Tour of Anchorage History
The Tour was started in 1988, which was the winter after the (Tony Knowles) Coastal Trail was completed. In the couple of years prior to that they held a 50 km race out at Kincaid Park, which consisted of a number of loops over a shorter course—one year is was 5 times around a 10 km course, and the other races were something similar. The participation in those earlier Loppets (Skandihoovian for “long race”) was very low—-10 to 15 skiers. With the completion of the coastal trail, and long race (instead of a Gerbil Loop) became possible, and it was a true “Tour of Anchorage”, though the name wasn’t adopted until the next year.
Those first few years there was no dedicated ski trail between the ski trails on the Hillside and the trails at the University, so those first few years the Tour used the dog sled racing trails to make that link. Also, crossing Tudor Road was problematic, because there was no pedestrian bridge (which was built in the early 90’s). During that time police stopped traffic and skiers crossed Tudor Road on carpet that was spread across the road.
In the first year there were about 175 skiers, skiing either 25 km or the 50 km skate race. The shorter race started from Russian Jack and finished at Kincaid. The 50 km race starts at Service High School, and after doing the Spencer Loop, it makes its way through Far North Bicentennial Park to the University Trails to Russian Jack, and then follows the shorter race course to finish at Kincaid.
Eventually, in the early part of the 90’s a dedicated ski trail was put through the BLM lands and Far North Bicentennial Park, which took several years to build. Also, during that time four bridges were built by the Nordic Ski Club over creeks in that section of the trail. Now those trails are set during the whole ski season, though in the early years the trails were only set for a few weeks preceding “the Tour.”
Initially the Tour was two races, 25 km and 50 km, both freestyle (allowing any technique). In 1994 the 40 km race, which starts at Service, but traverses directly to the University trails and the bike trail, before heading out to Kincaid, was started. The 40 km race is similar to the 50 km race, but avoids the Spencer Loop.
In 1998 the 25 km classical race was added—this race started at Russian Jack, just before the 25 km skate (freestyle) race.
In 2002 the Tour had just over 2000 skiers, which is the participation record. In 2003 Anchorage no snow, which is the only time the race has been canceled. The Tour of Anchorage historically starts the day after the start of the Iditarod (which starts on the first Saturday in March). A few years ago the Anchorage School District moved their spring break so that the start of spring break coincided with the Tour. This conflict has reduced participation in the Tour somewhat. The past few years there have been between 1700 and 1800 skiers.
While most of the people who ski the Tour are from Anchorage, it is really a statewide event. About 200 skiers come down from Fairbanks, with almost an equal number coming from the Kenai Peninsula, and the Mat-Su region. The Tour also gets a number of skiers from “the Bush Alaska” and a few from Juneau and Southeast. We also get between one and two hundred skiers from the lower 48, with usually 10 or 15 skiers from foreign countries. The Tour of Anchorage is usually the 2nd largest xc ski race in the United State, behind the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin (which is sort of the Boston Marathon for skiers in the US—they had almost 8000 entries at the “Birke” last year). The size of ski races vary depending on snow conditions—if there were a good snow year in Anchorage there is more time to train for long ski race, and so participation goes up. Sometimes the Tour has been the 2nd largest race in the US, though sometimes 3rd or 4th when there has been a marginal snow years.
In the early years the award ceremony was a large pot luck at at Kincaid. Later, as the race grew, a potluck became cumbersome, and there was a spaghetti feed at Service High School—-the awards ceremony occurring Sunday night after the ski race. Starting in 2012 the award ceremony has been held at the Bear Tooth Theater on Monday evening the day after the race. Also, there will be an unofficial “podium award ceremony” at Kincaid immediately after the winners have come in.
In 2011 the start of the 25 km skate and classical race start were moved to Alaska Pacific University. The parking at Russian Jack was very limited which was alleviated by the move. Also the bottleneck crossing of Northern Lights near East High School was also eliminated. Another change was a separate start for people who want to do the 40 and 50 km races on classical skis, though their results are reported within the 40 and 50 km freestyle events.
The Tour of Anchorage culminates the xc skiing season in Anchorage. It is the one race in Anchorage that every skier points toward and trains for. There are numerous other races in Anchorage, but usually participation is a few hundred. The Ski for Women is about 3km, and has tremendous participation; however for most skiers it is a “happening” or celebration, as opposed to a “race”. While there are only a few people capable of winning the Tour, there are a thousand “races within the race” for the Tour. There are lots of friends racing friends, or people trying to beat their time last year. There are 5 year age group awards for all four races for the Tour. Additionally, there are cash awards for the top three places in both the Men’s and Women’s division in the 50 km race. To a certain extent the Tour of Anchorage is a celebration of the end of the skiing season and marks the beginning of the end of winter. It is also sort of weird, in that it seems like a lot of skiers put away their skis after the tour. The daylight starts to get much longer after the tour and people start thinking about summer and the participation on the ski trails really starts to fall off.
The mechanics of the race make the Tour a bit different when compared with some of the other races. Because most of the ski trails in Anchorage were not built to accommodate a huge race, they are relatively narrow. So all of the races start in waves of 50 skiers each, at two minute intervals, so the starts take a while to get all the skiers on the trail. The 25km classical race starts at 9:30 with the 25, 40 and 50 freestyle waves starting at 10:00. The first “elite” waves of the 40 and 50 km races start at 8:30 am, so that the fast skiers are past the 25 km skiers when they hit the bike trail. By comparison, the waves in the Birkebeiner have between 800 and a thousand skiers.
The record time for the 50 km race is 2:04. Ski times are greatly influenced by the snow conditions. Cold and new snow is relatively slow, and warmer and metamorphosed (snow that has partially melted and refrozen) is typically faster. The fastest times for the 25 freestyle is about 1:05, with the 25 classical about 1:20 and the 40 freestyle is about 1:41.