Hayward, WI—After Friday night’s snowfall and wind played havoc with the Birkie organizers’ plans, with tents collapsing and fallen trees that had to be removed from the course, Saturday morning broke clear and sunny, if a little cold and windy at 2 degrees Fahrenheit.
The elite men’s skate race went out hard, taking everyone by surprise in the slow and soft conditions. Lex Treinen of Anchorage, AK pushed the pace early and put the field under pressure. Simone Paredi and Sergio Bonaldi, both of Italy and skiing for Team Molinari, said through Antonella Confortola Wyatt, their compatriot and current leader of the FIS Marathon Cup, that an American had started fast but that at some point he fell off the pace, and with the 20 k to go he was no longer among the men at the front of the race.
Tom Reichelt of Oberweisenthal, Germany also baulked at the ferocity of the early pace, but managed to stay with the leaders. Christophe Perrillat of France led the race at 25 k and held second at 38 k, with Czech legend Martin Koukal leading the race at the final split, 12 k from the finish line. Behind Koukal and Perrillat were Reichelt, Bonaldi, Paredi, and five others.
Late in the race as the pace accelerated, Reichelt took the lead as the course began to open up in the wide fields approaching Lake Hayward. Behind him were Bonaldi and Paredi, hanging on and looking for an opportunity to make a move in the final two agonizing kilometers across the lake.
A strong westerly wind blew across the track, gusting up to 30 miles an hour. Bonaldi found that only one skate lane was fast, the other wind blown. Bonaldi, last year’s winner of the Birkie and wearing bib number one, said he knew that there was no possibility of skiing past Reichelt, even in the final 500 meters as the course leaves Lake Hayward and cuts down Main Street. Instead he thought about beating his teammate, Paredi, in the final sprint for second.
Reichelt for his part could sense the Italians behind him and awaited their attack. “I was waiting for the others to catch me,” he said, “but nobody did. I thought in the sprint I had no chance.”
Reichelt held off a hard-charging Paredi, winning by half a second, in a time of 2:14:29 with Bonaldi third, four tenths of second behind Paredi. Reichelt said that his Birkie victory was his second biggest success after a third place World Cup result at Oslo’s famed Holmenkollen 50 k in 2006. “Now I can drink a beer,” he said, “because this win is great for me.”
The American results were led by Matt Gelso of Ketchum, ID in 7th place, 33 seconds behind Reichelt and ahead Koukal. Treinen was the second American in 10th overall, followed by former Birkie winner Matt Liebsch of Orono, MN, in 12th, 6:21 back. Christopher Hamilton of Canmore, AB was the top Canadian in 15th.
Despite overlapping with the Olympic 50 k to be held on Sunday, the men’s field was stacked with European skiers. Of the top 20 skiers, 12 were from Europe. Once again there was a strong five man Italian contingent, headlined by former winners Bonaldi and Fabio Santus. There was also a strong three man French team led by Perrillat, who finished in fourth.
Reichelt’s Birkie victory put him into the red leaders bib in the FIS Marathon Cup, 11 points clear of Koukal, and 21 points ahead of Benoit Chauvet of France, who finished 6th in the Birkie. The FIS Marathon Cup continues on Sunday, March 9th with its final race, the Engadin Ski Marathon in Switzerland.
The men’s classic race, 54 kilometers of doggedly rolling terrain, was led for much of the distance by Nils Koons of New Zealand and Eivind Opsahl of Norway. When they reached Lake Hayward, Santiago Ocariz took the lead with four skiers in tow. “I had been waiting, and waiting, and waiting,” said Ocariz, “my legs were cramping on the hills where I would have liked to have gone, so that wasn’t going to happen. I just waited for the lake.”
Ocariz skied a cautious race for much of its length, knowing his limits on a light training schedule. Last winter Ocariz skied for XC Oregon, but a move to Moorhead, MN to attend an accelerated nursing program and a one-year old daughter left little time to train.
On the lake Ocariz found that the tracks had been completely windblown, so he skied in the firmer skate lane and tucked in behind some skaters, using them as a windbreak. “Towards the end of the lake I saw there was a little gap starting to be made, so I decided it was time to go.”
Ocariz’s timing was key: With 500 meters to the finish line, the course narrows considerably as it rises off the lake and into downtown Hayward, creating a brief stretch of choppy snow that both classic and skate skiers must share. Ocariz said he, “knew that was the spot to do it, because if the other skiers got stuck behind the skaters it would give me a little extra advantage.”
His final effort down Main Street won him the day, if not a monetary prize. His time, 3:01:00 was 5.5 seconds faster than Koons and 5.9 seconds ahead of third place Opsahl.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.