WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — Matt Gelso’s strategy in Saturday’s SuperTour 15-kilometer freestyle individual start was to traverse the 5 k course as hard as he could from the beginning of the race. The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Gold Team (SVSEF) member saw only two possibilities – he was either going to ‘blow up’ or rely on fitness to earn a place on the podium. Either way he was going all out.
After finishing three laps of the demanding course, it was clear that Gelso had accomplished the latter of the two outcomes, crossing the line in 36:20.2 to earn the top spot in the first domestic distance race of the season.
“I just wanted to go out hard and since it’s early season, see what happens … I struggled the last lap, but I was able to ski smooth and ski smart. I had a flat ski and that’s super important on this course, because a lot of it’s about skiing smooth and powerful,” Gelso said in a post-race interview.
The 26-year-old started the race with little knowledge of where he ranked among his fellow competitors during the course of the 15 k. Because Gelso started near the front of the A-seed, splits had little meaning during his first and second laps.
According to Gelso, it wasn’t until the third lap that he learned he was battling University of Colorado’s Mads Strøm for first place from on-course splits. Gelso said the splits gave him confidence to keep himself going and hang on to the top position.
On a day where many racers had slow skis due to warmer-than-average temperatures and winds that showered a mix of new snow and dirt on the trials, Gelso said the Sun Valley wax crew gave him impeccable skis.
Furthermore, Gelso pointed to a 10 k time-trial that he and fellow Sun Valley teammates performed earlier in the week as a reason for his succes. Utilizing the same 5 k loop as Saturday’s race, Gelso said the time-trial helped him understand how to ski the course’s terrain, which is known for its lack of rest.
The other two members of the Sun Valley’s Gold Team also benefited from the team’s preparation, as both finished in the top-ten with Ben Lustgarten placing seventh (+58.2) and Miles Havlick finishing eighth (+1:13.2).
While Gelso was working to outlast Strøm, another skier was getting dangerously close to winning the race.
Brain Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) began his 15 k conservatively and was 13 seconds back from Gelso at the 5 k mark. However, as the race continued Gregg maintained his pace while others slowed.
It was a conscious strategy by Gregg, who has seen what it takes to be successful in West Yellowstone over his years of racing. He pointed to retired Bridger Ski Foundation athlete and multiple West Yellowstone SuperTour victor, Leif Zimmerman, as a prime example of someone who was able to make up ground in the final kilometers.
That’s exactly what Gregg did. According to the 30-year-old, he was 23 seconds behind Gelso at the 12.5 k mark but was able to reduce the deficit to 9.6 seconds by the time he crossed the finish line.
Although Gregg was unable to overcome the entire 23-second deficit he was happy to finish the day in second.
Strøm, who eventually finished third (+12.4), won the same event in the 2013 West Yellowstone SuperTour.
While he couldn’t match his previous performance, he fought for the victory throughout the majority of the race.
Strøm explained that the previous day’s sprint had left him lethargic throughout the first third of the race. However, around the 6 k mark he began to feel fresh and energized as he learned there was a contest for first between him and Gelso.
“I tried to fight as much as possible but I wasn’t able to get as much as I hoped to in the last 3 k,” the University of Colorado skier said.
Rounding out the top five were two skiers who faced the stomach flu only three days prior: Kris Freeman (Team Freebird) and Tad Elliott (Ski and Snowboard Club Vail Elite).
“Both Tad and I got a stomach virus, so I was vomiting three days ago. Yesterday I felt really, really flat and you have to be sharp in a sprint… Today was a step in the right direction but I didn’t feel like myself and I’m a little bummed,” Freeman said of Friday’s sprint race and Saturday’s fourth place finish.
Freeman, a favorite to win the the 15 k, had strong first lap in which he posted the second-fastest time. Once on the second and third laps, however, he was unable to maintain his speed after losing much of his energy to the illness.
“I’ve had a great lead up to the season. I felt like I was in awesome shape here and I really thought I was going to stomp it, but instead life happens. I’ve been here before and I can’t let it bother me too much,” he said.
Elliott, who dealt with the Epstein-Barr Virus for most of the previous year, said that he had been feeling especially strong before he came down with the flu on Thanksgiving night. While he was unsure whether he would start Saturday’s race, he made the final decision to give the 15 k a shot after warming up just minutes before the race.
Once on course, Elliott explained that a combination of coaching, fast skis, and experience helped him progress from ninth place after 5 k to fifth as he crossed the finish line.
“Having the flu and having the fever wasn’t ideal but I think part of the reason for [my success] today was our coaches…I felt like my skis were some of the best in the field, to be honest, they were super quick. Being an experienced skier I think helped too. I did well on my splits out there,” he said of his race.
The two skiers finished roughly thirty seconds apart, with Freeman crossing the line 18 seconds from the lead and Elliott finishing 43.4 seconds back from Gelso.
Other notable results from Saturday’s race include Colorado’s Rune Ødegård in sixth (+49.2), GearWest/United XC’s Matt Liebsch in ninth (+1:18.8), and the USST’s Paddy Caldwell in tenth (+1:25.7).
All of the top-five finishers expressed that their races were solid starting points for the season, but were wary of putting too much emphasis in Saturday’s results
“It’s always good start on a positive note so that you have so you have that positive feedback on your training, but it’s the last week of November and we’re racing all the way through the end of March,” Gregg said of his takeaway from the race.
For Gelso, the biggest benefit of winning Saturday’s race was the FIS and USSA points he would earn from the day’s effort.
“Today will be good in FIS and USSA points and that’s a consideration for World Championships,” he said, referencing USSA’s consideration of USSA points for World Championship selections.
The fact the they are distance points is especially promising for Gelso and other top finishers, as it is likely the U.S. coaching squad will be looking for more domestic distance skiers rather than domestic sprinters to fill their quota for the championships.
Gelso also explained that the SuperTour points he earned from the victory would be important in his quest to be SuperTour leader so that he could earn starts on the World Cup in either period 2 or period 3 of this year.
However, such a feat is a far away, and to maintain his momentum throughout the season, Gelso said that he’s working to maintain his fitness and consistency.
“I’ve got to keep my training consistent and focused so I don’t peak up here and then dive off into the great depths when U.S. Nationals and the rest of the season comes around. So, I’m definitely going to be focused on keeping the race fitness and general fitness up,” he said.
Men’s 15 k freestyle top ten (full results)
1. Matt Gelso (SVSEF) 36:20.2
2. Brian Gregg ( Team Gregg/Madshus) +9.6
3. Mads Strøm (CU) +12.4
4. Kris Freeman (Team Freebird) +18
5. Tad Elliot (SSCV) +43.4
6. Rune Ødegård (CU) +49.2
7. Ben Lustgarten (SVSEF) + 58.2
8. Miles Havlick (SVSEF) +1:13.2
9. Matt Liebsch (GearWest/XC United) +1:18.8
10. Paddy Caldwell (USST/SMST2) +1:25.7
— Colin Gaiser contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.