“That was definitely a surprise.” Tadd Elliott, 2nd place 2010 American Birkebeiner
2010 Birkie Top Three
This year’s 37th American Birkebeiner was won by Fabio Santus, of Milano Italy. Coming into the Birkie, Santus was ranked 2nd on the FIS Marathon Cup list after taking second at the Italian La Sgambeda and winning the Austrian Dolomitenlauf earlier this season.
Santus won the Birkie with a time of 1:56:58.6. Tad Elliott finished second, in 1:57:06.7, and Chris Cook was third in 1:58:41.0.
Tad Elliott, 21 years old, lives and trains in Durango, Colorado. Racing as a part of the CXC Marathon Team, this was Elliott’s second Birkie, after finishing 20th place in last year’s race. Earlier this year he had a stand-out performance at U.S. Nationals by taking second in the 15km, after winning last year’s Great Race in Tahoe and this year’s Owl Creek Chase 21km. Also a competitive mountain bike racer, Elliott has competed at both the U23 Nordic Championships and U23 Mountain Bike Championships.
An NMU graduate and NCAA champion at the 20km distance event, Chris Cook began specializing in sprinting events after college. He was named to the 2006 Torino Olympic Team, subsequently placing 16th in qualification and 21st in the final of the skate sprint at the Games. At 29 years old and hailing from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Cook now competes for Steinbock racing. This was Cook’s third Birkie – the last time he entered the race was in 2004 when he placed 10th.
I received communication from Cook via email, and caught up with Elliott over the phone just as he was flying home from the race. Elliott was still a bit in awe of the whole experience, and spoke as if he were still pinching himself to see if the whole occurrence had really taken place.
Preparation, Expectations, and Motivation
When asked if he had prepared for the Birkie this year or if he had any specific goals coming into the race, Elliott said “Going into the year, I knew for sure I was going to do the Birkie. Last year I bonked so it was kind of on my radar to try and have a good result, so I trained for it.”
“No, I didn’t have any expectations,” continued Elliott, “because it’s SO long and I knew there was gonna be a really stacked field, so I just wanted to be close and try to hang with the front group for as long as I could.”
Last year, Elliot got too caught up in the ‘fever’ to be smart during the race. “Last year I was just in awe that there was that many nordic skiers in one place and how many people love nordic skiing! It was so exciting that I wasn’t focused on taking feeds, I was just kind of happy to be in the race.”
This year, says Elliott, “I was way better at taking in liquids. A LOT of liquids.” He cited the fact that he had “huge support” from the CXC team, who had at least six different stations along the race trail.
Besides being better at feeds, Elliott seemed pretty surprised at his body’s response to the race once he was in the midst of it.
“In the back of my mind I was like, ‘You know, if I can get near the Italians in a break-away, that would just be phenomenal’ – that would have been my perfect day – and it ended up happening. . .”
“I was feeling so good, which was nice! It was fun, I was having a good time. It was definitely one of the best races I’ve ever had.”
Cook said the fact there were SuperTour points on the line was part of what motivated his performance.
“Because the Birkie was a Supertour as well this year, I really wanted to collect as many points as possible. I knew if I could ski smart and get into a group that was going to have to sprint it out down Main Street, I figured I would have a great shot at a great finish.”
And Cook was aware of who his main competition would be. “I knew the Italian team and the CXC team were the two teams to really pay attention to because of their depth of good racers.”
The Race is On
“I stayed with the main group for the entire race,” said Cook. “Around 38k, I think Santos and Tad started to get away. I knew then that I had to stay in a pack for third.”
Elliott says he worked with his own teammates from CXC teammates for a good portion of the race, as they were all in the lead pack together until 35 kilometers.
“There was a big pack in the start, and then it got wittled down to about 20 or 30 skiers. . .after crossing “OO” the pace was lifted a little bit, and then at 35 k the Italians went to the front. . . and I believe there were three Italians at the front and I was the fourth skier. . . and I was feeling SO good!”
An Italian-American Team
At that point, Elliott said, “I looked back and I noticed we had a gap and then it was me and two Italians skiing together and I was just skiing on their heels and the guy that ended up winning, Fabio Santus, looked at me and said – well, his English isn’t very good, and I can’t speak a lick of Italian – but he kind of motioned and said, ‘Together‘, meaning we would work together.”
So Elliott took his turn pulling for awhile before noticing the second Italian just hanging onto third. Worried he would sit back there until the final sprint, Elliott indicated to Santus his concern, and Santus responded by motioning to Elliott that the two of them would work together to push the pace.
When asked why Santus would drop his teammate, Elliott said that the other Italian was noticeably tired, and when he was unable to take a turn pulling at the front Santus was ready to leave him behind in favor of the stronger American skier. Elliott said Santus was “extremely fair” and was not going to let his compatriot sit on the back without working. At that point Elliot said Santus pointed at him and made it clear, “It’s just you and I, from now on.”
“From 38 k on it was only Fabio and I pulling,” said Elliot, “and we ended up dropping his teammate.”
The other Italian held on for awhile, just 10 meters off the back, but Santos kept the pace high and worked hard with Elliott until they had gapped the second Italian and the rest of the field considerably.
Eliott said, at that moment, he “knew that in the final k the race would be decided.”
When asked if he was surprised at finding himself, suddenly, at the front of the race or if he was nervous about keeping up the pace Elliot replied, “I knew I was going to go for it, with the Italians, and if I wasn’t feeling good I was going to try and slow it down, and then I just ended up having amazing skis and an amazing day – And it was great, with Fabio, too, because he worked so well with me and helped me get to the finish line, so everything came together. . .”
Experience and Strength Give Santus the Win
Elliott had no misgivings about his competitor’s fitness. “He was obviously stronger than I was, and I was nervous; I knew I needed him after Bitch Hill, I knew I needed him to help me cross the lake to try and hold onto second, but then going across the lake, he actually slowed the pace down and – ‘cause we looked back and we couldn’t see anyone and we knew it would come to a sprint – he started adjusting his sunglasses, hat, wiped his face off a little bit – that’s when I knew, ‘uh-oh‘, it was gonna be bad!”
It was then that Elliott’s inexperience in marathon ski races caught up with him. “At that point, when the pace slowed down, I knew I was in over my head. I didn’t know if I should keep the pace going, or if I should try to ‘go’ then, or let it come down to a sprint, or if I should lead. . . I’d just never been in a situation in a race this big with someone that good.”
500 Meters and Main Street
Though Elliott could tell Santus was “way stronger”, he also held onto the hope that if the sprint came down to the last 100 meters, he might have a chance. But with 500 meters to go, Santus put the final hammer down and Elliott had to watch him go.
Elliott was feeling no disappointment, however, as he cruised down Main Street after Santus and soaked in the crowd, crossing the line just 8.1 seconds after the Italian.
“It was so loud. You feel so good. Everyone was cheering and there’s so many people. . . Last year I remember feeling so slow and still having it be that reaction and people lining the streets. . . which is just really neat.”
At the finish line, Elliott had a hard time absorbing what had just happened.
“I was kind of in shock at being – I mean – 2nd in the Birkie! I was just beside myself, I didn’t really know how to react.”
Elliott had nothing but praise for his Italian competitor, saying of Santus, “He couldn’t have been a nicer guy and more gracious in winning, and it was just a tremendous time getting to ski with him.”
He also was in awe of the whole event.
“It is so organized and they do such a great job. . .all the work that goes into it, and all the volunteers, I mean it was just amazing that they put on that event – how awesome it was. . . And how many people help out with it, which is cool.”
Elliott described the trails with no less acclaim, saying the track was “Really good. Really good – I mean, the grooming was incredible. . . it was a warm day, fast snow, fun skiing on that trail . . . it was just awesome.”
The Sprint for Third
Meanwhile, less than 2 minutes back, the race for third was on. “The lead pack was pretty large through OO,” said Cook, “but as the race went on it continued to thin out.”
“I stayed with the main group for the entire race. . . .Around 38k, I think, Santus and Tad started to get away. I knew then that I had to stay in a pack for third.”
Up until that time, Cook had been working with his Steinbock teammates, but said that overall “The Steinbock crew had a rough day. Zack [Simons] broke a pole and ski so we were down to just me and AJ [Andrew Johnson]. AJ did some good work towards the front of the group to cover some of the Italian breaks and CXC.”
Cook said that he himself avoided any mishaps, but that he suffered the loss of teammate Zach Simons at the 30k mark. Still, Cook knew that if he could hold onto the lead pack until the final stretch he would be in the hunt for a top spot.
“I knew coming across the lake in a group of 7 or 8 it would be a sprint for third up Main Street.”
When asked how it was that his preparations as a sprinter could have culminated in such a great marathon result, Cook explained, “I have been training primarily for sprinting for the last years for sure, but sprint training has evolved over the years with the lengthening of sprint courses and the fitness to sustain the rounds , meaning the number of hours required per year is very similar to a distance skier’s hours. My fitness has seen improvements because of the training, so if I can hang with group and turn the marathon into a 500m sprint I will do all I can to make that happen.”
For Cook it did happen, and he won the sprint for third over Morten Pedersen of Norway by a half second. That sprint, said Cook was “The best part. . .Definitely one of the top experiences in my ski career.”
Next Up. . .
While Elliott is still recovering – “The day after I was really sore. Really sore and stiff and kind of creaky. Today I flew home and I’m starting to feel better for sure” – he is also “90% sure” he will compete at the SuperTour Finals and the U.S. Nationals 50k in Maine at the end of the month.
There just may be a rematch in store between these top two Birkie competitors, as Cook is looking to “ rest up and get some training in” before heading to the same events.
Its the Birkie.
As a last word, Cook would like to assure anyone who hasn’t yet experienced The Fever:
“It’s the Birkie – if you have never been, go, and you will not be disappointed and won’t want to miss a year…”