Langlauf, Spokane’s 40-year-old cross country ski race, is the latest casualty of COVID-19.
As COVID-19 rates roar regionally, organizers decided to cancel the February race.
“It was a really hard decision to make,” co-founder Tim Ray said. “We hope to be back better than ever next year.”
Organizers considered a staggered start, which may have allowed them to space out people more, but that would have taken more time and required more volunteer hours. Plus, the traditional gathering after the race, at which everyone eats soup, sips hot drinks and accepts awards and raffles – all while crammed into a steamy, sweaty lodge – would have been a superspreader event in the making.
Instead, throughout February, the 10-kilometer course will be marked, allowing would-be Langlaufers a chance to complete the race.
Ray asked that anyone who does so donate to the Spokane Nordic Association (see sidebar).
Conceived as Bloomsday on snow, the classic skiing race started in 1980 and was the brainchild of two elite athletes looking for close-to-home competition, while also introducing others to the sport.
Since then, it’s been canceled a handful of times due to low snowfall. This year, of course, is different.
Although Langlauf has fallen to the pandemic, the virus may have provided an unintended boost to the sport.
As the virus has shuttered gyms and sent people outside looking for some relief, sports like cross country skiing have seen a spike in users.
“Manufacturers are sold out of everything,” said Robin DeRuwe, the owner of Fitness Fanatics. “This is a year unlike any other.”
She placed all of her orders in February, just before COVID-19 hit the United States. Reordering now would be near impossible, she said.
As for folks looking to get into the sport, now’s the time to buy.
“If you don’t get it now, you probably aren’t going to get it,” she said.
The increased interest makes sense. Cross country skiing is the “perfect social distancing thing” she said. Maintaining 6 feet of separation is a near requisite and it’s outside.
During a normal year, a surge of interest would be a boon for an event like Langlauf. Over the decades, participation has ebbed. In 2019, 220 people finished, 23 more than in 2020. During the race’s heyday, close to 400 people would cross the finish line.
It’s the same story across the United States, with cross country ski sales peaking in the 1980s at 800,000 pairs sold annually, according to XCresorts.com, an online industry magazine. Since then, sales have dropped to fewer than 200,000 pairs sold a year.
“And now as ridiculous as it sounds, the pandemic offers another anticipated bull market for XC skiing,” co-founder Roger Lohr wrote in a September article.
Exactly how bullish that market turns out to be isn’t clear. Whether it leads to an increase in skiers after the pandemic is a big what-if, DeRuwe said. She also worries that the lack of inventory may mean some skiers will head out with subpar gear.
“Yes, I like to make money,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m passionate about my sport. We want people to have the right equipment and the right stuff.”
She’s seeing the increased demand. On Wednesday, several customers came after being unable to find what they needed at REI.
As for the cancellation of Langlauf, that will likely impact DuRuwe’s sales.
“Langlauf is a race, but it’s also a fun event,” she said. “So people will gear up to get better performance equipment to beat their neighbor or friends.”
That’s not to mention equipment rental. At the end of the day, she said, “If we have snow in town, it doesn’t matter if it’s a pandemic or not, all of a sudden we rent equipment.”
That truism is what Spokane Parks and Recreation, Washington State Parks and others are banking on.
“Our programs will continue to partner with the Spokane Nordic Ski Association,” said Ryan Griffith, the city’s assistant recreation director.
That includes grooming of the city’s three cross country skiing areas, Dwight Merkel Sports Complex, Riverside State Park and the Indian Canyon Golf course.
There will be some concessions to COVID-19, of course. In particular, the city won’t transport people to Mount Spokane for cross country ski lessons, instead asking participants to meet them there.
And only the bathrooms in Mount Spokane’s Selkirk Lodge will be open, with the rest of the building walled off.
“It will be a challenge,” Ray said. “People will have to be old school and change in their cars.”
Fitness Fanatics will still have a trailer at the lodge, but DuRuwe urges everyone to rent gear ahead of time online to minimize in-person contact.
“I think just as we’ve seen on the trails and bikes over the summer, I think it will be a hot winter,” Griffith said.