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The PPP at 34: It's more than a race and it always has been 

click to enlarge culture_ppp2.jpg

When 80 competitors lined up to start the first Pole Pedal Paddle (PPP) in 1976 armed with equipment that you're more likely to find hanging over a mantelpiece than in a lift line, little did they know that they were becoming involved in what would eventually become Bend's biggest community sporting event.

They also weren't aware that they were pioneering a new type of event. Run/bike/swim triathlons were just becoming known nationally. A cross country ski/bike/kayak event had been staged annually for several years in Truckee, California. But a race featuring five sports? Now that was new.

Thirty-four years later, the PPP has established itself as the quintessential Bend event. It's all about fitness, being outdoors and getting to use all sorts of cool gear. (Quick, someone call a Subaru rep, we have a sponsorship opportunity here!)

"What I like best about the PPP, besides just being out there doing it, is the people I meet training for the race, during the race and after the race. People are what makes the event great," says longtime participant Sue Bastian.

There's also a great democratizing of Bend's hyper-charged outdoor athlete scene that makes the race as much a cultural statement as a competition.

"You're alpine and Nordic skiing in the morning. Aquick bike ridelaterand you're running along, then paddling the Deschutes River.Then you look over your shoulder and a chick in a tutu is running you down. It's beauty and humility rolled into one fantastic day," says local magazine publisher and longtime participant Kevin Max.

He knows a thing or two about humility; his wife Sarah is the reigning women's elite division champion, which equals a mug and lifetime bragging rights around the house and around town. But like others, Sarah, a freelance journalist and editor at 1859 magazine, keeps the whole thing in perspective even as she pushes herself for another podium.

"In many ways, the PPP just says so much about Bend. There are so few places where it's possible to do all these sports in one day," says Max. "I love that it's accessible to so many people. Even if you're not an elite athlete or even an athlete for that matter, you can participate in some way. Everyone, it seems, has their own great PPP story to share."

And, in a perfect summation of the event's spirit, Sarah adds, "As I type this, my biggestcompetition, Kristina Strandberg, is sitting here with me having lunch. She and I just had a great PPP training day, full of lots of laughs about how we can sabotage each other... It's like that movie Grumpy Old Men, but it's hyper-competitive not-so-old chicks."

The event also speaks to Bend's nutty spring weather. There have been years when riding the cycling leg from Mt. Bachelor to Bend meant starting out in a snow storm or having to ride several miles through snow before hitting dry pavement, then arriving at the next transition zone in town in 80 degree sunny weather.

Even harder than what might be considered harsh conditions for most teams is coming up with their team name. Last year, Bangers and Mash was listed among the men's teams and the Hot Flashes was the title of a women's squad, giving you an idea of the creative flair that goes into a team handle.

Then there's the never-ending quest to have the latest, greatest, hottest gear for the race. That simply wasn't the case in the early years of the PPP, but changed in the early 1980s.

The first key moment of change, and one that started the escalation of what would become the annual gear (arms) war, came when Fischer ski company technician John Alarie, fresh from working with World Cup racers, used a pair of 240-centimeter downhill racing skis in the alpine ski leg of the race. Alarie put such a gap on the field that the rest of his team barely broke a sweat while cruising to an effortless overall team win.

The next significant shift was when fast individuals and teams abandoned the use of canoes in favor of downriver kayaks to give them that extra edge. Now all manner of fast boats from surf skis to Olympic flat water racing kayaks are used. The next big techno jump was in the '90s when time trial bicycles with disc wheels and aero bars became the rage and a way to get those extra precious seconds on rivals. Then came a move to more downhill and Super G alpine skis. In fact, any piece of gear that was lightweight, most likely expensive and supposedly made you milliseconds faster.

"The race for the techiest gear is still going on," says Hutch's general manager Mike McMackin. "And trust me, it'll never end." This year, McMackin indicates it's all about big chain rings on bikes.

The bike and the ski legs of the race have evened out somewhat over the years as everyone got access to better gear and better at using it. While the run does separate teams, it's always been the paddle leg that's stymied many an individual and team competitor.

Easily the most famous example was the 1985 PPP when then U.S. Ski Team member and current Mt. Bachelor Ski and Education Foundation cross country program director Dan Simoneau arrived at the paddle leg of the individual competition way ahead of his nearest competitor. Simoneau jumped into his fast kayak, paddled and few strokes and dumped it. That was the beginning of several dumps followed by a swim to shore to dump the kayak and start all over again.

Simoneau faded from first to third. The next two years he trained for weeks in his kayak prior to the race and took home two individual titles.

This year, the race will more than likely see a few people swim during the paddle leg. But more than anything else it'll see a lot of people enjoying a post-PPP beer and reliving the race with their teammates and support crews. Because when all is said and done, the PPP is much more a bonding experience for Bend's active outdoor people than a competition. But don't be fooled. That beer goes down much easier when you're sipping from a coveted PPP mug.

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