(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from third-place finisher Paul Schommer and NYSEF’s cross-country head coach Margaret Maher.)
WILMINGTON, N.Y. — Four appearances and three wins is an enviable record. On Sunday, 50-year-old Robert Duncan Douglas, the “Jacked Up Old Man” from Honeoye Falls, N.Y., won his third Climb to the Castle (C2C) rollerski race, a five-mile freestyle hill climb up the Whiteface Memorial Highway.
Douglas previously won the race in 2007 and 2008, with a personal-best time of 34 minutes, 56.6 seconds in 2007 (he was 2 1/2 minutes faster on a shortened course in 2008, when racers were unable to reach the summit because of snow).
Hannah Rieders, a 17-year-old Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) skier whose initial goal was an age-group podium, won her first C2C, on the race’s 10th anniversary.
Finishing in 37:15.6 this year, Douglas was 8.3 seconds ahead of runner-up Russell Currier, a biathlete who trains with the Outdoor Sports Institute in Maine. Paul Schommer, a senior member of US Biathlon’s National Development Group, placed third overall, 3:02.6 minutes behind Douglas.
Rieders, a high-school senior from Wellesley, Mass., was the first woman across the line in 55:03.1. She beat Anna Lehmann, a ninth grader representing the Stratton Mountain School (SMS), by 15.7 seconds, and Rieders’s twin, Madeline (also of CSU), finished 1:23.3 minutes back in third.
“I kind of thought maybe Anna would beat me,” Hannah Rieders said in a post-race interview. “At the start, I just wanted to pace it well. I stayed behind other people for the first three miles.”
Overnight rain left the road damp. At the toll-booth start in Wilmington, temperatures hovered around 65 degrees under cloudy skies, with sultry humidity. Low clouds at the start turned dense up high near the summit. Unless you were really close to skiers in front of you, it was hard to gauge how far up the road they were, and how much energy one should expend to attack.
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With the U.S. Ski Team wrapping up its New Zealand training camp in New Zealand, and thin representation from elite biathletes, the race was wide open.
Margaret Maher, head coach of the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF) cross-country program, explained in an email that she learned in April that the U.S. Ski Team would not be comping to Lake Placid for its usual dryland camp this year. To accommodate the US Biathlon team, she originally scheduled this year’s Climb for next weekend, Sept. 25, but that date conflicted with other races NYSEF’s skiers planned on competing in.
Maher had to move the race up one week in order for her athletes to attend. Regardless, 85 athletes registered this year, which was on par with the “73-108 athletes” that the race has previously attracted.
Of the top-five female finishers on Sunday, four were under the age of 18, and Lehmann is a U16. With Jackie Garso (St. Lawrence University) placing fourth and Gabby Vandendries (CSU) finishing fifth, CSU had three in the top five.
“First time [at C2C] for all three girls,” CSU coach Rob Bradlee wrote in an email. “All three also ran Mt. Washington for the first time in June. Tough kids! I don’t have them do any special prep for this race. Their regular six-days-per-week training clearly is enough to get them ready. All three are very hard workers and have been training hard all summer. I think their results show that.”
Hannah Rieders explained that five women formed the lead pack. Around mile three, the eventual top three broke away. They skied together until mile four, “then I went ahead,” Rieders said.
Madeline Rieders said she skied in the pack until mile three, then pulled away with Hannah and Lehmann. While she lost contact with them on the road, which has an average grade of 8 percent, she maintained a steady gap to the finish and held off fourth place by 50 seconds.
For the men, it was down to three from the start, according to Currier.
“Paul, Duncan and I all took turns leading,” he wrote in an email.
“I’m in better shape this year, but not rollerski shape,” Douglas said.
For most of the summer, Douglas focused on bike racing, winning his 50-59 age group and placing 25th overall at the Leadville Trail 100 mountain-bike race. He said he just started rollerskiing two weeks before the Climb.
Douglas, a two-time Olympian who will be 51 in November, had a simple race plan. “Go out, ski hard, have fun,” he reflected.
For most of the race, Douglas skied with Currier. He dropped Currier once, but the 29-year-old former national-team biathlete regained contact. Douglas said that at the Lake Placid corner – a hard left where the grade eases and one can transition to V2 strides – he broke away to the finish.
“Once the flat section towards the end started, I wasn’t able to match Duncan’s speed,” Currier wrote. “He was never very far out but enough to make a difference at that point in the race.”
Of his race, Currier described it as “a solid effort. I really tried to use good technique. For a race that’s nothing but uphill, there’s not much else you can do.”
In an email, Schommer explained this was his first Climb to the Castle.
“I went into it with an open mind, knowing that if I killed myself in the first half the second half would be a death march,” the 24-year-old Wisconsin native wrote. “I would say it went decent for me as I was able to stay pretty strong most of the way, despite losing Russell and Duncan about 1.5 miles into the race.”
Is the Climb to the Castle a data point for winter fitness?
“It’s a good, effective workout, really good training,” Currier explained, adding that he didn’t think it was a good indicator of fitness in December or February.
“I was really happy with how it turned out,” said Adam Glueck, a Ford Sayre U18 skier who finished seventh (+7:52.4) in his first C2C. “I didn’t want to go too hard out of the start. I followed some friends and threw in some double pole to rest my legs.”
Glueck skied in a small group he eventually lost contact with about halfway through.
“I managed to catch them on the V2 straight [the Lake Placid corner]. After that, my friend Henry McGrew [eighth overall] was right behind me,” he said. “I had to push hard through the headwind [the last 500 meters] to beat him. I was basically in agony for the last three or four minutes.”
Agony and clouds: good metaphors for the Climb to the Castle. When athletes returned to the base, the sun was breaking out.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting