HAYWARD, Wis. – For the first half of Saturday’s 50-kilometer skate race at the 39th American Birkebeiner, Tad Elliott mostly looked down. The 23-year-old U.S. Ski Team member was hanging in there, but it wasn’t easy.
Reaching for a water bottle around 24 k, he mustered the strength to ask his Salomon support staff where the frontrunners were. Last year’s runner-up, Benoit Chauvet of France, and Canadian Graham Nishikawa were nearly a minute ahead of Elliott and the chase group.
The fact that Elliott asked indicated he had some spark left. He hadn’t really warmed up for the race — he typically didn’t for a 50 k — but he’d get there eventually.
A few kilometers later, he and his former teammate, Matt Liebsch, worked together to gun down Chauvet and Nishikawa. That’s what Elliott instinctually wanted to do all along, but Liebsch in his ninth Birkie knew better.
“Tad kept poking me saying, ‘We’ve got to bring it back, they’re gonna get away,’ ” said Liebsch, who previously trained with Elliott on Central Cross Country (CXC). Liebsch now skis for Team Strong Heart and Team Birkie.
“I was like, ‘No, no, they’re not going to be able to hold that,’ ” Liebsch said. “I knew it, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure.”
It turned out the 28-year-old Minnesota racer was right. Chauvet and Nishikawa faded to finish 10th and 25th, respectively, after Liebsch, Elliott and a few others overtook them around 34 k.
Elliott continued to hit his stride and went on to lead the pack, creating about a 30-second gap in the process. He held on for the final 10 kilometers to win the race by 13.7 seconds in 2:04.48.5.
Liebsch was second and another former teammate, Brian Gregg of CXC was third (+14.8).
“In the past, I have a really good kick and can make a gap open up fast, but then I tire a little bit,” Elliott said. “I just kind of ramped it up and no one followed and from there on, I was committed to going real hard to the finish.”
Shortly after crossing the finish line in downtown Hayward in front of an estimated 20,000 spectators, Elliott borrowed a stranger’s phone and called his mom. She had convinced him to come back to the event after placing second there two years.
In 2010, he placed second to Italy’s Fabio Santus, who set a course record in 1:56.58. In his first Birkie, Elliott was just eight seconds behind. Besides his mother’s enthusiasm for the largest ski marathon in North America, Elliott was motivated by how close he previously came to the victory and its $7,500 prize.
“I wanted to win the Birkie,” Elliott said, after becoming the second American man to win the 50 k American Birkebeiner in 20 years. “It is a dream come true.”
Liebsch previously claimed the title three years ago. On Saturday, American skiers topped the podium in every elite men’s and women’s race for the first time since 1975. Back then, the Birkie featured one 55 k classic race.
Flying directly from Europe to the Midwest earlier this week, Elliot prepared for the Birkie in part by watching last year’s video, in which Norway’s Tore Martin Gundersen put on a commanding sprint to win by about three seconds.
“I wanted to be nowhere near that guy,” Elliott said.
He planned accordingly by working with Liebsch, who also wanted to build a gap rather than try to duke it out at the end.
After Liebsch pulled to the front around 34 k, Elliott went with him, and the two switched leads until Elliott made a game-changing move around 40 k.
On the infamous long gradual uphill known as Bitch Hill, Elliott jolted ahead. Gregg quickly responded and tucked in behind, but Liebsch missed his pole plant. He and Lars Flora went down in a tangled mess while Elliott and Gregg continued on.
Gregg remembered watching the mishap unfold.
“It was sort of like, ‘Oh man what’s going on?’ ” Gregg said. “Matt’s a real good buddy of mine, Tad’s a real good buddy, so I thought, ‘We should get this.’ ”
He decided not waste energy chasing Elliott alone and hold onto second, while Liebsch skied without a pole for about half a kilometer. He eventually picked one up off the snow next to a spectator, who told him to give it back.
“Then he was like, ‘That better be at the Birkie office after,’ ” Liebsch said. “It was some heavy, crappy pole. It didn’t even have a strap on it, and I skied with that.”
Santiago Ocariz (CXC) immediately offered Liebsch his pole. He refused to accept it and skied for nearly 5 k with the same cumbersome one. Anticipating his father would have a better pole at 44 k, Liebsch discovered he didn’t. Ocariz renewed the offer, and the two traded poles. A few strides later, Ocariz found a suitable replacement.
“If [Liebsch] would have taken it right away, he might have won,” Ocariz said. “I mean, what’s the difference if I’m eighth or fourteenth? He had the chance to win. He’s a good friend of mine.”
Ocariz ended up 11th.
“I’m realistic. I know my limitations and I know how much stronger those guys are,” he said. “I was just like, ‘I’m going to hang on as long as I can and then we’ll see what happens.’ ”
The gesture helped Liebsch move to second as he sped away from the others shortly after. Halfway across Lake Hayward a few kilometers before the finish, Liebsch quickly gained ground on Elliott.
Elliott knew it, checking back several times as his 30-second lead dwindled.
“I honestly thought I was gonna get caught right as I turned onto Main and it would be over,” Elliott said. “But I ended up hanging on so I was pretty fired up coming down Main Street.”
Liebsch reasoned that if he put his head down into the headwind and pushed as hard as possible, he could have caught him. But he wasn’t sure could hold off the men behind him in a sprint and thought the same for Elliott.
“I would have been toast and he probably would have had to deal with my baggage,” Liebsch said.
He worried they could end up out of the top three and didn’t want European sprinters taking those spots.
“I didn’t care if [I] was top three as long as it was American, American, American,” Liebsch said.
Gregg held off Michael Somppi of Canada’s National Development Centre in Thunder Bay by two-tenths of a second for third. He had hung onto Liebsch after his big push near 45 k and saw six men ahead of him at the start of the lake.
“The last couple years I’ve finished just out of the money in eighth, seventh, eleventh,” Gregg said. “So I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that this year.’ ”
He picked them off one by one, passing Somppi on the final turn before Main Street.
“It was pretty cool because both Elliott and Liebsch are big training partners [and] we were all on the team together last year and two years before,” Gregg said. “You always want to win but it’s awesome to have those guys ahead of you.”
Morten Pedersen (NOR) placed fifth 20.7 seconds after Elliott, and Flora received $1,000 for finishing sixth (+23.9).
Second in last year’s 54 k classic Birkie, Karl Nygren (CXC) was seventh in the 50 k skate. The race’s 2011 champion, Gundersen was eighth. Nishikawa’s teammate at the Alberta World Cup Academy, Brent McMurtry finished ninth.
In the men’s 54 k classic race, Dave Chamberlain of Boulder Nordic Sport notched the default victory after originally placing second by a small margin to Joe Dubay of the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. The 21-year-old Dubay was disqualified for racing in the bib of another athlete, his teammate Chris Parr.
Chamberlain won the race in 2:51.15.2, edging Vegard Ulvang of Norway by 1.9 seconds. The Birkie guest of honor, Ulvang participated in his first American Birkebeiner as a research ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He was one second ahead of Murray Carter of Manitoba, Canada.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.