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North American Vasa: A Skier's Delight

Sat, Mar  3, 2007 - By Jerry Harpt

I heard a cannon go off as I approached the 47-K marker during my 50-K freestyle race on the ‘VASA’ track that runs through the hills, valleys, and pines of Pere Marquette State Forest near Lower Michigan’s Traverse City. Although the course is not as grueling as the Birkie or Noque, it is very challenging and my body had been screaming to stop for the last 10-K’s. I was trying to block out the thought of pain but, by now, even Vince Lombardi’s mantra, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,” was losing its grip.

My body was approaching total rebellion at the 49-K marker yet, just like that, I lost sight of the pain. That’s when I realized why the cannon went off. I started to see lots of little kids all over the trail, on little skis, with funny hats, and wearing bib numbers that dwarfed them. Some of these kids were only 5 years old, shuffling down the track in mix-master motions while gliding only a foot per push. Their arms looked like humming bird wings, rapidly pumping up and down to energize their poles. One little guy fell and rolled across the track in eggbeater fashion. Another lay on the track on his back, studying the falling snowflakes. I forgot about the pain. It is only temporary after all, isn’t it?

When the race ended we received our race pins, chicken soup, fruit, and other goodies at the lodge of Timber Ridge Resort, within shouting distance of the finish line. Some of us then headed back to the Cherry Tree Inn on Grand Traverse Bay. We sat in the large Jacuzzi and let the warm water massage our weary muscles while large snowflakes fell outside the huge windows at the end of the pool. We then took stock of the many ways we fell in love with the VASA.

The Great North American VASA is a class act, one of the highlight races of the American Ski Marathon series. It is held on a gorgeous, rolling, and heavily wooded landscape just a few miles from the cherry and grape orchards of Leelanau Peninsula and the lake-effect snow supply of Grand Traverse Bay.

The VASA is a great spectator race. The various races all start and finish in the same place so the crowd cheers skiers on more than once. People in the crowd call skiers by name too because their names are on the front and back of their race bib.

Skiers in the 50 K race, actually cross the finish line 4 times. They cross it at the start, serenaded by cowbells and horns. They then do a 1-K loop that takes them back across the finish line for more crowd encouragement. At the midpoint in the race, and to the rhythmic sound of Tubano drums, they cross it again, this time hearing their name called over the public-address system for the first of two times. The second announcement comes at the finish.

Although the VASA challenges with some 100-foot hills to measure a skier’s swagger, the 50-K racers get a reprieve when they are ushered onto the second of their loops. They find that it is more forgiving and flatter for about 10-K, giving them a chance to transition ski, working on their V-1, V-2 and Open Field skating.

One of the advantages of having the race start and end at the same place, Timber Ridge Resort, is skiers close proximity to their car and warm clothes. Most cars were within two city blocks of the start. Showers are also available at the finish as are race results, foods, and friendship. The pre-race spaghetti dinner was also held at  Timber Ridge

The VASA takes on a ‘celebratory’ kind of spirit that over-rides the competitive element of the event. Bonfires pop up everywhere, several near the start and others at the many food and aid stations or where other volunteers are keeping vigil at junctures to snowmobile trails. A huge VASA sign hangs down from the lookout tower near the start. A closer look at the sign reveals that it is made of old skis joined together to form the massive letters, V-A-S-A.

Volunteers are first class, yelling encouragement, calling skiers by name, and running to skiers with Gatorade, cookies, fruit, and Hammer Gel. Ski Patrol and snowmobile help are also visible everywhere on the course.

It is somewhat mind-boggling to think that the entry fee for the longer VASA races was only $31.00 until January 10, quite a bit cheaper than many of the other major marathon races. Throw in the free Swix ski bag, that most of the skiers get, and the race becomes a blowout bargain. Add to that the Traverse City motels, like our Cherry Tree Inn, that were offering winter rates, and the bargains continue.  

The shorter races, like the 12-K time trial, the casual touring events, and the mentally or physically challenged events were less expensive. The ‘kinder’ racers, (ages 5 to 15), only had to pay $5.00 and that included medals that were placed around the necks of the mix-masters at the finish.

The race course too, is a gift-wrapped package. Lake effect snows hounded the area for two weeks prior to the race. Skiers worried that the trail would be soft but were pleasantly surprised. Constant attention by trail crews resulted in a solidly packed, manicured trail.

One of the highlights of the Vasa is the sportsmanship. Most of the waves had less than 75 racers, eliminating congestion and that nerve wracking contesting for position. The trail was wide enough to pass and politeness was at a maximum. Throw in perfect racecourse conditions, volunteer attention, plus moderating temperatures thanks to the nearness to Lake Michigan and the bargain became a landslide.  

The awards ceremony was held downtown in the banquet hall of Traverse City’s local culinary school. The standing-room-only ceremony exuded enthusiasm. While awards were being handed out, four huge screens entertained skiers with video of the race. The culinary school provided everyone’s favorite beverage plus a build-your-own nacho plate with all the trimmings for a mere $5.00 a plate.

There were so many VASA highlights, yet the thing that sticks with me the most was the people. Sure there were superstars like 26-year-old Dan Dehlin of Marquette, Michigan, who also deserves his due, finishing the 50-K race in a time of 2:33:56. Or there are those sixty-three-year-old skiers like Duane Palomaki, of Ishpeming, Michigan, who finished the 27-K in 1:37:23.  But there were also those course volunteers who called skiers by name and rushed to them with water and Gatorade. Then there were those mix-master little kids with their funny hats and their medals bobbing off their chests. There are also those weekend skiers who struggled through those finals K’s, some working into their fifth and sixth hours. They can also proudly display their commemorative pins and medals. They too, got up the next morning with renewed goals for their future. They are the ones I watched sneak up on the winner’s podium after the medal presentations were over, just to feel what it might be like someday.

For information: http://www.vasa.org , 1-800-Traverse.