TRAVERSE CITY — Temperatures fell into the single digits, fresh lake-effect snow covered the trails and skiers rallied to the start lines at the 43rd annual VASA Festival of Races Saturday morning.
Skiers, bike racers and spectators alike converged at Timber Ridge Resort for the first of two days that highlighted freestyle skiing and fat tire bike races.
The annual event hosted a high school and 6K fun run, 12K, 27K, 50K skate-style races, along with short-course junior races for the youngest generation of skiers and the fat tire bike races (14K and 42K) on Freestyle Saturday.
This particular cross-country skiing tradition runs deep in the Traverse City community and plenty of familiar families and racers participated, and won, on the first day of competition.
"Feels great to be back," said Ethan Kennedy, who took second place in the 27K George Kuhn Half Marathon race. "This is my eighth VASA and this was a great race. I grew up doing the course and it is my dad's 25th VASA so it is something we make sure to do every winter."
With wacky winter weather bringing questions to many racers that hail from outside northern Michigan, the cold temps and fresh snow reassured racers VASA would be back in full force.
A large group of skiers from the University of Michigan nordic ski club made the trip to Traverse City and were pleasantly surprised with the course conditions.
"I feel like every VASA I have done has been extremely cold and with new snow, so it has been very slow. It was nice to actually be able to move," said Kaitlyn Patterson, the top female finisher in the 50K. "I didn't really know what to expect because I am from Ann Arbor and we have had like no snow, it is just puddles and ice. It was faster than I thought it would be."
Veterans and rookies alike recognized the amount of time and care that is spent preparing for the Festival of Races.
"It means so much and there are so many people out here supporting and volunteering," said Gabriella Armstrong, a first-time VASA participant and second-place female finisher in the 12K. "You can tell it is a really big deal because there are people from all over. It is really nice to be a part of that now. I am really lucky."
Armstrong is a sophomore at U-M and hails from Lake Placid, New York. She noted that VASA is one of the best races in the nation — from grooming, course set up, volunteers and all the way down to the food spread at the awards tent.
"It is all so professionally done," the 20-year-old said. "This is like the best food spread I have ever seen at a race. I have competed at a lot of different races and this one is just fantastic."
51K Winners: Alex Vanias 2:27:29; Kaitlyn Patterson 2:54:55. 27K Winners: Kevin Tarras 1:25:45; Rebecca Davis 1:36:51. 12K Winners: Lars Hallstrom 35:57; Elizabeth Callison 45:27. 6K Winners: Ted Roe 18:18; Arielle Jean 22:42.
42K Fat Bike winners: David Sunset Scott 1:42:05; Susan Vigland 1:55:25. 14K Fat Bike winners: Emma Schwab 42:01; Bobby Flake 42:02.
Editors note: There will be complete coverage of all races in the VASA Special Section included in the Record-Eagle's Monday, Feb. 11 edition.