Note: This article has been updated to include official results from the Merino Muster.
In their first ski marathon south of the equator, a few Sun Valley Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team team members founds themselves on the podium two weekends ago at the Kangaroo Hoppet on Aug. 27.
After spending nearly a month training on snow in the land down under, SVSEF teammates Deedra Irwin and Matt Gelso finished their Australian training camp on top of the podium, winning the respective women’s and men’s 42-kilometer Hoppet, part of the Worldloppet marathon race series, in Falls Creek, Australia.
“Not many people can say that they’ve skied and raced a marathon in Australia,” Irwin wrote in an email. “The Nordic ski community down there is also really supportive and was excited to have us there. There were lots of people cheering for us along the way.”
Irwin skied most of the 42 k freestyle race alongside her Sun Valley teammate Mary Rose. From start to finish, Irwin explained it was predominately a race between the two of them, with Irwin outlasting Rose by 0.6 seconds with a winning time of 2 hours, 8 minutes and 15.6 seconds. Finishing more than 12 minutes later, Aimee Watson was the leading Australian in third place (+12:17.7).
“The competition was mostly just Mary and I from the start,” Irwin wrote. “The race came down to a sprint … I got in front of her at the right time and was able to push through the finish first. Skiing with her during the Hoppet taught me a lot about marathon racing. She is a really strong skier and it was fun to be with her during the race and try to match her moves.”
Rose pointed out that there was plenty of competition besides her teammate.
“Most of the Australian National Team competed, along with some AUS legends like Esther Bottomley,” Rose wrote in an email.
Both Irwin and Rose plan to race another marathon this coming winter, the 2017 American Birkebeiner in February, which is also part of the Worldloppet marathon series. And next summer, Rose indicated that she might return to the Kangaroo Hoppet.
“I don’t have any marathons on my race schedule for this coming year, except the Birkie,” Rose wrote. “I will for sure be returning to Australia to compete in this event, hopefully next year!”
First across the line in the men’s race, Gelso beat out Australian national-team athletes Phillip Bellingham and Nick Montgomery, who finished in second and third, respectively. Just over the halfway point, Gelso explained the front group gradually began to dwindle.
“It split up into five guys, maybe with 20 k left,” he said on the phone from Australia. “At 5 k I kind of blew off the front … and in the last 4 k it turned into, like, three separate people.”
Gelso has raced at least two marathons before, finishing seventh in the 2014 American Birkie and 16th at the 2014 Engadin in Switzerland.
For winning the Hoppet, both Irwin and Gelso received $1,300 Australian dollars, as well as a wooden plaque, compression socks and a mug. More than 230 men competed, and 64 women finished this year’s edition of the race.
“The organizers of the events and the volunteers involved put on a race that I will never forget,” Irwin wrote. “Thank you to the Australian ski community for having us there and letting us enjoy their beautiful winter.”
After the Hoppet, most of the SVSEF skiers headed back to the U.S. for a recovery week in Sun Valley, Idaho, before resuming training. Gelso and Rose opted to take their recovery week exploring Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, prior to flying home this coming Wednesday.
“Everybody else is back, it’s just Mary and I here now,” Gelso said. “We’re kind of doing a recovery week right now, but when we get back, we’ll obviously have to get back into time zone … That’s kind of the plan: get back, get recovered and then get back into full training before we head to Frozen Thunder [in Canmore, Alberta].”
Soaking up the Southern Hemisphere sun and a few last days of rest were also a part of Rose’s schedule.
“I am hanging out in Sydney for a week visiting a friend,” she explained. “So I am putting in some beach time and being a tourist.”
Hoffman, Diggins Win Merino Muster 42 k
This past weekend in New Zealand, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) swept the overall top four in the 42 k Merino Muster at the Snow Farm in Wanaka. Noah Hoffman beat out his USST teammate Simi Hamilton for the overall victory, and Jessie Diggins was the fastest woman in third overall, 12 seconds ahead of teammate Liz Stephen in fourth.
Hoffman won the skate race in 1:45:08 and Hamilton finished 23 seconds later in second place. U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb told the Otago Daily Times that Hoffman, the team’s leading distance skier, was working to improve his sprinting, while Hamilton, who has podiumed in World Cup sprints, wanted to improve his distance skiing.
Two years ago, Hoffman placed second in the 2014 Merino Muster behind Poland’s three-time race champion Maciej Kreczmer. Canadian Para-Nordic visually impaired legend Brian McKeever won last year’s edition (as well as 2010 and 2011), ahead of his teammate and guide in Paralympic events, Graham Nishikawa.
Clocking in third at 1:59:12 was Diggins and Stephen followed 12 seconds later as the second woman.
Of 10 USST members in New Zealand, four raced — finishing first or second in their respective men’s and women’s races. Whitcomb told the Otago Times that the U.S. has held training camps at the Snow Farm for more than 16 years.
This year, all but six of its athletes are there. Of those six, at least four — Alaska Pacific University skiers Kikkan Randall, Rosie Brennan, and Sadie and Erik Bjornsen — are training at home in Alaska on snow at Eagle Glacier.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting