Chris Manhard remembers when 100 Mile House was a “superpower” for cross-country skiing.
It was the 1980s. He was just a boy, but he was already scooping wins across B.C. and Canada. “Nordics are top racers in the province,” one headline read. The Cariboo Marathon, which started in 1966 and was the second-biggest race of its kind in the ’70s, drew thousands of racers to 100 Mile every year.
“We were a superpower in Canada,” said Manhard, who grew up in Forest Grove and is now the head of Cross Country BC and a B.C. provincial coach. “Everyone knew where 100 Mile was.”
The 100 Mile Nordics hope to revive that former glory, starting with a Teck Northern Cup Race at the 99 Mile ski area this Saturday, Jan. 22. Local skiers under 18 will compete against those from Quesnel, Williams Lake, Prince George, Kamloops and Vanderhoof. As of Tuesday, 53 skiers had signed up for the event, which starts at 11 a.m.
Although it’s just a fun race – more of a time trial – chief of competition Gary Carlson said he hopes it will ultimately allow the club to bring back BC Cup Races, and maybe even junior nationals. Back in the day, the provincial and national races drew more than 300 racers to 100 Mile, along with their parents and coaches.
“I’m very excited. It’s a good motivator for our club and for our skills development program,” said Carlson, who has been involved with the club for 35 years. “It’s motivating for our kids to learn to ski better and ski faster. I’m quite confident it’s going to pay off.”
The decision to host a race follows a resurgence in popularity for Nordic skiing in the past couple of years. The club had to cancel its ski school due to COVID, but its skill development team is growing, welcoming 40 young skiers every Sunday. Last week, they did a test run of the Teck race, giving them a feel for what may lie ahead.
Manhard, who competed in his first race when he was five years old, said he was excited to see the revival of the sport in his hometown, once a favourite on the race circuit. Its central location and its world-class race trails built by people like Manhard’s father Neil, Ray Ostby, Jim Keller and Tom Linderud in 1986, put the town on the map.
The 100 Mile races were borne out of the South Cariboo Cross Country Ski Society, established in 1977, which organized the Cariboo Marathon until 2014. A school ski program was launched at Forest Grove Elementary School in the 1977-78 school year. Buffalo Creek, Horse Lake, Bridge Lake, 108 Mile Elementary and 70 Mile followed suit the next school season.
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“It was a really, really big thing,” Manhard said. “Every lunch hour everybody went out to cross-country ski.”
In 1978, the 100 Mile Nordics were formed as a race team under the umbrella of the South Cariboo Ski Society, although it was largely run as an independent organization hosting the BC Championship Races, the Western Canadian Champions, and the World Championship Trials for Cross Country Canada in 1979, the latter only being held once.
At the time, the Nordics was one of the biggest cross-country clubs in Canada, with about 1,500 people turning up for the Cariboo Marathon. A new junior league introduced by Cross Country Canada called the Shell Jackrabbit Ski League replaced the school ski program. Around 400 children enrolled locally, making the South Cariboo Cross Country Ski Society’s junior program the largest in Canada. The club won the BC Championship Club Trophy for the first time in 1982. They kept winning it consecutively until 1987.
“The biggest thing I remember as a kid was getting the race suit. It was really a highlight to be part of the club because in school you had hockey and you had cross-country skiing,” Manhard said. “Even if you were in hockey, you skied.”
Carlson said the club used to hold at least one major race event a year but they slowly petered out over the years as volunteers left and weren’t replaced. Manhard added there’s a demand now for paid coaches as most people don’t seem to have as much time to volunteer.
“In the old days, the best coaches were volunteers. They brought as much passion as you could think of,” he said.
Organizers hope this weekend’s entry-level race, supported by Cross Country B.C. and sponsored by Teck, will renew interest in cross-country racing. Since it’s not a BC Cup, skiers will not be able to accumulate Canadian points in this race, but they can use it as a training ground. Race distances vary between half a kilometre and five kilometres depending on the different age groups.
“One of the reasons for holding this race is it will hopefully get kids interested,” Carlson said.
“It’s more about training, and attitude plays the biggest part. There are very keen kids, they are excited about having this race. That’s where it has to start. They could be national team skiers.”
More than 50 volunteers have been recruited to help run the event on race day. Jim Peterson, who used to prepare the stadiums for race day, and groomer Mike Matfin, will be both on hand for the big event.
“It’s great to be able to tap into some of the expertise of people who have been there before. It’s kind of new for us. It’s amazing the number of people who have come forward,” Carlson said. “We’re going to have more volunteers than racers but we want to do it well. We want people to come away from this and say ‘wow, that was a phenomenal race.’ That’s our goal.”
Peterson said he’s happy to see the 99 Mile trails return to the limelight. The trails are some of the best, he said, while efficient lighting, added in the mid-’90s, adds to the experience.
“It’s really good to see the club take on another race and hopefully this one works out,” Peterson said. “It’s just gorgeous skiing up there at night. It’s surprising how many people in town don’t know it’s there.”
Manhard agreed 100 Mile is lucky to have such a world-class venue so close to town. He sees cross-country skiing as an economical and a family sport, similar to running, that can help people stay “active for life.”
He said he is excited about the possibility of holding BC Cup races in his hometown, where he learned to ski.
“I’m super-stoked. As soon as they get a few races under their belt that opens the door,” he said.
“You guys have amazing ski trails. It really is one of the gems of the northern district to ski. People will flock there, I have no doubt about it.”