By ZACHARY CORMIER
A pair of Red Deerians find themselves on top of the international snow-kiting world after the 2016 Red Bull Ragnarok world snow kiting championships earlier this month.
Peter Martel took the gold medal while fellow Red Deerian Josh Barker laid claim to the bronze in the men’s snowboard class after a gruelling 120 km race through blizzards, cold weather and changing winds on the plains of Hardangervidda in Haugastol, Norway on April 1st.
“It’s such a big terrain that I didn’t really know that I was in the lead at the time. So it was a surprise when I came and they were like ‘oh you’re first’ and I was like ‘really?’ You get sort of an overwhelming feeling,” recalled Martel of the annual race, which included a record-breaking field of 350 competitors from more than 30 countries.
This isn’t Martel’s first trip to the podium at Ragnarok. The former competitive speed skater placed third at the competition in 2015. He noted that he would like to continue to improve in the future as a racer and would also like to become more involved in the community.
“I really want to work with the community and maybe underprivileged children who don’t really get the opportunity to do these kinds of things,” he said.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, snow kiting is basically like windsurfing where the competitor has a massive kite attached to their body which serves as a sail and propulsion system.
Competitors can race on skis or snowboards and are divided up by class, though at Ragnarok all of them race at the same time.
“(Ragnarok) has been going on for six years now and it’s been getting progressively harder and this is the hardest race course they’ve ever run and the biggest group they’ve ever had,” said Barker, who is also the director of the Alberta Kiteboarding Association.
Barker added that Ragnarok is known as the hardest snow kite race in the world.
And he’s not kidding. The difficult race can take up to five hours to complete as competitors complete five laps of the 20 km circuit over mountains, rocks and deep snow while competing against the elements.
“It’s a really cool venue. It’s where they filmed Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, like the Battle of Hoth. So you can just imagine the terrain. It’s just endless. It honestly feels like you’re on another planet up there,” said Martel, adding that being able to build on the success he had in 2015 was a great feeling.
“It was definitely a challenge. During the race I was discouraged. I fell behind in the first lap, I just got into a bad spot and a bunch of people passed me. It was due to the wind conditions. But as soon as I got out of that spot I was able to use my agility and my speed to gain the lead again.”
Wind conditions weren’t the only challenge Martel faced out on the icy plains, however.
Heading into the last lap of the race and facing near white out conditions, Martel hit a snow covered rock causing him to crash.
“I went for a tumble and ended up cutting one of my steering lines,” he recalled.
“Panic set in but I was able to keep cool and make a quick repair in a timely fashion and I retained my lead and finished the race on top.”
For Barker, however, the challenges began six years before he even hit the plains at Hardangervidda.
“Six years ago I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. It was pretty bad. I was a pretty big bike racer, white water kayaker. You know, really active person and I had to give up everything, like my entire life,” he said.
The bacteria that Barker’s body is constantly fighting wreaked havoc on him.
“When I was at my worst, I could barely have a conversation, I could barely walk down the stairs.”
He slowly battled back, though, and four years ago found kite racing, which he took up because it was less cardio-based and more reliant on strength.
The long battle, though, made the third place finish all the sweeter.
“It was pretty surreal, actually. I was just happy to cross the line. It’s so hard you’re just shattered by the time you finish,” he said, adding that he didn’t find out about his third place finish until he saw a facebook post congratulating him on it.
Both Martel and Barker, who train together at home, were happy to share the podium with a fellow Albertan.
“It just shows how valuable our teamwork is. There were days where I’d be unmotivated to go out and train and Josh would be out there and I’d think well if Josh is out there I’d better get out there too. So we really pushed each other to get to where we were,” said Martel.
“We train hard together, so it was an honor to be able to stand on the podium together,” added Barker, who recently became the director of the Canadian Kiteboarding Association.