Pull the curtain back, and the wizardry is revealed. Not always perfect, with growing pains like any other popular athletic event, NENSA is trailbreaking when it comes to first class rollerski racing. In revealing the organizational fundamentals of NENSA’s rollerski series, we learned that leading the way is simple: it requires a can do attitude. This is no The Wizard of Oz chicanery – where the old man fumbles with a sci-fi device in creating what we know as Oz – it remains grounded in people simply taking the lead, some volunteering their time, and ensuring the cross-country community becomes ever more more slightly evolved
The NENSA rollerski series is a six race affair including the App Gap Challenge, the Adirondack Rollerski Mini Tour, The Fall Rollerski Classic, The Maine Event: Agility Sprint Festival, and the Trapp Invitational.
From the App Gap’s skiathlon format (skate to classic) to the Maine Event’s move-the-needle agility features, there is one steady yet high energy constant. That would be NENSA’s Competitive Program Director Justin Beckwith.
At 40-years-olds and rocking a mullet, Beckwith is — and this is no stretch — the Jaques Cousteau of rollerski racing in the U.S. He dives head first into the unknown with elan.
While some rollerski festivals in Norway get the full blown live T.V. treatment, NENSA’s rollerski series is just now maturing beyond grass roots. We spoke with Beckwith on August 5th, two days after pulling off the 2019 App Gap Challenge to get a better understanding of how to put on such an event. This year the event boasted 174 finishers, up from 119 in 2018. It also drew several top athletes including some U.S. Ski Team members and a good smattering of the SuperTour’s top tier.
Here are some snippets from the interview that focused on organizing the App Gap Challenge.
FasterSkier: Take a breath. How did you pull all this off? It involved a State highway road closure, a relatively seamless event, and skate and classic rollerskis in a single event.
Justin Beckwith: It’s lots of little steps, and the desire to keep nudging everyone involved to think bigger picture. Backing up, the reality of thinking bigger started with Matty Hall. He wanted to make it clear to the manufacturers that an individual stepped forward to support this movement, and that was two years ago. A year later we had manufacturer involvement. With the generous support of Bag Balm, we developed a price tag to sponsor the Series. This year we tapped into the retail market partnering with High Peaks Cyclery based in the Lake Placid. Of course, we have an amazing pool of sponsors including title sponsors Nokian Tyres, LL Bean and Swix. For the vision of thinking big – I’ll pass the credit to Marty, he really did it. He was incredibly supportive.
But the honest answer to pulling this off and meeting or even surpassing expectations is this: The beauty of a rollerski series is nobody has an expectation our guideline of how we do this, we’ve created this whole other thing. So we’re building in more media and getting more exposure than even our winter programs.
If we can eventually put events in Boston and in New York City (and other great venues across the US) – at some point it will become attractive and Norway or Europe will want to participate. That is part of the vision.
FS: Back to some nuts and bolts. What’s the history here at App Gap?
JB: This is the 10th year of a rollerski race at App Gap. We ran it seven years before it became a NENSA event. I used to work at GMVS and we would end our summer camp with the race. Now, I work a lot with Colin Rodgers who runs the GMVS program – and it’s still one of the final activities for the GMVS camp.
The biggest challenge logistically is coordinating with authorities to control traffic on State Highway 17. It began with a skillful email since I knew I had a really solid knowledge of the road and how the App Gap event was born. Running an open even required coordinating with Vermont Agency of Transportation and letting them know I knew how to run the event, but we had the potential of growing numbers and we wanted to do everything by the books moving forward. I’m learning to take the heat and constructive criticism. We are fortunate for this relationship between an organization and the state that also helps highlight the businesses of Vermont. We helped generate some summertime business for Mad River Glen where we hosted the post-race party. And people are starting to stay in local lodging and visiting our friends at places like Lawson’s.
The bottom line is this year we were granted a single lane closure for the road. One lane was open to guided traffic with a pilot car, the other lane remained closed to motor vehicles and was open to racers and accompanying support bikes. Another beauty of the event is there are no real downhills – two years in a row without a skier scrape.
FS: How much did this cost to pull off?
JB: 2019 was a 10k event. We made a lot of progress this year and almost broke even. It’s expensive to close the road and we build in a live band this year – the idea was to make it a mountain XC festival and we definitely succeeded at that! Most of our other events are still at half that budget, but stay in the black.
FS: Now the nuts and bolts of the rollerskis. Tell us how you ensure the top-skiers are on matched pairs of rollerskis?
JB: For this event, we have a total of 80 matched pairs — 40 classic and 40 skate. NENSA owns 40 of those, 20 classic and 20 skate that we purchased from Swenor with bindings and we are in our third year with them. Andy Gerlach helped facilitate that and is a huge supporter and absolutely shares the vision. He is an original collaborator. For App Gap, he flew his sales rep, Jason Huseby, out here and he brought the additional 40 pairs as loaners.
Essentially we have 40 pairs of matched classic and skate to work with. The top seeds in the Open category use matched skis and then some other athletes — the top college and junior skiers get on matched pairs. They all use number two wheels. If you don’t get a matched pair, then it is up to discretion in terms of what number wheel you use. We want to keep it fair, you know, keep people off of the hard polyurethane race wheels.
FS: This year you ran elite fields at the end – how does that work?
JB: As we said, the event started as a wrap up a junior camp – and now we are having world class skiers showing up. Last year at the urging of Patty O and Pepa we had a wave start at the end of the men’s and women’s field. The men’s course is roughly 7km and the women’s 5km. This year we continued to evolve and had an A and B seed for each sex – both started from the long or traditional men’s start. This year we had 33 skiers start in 4 waves at the end of the men’s field which is reverse seeded. Interval starts go off at 30 seconds – the waves were 2 minutes apart – the format works really well and is motivational for developing and elite skiers alike.