Note: Two photo captions have been corrected to reflect the leader of the men’s race around mile four in the 2015 Climb to the Castle. Rogan Brown of Sun Valley led the pack at the time.
For years, U.S. Nordic Ski Team athletes and their coaches trucked themselves up to the start of the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, clicked into their rollerskis and allowed an ample amount of time for warming up before ascending New York’s fifth highest peak.
Before it became an official race nine years ago, it was a workout: a five-mile grind to the summit of Whiteface Mountain, 4,867 feet above sea level in Wilmington, N.Y.
Now, for many top-level skiers, especially those based on the East Coast, the annual Climb to the Castle an offseason staple. And if you win, you get a T-shirt and a medal for your efforts.
“Climb to the Castle was a blast this year!” wrote women’s winner Mary Rose of Idaho’s Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team. “My goal going into this race was to have good energy the whole time, focus on technique and hopefully put together a good effort.”
She reached the top on Sunday in 45:15.1 and topped her competition — the closest of which was US Biathlon’s Annelies Cook — by 32.6 seconds.
“It was a fun, tough effort,” men’s winner Patrick Caldwell of the U.S. Ski Team D-team and Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team said in an interview after the finish.
The 21-year-old Caldwell outlasted biathletes Russell Currier and Tim Burke by 5 and 11.5 seconds, respectively. Caldwell won in 37:05.2, Currier was second and Burke was third.
“Right from the start, we stayed pretty much together against a decent headwind,” Burke said after the finish. “I think a lot of us were fatigued at the end of a big camp, so I didn’t really want to push like crazy.”
The US Biathlon and U.S. Nordic teams spent at least the last week training in Lake Placid, N.Y., with biathletes like Burke logging five race efforts in nine days preceding the Climb.
“I decided today instead of going for time, I wanted to go for the win,” said Burke, a defending multiple-time Climb to the Castle (C2C) champion. “So I decided to sit in and push that last half mile.”
He said he “did a lot of pulling and got some help towards the end.” Rogan Brown (SVSEF) led around mile four, and Burke explained that five men battled in the lead pack for the last two miles.
“I broke my pole in the last couple hundred meters, that kind of took me out of it,” he explained.
Caldwell took the blame what he called an “unfortunate incident” in the final 200 meters. “I broke Tim Burke’s pole,” he said. He did so when Burke made his final attack toward the finish.
“Aside from that, it was a good, solid race,” Caldwell said.
“It’s a good way to end it,” Burke said after 10 days of hard training.
Currier, who placed second, called it an “entertaining race” with five men contending throughout.
“For a rare change I was able to be on the better side of tactics and consistently stay in the back of the pack,” Currier wrote in an email. “On the other hand, the final 100 meters came up a lot earlier than I expected and didn’t give much time to react. The pace picked up and Tim Burke lost a pole tip. The next thing I knew there was an opening for the lead. I’m not much of a sprinter and didn’t do much to challenge Patrick, but was I was still pleased to break out of the back of the pack just in time for the podium.”
A former US Biathlon (USBA) B-team member, Currier, who trains with the Maine Winter Sports Center, was not renamed to the team this spring and is working towards making the cut via a series of trials ending in October.
“The status for the National team is still very unclear,” he wrote. “… All I can do is make the best of every training session and go for better results. The second round of trials is coming up in October. A couple of good enough results there should help my cause for the coming race season.”
Brown placed fourth in the men’s race, 4.3 seconds from the podium and 15.8 seconds after Caldwell. Brown edged Kyle Bratrud of Central Cross Country (CXC) by 0.3 seconds, and behind them, another CXC skier Duncan Douglas placed sixth.
USBA’s Sean Doherty and Lowell Bailey finished seventh and eighth, respectively, Miles Havlick (SVSEF) was ninth and developing biathlete Max Durtschi finished 10th of 61 men.
In the women’s race, Rose and Cook pushed each other to the top. Rose recalled it being just the two of them shortly after the start. A perennial contender, USBA’s Susan Dunklee had some pole issues at the very beginning, Rose explained in an email.
“I knew I needed to break away about 1/2 mile to the finish because I can’t beat [Cook] in a sprint,” Rose wrote. “I fought pretty hard through the ‘wind tunnel’ and I think that is where I broke away.”
Overnight rain left the toll road wet, and wind dried out its lower sections. From about the halfway point to the finish, skiers pushed through mist on wet pavement and faced a steady wind blowing 10 to 20 miles per hour throughout the race. After starting in temperatures around 47 degrees Fahrenheit, they met temperatures in the mid-30’s at the top.
“It sounds weird to say it aloud, but I actually had fun doing the climb to the castle,” Cook wrote in an email. “Mary and I skied together the entire time and switched leads back and forth. I usually get bored doing the climb and lose focus and switching back and forth with her kept me in the game mentally.
“She got me at the last turn right before the finish when I suddenly flooded with lactic acid and had no chance,” she added. “But I don’t really think of myself as a climber and so it was fun to be the two people leading the race. That doesn’t happen too often! Of course, the usual suspects were not there and that obviously made it difference.”
With the exception of Paddy Caldwell, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) skipped the Climb this year for the first time in years.
“As hard as it is to miss it because it is a fantastic event, it just didn’t play well athletically for the needs of the group,” USST Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone last week. “We wanted to do more sprint-specific training and short intensity as opposed to giving up a whole workout or two to do the Climb to the Castle.”
The USST camp was also only a week long, compared to the two weeks the team usually spends in Lake Placid this time of year. On the other hand, the largely Lake-Placid-based US Biathlon team did either time trials or Level 5 (race-pace) workouts for last 10 days.
“I had my personal best by quite a lot and I felt strong skiing,” Cook said of the Climb. “It felt good to end a really tough ten days on a good note. … I think we are all pretty glad to be done.”
The Climb marked the end of a two-week training block for Rose and her Sun Valley teammates, who were in Stratton, Vt., with the SMST2 team for the first week.
“We had some super hard intensity sessions over the past two weeks and all were very productive,” Rose wrote.
USBA’s Hannah Dreissigacker, who placed third, 2:05.9 after Rose, explained in an email that the women’s race broke up quickly.
“Mary and Annelies started off a little faster than I really wanted to be going, and I tried to hold on for a bit but then gave up pretty quickly and lost contact,” Dreissigacker wrote. “My goal in the Climb to the Castle is always to not start too fast and then blow up. Then I skied with Susan for a mile or so and then slowly inched ahead of her a bit. Eventually we skied into a cloud and I lost sight of Annelies and Mary and just skied the whole second half by myself.”
She finished 1:10.9 ahead of Dunklee, who placed fourth, while wearing a figure-skating tutu she wore the first time she did the race.
“The lacy elbows really allowed for added breathability and the rhinestones gave me some extra motivation on those long hard stretches when I was all alone,” Dreissigacker wrote.
Another biathlete, Clare Egan finished fifth, Paige Schember (SVSEF) was sixth, Erin Perryman (St. Lawrence University) was seventh, Jackie Garso of the local New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) was eighth, St. Michael’s assistant coach Silke Hynes was ninth, and Stratton U16 skier Anna Lehmann was 10th of 25 women.