When planning my racing season earlier this year, I had an open space to fill between US Nationals and the Eastern Supertours in late January. Outside of local Midwestern races, a faraway race in Valdez, Alaska caught my eye. In its inaugural year in 2015, Valdez’s Qaniq Challenge brought in skiers from across Alaska, all vying for a $10,000 prize purse ($3000 for first, $1500 for second and $500 for third place respectively). Many of my APU teammates claimed these enormous sums (at least quite large for domestic professional ski racing), and I saw a chance to make some cash to help fund my season. Coupled with my luck to have housing in Alaska, I weighed out the cost of a one-way ticket to Anchorage and bought in.
I competed in the American Birkebeiner in 2012 while racing collegiality for Northern Michigan University. To this day the Birkie remains one of my most memorable ski races—a feeling I know many skiers share. As the contagious Birkie fever begins to spread after the holiday season, many skiers start their calculated training regimens. Skiers focus on goals ranging from maintaining an elite wave start, to surviving the Hayward Lake crossing with a couple beer feeds in the belly. Come mid-February, the entire American ski community descends on the town of Hayward for an epic weekend of ski racing, reunions with faraway friends and celebration. The Qaniq Challenge in Valdez reminded me of my Birkebeiner experience. While many of the traditions of the Wisconsin festival have not yet been implemented in Valdez, that same atmosphere of fun, challenge and community surround the race weekend.
Famous for world-renowned heli-skiing, Thompson Pass marks the end of the five-hour drive from Anchorage to Valdez. The pass crossing welcomes racers to the immense beauty of the Valdez harbor and surrounding peaks. While daylight is short during Alaskan winters, the low light of long sunrises and sunsets mark each day with streaks of pink and purple against a mountainous blue-white backdrop. The Qaniq is a two-day race series, with an emphasis on “challenge” and surprise as snow conditions and avalanche danger dictate the courses each year. This year the first day consisted of a 19-kilometer classic interval start, with a gender mixed starting order. The course winded around challenging uphills and a spiraling downhill, before finishing along the coast of the Valdez Harbor—featuring views to distract even the most focused racer. I finished first, which set me up well for the second day: a 15-kilometer skate mass start. Finishing times from both days combine to determine a racer’s overall placing, and in turn, the tantalizing prize money. The second day I skied in a pack with two-time Olympian Holly Brooks, fresh off her first Tour de China, and two male citizen racers. Flat as a pancake, the skate course did not lend itself well to breakaway moves or even a simple pass. After a drag race of leading and drafting, I was outsprinted by all members of my group in the end. Luckily for me, my lead from the first day allowed me to confidently claim the overall and head back to Anchorage with some bill-paying cash money!
The impetus for the Qaniq came from current race organizer, Darryl Verfaillie, director of Valdez Recreation and Cultural Services. Upon meeting visiting APU Nordic Ski Center skiers two summers ago, he worked to design a race series that brought in elite level skiers and citizen racers, while showcasing Valdez’s beauty and unique ski community. Though the Qaniq Challenge still continues to evolve and grow, the enthusiasm and energy of the organizers and participants creates a memorable experience for all. After the racing finished, our APU group led a community ski clinic, attracting skiers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. The informality of the race series, and Darryl’s generous facilitation of our needs, let us become a part of the Valdez ski community for the weekend. Into the future I can see the Qaniq growing into one of the great American ski marathons, attracting racers from all over the country; in fact, as a native Midwesterner, I would highly encourage any racers with a desire to travel, witness the beautiful mountain and sea landscape and challenge themselves in a supportive race, to head to Valdez. Coupled with a great awards ceremony and post race pizza dinner, the Qaniq Challenge offers a unique way to visit beautiful Alaska during the winter months—and even head home with some extra cash.
-Posted by Rosie Frankowski on Jan 30th 2016