Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on August 12, 2014

Aspen Skiing Co.’s Power of Four summer race series has grown since the first event was held four years ago, so much so that it’s being considered for the international stage.

The Power of Four summer race series consists of a mountain bike race, which covers 36 miles of terrain gaining 9,000 vertical feet, and a 50-kilometer trail running race, covering more than 31 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of vertical gain. Both races cross each of SkiCo’s four ski mountains, including Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk Mountains. The bike race is in its fourth year and the trail race is in its second. The bike race was held Aug. 2 and the foot race was on Aug. 3.

This year, SkiCo saw about a 25 percent increase in the number of participants competing in both races, according to Deric Gunshor, senior event marketing manager for SkiCo.

“We’re seeing about 25 percent growth, year after year,” Gunshor said.

About 120 cyclists competed in the bike race, which is up from last year when about 100 racers competed. The trail race had 100 participants, which was up from last year when about 75 people registered to compete.

With participation on the rise, SkiCo is trying to build the brand and draw more elite athletes to compete.

“Both races have tremendous potential to be iconic races in the area,” Gunshor said.

SkiCo is currently trying to get the Power of Four Trail 50K included in the Skyrunning World Series, which is a race governed by the International Skyrunning Federation. “Skyrunning” is a term for the extreme sport of running above 6,600 feet where the incline exceeds 30 percent.

The Skyrunner World Series is an annual international championship series that includes between six and eight races in at least five different countries. Racers receive points for their placement, and points are doubled in the final race. At the end of the season, points are totaled and the racer with the most is declared champion.

The Power of Four Trail 50K is an ideal candidate for the series because of the steep terrain covered throughout the course, Gunshor said.

“I think it would be a good fit for our race,” he said.

There is no formal bid process to host the race, but Gunshor has been having conversations with the director of the event. A decision will be made after this year’s Skyrunning World Series ends, most likely in the winter, Gunshor said.

“There are not a lot of other events that qualify [to host the race],” he added.

Local athletes who competed earlier this month were generally pleased with the courses and how the races have grown over the past few years.

“It’s been fun watching the size of the field grow and the level of competition grow,” said Max Taam, a local athlete who has competed in all but one of the Power of Four races since the series began.

Jessie Young, who placed third in the women’s division of the bike race and has competed for the past four years, said the course showcases the mountain bike trails that SkiCo has invested in over the years.

“It really shows the variety of what we have to ride in the upper valley,” she said, adding that she wishes more women would compete.

Young noted that the cash prizes that are offered probably draw more people to the race. This year, both races awarded first place $750, second place $350 and third place $150. It was the third year a cash purse was awarded, according to Gunshor.

Kathy Fry, who competed in the trail race and has run other ultra races, noted that the Power of Four Trail 50K course was more challenging and steeper than other ultra races.

“I think it’s an extremely competitive race,” Fry said. “And I think it’s great to have it in Aspen.”

Fry added that she would like to see more locals compete in the relay races.

Michael Barlow, who placed fifth in the trail race, said SkiCo does a good job utilizing the resources in the area, and noted one of the challenges organizers have is attracting racers from outside the valley to compete. Getting the trail race included in the Skyrunning World Series would likely do that, Barlow said

“That would increase its visibility in a big way,” he said.

The biggest challenge with hosting both races is maintaining the trails and clearly marking the courses, Gunshor said. That’s something that organizers are trying to improve each year, he said. Some competitors aren’t from the valley and don’t know the course, and the last thing competitors want to do is run extra miles because the trail isn’t marked well, he said.

“Really we’re just trying to be as diligent as possible to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Gunshor said.

The company also wants to build the local community’s involvement in the race, and refine elements of it like offering full water bottles to competitors at the aid stations, he said.

Another goal is to have more people participate, Gunshor said. That’s why SkiCo offers team relay races for people who want to participate, but who don’t want to complete the full courses.

“More than anything we want to offer something for everyone,” Gunshor said.

A 74-year-old woman from Crested Butte finished the trail race on Sunday, Aug. 3.

“The Snowmass rangers did an amazing job of supporting her and encouraging her to finish,” Gunshor said.

She completed the race in 10.5 hours, he said.

Over that weekend a few participants dropped out of the race because they couldn’t complete the courses, including a father-and-son team from Denver competing in the bike race.

“They were humbled by the experience up here,” Gunshor said. “But you know, that’s all part of it. Pushing people to their limits and for them they pushed themselves to the limits.”

Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on January 10, 2014

For all of you supposed expert skiers out there, I have a challenge: Ski Highland Bowl in Dynafit bindings.

That’s what I did on a recent bluebird day when I decided on a whim to extend my morning skin to the Merry-Go-Round on Aspen Highlands. The sky was clear, the weather warm and I was on a Black Diamond ski setup with Dynafit TLT Radical ST bindings. There’s only one way to go and that’s up, I thought. So I made my way to Loge Lift and started hiking up the bowl.

At the summit, a local wearing a purple Aspen Skiing Co. jacket spotted my bindings.

“Aren’t you scared to ski down on those things?” he asked.

“Heh ya,” I said, only then realizing that I was about to drop in on a 42-degree vertical pitch with less than two pounds of metal locking me onto my skis. “I’m just going to take it slow.”

Dynafit’s Radical ST bindings have no frame — meaning the heel and toe pieces are separate — and the heel rotates offering three climbing modes. What could be considered the best (and in my particular situation, the most worrisome) feature of the bindings are the two seemingly weightless stainless steel pins, dubbed the “power towers,” that pinch the toe of your boots.

The towers are what make the binding light and easy to mount, but despite the name it doesn’t necessarily sing stability. Intellectually I know that if technology can put men on the moon, there’s probably a way to lock a 140-pound person to skis with two pins the size of eraserheads. But as I stepped into the setup, my instincts kicked in and I started to think it might be a better idea to walk down the mountain.

Dynafit bindings are made to ensure a quick release on the downhill, almost to a fault. That feature is particularly troublesome, because the weightlessness of the setup makes it easier to jump turn and ski faster than you might on an Alpine setup. That was, at least, my experience.

Questions about the durability of my gear quickly disappeared as I got into a groove skiing down G8. But the thrill of a good powder run came to an abrupt halt at the bottom of South Fork when my left boot released from the binding for no identifiable reason. There was no powder, no random debris that caused the release. Just a small lip on the runout. With a bruised shin and ego, I remounted my skis and, like a Powder Panda on Buttermilk, snowplowed to the catwalk.

The whole experience gave me a newfound respect for the ski mountaineering pros who dominate the Battle of the Bowls each year. It’s one thing to race up a mountain, but it takes a whole other form of insanity to want to ski down on gear that weighs less than a gallon of milk.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the binding. Its weightlessness and easy accessibility makes skinning up not feel like work, but unless you’re as skilled as one of the Gaston brothers or maybe Max Taam, I would stay out of the steep and deep on the Radicals.

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