Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Tad Elliott has won four national distance races, including the 50 k skate in 2010 in Fort Kent, Maine.
HOUGHTON, Mich. — Although Tad Elliott’s name may have been missing from the top of U.S. results recently, at the 2016 U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships on Thursday, the former U.S. Ski Team member showed he’s still got it.
Elliott, 27, a longtime racer with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), made a move in the last three kilometers that went unanswered in the men’s 30 k freestyle mass start, and he entered the stadium with a comfortable berth over Brian Gregg (Team Gregg), winning by 9.6 seconds in 1:20:31.6.
Gregg held off a strong finish by Michael Somppi of Canada’s National Development Centre-Thunder Bay to secure second place, 3.7 seconds ahead of Somppi in fourth.
Over the last two years, Elliott has battled illness, forcing him to take nine months off from training, and endured multiple hospital stays due to complications of Epstein-Barr. Since then, Elliott struggled to attain the same level of results he had grown accustomed to prior — as one of the most promising distance skiers on U.S. Ski Team from 2011 to 2013. However, his upward trajectory began last season when he finished 14th at the American Birkebeiner ski marathon and 11th in the 50 k freestyle mass start at U.S. Distance Nationals in Sun Valley.
He competed in both SuperTour weekends this year, finishing 25th in the 15 k skate in West Yellowstone, Mont., and 15th in the 15 k classic in Sun Valley, Idaho, allowing him to enter this weekend flying somewhat under the radar.
“Before this week I knew I was in my best form for a long time, but could only dream of a podium,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win — his fourth national title following victories in 2010, 2011 and 2012 at nationals in Maine: first in the 50 k skate in Fort Kent, then in the 30 k skate and 15 k skate in Rumford.
This year’s 30 k skate mass start consisted of three laps around the 10 k course on the Michigan Tech Trails. About an inch of new snow had fallen overnight and racers awoke to a foggy and warm morning. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees at race time when 91 men lined up for the event.
Since start positions are based on recent International Ski Federation (FIS) points, Elliott started in bib 140 and had to fight through the field to reach the front on the first lap. Elliott and the rest of the podium contenders stayed out of trouble out of the start, avoiding broken poles and navigating the high-speed hairpin turn two kilometer into the race.
Canadian Kevin Sandau (Alberta World Cup Academy) made the first decisive move at the end of the first lap just before 10 k. Scott Patterson of Alaska Pacific University (APU) answered Sandau’s attack, and the two gapped the field by 50 to 60 meters.
Meanwhile, Gregg was concerned with the strength of Patterson and Sandau together up the trail.
“I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to bring those guys back so I put pretty big surge in to bring them back,” Gregg said. “Unfortunately I brought six to eight skiers along with me. I was hoping it would be a bit smaller than that.”
Sandau’s move ended up establishing the the lead group. “Everyone was hurting and that was for sure the hardest part of the race for me and I think a lot of people today,” Somppi explained. “Once we regrouped and got into our 10-, 11-person pack then it was a lot easier and more chill. I just hung out in the group and waited for the finish.”
The resulting group of 11 consisted of Elliott, Gregg, Somppi, Sandau, Adam Martin and Jake Brown of Northern Michigan University (NMU), Patterson, Matt Liebsch (Gear West), Kyle Bratrud (CXC) and Kris Freeman (Freebird) .
NMU had the strongest team presence in the lead pack in Martin, who had placed third in the 15 k classic earlier this week, and Jake Brown.
“It was awesome to ski with Jake, who I’ve been training with all fall,” Martin said. “Jake led the pace for a good part of the second lap and it was pretty sweet to ski behind him. It just felt like an L3 workout at practice this fall.”
Patterson was another consistent presence at the front of the lead pack.
“I led a lot of the race, but my skis weren’t quite in the game today,” Patterson said. “I think I was one of the strongest in the field, but a little off on skis and that makes it a bit harder.”
The lead group stayed intact until Elliott made his statement.
“It was pretty steady until about three ‘k’ to the finish when Tad Elliott made a strong move and Brian kinda latched onto him,” Patterson described.
Elliott’s move wasn’t completely premeditated, but it proved crucial.
“It was not planned before the race or during,” the eventual winner said. “I knew I had to drop Gregg for a chance to win. He is the best closer out there. My plan was to wait until 400 meters, but the opportunity was there and I felt amazing.”
With Gregg unable to match him, Elliott celebrated across the line.
“Tad was looking really strong. We’ve been teammates and friends for a long time so it is great to see him back on top,” said Gregg, who was Elliott’s former teammate on Central Cross Country (CXC).
After the race Elliott was thankful more than anything.
“I’m pretty thankful for my support team. It’s been a while since I’ve been at the front of a race and went through kind of a lot the past two years so I was really excited,” he said.
“My twin brother waxed my skis they were probably the best in the field,” Elliott added. “[I’ve had] Vail support me for a long time as well as Caldwell Sport who was helped me come back from my illness. This is a really big one for me and it feels like a huge team win.”
Somppi was happy for a podium while feeling less than optimal.
“I came here hoping to win but I’m feeling a bit worn out,” he said. “I raced Period 1 of the World Cup and I sick from coming back from Europe. It was a short ten days at home with some sickness and then come down here so it’s been tough racing.”
Since Somppi is Canadian, Martin made the American podium in third and was ecstatic about his race.
“In the past I’ve been much stronger in classic races so to get fourth today that was a huge surprise and I’m really satisfied with that,” Martin said.
Gregg was happy for Elliott’s success as well as his own performance.
“Today was really fun, felt like my skis were one of the best in the field,” he said. “I was trying to stay in the front group and conserve energy.”
As for the rest of the season, Gregg is looking to regain the overall SuperTour lead as he returns to the domestic circuit. Patterson will leave the domestic circuit this month as he earned World Cup starts as the Period 1 SuperTour leader.
Last season’s overall NorAm champion, Somppi will return to the Canadian circuit and race the next NorAm in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, a qualifying race for the Canadian World Cups in March.
As for Elliott: “We haven’t really talked about it yet,” his coach, Eric Pepper, said. “We had to see how this went first, but he will primarily focus the Birkie.
“Tad’s dealt with a lot the past couple years and to come back and win a race, and win it like that, it was just awesome,” Pepper continued.
— Gabby Naranja contributed reporting