The historic Alley Loop draws global competitors and hordes of costumes.
Elevation Outdoors Magazine | October 2020
I fumble to lock my boots into their flimsy skis, 120 seconds before the 34th Annual Alley Loop Nordic Marathon in Crested Butte, Colo. My friends and I spent the morning perfecting our group costume—Cindy and Betty Lou Who, Max, and the Grinch—and sipping mimosas. I nearly forgot my race bib for the 5K freestyle event, as we hustled to the downtown start, a few blocks from our doorstep. Cowbells rattle throughout the dense crowd. I secure my velvet cape in the frosty shadows. Above boisterous cheers, an air horn blares, sending us off. “Go!” onlookers yell. We shuffle forward, shoulder-to-shoulder with an abominable snowman, group of hot dogs, and cluster of clowns.
This historic mining township, population 1,700, swells with an additional 700 folks for the state’s largest cross-country ski race, an American Birkebeiner qualifier: Known as the Birkie, the iconic competition pulls 13,000 people to Wisconsin later in the month. “The American Birkebeiner is a bucket list experience. Serious American cross-country skiers participate at least once in their life,” says Laura Puckett Daniels, marketing and development director of Crested Butte (CB) Nordic, the nonprofit that organizes the Alley Loop and maintains the cross-country trails. For international travelers, university athletes, and core racers, their performance today influences their Birkie wave placement. For recreational nordicers, like us, the focus is our quirky appearance: the Alley Loop is arguably Crested Butte’s primo costume party.
Throughout morning, close to 1,000 skiers shove off from Elk Avenue in eight different swells. The distances range from 1K to 42K for skate, classic, and freestylers. The routes criss cross streets, alleyways, and bridges over Coal Creek before fanning out onto peripheral trails. The loops finish near the picturesque candy-cane colored Old Town Hall, erected 137 years ago. Back in 1986, 30 skiers inaugurated the Alley Loop. “Photos of ski racers in the narrow streets of European villages inspired the creation. I realized Crested Butte is snowy enough to host that type of event,” says Alley Loop Founder Gary Sprung, a.k.a. Gnurps, the CB Nordic Council co-founder. The event retains it’s genuine spirit. “The Alley Loop accommodates both the serious and silly. We may hold the silliest record for the slowest 5K: over 3 hours,” says Keith Bauer, former CB Nordic executive director.
I’m entertained by everyone’s flamboyant, frivolous garb and don’t mind the congested kickoff. As my crew and I reach town’s edge, the fastest 5K skater finishes—far ahead of us—in 12 minutes, 35 seconds. Moments later, we jump aside for the first place 42K competitor, who’s on lap two. Beside us, a Tigger onesie, bobbing Tyrannosaurus rex, and troop of rocket ships disperse. Mount Crested Butte towers over us, like Mount Crumpit above Whoville, and is breathtaking. We dig in our poles, and skate.