [to enter]. In the past, we’ve built prize money in and I think we’re gonna be building prize money into a few of those bigger events I was telling you about in the coming days, but that’s just fun to roll that out as it comes… So really the most enjoyable piece of it and the broader scope is that we’re bringing together people from different communities, regions, abilities, all of that.”

A host of rollerskiers get together after a NENSA event. (Courtesy photo)

He explained that NENSA’s team will similarly highlight regional popular racing opportunities during the winter. 

“We’re really gonna highlight those races, popular racing opportunities, and also let people know that we feel like those are great developmental opportunities. Versus, we’ve been maybe a little Eastern Cup and Junior National qualifying centric in the past. So we’re really trying to support those, you know, it’s inclusive, but more so than that, creating festive opportunities that are available regionally. And the level of competition will be at those events regardless, because there’s really good skiers throughout the region, and they’re already utilizing those events. 

“We know people will go to sanctioned events in winter and summer, try to qualify for JN’s, but how can we create opportunities beyond that? If we can bring it to people’s backyard communities, so to speak, or within that sweet spot of an hour or two from their doorstep, then hopefully, we just get more people involved and excited throughout the year.”

Green Racing Project members Susan Dunklee (left) and Caitlin Patterson (right) take on NENSA’s rollerski ramps at the opening event in Craftsbury, VT. (Courtesy photo)

FasterSkier spoke with Beckwith about the nascent series in 2019 shortly after the App Gap Challenge, a skate-to-classic skiathlon that led skiers up a mountain pass on a closed State Highway near Fayson, VT. (The App Gap took a hiatus in 2021 due to construction on the road.) When considering what it took to pull off an event of that magnitude, Beckwith said: “The beauty of a rollerski series is that nobody has any expectations or guideline of how we do this.” 

He also said that he envisioned an event closer to the scale of the many summer rollerski festivals in Europe, perhaps in New York City or Boston. While this may seem like a pipe dream, with Beckwith behind the wheel, the idea came closer to fruition than one might have thought.  

“Let’s say we were seriously exploring a race in Central Park this fall as part of the series early on. And I think it’s very possible for 2022 — it takes time to do that. But we’re close, we’ve got our foot in the door. People know who we are. And we have developed some key contacts that came up down there, which is exciting.”

NENSA also grew its staff this year to make organizing larger events more sustainable, adding an Event Support position filled by Fred Bailey.

“It definitely takes a team to pull this off,” Beckwith stated.

NENSA will be offering a youth clinic in Boston in collaboration with two other organizations whose goals also include getting kids outside on skis and supporting equity and inclusion in the cross country ski community. Like other clinics NENSA has run this summer, this clinic will introduce current ski program participants and potential future participants to rollerskiing for the first time with a focus on having fun, broadening exposure to different aspects of the sport, and encouraging an active and healthy lifestyle. Beckwith identifies that added exposure in populated areas may also help NENSA create larger highlighted events in the future. 

“But there’s twofold to that. Because if we’re getting into urban areas, metro areas, whatever, then the visibility grows.”

With better understanding of the concept, urban venues might be more open to hosting. Beckwith explained that NYC stands at the top in terms of ideal venues. As so many events from 2020 were postponed into 2021 due to the pandemic, permitting became very challenging, which impeded the feasibility of running an event there in 2021. 

NENSA athletes Jack Young and Jack Lange compete in the sprint event during the Eastern REG camp in Lake Placid. (Courtesy photo)

“One other issue beside the permit was just that it’s an Olympic year, and the availability and openness of National Team athletes [may be less than non-Championship years]. If we pull off a race in New York City, we’re talking about a budget at a minimum of 10 to 30 grand, so if we’re going to do that we want to have [high caliber athletes racing to] capitalize on it.”

While it may be nearly 300 miles north of Central Park, Jessie Diggins is confirmed to be competing this weekend in Lake Placid. Given the caliber of the elite training groups participating, it’s clear that the level of competition is high and the racing will be spicy.To add to the excitement, qualifier and rounds will feature a 24 foot bicycle ramp directly out of the start.

The NENSA rollerski series is now in its fourth year. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear how dedicated Beckwith is, he became emotional when reflecting on what he is proud of.  

“Oh, geez, what am I proud of. We lost, you know, a year of in-person rollerski races with COVID. So that was a real doozy because we had Craftsbury coming online with a roller ski track, we had Van Hoevenberg coming online with a roller ski track, we were really excited to build into that. And then you know, the wheels fell off the bus from the outside — that wasn’t anything that we did. We created some really great regional events, as much as you can in a safe manner. But they were quite engaging challenges, and we saw literally worldwide participation in virtual events.”

Adapting to the times, Beckwith also pulled off running the 2020 App Gap challenge over the course of  a week where athletes from the same club could race on matched skis in a designated window. Breaking these groups down further into waves of 15 made it such that there were never more than 30 people in the area at a time. 

“So that kept us together a little bit… This year, it’s definitely a big step to re-engage after having a year where you didn’t. If you host an event, at the end of the day, you’re talking about what you’re going to do better the next year to build on it, and that’s just tricky with everything that we had coming down the pike. So I’m just really excited about where we are right now. We’re gonna have more rollerski races than we’ve ever had. I think that we’re gonna have the most competitive races we’ve ever had. It was pretty hard to top the women’s field in that Lost Nation Roll last year. I think it was about a 33 FIS point race or something like that — in no small part because Jesse [Diggins] was there.”

He acknowledged that there were plenty of other strong athletes there also — women and men — but that this weekend’s races will be a step higher. 

“I think the big success of this year is going to be just that we’ll have more participation overall. Partly because we have more events — well attended events  — but that we’re reaching many more skiers by taking the show to them basically. That’s probably going to be the biggest takeaway win for this year.” 

Beckwith also thanked the associate sponsors of the series: Swix, L.L. Bean, and Salomon. Apart from direct funding, he noted that Salomon sharing a video clip of one of Beckwith’s signature agility courses helped it see over 80,000 views internationally. 

“We also have a really amazing partnership with Enjoy Winter, and Swenor rollerskis, which has really been a part of the series from the beginning and what makes it work for us. So that’s a really important piece to a partnership. Worthy of mentioning are the great people like, I’m teared up now, but Marty Hall, Joe Lamb. They’re just really supportive. So that’s incredible.”

Hattie Barker attacks a climb with Mansfield Nordic coach Adam Terko collecting video. (Courtesy photo)

Rachel Perkins

Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646

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