There are some races that are just fun to be a part of no matter the outcome, and the annual Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, Idaho, is one of them. Against a picturesque backdrop, blue skies and on a downhill 32 k course, it’s hard not to be happy to be racing the BMT.
It certainly helps to win, too, particularly in the dramatic way the final hundred meters unfolded for both the men’s and women’s elite races on Saturday. Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Team HomeGrown) and Lauren Fritz (Alaska Pacific University) each outkicked a charging field to take home the overall titles; Ellefson for a repeat of his 2011 victory and Fritz in her first appearance at the Tour.
“Today is just such a fun race,” Ellefson said. “I think everyone enters it and goes in with this good feeling, especially with the sun up this morning. Everyone on the front line, we’re good buds, so it’s fun to be out there skiing against people who are fast and are also your friends.”
A friendly field didn’t stop the race from coming down to a vicious finish, however. On a mostly downhill course that narrows in the last few kilometers, passing is near impossible if a pack still exists late in the race. This year a dozen or so men were still tightly packed when the course narrowed — Sun Valley’s Matt Gelso attempted a breakaway but was reeled back in — and everyone prepared themselves for a sprint to the line.
“I was actually really surprised that we had as many on our group as we did at the finish,” Ellefson said. “But I think that just speaks to the depth of the field out here.”
Ellefson sat patiently in the group through the final sprint preem about 7.5 k from the finish, and still through 4 k to go when Gelso broke away.
“He gapped the group and for a bit I was starting to get nervous, because no one was really chasing him that hard,” Ellefson said of Gelso’s breakaway.
On a late climb the Vail native took matters into his own hands and put on a surge to catch up to Gelso, spurred by good skis and an affinity for altitude skiing.
“I pushed hard over the hill, got in a low tuck, got to the front of the pack, because I’d been sitting in fifth, and just tried to chase him down as much as possible,” Ellefson said.
He caught and passed Gelso with 3 k to go and skied from the front for the rest of the race — a risky move on a fast course.
“It was completely nerve racking, because you look back and see all these great sprinters behind you and you’re just like, “Ho man, here we go,’” Ellefson said. “Everyone was stepping on each other’s poles jockeying for position and your adrenaline is just rushing. It was exciting coming into the final 100 m. It doesn’t open up until the last bit so all of a sudden it’s just a horse race ‘til the finish.”
Ellefson crossed the finish line 0.5 seconds ahead of Mark Iverson (Alaska Pacific University); Peter Kling (APU) took third 0.3 behind his teammate. The top twelve men were packed within the same six seconds at the finish.
Since Ellefson hadn’t seen many of the top domestic racers since nationals, he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the Tour. It’s a course that suits him — a net loss in elevation, and he thinks of himself as a heavier skier — but he knew it would be a tough field.
“Since I wasn’t in the Midwest for those SuperTours, seeing all those results you’re like, ‘All right, this guy’s skiing good and this guy’s skiing good,’ and pretty much all those guys except for [Torin] Koos were here so I knew all those guys are on good form right now. So I had no idea what to expect today,” Ellefson said.
Though the Boulder Mountain Tour is a hugely popular marathon (668 men and women finished) and he was happy to be on top of the results against a talented field, Ellefson is most encouraged by the way the sprint finish turned out. Plagued by fatigue on the World Cup and at U.S. Nationals in the early season, he’s glad to see he can outsprint the best on the domestic circuit again.
“It’s hard to judge on a course like this, because it’s all down or flat, so it’s hard to say where my fitness is,” Ellefson said. “I guess what you could take out of it is that coming into the final 100 meters it was just a full blown sprint, so my finishing speed is good. Which I’m happy with.”
Fritz Puts on Strong Finishing Kick to Win Debut Tour
The women’s 32 k was as much of a nail-biter as the men’s, not with the same number of contenders but still with a dramatic final sprint. As in the men’s race, a lead pack eventually separated and did not break apart by the time the trail opened up at the end. Lauren Fritz (Alaska Pacific University), in her first year racing the event, outkicked Corrine Malcolm (U.S. Biathlon) by a breathtaking 0.1 seconds to finish in 1:18:57. Brooke Hovey (Ketchum, ID) took third only 0.4 seconds behind Malcolm and Alexa Turzian (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) finished fourth in the photo finish (+1.1).
“I’m definitely happy with it, especially considering I fell twice during the race,” Fritz said.
Despite the falls, the BMT course was relatively forgiving — after each incident Fritz lost contact with the leaders but the downhill course and some efficient skiing enabled her pull back within reach without burying herself.
“I took myself out after the first preem a little around halfway, I think, and that kinda sucked,” Fritz said. “I thought I was done for, but managed to catch back up to the pack and luckily they didn’t take off right when I caught back on, so I caught my breath a little bit.”
When the lead group was still four women strong on a narrow, windy section of the course in the last 5 k, Fritz knew it would be a battle. As a sprint-specialist she was fairly certain she could outkick the other three women.
“I was pretty confident,” Fritz said. “I’ve had a lot of successes in sprinting and tend to have a good kick at the end of races, so I knew I could beat most if not all of them if it came down to a sprint finish. Which is why I was glad I could tag back onto the pack after I fell, because I knew once I was back in there it was like, ‘OK, now I know I can have a good finish.’”
When the four of them came out of the woods Fritz picked a good lane, put her head down and lunged to take the win by a hair.
Though assured of her sprint ability, Fritz entered the race unsure of what the course would even look like. It was her first time at the BMT and she hadn’t previewed the entire trail system before lining up for the start on Saturday.
“I basically didn’t know what to expect because I only got to preview a couple of sections of the trails this week, so I didn’t have any idea of where the trail went other than the couple place I looked at,” she said. “Alexa and Brooke had done it before, so I was just going to follow them when they went and do what they did and hope it turned out well.”
The women’s field was a tad less deep at the top end than the men’s and Fritz said the pace was pretty manageable. When she considered how her BMT result stacks up against her other distance races, she took this into account along with downhill nature of the course.
“I mean I definitely felt pretty good; the snow is really fast and the pace is pretty fast,” she said. “But the effort wasn’t — I wasn’t hanging on for dear life. You weren’t really pushing the pace that hard it seems, because it didn’t seem like anyone would be able to drop anyone by going harder, just because it was so fast.”
After her debut at Nordic Town USA’s premier ski race, Fritz was enthusiastic about the Tour and the festival.
“It was fun!” she said.