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Northshore Rollerski Marathon report

Tue, Sep  18, 2012 - By Randy Bladel

The Northshore Inline Marathon, a 26.2 mile race from Two Harbors to Duluth along Lake Superior, was run in perfect conditions this past Saturday.  The temperature started near 60, and rose to the high 60s, with a light quartering tailwind and sunny skies.

The first thing to know about this race is that it is chiefly an inline skate race, and a big one, with about 2400 participants.  It is likely the largest in the country, basically the Birkie of inline skating, with the same range of speed and ability.  The fastest elites finish in just over an hour, or around 25 miles per hour, and the slowest take over three hours.  Only 36 of those were rollerskiers, or about 1.5%.

The racers are bussed from the Duluth Convention Center to Two Harbors in a fleet of school busses, except for the roller skiers, whose waves start last, and are therefore bussed to the start last.  Because of a new Minnesota law prohibiting ski poles on busses, as they are thought to represent either a potential projectile or weapon, we were transported in a luxury motorcoach, so that the offensive ski pole weapons could be carried in the luggage compartment below.  (How this law will affect the large high school ski program in the state remains to be seen.)

The scene at the start was the usual controlled chaos of a large wave-start race, with loud music, announcements, lines of port-a-potties and chairs, and lots of bodies warming up with nervous energy.  The classic rollerski wave, about a dozen of us, started next-to-last, and the freestyle skiers started 25 minutes later. 

The first mile was downhill, and the first five were brand-new smooth asphalt, making for a fast start.  Two of the skiers in the classic wave had obviously faster glide than my Elpex A.R.M.s.  I decided to outwork them and see if they would last.  The entire race was a double pole derby, with only a very little kick-double pole and no diagonal needed.  I realized early on that our pace was going to rival a skate pace on snow.

The course was run on the closed-off Rte. 63: no traffic!  We soon began to catch the last wave of skaters, and like skiing the Birkie from a slow wave, began to say “On your left” with every other breath.  The first two skate skiers, Matt Liebsch and Andre Watt, came flying by in tight formation at mile 14, weaving around surprised skaters like a pair of crotch rockets on a crowded rush hour freeway.  The next pair of skiers was nearly ten minutes behind them.

Like most of the freestyle rollerskiers, they had outfitted their skis with fast, hard urethane inline skate wheels.  Their pace on such equipment is practically an entirely different sport.

This race has absurdly adopted a rule from the European pro rollerski circuit; no wheels over 100 mm diameter, thus outlawing large pneumatic-tired skis like the V2 Aeros, as well as Marwes, with wheels of 105 mms.  Neither of these offer any advantage over smaller wheels, especially the skis equipped with racing inline skate wheels.  No other roller ski race I am aware of in this country has adopted this rule, including the prestigious Climb to the Castle, held the same day.  (That’s why I did the classic division.)

Most of the route was reasonable asphalt, but the last three miles take Interstate 35W, also closed down, which is cement.  As the cement makes for very poor pole plants, I headed for the rough asphalt of the shoulder, and nearly wiped out on an ingeniously camouflaged rumble strip. 

Interestingly, only bottled water, with the caps tightly in place, is offered at the feeds.  Bring your own fuel of choice. 

I left for home before the awards, so I was surprised the initial results posted online made no distinction between the classic and freestyle rollerskiers.  This in spite of the facts that we registered to separate races, our race packets reflected different divisions, we started in waves 25 minutes apart, and of course we used different equipment and technique. 

After this was pointed out, the necessary sorting out of the results was posted late Monday.

The fact is that rollerskiing is a bit of an afterthought to the main event, and the organizers seem to be unfamiliar with Nordic skiing, not to mention many of the inline skaters.  (What are those things?)  The race likely suffers low rollerskier attendance partly due to this mostly benign ignorance, but also due to the competition of the Chequamagon Fat Tire mountain bike race, held the same day only seventy miles away.

Still, if you want a nice, long ski on a beautiful late summer day along the greatest of the Great Lakes into a wonderful town with a group of like-minded folks, this isn’t a bad choice.

If you want an even longer rollerski marathon with just rollerskiers, be in Grand Marais on September 30th.

[Editor's note: Randy won the Classic Division]