CRESTED BUTTE — It was 5 degrees when the first contingent of nearly 900 Nordic ski racers poled away from the Elk Avenue starting line Saturday morning in a cloud of frosty breath, a clatter of bells, and a racket of whoops and hollers.
Neon tutus fluttered over skin-tight racing suits. A few Viking horns poked over the top of the pack of racers. In the mob, there was a dinosaur, a Wonder Woman, a snap pea and a Lt. Dangle, who stood out in his dangerously short shorts.
This mad mix represents Colorado’s largest Nordic ski race – the Crested Butte Alley Loop. The race, in its 33rd year, is a serious skate- and classic-style ski contest for uber-athletes who give their all on a 42-kilometer course that on altitude maps resembles a bad EKG. Win this longest race and pocket as much as $1,400. That works out to more than $700 per-hour on a fast course like this year’s.
The race is also taken seriously because it is a qualifier for the American Birkebeiner, the granddaddy of Nordic races to be held in Telemark, Wisconsin, later this month.
The Alley Loop may also be Colorado’s nuttiest contest on two skinny skis. The race is called the Alley Loop because it winds around local favorite Nordic trails at Peanut Lake and Magic Meadows before it brings skiers careening into the town’s narrow, snow-covered alleys.
Appreciative residents set up “aid stations” in those alleys with Jell-O shots and nips of warming whiskey.
Besides the unorthodox route, wild costumes are an integral part of the Alley Loop. Crested Buttians are famous for donning costumes, and Alley Loop racers embrace that tradition with gusto and creativity.
Costumes in the shorter Alley Loop categories – 1 kilometer to 21 kilometers – run the gamut from political-protest statements to glittery fantasies. There are always a few with a team theme.
In the wake of the last presidential election, those have included a gliding two-hole outhouse bearing the message “Suddenly even Bush looks better,” and a Keystone XL pipeline that kept breaking apart on the curves and spilling its skiers.
This year, there may have been some political-drama malaise. There was not a single border wall or chain gang of presidential advisors. Instead, there was a team of gondolas strung together by ropes. It took the gondola skiers in their unwieldy papier-mache pods more than two hours to trundle 5 kilometers. By comparison, the day’s fastest racer, Samuel Shaheen of Boulder, ripped across the finish line three seconds shy of two hours after covering 42 kilometers.
In the slow-poke categories there also was a gang of papier-mache pinatas, who flung out occasional showers of candies after whacking each other with ski poles. A foursome of monkeys in cardboard barrels chugged over the 5K course while chugging beers. They managed to cross the finish line after a mid-race pause for one of the monkeys to find out it is not possible to fit in an outhouse while wearing a barrel and skis.
Those who crossed the finish line with fewer wobbles included King Tut, Uncle Sam, Waldo, Heidi, tacos, bananas, old hippies and the Notorious RBG (who had earlier turned down Jell-O shots in an alley with the admonition, “There will be no appearance of impropriety on my part!”)
Simon Clarke from the U.K. slid in sans costume, but with a notably frozen beard and moustache.
He wasn’t complaining.
“Yeah, this was cold, but I’ve raced in Norway where it was colder,” he said.
Richard Clark of Denver skied in with a bloody face. He had taken a tumble halfway through the race. But he wasn’t worried because the gashes weren’t bleeding: the blood had frozen. “I need a beer,” he said as he headed towards a table where, by race’s end, 30 cases of craft beer would be handed out.
Crested Butte resident Jordan Williford, a.k.a. Lt. Dangle, wowed the crowd when he glided in, still in his short shorts and his partially unbuttoned Reno, Nevada, law enforcement shirt — after 42 frigid kilometers.
His moustache was dangling icicles, but he said his reddened legs were not cold.
“My engine tends to run hot,” he said with a smirk befitting Lt. Dangle, one of the hapless cop characters in the old TV show, “Reno 911!”
This year’s Alley Loop may have broken participant records because more skiers from Klamath Falls, Oregon; Willow, Alaska; Waterloo, New York; and Bishop, California. have heard about the fun. This has also been a snow-bounty year. More than 110 inches of snow have fallen in Crested Butte this season.
“It couldn’t have been any better,” said Crested Butte Nordic events director Andrew Arell as he packed up finish-line regalia. The races were over, but Crested Butte was still exhibiting its unique color. Pigs, gnomes, bananas and pirates were still wandering snow-covered Elk Avenue.
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