ASPEN, Colo. — When Jennie Bender (CXC) went from sea level to over 8,000 feet in Aspen, Colo. on Thursday night, she didn’t quite know how her body would react when she began the classic sprint on Saturday. A 14.44-second victory definitely wasn’t what she expected.
“I was going to take it out slower than I normally go; I wasn’t sure how the altitude would be,” said Bender. “But, I felt great—kind of surprised by 14 seconds.”
Bender, typically a strong classic skier, had never before raced in Aspen, but decided to make the trip this year in order to develop her altitude racing. With such a significant gap between her and the other 22 women in the sprint field, clearly she’s already doing something right.
“I just tried to keep a constant L4 pace the whole way and not blow up, and it worked!”
With an eye towards qualifying for the World Cup in Canada next winter, Bender decided that in addition providing good skiing at altitude, a trip to Colorado was worth it for its potential to better her USSA points. The right to compete in Canmore will be weighed by both the current season and early races next fall.
Rosie Brennan (APU) finished second in the sprint, and said she was caught off guard by the short, hard effort.
“I did not feel good this morning,” she said at the end of the day. “I was not quite ready for that, but it was a good warm up for the 5 k.”
Haley Piske (Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club) took the third spot on the podium (+14.90); Chelsea Holmes (SVSEF) was fourth (+16.30).
The sprint on Saturday was a qualifier-only; after taking a two-hour break following the first round, racers took to a 5 k classic course at 30-second intervals for the chance to earn separate SuperTour points.
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In contrast to the way the sprint played out, the 5 k classic was a close call. Holmes and Brennan, who started a minute apart from each other, were locked in a battle against the clock and each other throughout the entire course. Holmes wound up beating Brennan by a mere 0.5 seconds; Bender took third at 57.5 seconds back.
As the race consisted of one lap and most coaches were busy waxing for junior races later that afternoon, few if any athletes got split information on the course to tell them how their races were going.
“I just figured I’d go as fast as [I] can,” said Holmes. “I caught Jennie, and she’s a really good classic skier, so I was psyched.”
Holmes briefly thought about simply tucking in behind Bender to catch a ride, but she decided to go for the top result she was hoping for. When she pulled away from Bender, she hoped it meant she was having a good race.
Training out of Sun Valley may make her slightly more acclimated to altitude, but Holmes was in every bit as much pain as anyone throughout the effort.
“Oh my God, I felt like my heart was ripping out of my chest,” she said, though she conceded “it’s probably easier for me, for sure… I’ve been at altitude for years, so I think my body adjusts pretty readily.”
In addition to the elevation, Holmes had a favored course on her side.
“It’s such an amazing spot here, and the course is very much my style, which I think is why it went better for me—rolling hills and lots of climbing,” she said.
Brennan, who took silver twice on Saturday, knew she was on her way to a good race when she passed eventual fourth-place finisher Alexa Turzian (SVSEF) early on.
“Then when I got into the open I could see Jennie was getting passed, and I figured she was my biggest competition, so I was like, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ but she was getting passed by Chelsea, so I figured Chelsea was doing pretty well, too” said Brennan.
Is losing by half a second tough to swallow?
“I mean, I’m bitter of course—obviously I wish I could have done a few strokes harder somewhere along the line, but…”
Though neither knew exactly how the other was doing, the fight between Brennan and Holmes somehow put nearly a minute gap between the top two and Bender in third.
After winning the sprint my so much, Bender acknowledged she was “probably too pumped for the 5 k.”
“I started way too fast, and I hit the biggest wall… so, I got my butt kicked,” said Bender.
Her focus for the weekend was always the two classic races, so for the Owl Creek Chase on Sunday, Bender isn’t setting specific expectations for the 21 k point-to-point freestyle course.
“I’ve been told horror stories—everyone’s like, ‘Start slow, be careful, don’t kill yourself,’ so I’m just going to go out and have fun with it, I think,” she said.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.