Let’s do some math: Divide the 94-mile, seven-leg Ski to Sea race course that spans snow, ground and water by three. Add fatigue and an inability to do normal tasks like putting on pants. Multiply one day of excruciating muscle cramping by, say, five. Subtract a few hours for time lost to heaving tired limbs up and down stairs during the last days of May.
While that formula won’t necessarily apply equally to the three guys on the Dawson Construction Ski to Sea team, it sums up what they can expect on May 28 and the days following the grueling race.
Three-person teams were introduced to the Bellingham event in 2018. Heath Sowers, 29, and Cory Brunhaver, 28, competed on a team of three for ANMLY Cafe that year. The next year, they formed the Dawson Construction team, adding Walker Capra-Smith, 28. (Dawson sponsors the team, and both Brunhaver and Capra-Smith work for the local construction company, and Sowers is a barber at downtown Honey Salon.)
Last year, the team boasted 65th place overall — even after a tipped canoe set them back a few minutes. This year, they’re eyeing top 50.
“It’d be legendary,” Sowers said.
Splitting seven legs among three people is a challenge for the men — logistically. Having grown up in Ferndale, the son of a frequent Ski to Sea canoe competitor, Sowers was familiar with the timing of the race.
“There’s no way to alternate each leg,” Sowers said. “You couldn’t hand off because the race moves faster than the cars and flow around it.”
So, they opt to do legs back-to-back, leading to some harrowing tests of human endurance.
“You just have to hold on for dear life for two, four hours. I go as hard as I can so I can’t walk at the end,” Brunhaver joked. “Like, I want to be carried away in a stretcher.”
Some of those moments, the team said, of reaching the brink and enduring regardless, become the best memories.
Last year, Brunhaver tackled the first two snow legs, then pounded asphalt to pass off the timing chip to Capra-Smith, who blasted through the road bike leg and hopped straight into a canoe with Sowers.
Sowers recalled yelling insults — the form of motivation Capra-Smith prefers — from the front of the boat as his fatigued teammate struggled to transition from rapid pedaling to fast rowing.
“He sent it so hard on the bike that he came in a little out of his head, a little off his rocker,” Sowers said of Capra-Smith.
That’s when the your-mom-said-you’ll-never-be-good-enoughs came in.
Sowers then took the cyclocross leg and finished out the race with the kayak leg — the “longest, loneliest stretch ever,” especially with the distant sounds of people cheering from Marine Park’s finish line. After finishing Ski to Sea, the teammates shared a pizza, and Sowers even made it to karaoke at Cap Hansen’s Lounge.
But by the next day, Brunhaver could only tackle stairs backward; Sowers’ hip flexors demanded he either stand up completely straight or lie completely flat. Capra-Smith broke the sorry Monday-after trend by flying to Costa Rica and going for a 20-mile mountain bike ride.
Although recovery is brutal (for most), the feeling of pushing themselves to the limit, the energy throughout the race and the camaraderie within their team keep them coming back.
“The three of us work really well in particular together because everybody wants to do really well in their part,” Sowers said.
The friends spend most of their free time throughout the year going to the gym, summiting mountains, biking and running, so they’re never out of shape come May.
If it weren’t against race rules, the trio said they would try to each do all seven legs. But since it is, have they ever considered putting together a full team to rival some of the top teams?
“We’ve kind of thought about doing that, but there’s kind of something about not doing it that way that’s more fun for us,” Sowers said. “If you try to get a sponsorship, to a certain extent, it’s no longer about the enjoyment of doing it.”
Still, they have enough friends who could keep up with the pros for them to have a shot at top 15, or even top 10.
“I think some year it would be fun,” said Brunhaver, who mostly likes the idea of sticking it to the professional, sponsored racers with a secret-weapon team of highly talented, but “unofficial” athletes.
“All of us just want to do it anyways,” he added. “Might as well be good at it.”
A previous version of this story misstated that Dawson Construction doesn’t sponsor the team. The company does pay their entry fee. The story was updated to reflect this change at 2:42 p.m. May 26, 2023. Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.