Feb 27, 2012

Aspen winter - better late than never

The winter of 2011-2012 has been a major case of the “hurry up and waits” for the snow that never seemed to want to fall. Being blessed with extraordinary snowfall seasons the past few years you can’t expect to hit em’ all every year, but Ullr was certainly making us pay for past powder seasons while in contrast treating the Alps to a tremendous year (which they desperately needed). Last week I went up on Aspen and looked around and realized the snow had suddenly arrived and the skiing was in fact very, very good. The last few weeks four to five inches had fallen every few days - not enough to notice at once but it snuck up on us. Aspen was in pretty darn good shape with knee deep powder in places. Friggin’ finally.

Spreading the Teva love

The season steamrolls on regardless of epic snow coverage or not - Aspen is most always skiable thanks to talented snowmakers, cat drivers and our high elevation. I arrived in town in December and started working, training and of course having a bit of fun. I put my head down and one event after another flew by, Christmas week, The Ajax Cup, Winterskol, heli-skiing in Canada, Gay Ski Week, The Crested Butte ISMF North American Ski Mountaineering Championships, The X Games and most recently the inaugural Winter Teva Mountain Games in Vail. When I did stop long enough to look up and really see all the accumulated snow, I realized winter was here and we better hurry up and enjoy it since its almost half gone - and according to the Mayan calendar it could be the last one.

A few weeks ago on February 10th I signed up for the Ultimate Mountain Challenge in Vail with nine other talented female athletes. Insert slight intimidation here - the purse was huge and the fast people follow the money. The Ultimate Mountain Challenge featured and array of uber talented athletes that were set to compete in the Nordic 10k on Friday, the Eddie Bauer Ski Mountaineering Race on Saturday and the Bud Light Uphill on Monday. Superstar athletes like national winter triathlon champion Brian Smith, world champion adventure racer Mike Kloser, professional cyclist and ski mountaineer Sari Anderson, elite runner Stevie Kremer, Nordic Olympian Rebecca Dussault, USA Trail Running team member Megan Kimmel and Morgan Smyth, the U.S. National Nordic Champion all toed the line over the race weekend.

Jari finishing strong

The 10k was an experiment of sorts. I had the rare treat of having my husband around to cheer me on. A former member of the Swiss Nordic Development team he gave me some last minute pointers assuring me I could win - love truly can be blind, but his unwavering confidence was just what I needed. I am not a particularly talented Nordic skater due to lack of experience, but goal was just to finish not too far behind the other women in the UMC. I owe a big thanks to Chip Chilson for his detailed training tips and to Mike Uncapher at the Aspen Cross Country Center for giving me a great Nordic lesson lesson. His Mike-mantras circulated in my head as I raced - keep weight on balls of feet, tuck tailbone, pendulum (he told me to think of the huge clock Flavor Flav wore) among others.

I lined up in the tracks behind Jari Kirkland reminding myself it was my second time on skate skis this season and I just had to finish 10k without flailing. My husband wanted to know why I didn’t line up in the front. I told him in all seriousness it was because I would have been run over and lining up in front of athletes with outfits that said USA on them was probably poor form. In contrast my outfit did not match, un-matching outfits always go to the back. I was also told the course was flat. Lies. The back loop had huge hills and I saw spots as I skated - I think I hallucinated and saw a small child cruise by me on one hill. Later I was told it was Recbecca’s son and he was in fact very real.  But I was pleased I remembered some of my form cues and think I had moments of brilliance among my exhausted efforts. I also managed to beat a few women and it’s not every day you line up with Olympic caliber athletes. At the finish I was inspired to maybe take a few more lessons after the burning in my lungs subsided. A huge congrats to Olympians Rebecca Dussault and Leif Zimmerman for taking the win, it was impressive to watch them skate - they made it look so easy.

Finish Eddie Bauer Ski Mountaineering Race

The ski mountaineering event on Saturday was my strongest event and had three different course distances to suit all levels. The recreation, advanced and elite divisions all begin at the Lionshead Plaza. The race was part of the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup and was to date the richest ski mountaineering race in America with the elite division vying for a $5000 cash purse. Chief of Course and COSMIC founder Pete Swensen was excited to have the chance to bring ski mountaineer racing to the games and to a new audience.

The elite course wound up the front of Vail, down the back bowls, up and across Blue Sky Basin, back down and finally up the outskirts of the huge China Bowl. After a descent down the front of Vail Mountain, competitors hoofed it up one last boot pack to take them to the top of Gold’s peak with the last short descent being routed through giant slalom gates. It was the longest effort I have done to date covering 20 miles and 8200 feet of vertical elevation gain. The skinning was low angle and the descents short, not my favorite style of course but it was stunningly beautiful under sunny skies. I found myself racing with Jari Kirkland. Normally races of this length are done in teams, so we fed off each other offering encouragement throughout the event. The flat terrain challenged us mentally and I was sore from the new muscles used at the Nordic event the day before. I was very happy I had upbeat tunes with me. Jari turned on the afterburners on the bootpack and got me by a minute at the finish. Sari Anderson took the win with Janelle Smiley close behind and Stevie Kremer finishing third for women. Myself, Jari, Rebecca Dussault and Jen Girsbach all finished within five minutes of each other rounding out the top seven.  Marshall Thomson, Bryan Wickenhauser and Brian Smith placed top three for men in that order.

More fun at the 10k

The Bud Light Vail Uphill put on my good pal Ellen Miller was a great success. Lining up again after a sustained day of effort all mostly above 10,000 feet seemed daunting. I have competed in multi-day events in Europe like the Pierra Menta and I don’t remember feeling quite as beat up after those stages. Altitude is tricky to master and it has no mercy. I chose to use skis for the uphill but many were in running shoes.  My choice proved sound with the soft snow and I managed to overtake most of the runners that passed me in the first flats. The course was about 2.7 miles up around 2,200 feet starting an an elevation of 8100 feet finishing at 10,300. The last stretch crested into another flat and we all though next time pulling skins and skating might be faster. A big thanks to friend Gayle Hayles for meeting me at the finish - such a difference to have a smiling face across the line. Stevie Kremer blasted the competition in running shoes with spikes by two minutes with Janelle Smiley and Sari Anderson coming in behind. For the men Josiah Midaugh, Jason Delany and John Tribbia topped the podium.

Women’s podium skimo race- minus Steve and Jari

Shortly after the race the results for the Ultimate Mountain Challenge were announced. Sari Anderson took the title followed by Janelle Smiley, Stevie Kremer, Rebecca Dussult, Jari Kirkland and myself. Brian Smith, Marshall Thomson, Mike Kloser, Greg Ruckman, Luke Nelson and Eric Sullivan took the top six spots for men. It should also be noted that Sari Anderson finished about 12 minutes behind the top male in the skimo race and in the overall UMC challenge.

Finish Bud Light Uphill

Over the four days a variety of other snow-loving athletes showcased their talents snow biking, ice climbing, telemark skiing, ski mountaineer racing, snowshoeing, running, dog events and Nordic racing. Prizes for all events totaled $60,000 and attracted professional competitors from all over the country. In addition to athletic events the games also offered free concerts, parties and art events in the Vail Village. Friday night boasted a specially designed spectator friendly ice and rock wall structure designed for elite mixed climbers to test their speed and agility. Saturday night under the lights we watched “Free Heels and Wheels” presented by Chipotle. Professional telemarkers and snow bikers competed in a one of a kind “trick” session over bursts of flames. Snow bikers like Ian Anderson were able to take part in one of the first ever snow bike criterium. For results, photos and videos of all the events, click here. For Sari’s account of the weekend click here. For a great recap in the Denver Post click here.