Tom Usher glided through the finish line at The Great Nordeen Cross-Country Ski and Fat Bike Race. His chest heaved as sweat on his face mixed with the blood that dotted his brow and streaked his butterfly-stitched nose.
Yet 71-year-old Usher, the most-senior skier at the 16th annual event, smiled with relief as he caught his breath and chatted with his son, Andrew, 41, who had also finished the race.
"I fell coming down (the hill) past the Sunrise Lodge – three times," said Tom, referring to a steep, twisty bottleneck in the first kilometers of the course that began at Mt. Bachelor's West Village Lodge and finished at Wanoga Sno-park. "The snow was so icy, so fast. A lot of people wiped out. I had one situation where a skier had fallen, and I was trying to get out of the way. That presented a little bit of a problem."
During that fall, Usher snapped a pole. He attached the top portion to his waistband, where it dangled as a souvenir for the rest of the race. An official lent Usher a replacement pole.
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He finished the 18-kilometer race in 1 hour, 37 minutes, 0.8 seconds, almost an hour behind race winner Maximus Nye, 16, who clocked in at 39 minutes, 30 seconds.
More than 240 competitors entered this year's Great Nordeen – the largest turn out in a decade, according to organizers.
The Great Nordeen honors Bend ski pioneer Emil Nordeen. The course was groomed collaboratively by Mt. Bachelor, Meissner Nordic club and Moon Country Snowbusters, a snowmobile club. Usher had intended to complete the 30-kilometer option, which loops around Katalo Butte, but he cut himself some slack after his crash.
"The (officials) who applied the bandage were very nice," Usher said. "They said, 'Are you sure you want to go on?' I said, 'Yeah, I got to go on – I'm the oldest guy in the race.' "
Although his pride was untarnished, Usher pointed to a soreness in his side.
"I think I may have broken a rib," he said.
While Usher, who lives in Portland, was the oldest to compete among 183 skiers, his overall seniority was rivaled by fatbiker Jo Keen, also 71, who finished the race in a three-way tie with two friends who rode with her in 1 hour, 8 minutes, 38.9 seconds.
Keen also snagged second place in her age group, 66 and up.
"That was so much fun," said Keen, shortly after rolling through the finish line. An expectant group of female fatbikers congratulated Keen and her friends as they swapped race stories.
Keen, who's originally from North Carolina and lives in Bend, said she accomplished her single goal of not crashing her fatbike on the course that traced most of the 18-kilometer one used by the skiers. She appreciated that her faster friends stuck with her, placing the emphasis on having fun.
"I couldn't have asked for better camaraderie," Keen said.
Keen, an avid mountain biker, picked up fatbiking when her husband got into it last year.
"Fatbiking is a little tougher because you have to get those big tires moving, but once you do it's really fun," Keen said. "It's like being on a clown bike. You can't help but break out in a smile because it's just a funny contraption."
While the ski races skewed male, particularly the 30-kilometer distance, which saw 88 men and 37 women, the fatbike field was almost evenly split, with 31 men and 29 women.
Professional mountain biker and female winner Emma Maaranen spent weeks drumming up enthusiasm among women to participate in the fatbike race. She half-jokingly implored women to "smash the patriarchy" that has traditionally dominated athlete cultures, especially cycling's.
Keen had only competed in one bike race decades ago before this one, she said. She hadn't considered riding the race until she attended one of Maaranen's female-specific workshops on fatbiking at Sunnyside Sports.
"Emma's pitch was really: 'We really want women to come out and do this. It doesn't matter whether you want to race or ride in the back and have fun,'" Keen said. "I thought, 'Well, I can do that. I can ride the (15-kilometers). I can talk some friends into doing it with me.' "
Maaranen, who wore glitter on her cheeks, estimated that she recruited 20 additional female participants. She also enlisted almost half a dozen local bike shops that rent fatbikes, which look like mountain bikes but feature tires as wide as 5 inches, for free for female competitors in The Great Nordeen fatbike race.
Molly Cogswell-Kelley, the events director at Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation, which organizes The Great Nordeen, said Maaranen's initiative was purely her own.
"It was really cool she just ran with it," Cogswell-Kelley said. "She said that her dream was to do a bike race where there are more women than men. It was really awesome. I don't think I've been to a race where it was almost equal. It was a really nice feeling, and the women seemed glad to participate in force."
Cogswell-Kelley pointed out that some women had never ridden a fatbike, let alone raced one.
"I think they surprised themselves how fun it was," she said. "I hope it's the new trend. A lot of people said they were 'riding,' not 'racing.' But a lot of those people got medals (in their age groups), so I think they'll be coming back to defend their titles."
Andrew Usher was also in a good mood at the finish line. He placed 35th in the 30-kilometer race and was not shy about how glad he was to have beaten his friend, 43-year-old Wes Kapsa, by 6 seconds. Usher was more humble on the topic of his father, who introduced him to nordic skiing while he was a college student.
Recently, Tom gave a pair of pint-size nordic skis to Andrew's son, Alex, 6, allowing the three generations of Ushers to ski together. Andrew said his father's ongoing passion for nordic skiing is impressive.
"It gives me something to aspire to three decades down the road," he said.
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