Ski Wednesday: Vertical Challenge racing is a go

In this season of finding our new normal on skis and snowboards, something classic, fun and almost soothing will be with us in New England.
The Vertical Challenge racing season is a go. True, they’ll function on a more limited schedule and some of the bells and whistles around the races may be scaled back, but the essence of what the Vertical Challenge is — a fun way to learn to compete and win along with a way to give an extra oomph to your ski day – is intact.
After having to cancel both their popular championship event last spring as well as their mega annual fundraiser at King Pine in New Hampshire, the crew at Vertical Challenge was, they say, determined to find a way to put racing fun into this season.
“We have come up with a plan with as many similarities (to other years) as we can create, and some adjustments to make it all work in a safe and fun way,” Vertical Challenge spokesman Rush Olson said.
That news means races of all abilities and just about all ages (from newbies to the sport to long-timers) can find an event and give the ski days some extra structure and fun.
First, what is the Vertical Challenge?
Originally known as the Mountain Dew Vertical Challenge, the VC has been setting up Giant Slalom racing courses at ski resorts across the region since 1991. The races are short courses with just enough pitch to give a skier or rider a decent speed.
The events are run by a VC team that’s both enthusiastic about the party vibe and dedicated to helping skiers and riders improve. It’s not unusual for racers to set a goal of becoming part of the future VC crew, since mentoring is a big part of the experience.
Race categories are divided between skier and snowboarder as well as by gender, and then broken down into these age groups: ages six and younger, ages 7-9, ages 10-12, ages 13-14, ages 15-17, ages 18-25, ages 26-35, ages 36-45, ages 46-55, ages 56-65, ages 66-70, ages 71-75, and the Mack daddy of all categories, perhaps: ages 76 and older.
Racers can step up to the course and take their run at any time during race days. Courses are set up on green- or blue-level trails, giving enough pitch for a newbie to get their bearings and a long-timer to find their speed.
Racing times are tabulated and the top three finishers in each of those categories are awarded gold, silver and bronze medals.
In non-pandemic years, the races have a festival feel, with base area samples, special raffle prizes, and a big base-area party set up for bragging rights, making friends and bonding with the VC team overall.
Anyone who wins a medal qualifies for the annual finals, held during the spring skiing season.
Here’s a cool bonus: The races have been and still are totally free. Anyone with a lift ticket for the resort race spot can race – and win.
Most years, the VC sets up in an average of 20 regional resorts, giving skiers and riders a chance to find a race close by or travel to do many at different spots. Racers like to rack up runs and wins at many spots.
How this year will work
This year, as is the case with most things, there will be tweaks to the usual set-up. And while some of them may feel a little disappointing at first (there will be no huge base area parties for now, obviously), many of the tweaks to make this work this pandemic season may please many.
The first goal, Olson said, was to find resorts that could set up the races in a way that worked this year. As of now, they have seven races planned (and more could come), with at least one in each of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, meaning no one will be required to do quarantining or testing to take part in at least one race from each of those states.
They’ve also set the times and dates up now so those who may want to take the steps to travel to another state can plan ahead to do so.
“It won’t be able to be quite as much of a party,” said Olson, “But there will be racing, medals and more fun. “
The current schedule goes like this: Sat., Jan. 23: Jiminy Peak, MA; Sun, Feb. 7: Pat’s Peak, NH; Sat., Feb. 20: Lost Valley, ME; Sat., Feb. 27: Nashoba Valley, MA; Sat., March 6: Berkshire East, MA; Sun., March 7: Catamount, MA (a nice set-up for two consecutive days of racing), and the annual Finals set for Sat., April 12 at Jay Peak, VT.
While most years you can show up and race, they ask that this year you register in advance to make managing the races a smooth experience. You’ll also want to purchase your resort lift ticket in advance as well, since most ski areas are limiting ticket sales and you’d not want to arrive ready to race only to be blocked out.
The racing itself, Olson said, “Will be fairly normal,” as far as experience goes.
“It helps that we are outdoors, and that in racing spacing is pretty normal,” he said. There will be some adjustments at the top of the hill that regulars may notice, but overall, he said, the start, race and finish will feel the same. The cheering, competing and learning will all be there and be solidly in place.
There are also some bonuses this year.
First: Because of the limited number of races, anyone who races this season will qualify for the finals.
“We’ve always wanted to do this but it was always a space issue,” Olson said. With the VC using NASTAR to keep and record results, he said, they can see that the northeast comes in second only to Aspen for total racers in normal seasons, much because of the wealth of spots they can travel to race at. This year, with only seven as of now, they’re happy to be able to invited all to the finals.
The finals, in April, will be detailed more as the season (and our fight against the pandemic) progresses, He said.
Next: there will be follow-up fun. While in other years the VC crew takes photos and posts them, this season, they’ll be sharing hashtags and fun contests for races to post on social media on their own, with a chance to be creative, extend the fun and more.
The best thing? It’s not just that their main sponsors including Chevrolet, Pepsi, Xfinity and Shred Dog are still with them in this unique year, Olson said. It’s more that they’ve found a way to still deliver the part of their program that’s perhaps shinier than even the medals: the vibe and learning.
“The essence of the VC, honestly, is giving people that family experience and having kids get out there and feel what it’s like to race. It’s more than just having raced,” he said. “It’s having the courage to try. It’s that sense of achievement when you cross the finish line. It’s the mentoring our crew does.”
“We truly felt, for those reasons, it was important to do a season this year; even a small one,” he said. “It’s for our own sake, sure. But its also this: Man, people need to get out and do something fun and unusual this winter. And here we are.”
You can learn more about the Vertical Challenge at https://ski-vc.com.

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