The Owl Creek Chase cross-country ski race returns, but not to Owl Creek Trail |

The Owl Creek Chase cross-country ski race returns, but not to Owl Creek Trail

Longtime Snowmass race takes place in Aspen this year

A cross country skier enjoys a freshly groomed track on Owl Creek Trail in Snowmass Village on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. The Snowmass trail will stay quiet during this year’s Owl Creek Chase on March 7, which takes place entirely in Aspen to meet COVID-19 protocols. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

For more than 35 years, cross-country skiers have toed the line for the annual Owl Creek Chase, a point-to-point race from the Snowmass Village Golf Course to the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club or Aspen Golf Club.

The tradition continues this Sunday, with a catch: participants in the 2021 Owl Creek Chase won’t ever set foot on the Owl Creek Trail.

Instead, racers will lap the Aspen Golf Course twice before following the Moore Trails uphill to a loop that covers nearly every trail on the trail network near Aspen High School.

There will be no lap counters, but course monitors will keep an eye on the start and finish lines to keep people from bunching up.

“We’re relying on people to use common sense and the honor system,” said Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Trail System coordinator Chris Petersen.

Event organizers decided to modify the course due to COVID-19 precautions, according to Petersen.

It’s not that the original race route was itself prone to large gatherings — the wide Owl Creek Trail leaves plenty of room for passing and meanders through wooded, rural areas that would be hard for spectators to access anyway.

But the 21-kilometer course of years past did involve nearly half a dozen road and driveway crossings that required volunteers to help direct athletes, Petersen said; that would create pinch points along the course.

Plus, the point-to-point nature of the one-way course typically involves gear shuttles and mass transportation for racers between the start in Snowmass and the finish in Aspen.

“It’s just a lot of things that aren’t COVID-friendly,” Petersen said.

The new course allows participants to park at the Aspen Recreation Center and ski down to the start as their warm-up or park at the Aspen Nordic Center and ski back after they finish; it’s about a mile each way. And the 19-kilometer course only involves one street crossing near the high school.

Athletes approach the finish of the Owl Creek Chase on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Aspen. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the race course has been modified. Low snow in 2015 and 2018 meant shorter routes for the race, both times taking place on the Aspen trails.

There are a few other COVID caveats, too.

The race sometimes draws hundreds of participants to the course, among them an extensive roster of competitive local athletes, Olympians and visiting collegians from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska. (Nearly 200 racers competed in 2020.)

This year, the competition is capped at just 75 skiers. There won’t be any cash prizes for the top finishers as there has been in seasons past; organizers hope that lack of financial incentive will help put a damper on the “cutthroat atmosphere,” according to an email from Mitzi Rapkin, communications director for the city of Aspen. (The city’s special events department helps coordinate the event.)

Plus, the mass starts of years past aren’t exactly a COVID-conscious endeavor. Participants this year will start in 18 waves of four participants each; waves will be spaced 30 seconds apart, and there will be 6 feet between each of the starting lanes to allow for social distancing.

Athletes must wear face coverings until one minute before their start time and must mask up after they finish, too. Coverings can be either a face mask or a buff-style covering as long as it has at least two layers.

The race won’t be a spectator sport, either. Those wishing to catch a glimpse of the action will have to do it from afar; Bernese Boulevard will remain open for dog-walkers and recreational skiers during the race, Petersen said, but expect some brief closures and volunteer direction where the dog-friendly trail intersects the race course. The race course itself will reopen in phases as competitors clear out.

There is no virtual racing option for skiers who wish to tackle the usual Owl Creek course, but the trail is by no means closed to recreational skiing.

“If somebody wants to, they can do that every day of the week,” Petersen said.

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