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Local skier tops backcountry races

Melanie Bernier first in Spearhead, Windup races

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Despite sub zero temperatures and howling winds a large field of backcountry enthusiasts took part in The North Face race events at the World Backcountry Freeride Jam last week to close out the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

On Saturday, April 19, there were two Randonnee races on Whistler Mountain — the inbounds 10 km Whistler Dash for beginner and intermediate racers and a 26 km out of bounds Spearhead Passage race.

In the shorter dash race, Carolyn Stwertka of the U.S. placed first with a time of two hours, six minutes and 10 seconds, followed by Canadian Emilie Stenberg in 2:08:31 and Danish racer Birgitta Nieport in 2:09:50.

In the men’s race, Canada’s Stephen Ziff was first in 1:34:21. Dave Crew was a distant second in 1:49:44, while Andre Munck was third in 1:54:52.

In the Spearhead race, Whistler’s Melanie Bernier — a member of the national team this year — was first by almost 27 minutes. She finished the grueling course in 4:26:40.

In second place was Julie Matteau in 4:53:16, followedby Czech racer Erika Janackova in 4:58:06.

Bernier had hoped to finish under four hours this year, but considering the conditions and the organizers’ decision to make the course longer, she was happy with her effort.

“It went well,” she said. “It was definitely cold, and everyone’s water froze right from the start so it was hard to endure four hours of racing without much to drink. Everyone was in the same situation, so at least it was the same problem all around.

“Still it was a good day, it was sunny, it was fun, there were lots of people, and I’m really happy that things went well with my gear.”

Competitors even found a good amount powder in the back bowls. Unfortunately everyone was using their race skis and couldn’t enjoy the conditions to the fullest.

“I think we were all surprised (the slope) wasn’t more wind-affected, and it was hard to ski with racing skis because everybody sank and it was hard on the legs. I don’t think anybody expected that,” she said.

The men’s Spearhead race came down to a final and controversial sprint to the finish. Andy Traslin crossed the line first, but was relegated to second place after a penalty was applied for an infraction on the course. That put Aaron Chance in first place in 3:33:21, just 19 seconds ahead of Traslin. Reiner Thon was third out of 33 competitors in 3:36:30.

The top men averaged about 8 km an hour through the high alpine.

Despite the challenging conditions on Saturday, a hardy core of racers returned on Sunday for The North Face Whistler Wind Up — a race from the base of Whistler Mountain to the Roundhouse Lodge. Athletes faced a daunting 1,200 vertical metres of climbing with no flat sections to catch their breath.

Melanie Bernier showed she still had some gas in the tank from the previous day to win the women’s competition in 1:30:34, followed by Lina Augaitis in 1:32:43.

Bernier said it was a tough event to get up for, with cramping in her legs from the previous day, and she couldn’t push it too much.

“It’s the same route I do when I train, and it usually takes me about 1:20,” she said. “From the start I knew I couldn’t push it, but would just try to make my way up there.”

Bernier recently represented Canada at the world ski mountaineering championships in the Swiss and French Alps, where Canada placed 19 th out of 27 countries. Bernier’s best event was the informal long distance race where she placed 23 rd .

Bernier plans to keep racing, with the help of her sponsors at G3 and Patagonia, and has her sights set on several events next year, including the 24 Hours of Sunlight ski touring race in Colorado. The following year she hopes to return to the world championships in Spain.

In the meantime she’s hoping that more women will get involved in the sport.

“It’s hard because there aren’t that many of us and we all train separately,” she said. “(Julie) Matteau and I sometimes ski together, but she’s in Vancouver and we mostly do our own thing, so it’s hard to compare yourself when you don’t have peers to train with. It’s good to see her getting closer, and her times are getting better so I have to keeping pushing, too. Mostly I have to compare myself with the men, which is still kind of fun.”

Reiner Thon won the men’s Whistler Wind Up event in 1:08:57 with a gap of almost six minutes. Matt Hompson was second in 1:14:31, followed by Javier Garcia in 1:16:30.

Complete results are online at www.wbfj.ca.

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