West Yellowstone Rendezvous
I had hoped to finish the ski season with the Engadin Skimarathon in Switzerland on March 8th, but, due to the coronavirus situation in Northern Italy, the Swiss authorities cancelled all large events in the country, including the ski race. With the race cancelled and movement around Europe becoming increasingly difficult, we decided to cancel the entire trip a few days before our scheduled departure. I still think it looks like an amazing race in an incredibly scenic valley, so who knows? Maybe next year...
The cancellation left my family with a situation we rarely find ourselves in: We had 12 days off and no trip planned. Checking the cross-country race calendar, I found that registration was still open for the Rendezvous ski race on March 7th in West Yellowstone. I had skied the Rendezvous trails a few years ago, and I always thought it would be fun to race there some day. After a few hours of deliberation, we decided to load up the Tesla and head out West for a skiing-, snowshoeing-, and hiking-themed road trip! I sent in my registration and added my race skis to the growing load of gear in the car alongside our boots, shoes, clothes, Chariot, snowshoes, child-carrying backpack, and 2-year old.
After two days of driving through South Dakota, hiking in the Badlands, and snowshoeing in Bozeman, we arrived in West Yellowstone late in the day on Friday. Our first stop was a spaghetti dinner at Pete’s Pizza, where the tables were packed family-style with other skiers taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat special and talking about the ski season. Then, it was right to bed to try and get a good night of sleep before the long race.
The next morning, we walked two blocks from the conveniently located Holiday Inn to the start of the race near the Rendezvous Arch at the entrance to the trail system. Beyond the arch, the Rendezvous trails run through the Custer Gallatin Forest near the border of Yellowstone National Park. The wide, PistenBully-groomed trails wind through hilly, forested terrain at an elevation of about 6800 feet.
West Yellowstone is a popular place, even in the winter, and the streets were busy on this Saturday morning. On our way to the start, we passed some snowmobilers who were trying to figure out where the stream of skinny, Lycra-clad people were going. Other tourists were standing in front of their hotels waiting for huge, tracked snow busses to pick them up and take them into the Park via the winter snow roads. Along with fellow racers, we followed the sound of the race announcer's loudspeaker, and arrived at the start about 15 minutes early to watch the classic field take off.
Although there was still several feet of snow on the ground, the spring melt had clearly begun. Race morning started out at about 20 degrees and quickly rose to 40 by midday. One ski change was allowed at the half-way point of the race, and several skiers decided to take advantage of this option due to the quickly rising temps. I only had one set of skis along and I hoped they would work in a variety of conditions around zero.
Over 700 skiers participated in four race distances with about 200 in the marathon field. The race was a mix of locals and others, like me, from across the country. Many of them were well-traveled, and I met several people who had also been to the Birkie a couple weeks ago.
The race is not started by the usual gun or air horn, but rather by a cannon blast at 9:00am (plus or minus 30 seconds because cannons can be finicky). If there’s a misfire, you may have to wait a bit longer. This was all explained to me by a local guy from Bozeman as we waited in the starting area. It's a unique start to the race, and a reminder that we really are out west. It was also really exciting for my two year old.
I felt pretty good while waiting for the cannon, but after the first few kilometers, I realized it was going to be a challenging day. I’m not sure if it was the elevation, my skis, or some residual fatigue from the Birkie plus the 2 long days of driving, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the group I started with. I drifted back through the field several places until I found a pace I could hold for the rest of the race. When I caught my breath and settled into my new pace, I started to feel better. By the time I glided down the hill into town at the end of the first lap, I even remembered to take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. On the second lap, traffic really cleared out, and I was on my own in the Yellowstone forest for long stretches at a time. The kilometers passed, and I was cheered on by the friendly volunteers at the aid stations every 5 kilometers or so. A few minutes before noon, I came around the final corner to see my son playing in snow and my wife taking pictures on the final stretch.
My final time was 2hr 53min, which was about 13 min slower than the Birkie (70/138 in the mens race). None of the hills seemed quite as steep as the Birkie, but it was a very hilly course with almost no flat stretches. Even though my time was slower than I had hoped, it was still a fun stop on our road trip. It’s a well-organized event in a great little town, and I would definitely recommend this race to any midwesterners who want to take a trek out to the mountains.
Within an hour of the finish, we were all loaded back in the car and on the road to the Tetons, the next step on our 4000 mile journey that will take us on to Utah and Arizona before we turn back towards home in Minnesota.