Ron Judd

Getting back on the right foot with 'On your left!'

Embracing the return of Ski to Sea
May 25, 2022 at 5:40 a.m.

By RON JUDD
Executive Editor

Even a decade later, the phrase remains lodged in my brain, a three-word tribute to all that is, for me and probably lots of other folks, the essence of slow-arriving spring — and disappointing personal athletic performance — in Whatcom County:

“ON YOUR LEFT!”

This traditional get-outta-my-way warning from one cyclist passing another on a trail is not something I heard once or twice while riding, as a then-late-40-something, the mountain biking leg (now known as “Cyclocross Bike,” whatever that is) in Bellingham’s annual rite of skunk cabbage season — the Ski to Sea race.

It was more like 400 times. Seemed like a thousand. Still haunts my dreams in high-school-gym-class-rope-climb fashion.

Ski to Sea, for the uninitiated — and judging by the numbers of people driving north on one-way south State Street these days, this is a bunch of you — is the multi-sport race from the snowy reaches of Mount Baker Ski Area to the toe-licking waves on the shores of Post Point, near Fairhaven, formerly of free-parking fame.

I had been involved in S2S for many years prior —  mostly in the critical, never-fully appreciated role of Team Manager/Driver, tasked with getting our folks and their instruments of torture dropped off along the 93-mile course. (I dutifully trained for this by traveling Guide Meridian for hours at a time in an Isuzu Trooper, wearing a blindfold and blasting Meat Loaf through my fancy Alpine stereo.)

One year it struck me that I should hand over the keys and grasp my handlebars, and this I did. In true S2S “Open Recreation” AKA Local Schlub Division fashion, I devoutly trained for this grueling, 14-mile traverse between Whatcom County transfer stations for a good three or four days, zooming around local trails and frightening countless dogs and small children with my competitive zeal. 

I was, as they say on SportsCenter, giving it 130% to 140%, and just trying to stay within myself, all the while granting all glory to gods of various stripes. 

On race day, near the start of my leg at Hovander Park, my heart sunk upon arrival when I realized there was no dope testing —  my planned exit from the entire debacle. Eventually, it became apparent that my team’s canoeists — experienced racers from Vancouver, where everyone is born grasping a dragon-boat paddle (trigger warning: moms) — were about to arrive and hand off our timing chip. And that after the first five legs, our team shockingly ranked somewhere in the top 25 or so in our division. 

And then came the leg still remembered around the house as the Ron Judd Slow Train to Nowhere Expedition. It started off well enough, for the first 4 or 5 linear feet, at which point the course veered off into a grassy field.

Beneath the grass stubble in that freshly mowed field was a layer of certified quicksand — a hungrily sucking loam worthy of one of those old Tarzan movies (kids, ask your grandparents). The combined weight of self and bike sunk into this muck to the depth of several inches, which felt like a mile and a half. 

It seemed not to bother all the gazelles racing past. But me? I emerged on the other side of Hovander Swampstead extremely scathed, and very, very much worse for the wear. A half-mile into the ordeal, I was already defeated, deflated, dehydrated and done, energy-wise.

Owing much to my long career in journalism, I was too stupid and proud to quit. Most remaining details haze in my brain, except for the indelible impression left by passing cyclists — hundreds and hundreds of them.

“ON YOUR LEFT!”

They were just being nice — in classic local passive/aggressive fashion — by giving a heads-up to a slow-moving obstacle: Moi. On the way to the kayak handoff zone, everyone in the race at one point got the opportunity to shout it out, including — and I am not making this up — one guy chugging along on a flat rear tire. To this day, I shrivel up like a wad of Saran wrap tossed in a campfire every time I hear it.

What seemed like several days later, my battered bike rolled through the exchange zone at Zuanich Point Park carrying the spent goo remains of my body, which plopped over sideways next to the folks packing up the timing gear. By the time our sea kayaker, wearing surgical gloves for protection, yanked our timing chip off my partial remains, our team had dropped top 25 to bottom-unmentionable, squarely in the “Thanks for Participating!” Zone. 

Nobody blamed me. Everyone should have.

But here’s the thing: To this day, I’m glad I did it, because around here, the race really is a rite that makes spectators and participants alike feel like a thread in the local fabric. 

The vast majority of competitors are average folks and for them, the effort is the victory. For others? It’s not necessary for the unfit or unwilling to participate to feel part of it. You can show up as a spectator, or a volunteer, or just sit back wherever you are and acknowledge the event. 

S2S is an event of such size and complexity that it really takes a community to pull off. And ours has done that, with impressive results, for decades. The two-year pandemic race pause has been notable because S2S is one thing we do here regularly — beyond bitching about Hardware Sales being closed on Sundays — that gets to the essence of who we are as a people. 

We can be a cranky bunch who don’t agree on much (ask your neighbor about accessory dwelling units). But most of us do share a love of our nesting spot between the shores of the Salish Sea and stunning alpine peaks. Our topography is unique, it makes us feel blessed, and S2S, since it began in a more-crazed fashion in the 20th century, has always not just reflected that, but celebrated it, in a wonderfully maniacal way. 

For better or worse, it's us.

Sunday’s race return is a grand opportunity to renew that tradition. If you’re a competitor, good luck and happy trails. If not? Get out and cheer on the racers —  particularly the cyclocross bikers who look to be in need of CPR. Help with parking or cleanup. 

Just take in a piece of local tradition, be glad, and pass that buzz forward to someone else. Plenty of worthy karma recipients will be found. A good starting point: On your left.


Ron Judd's column appears Wednesdays. Email: ronjudd@cascadiadaily.com.

Have a news tip? Email newstips@cascadiadaily.com or Call/Text 360-922-3092

Sign up

for our email newsletters

Weekly Top Stories

Sign up to get our top stories delivered to your inbox every Sunday

Daily Updates & Breaking News Alerts

Sign up to get our daily updates and breaking news alerts delivered to your inbox daily

Latest Stories


BREAKING NEWS
Home-built kit plane crashes into car, building at Anacortes Airport
Pilot left with injuries to the face, police said

BASEBALL
Bells split non-league stretch at home
Second half of season now on deck

COMMUNITY
Fireworks fly over Bellingham
Fourth of July festivities held at waterfront

BASEBALL
Bells drop close non-league match-up against Redmond Dudes
Back-and-forth loss caps off four non-league games for the West Coast League North Division first-half champions

TRANSPORTATION
Amtrak Cascades to reopen in September
The regional line will serve all 18 stops, including Bellingham and Vancouver, BC