A Solution to Snowboarding's Energy Drink Problem
The coolest snowboarding event of the summer represents both the roots and best-case future for the sport.
All photos courtesy Liam Gallagher
The Rat Race is a different breed of snowboard contest. It takes place in the middle of summer on Mt. Hood, Oregon, and there are no judges or scoring criteria. The only rule is that you have to stay on the banked-slalom course, but even that is open for some interpretation. The course itself is built by volunteers, mostly competitors who show up a few days early to shovel snow and shape the turns. At the awards ceremony and after party, the contest organizers' parents are the ones manning the grill and serving up dinner to the 100-plus people in attendance.
Some of the world's best snowboarders competed last week at the fourth annual Rat Race, regardless of whether there was no prize money to win. Instead, the top racers got their pick from a fresh batch of hand-shaped Chris Christenson surfboards and custom Nitro snowboards. The top three male racers were Harry Kearney, Blair Habenicht, and Austen Sweetin. The top female racers were Hailey Langland, Spencer O'Brien, and Julia Marino.
The most-coveted awards of the race, the rat trap trophies, were were made by Rat Race founders Austin Smith and Bryan Fox. These are essentially dubious-achievement awards handed out for a wide-range of happenings. There's one for best crash, best grab, and best style. New this year was the "Chris Fuck Yeah Roach Award" bestowed to Chris Roach simply for being, well... Chris Roach.
From the athletes building the course, to the BBQ after party, snowboarding events don't get any more DIY than the Rat Race. That's how Fox and Smith have always done things—on their own, but with a lot of help from friends.
Long-time buddies and pro snowboarders Fox and Smith are the brains behind the brand Drink Water, which hosts the Rat Race. Just like the race, Drink Water is atypical. It doesn't sell water; it promotes the consumption of it. The idea was born five summers ago, when Fox and Smith grew fed up with the increasing number of snowboarders taking sponsorship paychecks from energy drink companies. They started writing "Drink Water" on their snowboards. They eventually made stickers, t-shirts, and hats. It became their way to voice their dissent. They wanted everyone to know they weren't down for soda brands supporting snowboarders.
"That's our whole spiel," Smith says. "We're a response to energy drinks. And we started the Rat Race because there's so many crazy events. This is just the balance to those events. For every crazy mainstream event you're going to need some grassroots, community-based events to keep the sport having any type of integrity."
Among the various subcultures within the subculture of snowboarding are contest kids who focus their seasons on the competition circuit. Then there's riders who dedicate their time to filming video parts, shooting photos, traveling, and generally not competing. Most of the snowboarders at the Rat Race fall into that latter category. For them, snowboarding isn't really about competition.
"Obviously, there's the elite professional snowboard world that goes to the X Games and the Mountain Dew Tour, and the Olympics, and that's the little tip top of the iceberg," Fox says. "But everyone below them, including us, is pretty psyched on having events like this."
That's mostly because these contests aren't all about winning. Really, it's just a community gathering. It's an excuse to hang out at Mt. Hood in the summer, swim in the mountain lakes, and BBQ, camp, and party all night with friends who usually only see each other in the winter.
"It brings out the right people," says pro snowboarder Josh Dirksen. "That's a big goal of it, to bring out our friends, all the snowboarders that have all known each other for a long time, like a family reunion."
Dirksen was a part of the inspiration for the Rat Race. He runs a similar banked-slalom contest at Mt. Bachelor every winter, called The Dirksen Derby. He admits that organizing an event is no small undertaking, but he does it because he thinks snowboarding needs DIY events like this. That's where snowboarding started, Dirksen says, and it's this type of contest that keeps the sport both rooted and growing in the right direction.
"This kind of reminds everyone here what we want snowboarding to be," says Dirksen. "And seeing the influential riders who come out here and are a part of it, it makes it official. This is a real event, and it doesn't have to be worth millions."
Plus, as competitor Blair Habenicht sees it, this a level of snowboarding that any snowboarder can relate to. It's all about turning, and every snowboarder can carve a turn. Not every snowboarder can do the flips and tricks seen on mainstream coverage of snowboarding.
"People still just want to live in their van and go ride powder and feel flow and make turns," Habenicht says. "And when you look at TV, the X Games and all that shit, you don't relate to it, but you do relate to this."
The Rat Race is also a fundraiser. Drink Water raised $20,000 at this year's event, all of which was donated to Water.org to allow more people access to clean water. They also sold limited-edition water bottles to raise money for Rat Race course co-creator Pat Malendoski, who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor last winter. All proceeds from the water bottle sales will be donated to help the Malendoski family with their medical bills.
Rare is the occasion when snowboarding can be considered an act of philanthropy. Even more rare is the pro snowboarder that uses his high profile for the betterment of society. That's what makes this event and Drink Water different. Both the event and the brand are essentially a call to action and a reminder to think before you consume. It might have started half-jokingly, but Fox and Smith are dedicated to the brand and the idea of drinking water instead of over-caffeinated soda.
As pro athletes in a position of influence, they're hoping their example will be cause for consideration by their peers, especially that next wunderkind that's being courted by energy drink brands.
"That's why we're here," says Fox. "To show that kid, 'Hey, that shit is terrible. You're going to be a marketing tool for them. Hopefully you can be a little more thoughtful about what you're promoting.'"