(Note: This article has been updated with comments from Adam Terko in regards to rollerski safety.)
WILMINGTON, N.Y. — On what may be the hottest day in memory for the annual Climb to the Castle (C2C) rollerski race, hosted by the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF) up Whiteface Mountain, Jake Brown and Jennie Bender were fastest to the top. Both have spent at least part of their summer training with the US Biathlon Association (USBA) in nearby Lake Placid, N.Y.
Brown, a 25-year-old USBA X-Team member, finished the five-mile climb up Whiteface’s toll road on Sunday in 39:01.9 minutes, more than five minutes clear of runner-up Aidan Kirkham, a Canadian racer with Nakkertok Nordic, who finished in 44:16. Adam Terko, Mansfield Nordic’s head coach and executive director, placed third in 45:35.7.
Bender, 29, racing under the team name of “The Dark Side”, which she later explained was a joke, topped the women’s race in 48:59.4. She finished 21.5 seconds ahead of 51-year-old (no, that’s not a typo) Sheila Kealey, who skis for XC Ottawa and coaches for Nakkertok. Deedra Irwin of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) was third woman in 51:13.5.
“I had put my name in the registration as ‘Darth Vader’, but they changed it on the other end,” Bender wrote in an email. “When I am in Bozeman MT I train with Bridger Ski Foundation, and when I am in Lake Placid, I train with USBA.”
At the tollgate at 7 a.m., the temperature was already 66 degrees Fahrenheit with clear skies. With mild weather the previous two days, the pavement was dry for 83 skiers who rolled to the start line. At the castle at the summit an hour later, temperatures were upwards of 70, making an already grueling race even more fatiguing.
The men’s and women’s races played out quite differently. According to Kirkham, Brown led “off the start and gapped the whole field.”
Familiar with the territory in and around Lake Placid, which has become an annual training camp for Nakkertok, based out of Ottawa, Kirkham said it was one thing to ski the toll road in Zone 1 and another to race it.
“I wanted to pace it well, and I think I did that,” he added. “I didn’t want to go too hard off the start because there’s no chance to recover on a course like this. … Once I got to the last mile I knew I could try to pick it up a little bit. But I was pretty tired. Just getting to the finish felt good.”
Having completed five or six C2Cs, Terko said experience was his advantage. But he didn’t exactly have a race plan.
“The field can vary wildly,” Terko said of the level of competition. “You’re never really sure how the start’s going to play out. I found myself near the front and there wasn’t a ton of US Ski Team or US Biathlon folks.”
As recently as a few years ago, the U.S. Ski Team held annual dryland training camps in Lake Placid and competed at the C2C. But that camp has been replaced by an on-snow camp in New Zealand. This year, US Biathlon’s top athletes recently spent several weeks training in Germany.
“Jake Brown was right off the front so I realized that this could be a good day and I might as well try and hang in there,” Terko added.
While Terko skis and rollerskis plenty with his athletes, he says it’s not always adequate training for a race like this.
“As a coach, it’s more about generally making sure the workout is going well for the athletes,” he explained. “I’ve made an effort the last few weeks to get out after practice and ski around in the dark myself.”
(Terko later clarified in an email that he was referring to Mansfield Nordic’s primary training venue, a paved and lit rollerski loop at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vermont. “Rollerskiing in the dark there is pretty standard as opposed to being in a dangerous road situation which I of course do not advocate!” he wrote.)
As for Brown, a Northern Michigan University graduate student who is currently living and training with US Biathlon in Lake Placid, he had a slightly different recollection of the start on Sunday.
“It wasn’t so much I dropped everyone. It was more like I just slowly pulled away,” Brown said. “Within the first 400 meters, I had a small gap. The gap got bigger and bigger as we went along. Maybe by the first mile, I couldn’t hear anyone behind me.”
Sticking to his own race, he resisted the temptation to look behind.
“I was trying to get a good effort today on the skis,” he continued. “I was hoping that some of the faster junior skiers would have some fast rollerskis and be able to push me, but pretty much right from the get-go I was on my own, so I was just trying to keep the pedal to the metal and make it a good effort, which gets tough at the end. It definitely helps to know the course.”
In contrast, the women’s race swapped leaders. Clare Egan, a USBA national-team member and Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) member finished fifth (+5:02.4) after leading early.
“I did lead a little bit at the beginning,” Egan said. “Jennie, Sheila and I were together for the first 1.5 or 2 miles, and then Jennie and Sheila pulled away, and I got caught by Deedra and Zoe [Williams].”
“From doing this race in the past, the order doesn’t usually change so much after the first mile or so,” she explained. “It’s just so hard to make up gaps on this grade. I wanted to try to hang on for as long as I could and stay in front the whole way, but I wasn’t able to do that. So it was very hard work out there, and I didn’t have what it takes to stay with Jennie and Sheila. Respect to them.”
Irwin explained in a post-race email that her plan was to pace off Bender and Egan and stick with them for as long as she could.
“Jennie and Sheila pulled away just around mile two, I think,” wrote Irwin, a SVSEF Gold Team member who was invited to train with US Biathlon (following its Talent ID Camp) in Lake Placid this fall. “My race went really well. I’m really happy with my result. This was my first time doing Climb to the Castle. I didn’t really know what to expect, it’s a tough climb!”
As for Kealey, a top-level masters racer on the Canada Cup, she had done the race a few times before.
“Every year I did it, Liz Stephen did it, and it went out really, really fast,” she said of the U.S. Ski Team member who holds the women’s course record of 41:50. “Really hard at the beginning, and then people dropped off, but today’s pace was a good pace.”
Kealey described wanting to keep a consistent rhythm all the way to the top. She spent much of the race trading off with Bender.
“And then I managed to get a gap,” Kealey said. “I had a gap on [Bender] almost until the last 800 meters, and then she caught me. She was hurting, but she put the guns on at the last bit and just pulled away. She skied really well.”
Reflecting on her win, Bender said, “It wasn’t snowing, and it wasn’t freezing, so that was awesome. My V1 has been getting a lot better. It was a small crowd, but I was stoked to feel good for the whole duration. I haven’t done this race in a long time. I did it probably in college, and it’s fun to see the giant progression since then.”
She explained that she’s been working with US Biathlon in Lake Placid more this summer.
“I think in the big picture, it’s fun to see that I’m not just a sprinter,” she said.
On her race plan, Bender said, “The biggest thing, you have to pace it and not go out too crazy. We kind of started splitting up a bit, and I was going back and forth between first and second throughout the race. First with Clare, then with Sheila and then, near the last 200 to 400 meters, that tunnel, which is always so crazy with the wind, we both were like, ‘Oh.’ We were feeling it.”
“I saw someone coming up behind us,” Bender continued. “I thought it was Clare, I didn’t realize it was Jake. And then I sprinted it in to the finish. I was stoked to get in under 50 minutes.”
Bender, Egan, Irwin, and Brown all skied on matched Marwe rollerskis that they also used in time trials, Bender said.
Zoe Williams, the fourth-place woman (+2:18.8) from Nakkertok and Carleton University, said she wasn’t sure what to expect for her first C2C.
“About 15 minutes in, I kind of all of a sudden realized that it was all uphill,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what have I got myself into?’ But it was fun. I was following Deedra for most of it. I was trying to match her tempo.
“The last mile was tough because you can see the castle,” she added. “I really wanted to try to stick with the lead pack as long as I could.”
In the 11th year of the C2C, Margaret Maher, NYSEF’s outgoing head cross-country coach, said this was one of the warmest race days they’ve had.
“We’ve had every kind of weather possible,” she said. “It’s just fun to see everybody out there getting ready for winter.”
“It was really a blessing to have this awesome weather,” Brown concluded. “Normally you come up here and [the castle] is in the clouds, even if it’s sunny down low. It’s cool to do something here with NYSEF and show our support from US Biathlon.”