The Great Snow–Earth–Water Race

By Jeff Slack, Whistler Museum.

For many mountain folk, our favourite season isn’t actually a season at all. Thanks to the vertical landscape, what most of the world would describe as late spring actually sees summer, spring, and even winter stacked on top of each other all at once. Sure it’s a bit of a cliché, but skiing powder in the morning, followed by leisurely lakeside beers, a round of golf, or other summer activities that afternoon is about as sweet as it gets.

Excitement is growing for Whistler’s first Ironman race later this month, but decades ago Whistler had its own homegrown multisport challenge inspired by that time of year when the daily dilemma isn’t which outdoor activity to pursue, but how many.

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The Great Snow, Earth, Water Race was created in 1975 in an attempt to celebrate the shift from winter to summer. The concept was simple: a team relay race around Whistler and through all the simultaneous seasons.

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It started with a mass-start ski race down Whistler Mountain. Regardless of where the snowline was, the skiers’ leg of the course didn’t finish until the resort base, and leaving your ski gear behind was not an option. After a few thousand vertical feet of downhill sprinting in ski boots, post-race shin splints were the norm.

From there, road cyclists took over, lapping Alta Lake before finishing at Lakeside Park and passing the baton (actually a bottle holder) to eagerly awaiting canoe teams. Even more carnage ensued as dozens of paddlers navigated the endless bends and snags of the River of Golden Dreams en route to Fitzsimmons Fan Park on Green Lake. The final leg saw runners sprint 5km back to the mountain base, where glory, and beer (Labatt’s Blue was the title sponsor) awaited.

Several course adjustments were made in ensuing years, most notably the addition of an alpine x-country ski leg in order to spread out the downhillers after some serious collisions occurred in 1986. By that time the initial 28 mostly local teams had ballooned to more than 150 teams from across Canada and the Pacific Northwest. What had started as a grassroots, loosely organized race—the inaugural year saw teams using ATVs, dirt bikes, and even horses to gain a competitive advantage—had transformed into a highly competitive, slightly less chaotic weekend-long festival.

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As local photographer Dave Steers recalls “The neat thing about the race was that the various legs took so long that it was possible to watch the skiers come off the mountain, then go get some beer and watch the canoes run the river, then head to the finish to cheer on the winners.”

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Eventually the logistics and liability became too much hassle for the race organizers and the Great Race came to an end in the early 1990s. Today, Whistler has the annual Crud 2 Mud race to celebrate the merging of the seasons, and the upcoming Ironman is a multi-sport undertaking the likes of which this valley has never seen. Still, it’s hard not to watch footage of the Great Race and think a big hole has been left in our busy event calendar.

What do you think? Should the Great Race make a comeback? How would you design the course, and what activities would you include to update the event?