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Nordic skiers race in the tracks of John Day

Nordic skiers have descended on Diamond Lake over Presidents Day weekend for 27 years now to compete in the John Day Citizen's Cross-Country Ski Race.

The event, organized by the Southern Oregon Nordic Club, draws both freestyle/skate skiers and classic skiing devotees.

"The conditions were outstanding this year, with a half-inch of new snow on top of ice," says Reider Peterson, the race director for last Sunday's race. "It's ideal, especially for freestyle or skating."

Sixty-five competitors lined up on the groomed trail for the 20-, 10- and 5-kilometer races. Although previous years have produced larger turnouts, this year saw a big increase in skate skiers in the 18-and-younger category.

"Now in high school programs they normally learn (first to) classic, then skate," says Peterson. "Once they learn how to skate, they'd rather do that than classic ski."

For nine Special Olympians, the race was payback for weekly cross-country practices during January, February and March on a variety of groomed trails in Oregon and Northern California. Among them were two Medford skiers, Chelsea Webb and Travis Gould, both of whom completed their fourth John Day race.

"What I like about this race is the adrenaline rush just being out here skiing," says the 23-year-old Webb.

Strength training in a gym with her father helped Webb prepare for a recent international Special Olympics cross-country race in South Korea.

"It was an amazing experience," Webb adds.

The John Day race was founded to honor former Medford resident John Day, a co-founder of the Oregon Nordic Club and a national caliber Nordic skier. Day, who died in 1986, was a multifaceted outdoor adventurer, recalls Dan Bulkley, Day's friend and Oregon Nordic Club co-founder.

"He started out as a runner. I met him running 10Ks, then he went up to Alaska on a climbing expedition," Bulkley recalls. "He broke a leg and they had to airlift him off the mountain, and that sort of ended his running. That's when he took up cross-country skiing."

According to the 95-year-old Bulkley, who served as a race official Sunday, Day was a pioneer endurance athlete.

"He once tried to see how far he could bicycle in 24 hours. He started in Hood River and ended up near Roseburg," says Bulkley. "Another time he tried to see how many local peaks he could climb in a day."

Although miles of groomed trails are available to local cross-country skiers today, John Day had to be creative to practice his favorite sport.

"He had his own snowmobile with a tracker on it, and he'd hire a guy to go out with him and he'd send the guy out ahead of time, laying a track," says Bulkley. "So when John got there, it would be ready to ski and he wouldn't have to breathe the fumes."

The 2013 races were dominated by Bend skiers. In the 20K freestyle race, the women's and men's winners were Bend residents Julie Downing in 58:59 and Santiago Ocariz in 44:05.

Ocariz skis for Team XC Oregon. Downing is the team's physiologist. This was her third victory at this race.

Runner-up in the men's race was Eric Martin, the 20K winner for the past four years and the head cross-country ski coach for Bend's Mountain View High School. Martin's daughter, Micaela, and son, Alex, won the 10K freestyle race.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. He discovered a few new muscles during the John Day race last weekend. You can reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

Skiers cross the finish line Sunday at the 27th annual John Day Citizen's Cross-Country Ski Race at Diamond Lake. - Photo courtesy of Karen Scott