Grand Traverse returns this weekend, although it’ll stay in Crested Butte |

Grand Traverse returns this weekend, although it’ll stay in Crested Butte

After the winter’s Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race was canceled, Andrew Arell and the Crested Butte Nordic staff began the arduous task of planning for the summer’s running and biking events amid a pandemic.

Normally a point-to-point race from Crested Butte to Aspen, or vice-versa, this weekend’s COVID-19 affair will remain on that side of the Elk Mountains in Gunnison County.

“It’s starting in Crested Butte and we are going to finish up on Mt. Crested Butte, up toward the resort,” Arell said. “We made an application to Pitkin County, but as we moved further and further into the summer it just became apparent that Pitkin was taking a little more conservative approach to events and the number of participants our event was going to need to make it still a feasible event on our end wasn’t going to be permitted. That’s what it came down to.”

The roughly 43-mile run is scheduled to take place Saturday, while the mountain bike race is Sunday. They’ll use largely the same course, although the bikers will go in reverse of what the runners do a day prior.

The beginning of the run is as it’s always been, with runners ascending Brush Creek to Star Pass. From there the pandemic-route takes over, with athletes using the single track of the Cement Creek drainage to return. Arell, the race organizer, said the new route actually adds 3 additional miles and about 2,000 feet more of climbing for the run compared to the standard Crested Butte to Aspen race.

“It is a bit more stout course,” Arell said. “These racers are going to be whooped. Even our top competitors and locals like Cam Smith, who won last year’s race, is thinking it’s going to be an additional 30 minutes on his time. He thinks it’s going to be really challenging.”

Smith, a noted endurance athlete who lives in Crested Butte, won the 2019 Grand Traverse run in 5 hours, 38 minutes, 19 seconds. Meaning, this year’s race could take the winner over the six-hour mark.

“It will be a little bit of a tougher race than the true traverse, actually. It’s a bummer to not go over to Aspen, like we like to do,” Smith said. “It will be different, but in this day and age you can’t complain about not getting things your way. You just got to take what you got and enjoy it, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Along with the new routes, there are numerous other changes to this year’s event. Like most events in Colorado, it will require a start in waves to keep with COVID-19 safety guidelines. As of Wednesday, Arell said they had 280 registered runners with a field capped at no more than 350. The mountain bike race, which is limited to 150 riders, is sold out.

“That really is the biggest challenge to pulling this off is how to start that number of people in waves of 10. That’s right now a state guideline for any endurance type of event, even outdoors,” Arell said. “We’ve done well to devise two segregated start zones, which will then funnel onto the course. It will be a chip start and the waves are departing at minute intervals.”

Normally the Grand Traverse would name a Triple Crown winner, which goes to the racers with the best combined times from all three events. But with the winter race having been canceled, this won’t be possible.

However, there are nearly 50 athletes planning to compete in both races this weekend, and those with the best combined times will be acknowledged.

General spectating isn’t allowed at the start or the finish, but they have hired Aspen’s Erik Skarvan to announce athletes at the finish line, hopefully giving the races some semblance of normalcy.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a different atmosphere,” Arell said. “We’re still going to have a lively finish. It’s just the friends and family won’t be present to add that extra emotional energy there.”

The Grand Traverse began in the late 1990s with the skimo race, while the summer events were added in 2014, two years after Crested Butte Nordic took over ownership. The race has become one of the organizations largest fundraisers and most popular events.

Arell said they’ll begin looking at the 2021 winter event after this weekend, although not enough is known about either the pandemic nor the ski resort policies at this point to know if it will take place or not. As far as the 2021 summer events, the hope is to have a return to the standard route that includes Aspen.

“The Grand Traverse intricately joins our two towns and some of the attrition we saw was people just dropping for the mere fact it’s not going point-to-point,” Arell said. “They want that experience. They want to begin or finish their race in Aspen. We are very keen to bring our race back to its standard format.”

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