Pushing the limits of Nordic
Tour de Ski takes off Jan. 24 at Purgatory

SideStory: Are you tough enough?

Travis Brown leads a group of skiers up one of the Tour de Ski’s many climbs during last year’s inaugural race. The race’s 42K leg ranks among the highest and most demanding Nordic events anywhere./Photo by Jamie Wienk

by Will Sands

The Tour de Ski earned honors as “epic,” “gnarly” and “extreme” after its inaugural running in 2008. Nordic hard asses will not be disappointed when the high-altitude skate skiing race returns for the second annual later this month. However, the race that is rapidly becoming a Durango tradition will also show a softer side when skiers approach the starting line Jan. 24.

The Tour de Ski was the brainchild of husband-wife team Travis Brown and Mary Monroe. Brown, a professional cyclist, also took the NCAA championship for skate skiing while attending CU-Boulder. Monroe, who heads Durango’s trails advocacy group Trails 2000, traces her roots to Wisconsin, home of the Birkebeiner, America’s largest ski marathon.

“We were looking at the area around Purgatory and realized there is such optimal terrain for Nordic skiing and thought it would be great to do a ski marathon in Durango,” Monroe said. “And so last year we were able to do a sample race with 35 skiers, and it went incredibly smoothly.”

The 42-kilometer marathon course is the Tour de Ski’s major draw. The race traverses terrain typically off limits to skate skiers with the track pushing elevations over 11,000 feet and racers climbing upwards of 3,000 vertical feet. The race’s numbers make it the highest Nordic race in America and among the most demanding ski marathons anywhere.

Brown took third place in the tour’s inaugural running, just four minutes behind Nordic phenom Tad Elliot, who won in 2 hours, 9 minutes. The former national mountain bike marathon champion can testify to the race’s rigors.

“The Tour de Ski was one of the few events in my entire career where I developed severe leg cramps,” he said. “It’s definitely in a unique category for ski marathons in terms elevation and climbing.”

Like last year, racers can opt for the “more attainable” 20-kilometer loop through the upper Hermosa Creek valley. This year, organizers have also opened the Tour de Ski to a wider segment of the Durango ski community, offering 6- and 12-kilometer races in an effort to get junior racers into the game and to share the Tour de Ski with more recreational adult racers.

“We wanted to open up the race to everyone this year,” said Jeanne Pastore, race director. “The 6K and 12K races are great opportunities for people who might be less competitive but would like to make a fun day of it and get out and enjoy the scenery.”

Scenery and solitude are two of the Tour de Ski’s biggest draws. The start/finish line is at the intersection of the Pinkerton Toll Road and the Hermosa Park Road at Durango Mountain Resort. After the starting gun, racers access areas like Cascade Divide, Relay Creek and Bolam Pass that are usually off-limits during winter months.

“The uniqueness of the terrain and having a partnership with a downhill ski area are both part of what makes the Tour de Ski,” Monroe said. “There’s really nothing like this anywhere else in the country.”

Pulling off the Tour de Ski would not be possible without a major collaborative effort, Monroe added. Durango Mountain Resort was largely responsible for getting the Tour de Ski going and has donated use of its Lift 4 to transport racers to and from the start/finish line. Former Olympian and Nordic ski coach Mike Elliott and Helen Low, Nordic Center director, lent their expertise in laying out the race and course logistics. Bob Rule, owner of San Juan Ski Co., is once again doing much of the heavy lifting for the Tour de Ski and is already out there grooming and maintaining the courses.

Now that the kinks have been worked out and the Tour de Ski’s trial year is behind it, the race is rapidly evolving into a new Durango tradition. “This race definitely has the potential to grow into a winter complement to the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic,” Brown commented. “It has all the right ingredients to fortify Durango’s interest and athleticism.”

And on Jan. 24, Durango skiers have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of that new, local tradition. •