If you go

What: 41st annual U.S. Bank Pole Pedal Paddle: An estimated 2,500 racers compete as individuals or teams on a 34-mile course from Mount Bachelor to Bend that includes alpine skiing, a 5-mile nordic ski, a 22-mile road bike ride, a 5-mile run, a 1½-mile paddle and a half-mile sprint.

When: Saturday, start times ranging from 9:15 to 11:25 a.m. First finishers are expected just before 11 a.m.

Where: Starts at Mt. Bachelor ski area’s West Village Lodge and finishes at the Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend.

Online: Complete previews and race coverage on our website at bendbulletin.com/ppp

Throughout Bend’s transition from a sleepy timber town in the late 1970s to a thriving outdoor sports mecca with a cosmopolitan vibe, one event has evolved along with the community — and has even come to symbolize the city.

The 2017 U.S. Bank Pole Pedal Paddle takes place Saturday, when some 2,500 participants will ski, bike, run and paddle their way from the snowy slopes of Mount Bachelor to the Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend. Thousands more will cheer them on or support them during the race.

It had humble beginnings. When Jenny Sheldon co-founded the event 40 years ago with her husband, she simply hoped it would raise money so she could buy a few hats for youth skiers.

Sheldon and her husband, Dave, had been ski bums in Jackson Hole, Wyoming — which has hosted its own Pole Pedal Paddle race each year since 1976 — and had settled in Bend in the mid-1970s. Jenny landed a coaching job with the Skyliners Ski Club, now the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation. She had trouble differentiating her young skiers from other kids at Bachelor, so she wanted to raise money to buy distinctive hats for the Skyliners.

“I thought, this might be a cool place for a Pole Pedal Paddle,” Jenny recalled in 2011, a few months after Dave passed away. “It’d be easier, and more user-friendly.”

The couple screen-printed scores of PPP posters, then traveled to Portland and the Willamette Valley, leaving a poster at every cycling and ski shop they could find. Some 65 participants competed in that first PPP in 1977, when Bend’s population was about 15,000.

“I think Dave’s genius was understanding that this wasn’t going to just be a community thing, this was going to bring people to the community … and just be a fun, wacky race,” Jenny said.

The approach proved to be an astounding success. By 1983, the PPP was drawing 2,500 participants. It remains the primary annual fundraiser for MBSEF and attracts between 2,500 and 3,000 racers nearly every year to Bend, which now has a population of about 87,000.

The Sheldons raised $800 from that first race, Jenny remembered — more than enough to provide hats for 50 young skiers. Today, the PPP brings in thousands of dollars each year to help support MBSEF, a nonprofit group that offers youth programs in alpine skiing, nordic skiing, snowboarding, freeride skiing and cycling.

While the PPP features many local elite individual athletes, the heart of the race is made up of teams of weekend warriors.

“I think one thing that I’m always amazed at is that there’s a lot of teams that have done this for a lot of years with the same team, maybe interchanging one or two parts,” says John Schiemer, executive director of MBSEF. “It’s kind of the rite of passage for going into spring and summer. The individual (participant) numbers are always consistent, because it’s a hard race to do individually. But the team participation is really kind of the core of where the excitement is. You get the groups traveling from out of town, or you have different team members coming from different areas and meeting up in Bend to participate in the race.”

Schiemer says that typically about half of the PPP participants are from Central Oregon, and most of the remaining half come from the Portland area, the Willamette Valley, Seattle, or Boise, Idaho. But some travel from even farther, as Schiemer notes that over the years as many as 25 states have been represented at the PPP.

The race has come to embody many of the reasons why people decide to live in Central Oregon or visit here.

“Bend is really seen as an outdoor recreation town, and when you look at the components of the event, a lot of them are the outdoors things we do here and why we choose to live here,” Schiemer says.

By 2004, the PPP had outgrown its finish area in Bend’s Drake Park, and the finish was moved to the amphitheater. This move coincided with the growth of the Old Mill District as a retail shopping area with restaurants and as a place for easily accessible outdoor activities.

At the turn of the millennium, much of the Old Mill District was just muddy flats along the Deschutes River. Now it is lined by parks, trails, and shops, and every spring and summer the area is filled with paddlers, cyclists and runners — not just on PPP day.

“Drake Park was great, but the community atmosphere that is created with the amphitheater and the finish area and the whole piece of it, finishing in the Old Mill with the kayak part, and people standing on the footbridge (across the Deschutes River) … I think that kind of galvanized the race as to bringing it a step up, if you will,” Schiemer says. “If you have a big event in Bend, and it’s at the amphitheater, it kind of adds some credibility to it.”

Bend’s Ben Husaby won the men’s elite individual title six straight years from 1999 to 2004. He also served as the nordic director for MBSEF during that time and was in charge of setting up the courses for the PPP.

Husaby, now executive director of the Bend Endurance Academy, crossed the finish line for five of those six victories at Drake Park, his final win finishing at the amphitheater.

“I think the Old Mill is better suited for the event, in terms of the size of the event now,” Husaby says.

Notable changes to the PPP after the finish line switch have included lengthening the final sprint leg from about 200 meters to about half a mile. Also, the paddle stage became more difficult when the finish was moved from Drake Park, with more upstream paddling required in a stronger current.

“The old one was almost all downriver,” Husaby says of the former paddle stage near Mirror Pond. “This one is equal up and down, and the current is stronger. You have to be right on the edge of the river to catch any sort of break coming upstream.”

One thing that has not changed much over the years is the army of volunteers that MBSEF uses to help the event run smoothly. Some of those volunteers have been doing it for more than 20 years.

“Even though the event has grown, there have been some really key people that just keep coming back year after year,” Husaby says.

Schiemer says he views the PPP and the Cascade Cycling Classic pro criterium (staged annually in July) as two iconic Bend events.

“They kind of define the town,” he says. “They’re different, because one is participatory and the other is from a fan perspective. But PPP is still the premier event. People always look forward to it.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,