Santi Ocariz’s mind could’ve been preoccupied with a million things a minute and a half before the start of the 42-kilometer SISU Marathon on Jan. 11 in Ironwood, Mich. But the 27-year-old Wisconsin native could only think about his former teammate Doug DeBold, who’d likely give him the best run in the classic race.
Just before the start, DeBold, of Wayzata, Minn., realized his pole strap was broken. Ocariz ran to his car and found him a replacement. Anyone who knows Ocariz or remembers his gesture from the 2012 American Birkebeiner wouldn’t have been surprised. Skiing with the leaders with less than 10 kilometers to go, Ocariz gave his pole to Matt Liebsch, another one of his former teammates at Central Cross Country (CXC), after Liebsch initially refused the offer when he broke his. Liebsch ultimately accepted at 44 k and went on to place second.
“I mean, what’s the difference if I’m eighth or fourteenth?” Ocariz said after finishing 11th. “He had the chance to win. He’s a good friend of mine.”
Two years later and just over month before the 2014 Birkie on Feb. 22, Ocariz told The Daily Globe the SISU Marathon was “all friendly competition.” He and DeBold had grown up racing one another as juniors and in college before spending a summer as teammates on CXC.
“I had no idea how the race would play out,” wrote Ocariz, who’s living in Moorhead, Minn, pursuing an accelerated nursing degree and is the father of a 10 month old, in an email to FasterSkier.
DeBold led from the start and took off around 14 or 15 k, he explained.
“I took it out nice and slow and waited for a while to start reeling him in,” Ocariz wrote. “I didn’t want to bonk or lock up in cramps, as I haven’t gotten much of any training in this year. On average I have only been able to get out skiing once a week, and this race was my longest ski of the year by about an hour and a half.”
With about 11 k remaining, Ocariz and Chris Pappathopoulos caught DeBold, and Ocariz passed him. The three raced together toward the finish, where Ocariz led into the final straightaway.
“Doug pulled up alongside of me as all three of us sprinted for the finish,” Ocariz explained. “Doug and I lunged for the line, and he got me by one or two hundredths of a second.”
On the results, the two were listed with the same time of 2:24.06, but DeBold took the victory in the photo finish. Pappathopoulos was third, one-hundredth of a second behind.
“I had no idea who won,” DeBold told the local Globe.
“I kept thinking I’ve gotta go harder, but I couldn’t,” Ocariz told the Globe. “My legs and even my arms were cramping up … It was a pretty good suffer-fest.”
As for whether this was a tune-up for the Birkie, Ocariz explained it depends on whether he can swing it with school.
“I have very little free time, even on the weekends,” Ocariz wrote. “If I can get away, I’ll be suffering through the Seeley Hills Classic and the Classic Birkie.”
Skillicorn Breaks Away for First SISU Win
In the women’s 42 k classic, Kelly Skillicorn of Winona, Minn., broke away on the final lap around 15 k to win in 2:43.55. Another former CXC skier, Audrey Weber placed second, 16 minutes later.
“The pace went out easy and everyone settled into a long line fairly quickly,” Weber wrote in an email. “I got in the track and I think Skillicorn was marking me, so she tucked in behind me. My main goal was to maintain a pace within myself and not get taken out by any flailing master blasters, which is always a risk for women at the front of the pack in mixed gender mass start races.”
After her first SISU victory, Skillicorn told the Globe that she didn’t feel good at the start after waking up at 5 a.m. and driving north from her cabin in Hayward, Wis., nearly 90 miles away. But she started to feel better with 15 k to go.
With two men in front of her, she said she kept her distance while keeping them in her sights.
“I wasn’t sure how close anyone was behind me because I never look back,” Skillicorn said. “I stayed with the guys. The last 5k I really pushed it. I never want to slow down when I’m racing.”
“My main goal was to maintain a pace within myself and not get taken out by any flailing master blasters.” — Audrey Weber, second woman in 2014 SISU Marathon
And when Skillicorn decided to go, Weber couldn’t respond.
“I guess that’s what not training does for you,” wrote Weber, 27, who was born four days before Ocariz on Sept. 23 . “My training this fall consisted of mostly CrossFit and maybe 3, 45-minute runs. I’ve been on skis a total of 6 times this winter. It’s all I have time for being in my first year of dental school. So I pretty much had one pace I could ski and I did all I could to hang on. I probably kept her in sight for another 5k, but by the time the second lap started I was in no man’s land.”
Skiing for second, Weber focused on “not stopping and mostly just hoping I didn’t get passed,” she wrote. “I pretty much had no expectations for this race other than finishing. I didn’t have any idea what my body would be up for having not tested my ski fitness in quite a long time. When you have fitness, you can rely on your strengths in a race, but when you’re out of shape you don’t really have any strengths to fall back on, so you just really hurt for a long time.”
In the end, she was grateful for fast skis and “decent technique” to fall back on. Next month, she plans to race the Birkie classic marathon.
In her second time at the SISU Marathon, Weber described the people of Ironwood as “amazing and incredibly hospitable! … I have found both times that the town really rolls out the red carpet for racers.”
While waiting for her boyfriend to finish his first ski race, the 42 k skate, she sat in a “plush recliner” by the front window of a furniture story on Main Street. “I made friends with the store manager, he offered me hot coffee and told me stories about people from Ironwood,” she wrote. “I know I didn’t really deserve it, but I felt like a World Cup race leader for a little while. It was very special.”
In the race’s fifth year, registration was at a high around 600. Race director Jonathon Rulseh told the Globe that they caught a break with temperatures in the 20s after they neared 45 degrees below zero just days before. He also pointed to the nearly 250 volunteers behind SISU’s events — with the 42 k marathons, 21 k Heikki Lunta half marathon, Taste N Tour, 3 k & 5 k Junior SISU and the 2K Lapset Loppett; and three snowshoe races.
“They’re the glue that holds the SISU together and makes it run,” he said. “They’re critical to its success.”
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.