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Grand Traverse to take teams on mixed media tour to Aspen

Running, skiing, sweating, breathing and don’t forget: Eating

by Than Acuff

About the only thing that would stop the North Face Grand Traverse Friday, March 23 from going to Aspen from Crested Butte is an epic storm of monumental proportions the day before or the day of the race.

Did I just jinx it?

The Grand Traverse is a backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Competitors travel 40 miles over the Elk Mountains, climbing over 6,800 vertical feet. To ensure their safety, racers must have a partner, carry mandatory gear, and start at midnight when avalanche danger is typically low.

Remarkably, the race turns 21 this year and in the previous 20 years, the race has been turned around only three times. Racers have braved sub-zero temperatures, ground blizzards above treeline, climate-changing warm temperatures and even portions of running.

In fact, it seems like just yesterday when I was running down Brush Creek Road in my Arkos Equipe leather ski boots bound, eventually, for Aspen. But that was actually 18 years ago.

Running may be a reality again this year as low snow and warm temps have been burning off a certain section of the course that faces due south.

“I believe there will be some running but, all in all, it will be 95 percent skiable,” says Crested Butte Nordic events director Andrew Arell. “I did check out the East River crossing and that looked in and surprisingly firm so hopefully that holds out.”

The question then hits racers as they prepare: Do I bring running shoes for those sections or just run in my ski boots?

“For those that are stressing about what to do, just know that it’s really six of one, half dozen the other,” explains three-time Grand Traverse champion Bryan Wickenhauser. “Years past when Mother Nature gave us a dirt… as long as your boots fit well… I have ‘run’ in them across long patches of dirt. Or change into your Sambas. Either way you won’t gain or lose much on the field.”

Regardless of the details, 230 teams are set to line up at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort at midnight on Friday, March 23 and head off into the night bound for Aspen.

The North Face Grand Traverse ski race also kicks off the annual Triple Crown competition that includes the summer run from Crested Butte to Aspen and bike from Aspen back to Crested Butte. This year Arell has lined up prizes for the men’s and women’s Triple Crown champions and whoever has the lowest combined time from the three races takes home some booty and the coveted Triple Crown title.

Still think you got what it takes to line up at midnight and make the trip to Aspen? Well, you still can, possibly. You and a friend, or frenemy by the time the race is over, may be able to find a spot in the race if a team drops out in the week leading up to the race. Just go to thegrandtraverse.org and sign up on the wait list and when a spot opens, you’ll get the call.

“As of right now, anyone can put their name on the wait list,” says Arell.

The snow safety teams are headed out into the field on Monday, March 19 to their respective locations in the mountains and will be providing daily updates about course and avalanche conditions via the Grand Traverse Facebook page.

Meanwhile, organizers and teams will see what Mother Nature has in store for them as race day approaches.

“I don’t put any stock in long-term forecasts,” says Arell. “Just hoping for a fresh coating so we can have a true winter odyssey. Just not too much in the days prior to the race.”

“Pray for snow. … Just don’t dump the day prior to the race,” adds Wickenhauser. “Thank you to all the snow safety teams out there and don’t throw in the towel because ‘you haven’t been training as much as you would have liked.’ God hates quitters. Ride the glide, it’s not a horse race.”

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