Born-and-raised Bellingham resident John Burley had no idea what a large role Ski to Sea would play in his life when he first assembled a team in 1985.
After competing and falling in love with the annual seven-leg relay race, Burley wanted to give back. Over the last 30-plus years, he’s done just that, serving as the event’s longest tenured volunteer and chair of the cyclocross leg.
Now in retirement, Burley, 67, has decided to step down from his position to focus on what matters most to him — family. Although, Burley always found a way to connect his loved ones to his role in Whatcom County’s largest annual event.
Burley’s children and grandchildren, many of whom moved in next-door to him, have volunteered for Ski to Sea. Burley’s son has announced during the race, his daughter and granddaughter have helped direct traffic and he’s even stationed his former police chief father at random points along the cyclocross track to discourage racers from taking shortcuts.
Burley said having his family involved in his volunteer work is what kept him going for so many years despite long hours, lots of meetings leading up to the event and supervising about 100 racers at a time as cyclocross chair.
“If they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it,” Burley said of his loved ones.
Jonathan Hanson, another significant Ski to Sea contributor, credited Burley’s success in handling the chaos of the event to his mild temperament.
“Ski to Sea can be kind of crazy unorganized sometimes because there’s so many volunteers … It’s almost like he’s the dad of the operation,” Hanson said.
Hanson raced in the cyclocross leg of Ski to Sea once and enjoyed it so much he decided to volunteer the next year. Through five years of working closely together, Burley and Hanson developed a bond and often go mountain biking together. Their friendship developed naturally — a product of just being around Burley, Hanson said.
Hanson, a pastor at ALife Church in Bellingham, believes the church should be a positive force in the community through action, not just words, so he encourages his congregation to volunteer for the event. During past races, which always occur on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Hanson has canceled church and gathered as many as 80 parishioners to pitch in.
Burley said it has been an honor to watch Ski to Sea grow from 150 teams when he first started, to what it is today: more than 400 teams, 800 volunteers and thousands of competitors and spectators. Though the legs, course and size of the 93-mile race have changed since Burley began, the atmosphere has stayed the same.
“I just love the competitiveness of it,” Burley said. “Being around everybody’s great. All the teams and stuff, it’s just a fun, fun day. Everybody appreciates it.”
Ski to Sea Race Director Anna Rankin had never competed in the race before and relied on Burley’s vast knowledge of the race when she first stepped into her role in 2016. Burley, who Rankin describes as a “ray of sunshine,” was so much more than a leg chair. She said Burley would often help with other facets of the race when he didn’t have to.
Through newsletters, word of mouth, online postings and letters, Rankin is trying to fill his spot.
“Even when we find someone [to fill his position], they’ll never be able to take the place he has in our hearts. He’s really tied to the community and always willing to help out,” Rankin said.
Around 15 years ago, Burley stepped down as chair to let someone else try it out. Burley said he answered the new chair’s questions as often as he could, even taking a couple of phone calls on the day of the race while Burley was on vacation. After just one year with a new cyclocross chair, Burley was asked to return. This time, though, Burley said he is stepping down for good — but he admits he would be willing to assist in a less demanding role if the committee needed help on occasion.
“It’s a great community event,” Burley said. “I mean how many teams? Four-hundred-twenty or 470 teams, times eight? It’s a lot of people, plus all the support and the people that come to watch. It’s huge and you’re part of it. It’s the biggest event in Bellingham, and I just love serving the community. That’s why I do it, to serve the community.”
Bellingham is a community Burley has known his whole life. Today, Burley lives with his wife, Debbie, and their two dogs, Canyon and Timber, in a house close to where he grew up. Surrounded by his family, Burley has enjoyed retirement since stepping down from his sales position at Walton Beverage in April 2023.
Hanson describes Burley as “the embodiment of the American dream.”
“His life is put together like no one I’ve ever seen. Where he lives, he’s been in that house forever. He’s smart with his money, he’s smart with his time. People know him everywhere you go,” Hanson said.
Burley hopes he’ll be able to spend his newfound time with his grandkids, one of whom plays travel baseball. Burley plans to follow his grandson around and cheer him on whenever he steps up to bat.
Debbie Burley is excited for her and her husband’s next chapter but said she will miss the Bellingham race that has become something of a family tradition. She helps every year at the race and even had a quilt made with his extra Ski to Sea racing shirts.
The pair met in high school through mutual friends and have been married for 45 years. Debbie noted that everyone loves her husband, especially his children and grandchildren who come over for dinner often.
“Family is super important to us,” Debbie Burley said. “Family is everything to us and that’s why he’s stopping — to be with our kids.”
A previous version of this story misstated when John Burley stepped down as cyclocross chair, and misstated who made the quilt of old Ski to Sea T-shirts. Burley stepped down as chair around 15 years ago, and Burley’s wife, Debbie, had the quilt made for him. The story was updated to reflect these changes at 9:43 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6. Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.