Inside the Noque

by Pamela Christensen

John Mommaerts is a man obsessed with snow. When you are race director for one of the premier cross country ski races in the country, a snow obsession is only one of the things you have to worry about. Mommaerts’ obsession, talents and luck have paid off since 1997, when he and a group of dedicated skiers set out to develop what was then the Red Earth Loppet into a cross country ski race that would attract skiers from across the country and the world.
1501_feature_mommaertsMommaerts is quick to point out he may be the public face of the Noquemanon, but the race “has so many moving parts,” he can’t do it alone. For seventeen years, Mommaerts, a committed team of race officials and community volunteers have pulled off what many would consider a monumental task.
The Noquemanon cross country ski marathon has led to a thriving trail system that works for all seasons, and the Noquemanon Trail Network  — a sophisticated 501(c)3 organization responsible for development and maintenance of those trails and sponsor of other elite races for marathon and ultramarathon runners, triathletes, mountain bikes, snow shoes racers and skijourners.
Mommaerts came to the U.P. via southern Wisconsin. He was attracted to NMU for cross country skiing opportunities. He was a member of the NMU Nordic Ski Team, and received his Bachelor’s degree in finance. He also attended George Washington University and the American College. Like so many other students, he was drawn back to the Upper Peninsula, where he has stayed ever since. A certified financial planner, his expertise in financial planning and investment management has been critical for the overall success of the Noquemanon Trail Network. Not satisfied with the status quo, Mommaerts always looks to the future and the foundation that will guarantee the sustainability of the NTN and the races it sponsors.
The Noquemanon Ski Marathon built on the success of the Red Earth Loppet, a point-to-point cross country ski marathon similar to today’s Noquemanon. The race started in 1984 and ran as a point-to-point race until landowner issues, volunteer fatigue and burnout caused founders to move the race to the Michigan DNR-owned Blueberry Ridge trails. The looped race did not appeal to skiers, and registration dwindled. The last Red Earth Loppet was held in 1997.
Mommaerts and other skiers were not content to let the race die, but realized changes were in order. They told Red Earth Loppet organizers they would develop a new race. “We told them we would do another race, but that it would be different. It might not be what they had, but it would be good.” That was in 1998.
Mommaerts, his business partner Bob Mahaney, Cary Gottlieb, Joe Jamieson, Sam Graci, Marilyn Hart and Tom Mahaney set out to create a new race. As luck would have it, Bob Mahaney had lots of backcountry trail-building experience. As a youth, he spent hours building cross country ski trails near his Grayling home. He also owned land along the Dead River Basin, and had been scouting cross country ski routes. He assured the group they could develop a route that would include challenging terrain and spectacular views for skiers.
1501_feature_skiers_waterThe goal was to develop a race course that would stretch from Ishpeming and Negaunee to Marquette. The group held a meeting with landowners along the route. Cleveland Cliffs, Mead, Longyear, UPPCO and Benson Forests all agreed to give the group access to their properties. “We used their logging roads, whatever they would give us. We were cutting trees and brush all year. In fact, we were still cutting things down and developing the trail right up to the race. We got lucky that year; we had lots of snow, so the stumps, brush and stuff we hadn’t gotten out of there were covered. That was the only thing that saved us. The trail was rough, but with all the snow, nobody knew,” said Mommaerts.
The first race was held in January 1999. Not only did the snow gods look favorably on the group, but word of the race started to spread. Mommaerts recounts that crazy first year.
“We were going to keep it quiet that first year, and do a trial run. We figured if we got twenty to thirty racers, we could handle that. We would test out the course, see how things worked and get the racers’ feedback. We knew a small race was all we could handle. That was the year Silent Sports magazine got wind of the race, and people kept calling to register. We adapted. We decided we could handle 100 people. That grew to 200, then 300. We had 699 people officially registered before we said ‘no more’.”
“We ran out of bibs; we had to keep ordering hats, bibs, everything. We finally ordered 300 or 400 of everything. We still ran out of hats, bibs, everything. We were using old Red Earth Loppet stuff turned inside out and marked with magic markers. It was unbelievable. The snow was fantastic, but we were understaffed and overwhelmed.”
1501_feature_skiers_groupFor the past seventeen years, the group has continued to run a race considered by many to be one of the best in the U.S. Many skiers compete in the Noquemanon Ski Marathon year after year. They plan vacations and training regimes around the Noquemanon. Local hotels and restaurants look forward to the surge in business the race generates. Rather than a one-day event, organizers have encouraged people to come early and stay late. Many skiers from outside the area come several days early to ski on NTN trails and get used to snow conditions. Rather than rush home, they take time to enjoy the area.
Several years ago, the NTN contracted for an economic impact survey that found the Noquemanon generates more than $1.2 million in revenues to Marquette County businesses. That impact probably has grown as the network of trails has improved and recognition of the quality of those trails has spread through advertising and word of mouth.
According to Mommaerts, “The races raise awareness of our trails and put us on the map. The trails are what keep people coming back to Marquette. We are finding that people are coming here to use the trails not only for the races, but at other times of the year.”
To maintain the reputation and condition of the NTN trails requires an investment. The NTN is supported by trail memberships, grants and loans. It has invested more than $300,000.00 to purchase trail maintenance and grooming equipment. The group owns two large Bombardier ski trail groomers, as well as smaller snowmobiles, Gators and other equipment, some developed locally, to maintain the extensive cross country ski and snow bike trail network.
NTN’s annual operating budget is approximately $150,000.00, not considering special events and races. Most of this revenue is raised from memberships. “We would be much more comfortable having a budget of $200,000.00, but we manage,” Mommaerts said.
“The NTN is a grassroots volunteer effort. We are one hundred percent privately funded through volunteers and memberships. We do not receive any government funding. What we do is the result of people who love the trails and see the health benefits of silent sports. In addition, there are economic benefits, but for most people, they do this because they love the biking, hiking or skiing,” said Mommaerts.
The Noquemanon Ski Marathon course is only groomed the week of the race. The easternmost twenty-four kilometers of the course are available to skiers during the winter. This trail starts at the Al Quaal Recreation Area in Ishpeming and ends in Marquette.
The balance of the fifty-kilometer course is open to skiers only during the race. With more than twenty-five landowners with whom to negotiate access for trail maintenance and grooming, the group feels fortunate it can continue to offer the cross country course year after year during the race.
1501_feature_skiers_tallEighty percent of the trail is owned by three or four major landowners. Cleveland Cliffs is one of those. Cliffs and Plum Creek, also property owners, have been longtime supporters of the ski marathon and Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic. Cliffs, Rio Tinto,  Marquette County Community Fund and Plum Creek recently gave the NTN grants to purchase land and trail easements from landowners for the Noquemanon and Ore to Shore courses.
In the future, Mommaerts would like to see NTN obtain permanent easements or ownership of the land along the courses. This would allow for ease of maintenance and trail development, as well as open trails to enthusiasts on a year-round basis. He would like to see additional bike trails throughout the county, and trail amenities such as shelters and restroom facilities. This would require consistent funding over and above the operational expenses of NTN.
The Noquemanon Ski Marathon and associated events will be held January 23 through 25. The base of operations is NMU’s Superior Dome. The event has grown from those early days, to a multi-day event that includes the Junior Noque, a ski expo, snowshoe, adaptive skiing race and the Animoosh Skjourn races.
Sue Perry has served as the head of race registration for many years. Race registration is an ongoing responsibility. Registration for the next year’s race begins almost as soon as the current year is completed. The majority of race registration is now done online, but Perry often is the first point of contact for the many racers who participate in NTN events. She determines who starts when.
Placement in race waves is a tricky business for racers and race organizers. Wave placement can be very contentious. Despite the fact she can make racers very happy or very angry, depending on their wave placement, Perry has developed friendships with many who return year after year. It is not uncommon for a racer to show up for registration and look for Perry before doing anything else. No matter how stressed or pressured she may be, she always has time to share a smile and a laugh with a competitor. This personal touch and attention to detail sets the Noquemanon apart from other races.
Snow is not the only requirement for a successful event. Mommaerts is quick to point out how critical NTN leadership, staff and volunteers are to the operation. Nikki Dewald serves as executive director. She gives the organization continuity and a year-round presence, and works with board members to secure sponsors and prizes for NTN-sponsored events.
The 2015 races will be named for a new sponsor, U.P. Chevy Dealers. This is not the first time the region’s fifteen Chevrolet dealers have banded together to sponsor the event. The group also sponsored the very first running. “We appreciate the support of the local Chevy dealers. They have given excellent support for our event,” said Mommaerts.
Major sponsors for the 2015 Noquemanon include UP Health System and MBank.
From an office located at Lakeview Arena, Dewald coordinates the moving parts, including almost 600 Noquemanon volunteers and employees.
Just getting 1,500 — sometimes more — racers to the starting lines is a challenge. NTN contracts with Marquette Area Public Schools for school buses, which transport skiers and their gear to the right place at the right time. Ten buses make multiple runs from the Superior Dome and local hotels during race day. Making sure there is room for all of the racers and their gear, and that they get to the race on time, requires precision timing.
Once at the start, many racers shed clothing and gear. This is collected in bags and returned to the Superior Dome via truck. A bevy of volunteers arrange the bags for easy pick-up by racers as they complete the race.
Racer safety is a huge issue, when you consider the number of racers involved and the territory covered. Eight aid stations, staffed by volunteers and local service organizations, are stationed along the course.
Hiawatha Amateur Radio Association members provide volunteers to serve at each aid station. Ham radio operators are in constant communication with the Ham base at the Superior Dome and each other.
They can alert race officials to problems on the course, notify emergency responders from the Marquette County Search and Rescue Unit or ambulances of serious injuries and report progress of racers along the course. National Ski Patrol members ski the route at the back of the pack to assist racers who might be injured or unable to finish the race.
As skiers reach an aid station, they are offered water and energy drinks as well as energy gel, bananas, cookies, doughnut holes and other snacks at select stations. Most organizations staffing the aid stations have been with the race from the beginning. Their enthusiasm and assistance is a welcome sight to a tired skier. The eight stations vie for the Aid Station of the Year award at the end of each race. This award is given based on skier feedback.
Aid stations are staffed by 906 Polar Roll, Ishpeming Rotary Club, Women Shifting Gears, Marquette Kiwanis, Superiorland Kiwanis, NMU ROTC, Michigan National Guard, NMU Student Athletic Trainer Association, NMU Four Wheelers and Marquette Exchange Club.
Race officials would like to thank the Ishpeming Pioneer Kiwanis for their sixteen years of aid station service. The group will not be staffing a station this year.
Each year, the race has a medical director stationed at the Superior Dome and in contact with course aid stations and volunteers. Despite the number of racers, there are very few injuries. The medical crew most often deals with sprains, dislocations and blisters. Weather conditions can lead to frostbite conditions, and skin damage is more prevalent during years when weather is extremely cold.
Friday, January 23, the Junior Noque will be held at the NTN’s Forestville facility. One, three and five kilometer races are held for youth under the age of eighteen. These races begin at 3:45 p.m.
1501_feature_finishThe Noquemanon Ski Expo also will be held Friday at the Superior Dome, from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. This festive event combines music, race bag pickup, registration and an open-to-the-public expo by cross country skiing-related vendors.
Noquemanon Ski Marathon racers begin Saturday at 8:10 a.m. with the start of the 50K classic. Races continue until the final race for 500M adaptive ski begins at 3:15 p.m.
A full schedule of events, start times, directions and viewing locations is available at www.noquemanon.com Prospective volunteers can contact Dewald at info@noquemanon.com or 235-6861.
“I am proudest of the community effort that goes into a successful Noquemanon,” said Mommaerts. “We have over 500 volunteers who work all day during the winter, in changing conditions, to offer the racers a great race, promote Marquette and attract skiers from all over the country. It continually amazes me that we can pull this off year after year. That is one of the reasons Marquette is such a special place, and people from all over recognize that when they come to the Noquemanon.”

by Pamela Christensen

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