ASPEN, Colo. — The Owl Creek Chase is not a race to be entered lightly. The 21 k course is a taxing point-to-point that starts at the Snowmass Cross Country Center, traverses the slopes of Buttermilk and comes out at the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club after thousands of feet of long, grueling climbs and dizzying descents. Race favorites describe it as a survivor’s course; murderously challenging. Go too hard, too early, and it will bury you.
It should come as no surprise that Central Cross Country’s Brian Gregg and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Nicole DeYong conquered such terrain. Both skiers are notorious climbers and well-acclimated altitude racers, and have learned from experience what it takes to outlast at Owl Creek.
“Owl Creek can be pretty painful if you go too far under,” Gregg said. “The last time I was here…the wheels just came off. I don’t think I’ve ever hurt that bad.”
This year Gregg made sure to prepare himself accordingly for the 8,000-foot height and daunting course profile. He and his wife, Caitlin, have been staying with family in Eagle, Colo., for weeks to train high in preparation. They both skipped the classic races on Saturday to save up for the main event, unlike many of their competitors.
On Sunday it paid off, and Brian outsprinted Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Team HomeGrown) by eight seconds to finish in 1:02:04.4 in sunny, hard-packed conditions. Mike Sinnott (SVSEF) took third (+1:23).
You read that right — in a sprint finish, Gregg outsprinted the field. The CXC veteran has been working particularly hard on his closing kick all year with his coach Scott Johnston and the Methow Olympic Development squad to turn himself into a better all-around skier.
“I’ve done a lot of workouts where we’ll ski 800 meters or something and sprint as hard as we can the last 300 meters to work on that finishing speed,” Gregg said. “It’s always been a weakness of mine, so I got to focus on that this summer and now I’m seeing it come together in the race season.”
It took a full 20 k of intelligent skiing for Gregg to be in a position to kick it in at the end, for the preceding kilometers and broke many a strong skier. The race began at a controlled pace; Brent Knight (Alaska Pacific University) fell in the opening seconds and the leaders waited considerately for him to catch back on. When the lead pack developed, Gregg, Ellefson, Sinnott, Knight and Matt Gelso (SVSEF) helped each other conserve energy and rotated turns setting the pace at the front.
Ellefson and Gregg eventually broke away before the halfway mark and continued to switch in and out of lead duty as they came into the final 5 k on the Aspen trails.
“I kind of pulled it in I guess to keep away third and fourth, but also keep the pace high so no win would come too easy,” Ellefson said. “But I think I led a little bit more than I wanted to that last 5 k. I don’t know if it was the three races beforehand or what, but my legs just couldn’t do it in the last 200 meters.”
A minute back, Sinnott gained back a deficit on Knight to claim bronze. At such a suffer-fest of a race, he was happy to hang on to a podium spot.
“I was fighting with those guys for a while, and then once you crack on this course you go backwards fast,” Sinnott said. “I saw a big chase pack coming so I was happy to hang onto third — those sharks were coming up behind me pretty quick.
“It’s a beautiful course, really fun, but so murderously painful. It just hurts. It’s about who’s toughest and who can survive, and I was not the survivor today.”
Knight finished 0.3 seconds behind Sinnott for fourth. Colin Rodgers (SVSEF), a coach at most races, took fifth after a 30-second break in the field. Patrick Johnson (SVSEF) was sixth, 29 seconds behind Rodgers.
Though the course is a lung-burner, most finishers looked happy as they crossed the finish line under the Aspen sun.
“I love this course, it’s one of my favorites,” Ellefson said. “I was expecting to be skiing in six inches of powder this morning and was not looking forward to that, so when the tracks were firm this morning it was good vibes today.”
The women’s race played out much like the men’s in the beginning — the course practically requires a comfortable early pace. No one wants to blow up too early at Owl Creek. But in the end DeYong won by a whopping two minutes over Lenka Palanova (Boulder Nordic Junior Race Team).
“From many years of experience I’ve discovered it’s good to just kind of sit back for a little bit and find a good rhythm,” DeYong said. “I was feeling pretty tired and sore this morning, so I just wanted to play it conservatively.”
DeYong won Owl Creek once before in 2010 — in fact it’s the only race she’s ever won. She no longer races full time and doesn’t put too much pressure on results, and on Sunday she just hoped hoped for a good feeling after racing the 5 k classic the day before.
The pace went out “comfortably.” Palanova, DeYong, Alexa Turzian (SVSEF), Rosie Brennan (APU) Erika Flowers (SMS T2) and Caitlin Gregg (CXC) splintered off from the rest of the field as the course wound around a hilly Snowmass golf course in the first 5 k.
Palanova drew first blood at the front of the train, not content to sit back at a leisurely pace.
“I didn’t want them to play the tactical game,” she said. “When I realized they were going a little bit too slow I just went for it.”
Palanova pulled at the front for most of the first kilometers in an attempt to separate the women from the girls, but when the group reached the first major downhill it became clear that DeYong had extremely fast skis. Once DeYong got in a tuck and zoomed away from the field, most figured the race was pretty much over.
“After we crested the first pass Nicole had ridiculous skis, and pretty much just tucked away from us and that was the end of that,” Brennan said.
Gregg and Brennan attempted to follow her, but DeYong was skiing on another level.
“The skis were running so well I just decided to go with it,” DeYong said. “I was praying for a good feeling in the body and I had it.”
Behind her, attempts to close her breakaway were futile.
“I was kind of dumb and tried to go really hard to catch back up, because I thought it’d be easier if I could draft, but I just spend the whole time trying to catch up instead of actually resting,” Brennan said.
At Owl Creek it can be a death sentence to go too hard too early, and Brennan said she paid the price at the end, gradually losing time on DeYong as Palanova closed in from behind.
“I don’t know if Rosie started getting tired or I started getting faster, but I caught her before the last 5 k,” Palanova said.
The BNJRT coach and former Colorado University star kept an even pace as she moved around the last few kilometers, expecting Brennan to be right behind her. When Palanova realized there was no one in sight, she thought, “‘Oh, I should maybe hammer.’ So I did,” she said. “But I think I was more lucky than anything else at that point, because I didn’t have much left.”
Up front, meanwhile, DeYong created an insurmountable gap. She put on an early surge when she came into the final kilometers at the Aspen Valley course, forgetting about one of the last hills. Somehow, she still found enough energy to keep up the pace and took the win by a two-minute margin.
“I forgot you have to go all the way around and back down, and it some ways I think that was good for me, that I forgot the whole second half of the [final 5 k],” DeYong said with a laugh. “I don’t know if strategically I would have raced the way I did had I known what I was doing.”
While it’s out of the ordinary for junior team coaches to take the top two spots in a SuperTour, DeYong and Palanova in aren’t exactly surprises at the top of these particular results. They both know the Owl Creek Creek course well, have an affinity for long, gradual climbs and ski most of the year at altitude. It takes a different kind of skiing this high up, and both women are practiced at it.
“If you are able to suffer through it, you’re going to do well,” Palanova said. “I think at the end the move I did at the beginning was maybe good, because maybe that made them tired… But who knows, most of these girls aren’t used to skiing at high altitude.”
Brennan confirmed that Owl Creek was a beast of a course.
“I was hoping it would be easier this year because I’m in better shape, but I don’t think it matters how good of shape you’re in for this race, it’s just really hard,” she said. “Very challenging… It’s an unusual course, it’s not something you see every time, so it’s fun to mix it up.”
Fourteen seconds behind Brennan, Flowers took fourth. Gregg finished fifth (+3:10) and Tammy Jacques (Steamboat Springs) was sixth (+3:34).
Special thanks to Mike Hoffman for taking photos so that this reporter could ski in the citizen’s race.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.