VAIL — When Vail local Billy Mattison set up an obstacle race course for his twins’ birthday party in his backyard, he had no idea that the concept would snowball into a national race series.
Mattison, a Vail ski patroller, teamed up with a co-worker and held the first Vail KEEN Adventure Games six years ago, setting up ziplines, slip-n-slides, river tubes and mud pits for kids ages 6-14 to navigate. Of course, being held in Vail, the event was a race, and included elements of navigation, mountain biking and hiking. Only 75 kids participated in that first race, but the idea quickly caught on. This past year, 450 kids ran, crawled and biked their way through the course, and this year, KEEN Kids Adventure Games will debut at seven other ski resorts around the country.
“Everybody said, ‘You’ve got to expand. We love seeing our kids doing it,’” said Mattison.
He connected with a Los Angeles event company known for a highly successful series of downhill ski races and the idea took traction. Horizon Milk also recently added their support and dollars, coming on as a sponsor.
A real adventure
Mattison said he thinks the appeal of the games are that they’re both challenging and fun.
“The courses are hard and challenging, and we try to make them true little adventures for the kids,” said Mattison. “There’s ziplines, mud pits with slacklines, slip-n-slides, and they navigate, run and mountain bike to the next station. Both parents and kids are proud to do it. They truly are adventurers — it’s not a carnival ride.”
And just like popular adult obstacle races, part of the fun is the camaraderie. Kids compete in teams of two, separated into several age groups with different course variations.
“For example, if I wanted to take my kids hiking, there’s no way my son would want to go. But if there are 20 other kids doing the same thing, he’s all about it,” said Mattison.
Mattison’s wife and event co-founder, Helene, said they chose to expand to other ski resort towns because the infrastructure and natural features are already there to build obstacles on. Rivers, trees and slopes create a natural adventure playground.
The race schedule is as follows: Snowbird, Utah on June 20-21; Squaw Valley, Calif. on June 27-28; Mt. Hood, Ore. on July 5-6; Stowe, Vt. on July 25-26; Mammoth, Calif. on Aug. 1-2; Vail on Aug. 8-10; Big Sky, Mont. on Aug. 22-23; and Sun Valley, Ida. on Aug. 30-31.
“We are looking at expanding if we have a successful summer, to be able to put this on the beach or make an urban version,” said Helene Mattison. “We just have so much fun with it we want to bring it to many more kids all over the U.S. and beyond.”
She added that she’s already strategizing for a 2015 World Championships version of the games.
Billy Mattison said his big worry is awareness of the events in at the new venues. He encourages anyone with friends and family in the new race communities to help spread the word about the games.
Vail games return
On home turf, the Vail games are expected to be bigger than ever and registration is already underway. Younger and beginner racers compete on a short course on Aug. 8. Intermediate racers will compete on Aug. 9, and racing will conclude on Aug. 10 for older, more experienced racers who will test themselves and their teammates on a challenging course. The cost for the race is $160 per team of two through June 15. After that date, the cost increases to $180 until registration ends on Aug. 1 or the race is full.
Clinics will return and offer opportunities for racers to learn and improve their skills on Aug. 6 and on Aug. 7. Clinics feature teamwork, race-day preparation, climbing and mountain biking. Cost for the clinics is $50 per child.
New in 2014, a 1-mile mud run is scheduled for those too young to race in the games, or a fun alternative for both adults and kids not competing in the games. The Mud Run will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 9 in Vail Village.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.