ASPEN, Colo. — As Nemo shook the East with buckets of snow, the winter gods smiled upon the Rockies, too, with inches of heavy flakes on Saturday morning as the Aspen SuperTour got underway. The powder was a blessing for a state that’s had a mediocre winter, but for the handful of nordic skiers that braved the storm in spandex and a race bib it was a daunting environment in which to line up for one classic race, let alone the two in one day.
“This morning was rough,” said Alaska Pacific University’s Rosie Brennan. “You couldn’t see anything. The tracks were washed out and my skis weren’t kicking very well, so it was sort of a struggle.”
It was a sparse field that braved the conditions for the classic sprint qualifier, which preceded the individual distance event, but the adaptable skiers prevailed. Brennan won the 1 k prologue in 4:26, 13 seconds ahead of teammate Lauren Fritz (APU). Erika Flowers (SMS T2) finished third (+0:20) and five elite women finished the race in total as inches of snow piled up in the tracks.
The men’s race was equally vicious. “It was very slow,” said Mike Sinnott (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation). “I think I came to a stop a couple times. It was a brutal, painful sprint, and I don’t think anyone felt like the were sprinting.”
Sinnott took the prologue win in 3:40, seven seconds ahead of Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Team HomeGrown). Peter Kling (APU) took third (+0:14).
After toughing it trough a kilometer of powder at 8,000 feet skiers had two hours to gear up for round two, a 5/10 k individual start classic. A Pisten Bully smoothed out the course in between events, and right on cue the skies ceased cleared as starters began to line up again.
Thanks to high elevation, a hilly course and slightly soft tracks, the second event of the day belonged to the mentally tough. Patrick Johnson (SVSEF), still in his first season out of college, landed his first career SuperTour podium and gold medal all at once, taking the men’s 10 k by six seconds over Ellefson.
“I think today it was slow conditions and you just had to ski smoothly, and I’m not really much of a sprinter so it was more of a distance skier’s course,” Johnson said. “I think that’s what helped make it a good day for me.”
The Middlebury College alum has been generally happy with his racing this season — he was fifth in the 15 k at US Nationals — but has skied just shy of breaking through to top of the results.
“It’s always been just sort of waiting to get that few extra seconds that can move you up on the list,” Johnson said. “It came through today.”
He had never raced in Aspen before Saturday, but now that he’s collected his first win at the nordic center Johnson feels pretty good about the venue.
“I really like it, obviously,” he said.
While Johnson was having the race of his life, Ellefson salvaged a painful race to finish just six seconds out of first. The Vail native had raced a 10 k and the prologue in the 24 hours preceding the classic event and started to pay the price.
“I was pretty tired from the sprint,” he said. “Just because all of the snow we got, the sprint felt like I was going 10 k pace, so it was a little bit confusing out there.”
Ellefson knew he wasn’t skiing spectacularly as he moved around the hilly course, but minimized the damage by reminding himself he was in good shape.
“I had an internal battle with myself at the 5 k mark,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m locking up everywhere, I’m not feeling super great, but I know my fitness is good right now so I just have to work with what I have.’”
Over the remaining 5 k Ellefson brought himself back to a “good mental state” and closed a 15-second deficit on Johnson to finish just six seconds behind him. At relatively relaxed race where teams help each other with wax support, Ellefson was impressed with the victor’s effort.
“I’m really excited for Patrick Johnson,” Ellefson said, nodding in his direction. “It’s his first podium and first SuperTour win.”
Brent Knight (APU) continued a strong run of recent SuperTours to finish third, 41 seconds off Johnson’s mark. In a season he characterizes as consistent, he was pleased to put together a strong classic result the day after a punishing 10 k skate in Vail on Friday.
“I’m super happy with the result,” Knight said. “I raced about as smart as I could. I’ve been in and out of altitude all season and…I think it’s really made a difference, learning how to ski more consistently and learning how to race smart up here.”
Though there have been many SuperTours at elevation this season, Knight considers 8,000 feet to be a world away from a place like Sun Valley, Idaho, which is a few thousand feet lower.
“In Aspen and Vail it’s a whole other beast,” he said. “When you’re racing up here if you cross the red line, you’re toast. So up here it’s more just playing with that fine line. The guy who can sit right under that red line the whole time is the guy that’s going to win, generally.”
In the women’s 5 k Brennan followed up her prologue victory with a seven-second victory over Nicole DeYong (SVSEF), and Flowers repeated as the bronze-medalist (+1:01).
For those who are counting, Brennan has now racked up five wins this season. Though the Park City, Utah, native spent the past week at home she noted how difficult racing is at Aspen’s elevation.
“Even though I grew up at altitude I’ve found that 8,000 feet is the tipping point where I no longer have the comfort that I do a 6,000 feet,” she said. “So I was definitely hurting a lot out there… Doing three races in a row [here] takes it all out of you and I’m just focused on recovery and making sure it doesn’t crush me for later on.”
Though the field was only 29 women strong — “Am I racing right now?” Brennan recalled thinking — it was fairly strong at the top end. On what was a slow 5 k course, DeYoung came within striking distance of the win.
“I actually like this course and I’ve raced it quite a few times,” DeYoung said. “I’ve learned from racing here before to pace yourself and just to ski smooth and relaxed and I felt like I was able to maintain it the whole way and finish strong. That’s what I was hoping for.”
DeYong no longer considers herself a racer as most of her time is spent coaching the Sun Valley competition team, but she stays active enough to enjoy herself and do well at a race most of the field considers daunting. Her last race appearance was at the season opener in West Yellowstone, Mont.
“Someone asked me if I was coming back into racing and I was like, the problem with that is if I do that I have expectations, mostly on myself, and then it seems to go downhill,” DeYong said. “So I’m just here for fun, just because I enjoy skiing.”
Flowers, who took third having never before raced in Colorado, was on board with DeYong’s thoughts on Aspen.
“I liked it, except that it’s really hard,” Flowers said. “You’re breathing hard from your first kick…but it’s fun, it’s so nice here. When we were skiing the [Owl Creek] course easy the other day it was so sunny.”
The 21 k Owl Creek Chase, the weekend’s main event, starts on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. MT.
5/10 k classic results not yet posted; check back here.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.