PARK CITY — It makes sense when the starter explains it: First gate on the left and then alternate — flag to the right, then left, then right and so on — to the finish where you collect your medal, gold of course, and start thinking Olympics.

Certainly, it's a start. At some point even the very best ski racers faced their first gate.

For thousands of skiers each year, that first gate is a red or blue on a Nastar course. These are the so-called citizens' races for skiers of intermediate ability who don't normally compete. Fun races in most cases; serious to some.

The races most certainly show that while running gates may be fun, there's more to winning than alternating gates.

Many resorts offer some form of citizens' races. Park City has stayed with one of the oldest continuous programs called Nastar.

The format is simple enough. Pay a fee ($6 for two runs), then step behind the start wand, wait for the starter's signal and go . . . first gate on the left and alternate.

It's the same routine at more than 100 other ski areas around the country involved in Nastar. Ultimately, what it means is that under a complex handicap system, on the very same day, at precisely the same time, a 45-year-old racer skier could race in Vermont or Utah and stand to win the same medal.

The way it works is that participating resorts start with a team of pacesetters (Park City has six), who compete on a national level at the start of the year. The fastest of the pacesetters is given a "zero" handicap, with trailing skiers getting higher handicaps.

At the start of each day, one of the pacesetters skis both the red and blue Nastar courses. This sets up a handicap on that course with all the other Nastar courses around the country.

The side-by-side courses are then turned over to the racers. They start, they finish and, if they are good enough, they pick up their medal — bronze, silver and gold — at the finish. Friends race friends, moms race sons, daughters race dads or strangers could race strangers.

And, says John Lewis of the Park City race department, more often than not they all come back and try again.

"They see it's not hard, that it's fun, and they want a second run to see if they can better their time, and in most cases they do," he said.

There is still, in many skiers, that hesitation to put skis behind the starting wand and face the serpentine of gates. Those who do run the Nastar course often become avid fans of the sport.

What sometimes happens, however, is skiers save the race for the last run or the last day.

"They want to get in some practice before they race, when, in fact, they should race on the first day or at least early in the day, and then see how they've improved by the last day or last run," Lewis suggested.

In fact, the busiest months for the race department, said Karen Korfanta, race department manager, are the last months in the ski season — February, March and April.

By this time skiers have had time to fine tune their carving skills before tackling gates. It's also a time when ski groups start to gather at resorts.

"These races are very popular with clubs. Sometimes they'll have us hold the medals and present them at a club function at the end of the trip," she said.

"Then we have the very avid racers. They race every day. They race at every resort they visit and track their times on a national level over the Internet. They're constantly trying to improve their times."

Aside from the fun, races also have another benefit, said Korfanta — they help to improve skiing.

"What the gates do is force a skier to make turns around the gates, not simply where he or she wants to turn. Running gates really does help timing and make people better skiers," Korfanta said.

The ability of the racers varies as much as their ages. The youngest around 5, the oldest past 80; the golds going to former racers most often and the bronzes to your beginners to intermediates with a few races behind them.

Under the Nastar program, about 65 percent of the racers will actually medal. Most will get a bronze, a smaller group will earn the silver and far fewer will win the gold.

To accommodate everyone, the program has factored in formula for snowboarders and telemark skiers.

Park City's race program runs Wednesdays through Saturdays. The number of racers involved will depend on the day, ranging from 50 to 60 to more than a couple of hundred.

All of them given the same instructions — first gate on the left — and all with the same opportunity to medal.