Wednesday, September 17, 2008

'Lack of friction, instant access'

Blaine County’s residents enjoy access to a fit lifestyle

Express Staff Writer

Toni LeClercq swims more than 3,000 yards per week. At the Mount Hood Aquatics Center in Oregon last month she placed in the top six in all her events, including a bronze medal in the 100 meter butterfly. LeClercq is representative of the uncommonly high level of fitness common in the Wood River Valley. Photo by Willy Cook

At about 7,000 feet on Bald Mountain on Sunday afternoon, Andy Sheehan encountered a tired 30-something mountain biker admiring the view.

"You on your way up or down?" Sheehan asked from the saddle of his own mountain bike.

"I think I'm going down," came the reply. "I'm tired."

"Turn that bike around," Sheehan said. "We're going up."

Never mind that at 48, Sheehan out-aged the other biker by 13 years.

"It's almost like the age thing doesn't quite have the same stigma up here," Sheehan later said. "I have friends who are 65 years old, and I'm like, holy criminy these guys are tough, these grizzled old boot-leather guys. These guys are just always out there, and I think it keeps them going."

Sheehan isn't exactly old, but there's no mistaking that he could easily outride many or most 20-year-olds in the United States. He is representative of an elite class of athletes in the Wood River Valley, men and women who are among the most fit athletes in the country. And that fitness is despite the fact that Blaine County's residents are an aging demographic.

Blaine County's claims to fame vary, but in 2007 Money Magazine ranked it the second skinniest county in the United States, behind Marin County, Calif. Also ranked high on the list were other ski-resort locales, like Teton County, Wyo. (Jackson), Summit County, Utah (Park City), and Garfield County, Colo. (near Aspen).

In Sun Valley, anecdotal evidence concurs with Money Magazine's 2007 assessment.

"We've got a very fit community here, which I think speaks to the lifestyle," said Sun Valley Marketing and Public Relations Director Jack Sibbach. "It's why we're all living here. You go to other communities and I don't think you see the lifestyle. It's refreshing to have it here."

Nappy Neaman, 56, is a rock climber, skier, hockey player, road biker and all-around mountain man. He's been staying fit in the Wood River Valley for 30 years. When it comes to maintaining fitness, Neaman says it has little to do with age except that the Wood River Valley is comprised of an aging demographic.

It is and always was this way, he said. It's about the location.

"It's the lack of friction, instant access," he said while sitting on a bench outside the Elephant's Perch where he works. "You can be on the trail anywhere in a few minutes. That's really where I think the whole thing happens, and you don't have to pay for it. I think we're healthy primarily because of that."

Tom Pomeroy is also a healthy 50-something. At 55, he enjoys backpacking, hiking, running, backcountry skiing and cross-country skiing. It's a long list for a person of any age.

"I was always so impressed with some of the athletes 20 years older than me," he said. "They're always so comfortable and relaxed. There's always been that element of people here who are inspirational to other folks because they've lived the lifestyle."

Pomery observed that many Wood River Valley athletes don't compete, but if every area resident who participates in a given sport competed, "local athletes would win every age class."

"It's just such a piece of us, to stay healthy and enjoy it," he said.

Pomeroy moved to the Wood River Valley in 1974 and said he believes people used to come for the quality of life. The place still attracts that type of person, but Pomeroy said he believes it will attract them less as the area continues to price certain people out.

"When I first moved here everybody did everything," he said. "It was all outdoors all the time. There wasn't much theater, no symphony pavilion. It was much more about nature."

Pomeroy, an avid trail runner, said he ran before he moved to the Wood River Valley, but the community and its fitness-oriented events helped spur him to healthier living.

Sibbach, 58, is also an avid runner, but in addition he alpine skis, cross-country skis, mountain bikes and golfs. Sun Valley, he said, does seem fitter than most places.

"I think it just speaks to the active people in the community," he said. "We're all getting older, but we try to stay young by being active. It's one of the reasons people live here."

Sibbach said it's not only in the long-promoted skiing, Sun Valley's signature fitness activity.

"It's the biking. It's the whole environment here," he said. "It speaks to the return guests here. We have a very high rate of return guests who have been coming back for a long time. Even when they try other places they come back—people in the later stages of their lives who are doing very well athletically."

Billy Cook grew up in the Wood River Valley. He's lived here his entire life except for the six years he spent just outside New York City going to college and working as an investment banker. Cook said the Wood River Valley is undoubtedly more fit than certain locales on the East Coast.

"I just think it's the nature of this town," Cook said. "There are just so many things to do here that revolve around athleticism, and that's what brings people to this town."

Asked if he thinks people in the Wood River Valley are healthy because they live here or if people live here because they can achieve healthy lifestyles, Cook said he thinks the valley is a draw.

"It's another mentality back East," he said. "People are focused on other walks of life, career or whatever, and just don't make the time."

So, what is it? Is it age? Is it location? Is it mentality?

After pushing 500 vertical feet farther up Bald Mountain Sunday afternoon, Sheehan left his new riding companion behind. He later said he topped out near Bald Mountain's summit before the sun went down.

"I know there are other towns out there that are very fit and youthful," the 24-year Wood River Valley resident said. "We live at 6,000 feet. The air is clean. The water's clean. Everywhere you turn there's somebody doing something. That's all we do. Everything is designed around it."

In fact, Sheehan compares some residents to the local whitewater.

"Fast running streams don't gather any silt."

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