ASPEN, Colo. — On a bluebird morning in Colorado, the Aspen Nordic Festival kicked off on Saturday with a two-stage classic day; a sprint qualifier in the morning followed by a 10 k individual start for the men two hours later. Karl Nygren (CXC) started the weekend off by posting the fastest sprint time by 2.85 seconds, followed by Dylan McGuffin (CGRP) in second and Pat O’Brien (CGRP) in third (+3.21).
The 1.4 k sprint course was set with firm tracks, and featured a few short, steep climbs and some descents that let skiers carry their speed. The brief uphill before the straightaway to the finish was positioned just where athletes really started to hurt.
Twenty-four men contested the sprint, and the SuperTour regulars at the top of the results sheet were largely unused to the all-around pain of racing at altitude. Tucker McCrerey (Summit Nordic Ski Club) broke into fourth ahead of Nils Koons (Rossignol) in fifth and Tim Reynolds (CGRP) in sixth.
For many elite skiers on the SuperTour circuit, Aspen was the first stop in a while that had any natural snow to speak of. Though the elite field was relatively thin, the sun and abundant snow had racers in a good mood.
Even after feeling the full force of 8,000+ feet of elevation, Nygren was cheerful about the sprint.
“That hurt a lot,” said Nygren with a laugh.
He and teammate Jennie Bender were the only CXC athletes to make the trip to the Rockies, and rather than arrive a week beforehand to acclimate to the altitude, they decided to race before their bodies had a chance to completely protest to the thinner air.
“You’ve just got to race into it a little bit,” said Nygren.
With a distance race on the docket for the same day, athletes had little choice but to race into it.
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After cooling down, elevating their feet, and warming back up, it was time to head back out for the 10 k classic. By the time the first men’s starter went off at 11:00 am, the temperature had warmed significantly.
The men completed two 5 k loops that featured long gradual climbs and little rest. All three podium finishers were athletes who had decided, for various reasons, to skip the preliminary sprint.
Matt Gelso (SVSEF), despite “exploding” at the top of the course and losing significant ground, rallied to beat Leif Zimmermann (BSF) by 13.4 seconds. Vegard Kjoelhamar (CU) took third (+34.7), and McCrerey (+50.6) was the first athlete across the line who had also skied the sprint two hours earlier.
“I went out a little hard, which is something I almost never do,” said Gelso
“I had a little explosion at the top of the course, for about a kilometer, but I brought it back together at the bottom.”
As a CU alumnus, Gelso once competed at altitude comparable to Aspen’s every weekend. This year, Saturday marked the highest race he’d done all season. Couple the thin air with recovery from his recent head cold, and Gelso’s race made for a painful experience.
Despite appearing to be on the way out of the running on the second lap, he managed to catch back up to the group in front of him that included Tim Reynolds (CGRP) and Kjoelhamar, and skied even with them in the final kilometers to regain the lead.
Zimmermann, who skied a 10 k skate at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail on Friday, similarly characterized the experience as “awful,” but was nonetheless pleased with the outcome.
“Racing at this altitude is always hard, and you kind of feel like you’re in slow motion all the time,” said Zimmermann.
He added that he normally enjoys racing at high elevation, but “overall I just didn’t have that little snap on the hills.”
With its gradual climbs and a track that got steadily greasier under the sun, Zimmermann said that snap was the key to having a good race on Saturday.
Kjoelhamar, whose major focus will be NCAAs coming up in less than a month, remained in Colorado this weekend to recover from a recent illness while his CU teammates raced in Alaska.
“I like the course here—not too steep, but long climbs,” said Kjoelhamar. “It fits me well.”
Kjoelhamar returned to training after his illness on Tuesday, and like Zimmermann, entered the 10 k in Vail on Friday to begin racing his way back into shape.
“[Vail] was horrible—today was quite a bit better, but there’s still a little bit before I’m in good shape.”
Sunday’s Owl Creek Chase, a mass start 21 k freestyle, is the focal point of the Aspen Nordic Festival. The point-to-point course has Saturday’s competitors plenty wary.
“When you’re feeling great, it’s a super fun course,” said Zimmermann.
“But if you’re a little tired it can be painful. I think it’ll be fun; the snow’s good.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.