HAYWARD, Wis. – Rounding one of last corners in the American Birkebeiner 50-kilometer skate race, Holly Brooks felt a pang of familiarity.
Stronger than déjà vu, the 29-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, knew she had been in a similar position in the same race before. From Brooks’ standpoint, finishing second in the 2009 Birkie by one-tenth of a second to Rebecca Dussault of Central Cross Country (CXC) left something to be desired.
She didn’t want to miss out on another victory this time around.
While Brooks and Gregg had already dropped Dussault, after she hung with them in the top five for most of the race, they had each other to contend with. Olympic roommates and close friends, Brooks was in Gregg’s wedding last spring.
As they made their way south on the Birkie trail into Hayward on Saturday, both ditched the emotional ties. Brooks picked a smoother lane on the straightaway finish and edged Gregg, the race’s defending champion, by 0.4 seconds in 2:18.53.2.
Jennie Bender (CXC) was the third woman to cross the line, 2:53.1 minutes later.
For Brooks, the Birkie victory was her first. It was also her first non-World Cup race this season.
“I definitely had flashbacks of three years ago and just kind of kept my head up,” Brooks said.
She thought of what her Alaska Pacific University (APU) coach, Erik Flora, told her before she left Alaska for the event.
“His words went through my mind, and it was kind of like, ‘OK, if you’re going to do this and if it comes down to a sprint finish, relax before you start sprinting, take a deep breath and go for it,’ ” Brooks said. “That’s exactly what I did. I had a great lane and just went for the win.”
Shortly before the finish, she came off the 4-kilometer stretch of frozen lake just ahead of Gregg. From there, Brooks composed herself for the finish.
“I could feel her right behind me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’ve turned that corner first before and I’m not gonna lose this.’ ”
While Gregg had been excited about competing for her second-straight Birkie title, she said she couldn’t have picked a better person to beat her by a ski length.
“If there’s anyone out there that I would want to beat me, it would be Holly,” Gregg said. “Holly doesn’t realize this, but she’s kind of my hero. She’s younger than me, but it was such an honor to be out there with her.”
The 31-year-old was satisfied with her performance considering how bad she felt leading up to the race. Gregg was fighting a cold that kept her out of last weekend’s SuperTour races and Thursday’s elite sprints in Hayward.
She wasn’t completely recovered Saturday morning, but Gregg said her body held up and felt strong the whole way. She made sure not to start too hard, but with a big group hanging around the halfway point, she knew it was time to go.
Gregg sped ahead a few times and Brooks followed to break the group apart. By 38 k, they had nearly two minutes on their closest competitors.
“Holly came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ve got a gap,’ ” Gregg said. “Then it was kind of a tactical race. We switched off the leads and kind of put in little surges to see who was feeling good.”
They continued to take turns leading for the rest of the race. Lucky for them, they passed Eli Brown, the former Division I nordic coach at the University of Utah, and he made it his mission to help them to the finish.
Brooks said they ran into Brown in the second half and he called out track to clear the course for them.
“He just stayed with us the whole way, and we were like, ‘Dang, Eli,’ ” Gregg said. “He was yelling, ‘Guys, move over, ladies coming through, ladies coming through!’ ”
Behind them, Bender raced for a personal best against a competitive group with four other women: Dussault, Laura McCabe (Salomon), Evelyn Dong (Rossignol) and Hannah Dreissigacker (Craftsbury).
After winning the 54 k classic Birkie last year, Bender wanted prove to herself that she could skate the distance just as well. She stayed with the chase pack from 30 k on, working with McCabe and Dussault to try to catch the leaders.
As they skied single file along the lake while drafting one of the elite men, Bender planned her move. She would charge forward once they were back on land.
“Actually it was perfect because there was a guy that started his move to pass all of us so I jumped in behind him and he kind of led me out,” Bender said.
She finished nearly 7.6 seconds ahead of McCabe, who was fourth, and 7.7 seconds ahead of Dong in fifth.
“I didn’t really know how today would go so, I mean, hey, I’m celebrating my third because I’ve been working on my skate a lot,” Bender said. “I felt like my technique held together and that my endurance held together, which is big for me.”
She said all the race support, including feeds and fast skis, from CXC was key.
“They were out in these bright, bright pink sweaters and green hats,” she said. “They were running all over the place, and I know it was stressful for the support crew, but they were great.”
Dussault crossed the line in sixth, 0.6 seconds after Dong. Dreissigacker was seventh, and Nicole Deyong (Sun Valley), who was in the lead group for the first half of the race, finished eighth. Alexa Turzian (Sun Valley) was ninth and Kamila Borutova (Czech Republic) was 10th.
Women’s Classic Race
In the women’s 54 k classic race, Carolyn Ocariz beat her competition by 2:09.2 minutes in her first Birkie, winning in 3:03.10.9.
Brandy Stewart of Montana State University was second after staying with Ocariz for nearly the first half of the race, and Hilary Patzer of St. Paul, Minn., was third (+2:39.0).
“There was a couple guys that were sticking with me so that was really helpful; I didn’t feel completely alone,” Ocariz said.
Many of them tucked behind her at first, and she had to prompt them to lead.
“I was just so excited with how I felt,” she said.
The Birkie wraps up the racing season for Carolyn and her husband Santi. The two will head to Charleston, S.C., in early March and embark on their three-month “Ski Across America” via rollerskis to raise money for Food For The Poor.