A COSMIC day on Grand Mesa
Endurance skiers soak up experience
MESA — One by one, elite endurance athletes zipped across the finish line, spraying snow as they skidded to a stop.
High fives and hand shakes were exchanged as each one finished. Soaking in the warm rays on a brilliant winter morning, they shared stories of a tough race, a brutal climb, face plants, a beautiful view and a fast descent.
Many of the top finishers at Saturday’s third annual COSMIC Ski Mountaineering Race at Powderhorn Mountain Resort were from Gunnison and Crested Butte. A few of those are top competitors in the world of ski mountaineering.
The top male finishers from last year were back, with a shuffling of the top three this year.
Brian Smith, 38, of Gunnison was the winner in two hours, one minute, 14 seconds. He finished third last year to Marshall Thompson and 2013 champ Max Taam. Thompson was second (2:01.33) again this year and Taam fourth.
For top female finisher Stevie Kremer, 30, the sport is a fun winter activity. As one of the top trail runners in the nation, she confesses she’s not the best nordic skier and is only in her fourth winter on the ski mountaineering circuit.
She won the women’s race in 2:26.28 with Sari Anderson of Carbondale second in 2:30.25.
“This (sport) just isn’t my forte,” Kremer said with a smile. “I’m a much stronger uphill skier and runner. I can (ski) down, but fast is not really the way I would describe it, and it’s definitely not pretty.”
She also confessed she had a couple of face plants after getting thrown off balance in the race.
Even though she is one of the top female ski mountaineering competitors in the nation and was finishing consistently in the top 10 last year in Europe, Kremer said she has to gain a big advantage on the uphill.
“It’s not that I’m the worst downhiller, it’s just that there are so many good downhillers,” she said.
On the men’s side, it was a three-way battle for most of the race with Smith, Marshall and Tom Goth of Salt Lake City pulling away.
“The pace was really high, faster than last year, and never really let up,” Smith said.
At the start of the final descent, Smith had about a five-second advantage and held off Thompson, beating the Crested Butte skier by 19 seconds.
Goth fell off the pace in the final 10 minutes to finish third at 2:03.28.
Ski mountaineering is a unique nordic sport sometimes called rando racing. Competitors attach “skins” to their cross-country skis to gain traction on uphill sections, then remove them to get maximum speed on descents.
There were several transition areas on the course where skiers had to put on and take off the skins.
Smith said picking the best ski wax for the conditions can be a big advantage to maximize speed on descents. He used a different wax for this race than he used last year.
The sport is growing in popularity in the United States, and this year the field for the Powderhorn event doubled in size, with 49 skiers competing.
“It’s a very European sport that has picked up a lot of momentum here in the states in the last five years,” Smith said.
For the elite skiers, the race was two laps with a total of about 12 miles and a vertical gain of more than 5,000 feet.
Among competitors this year was 49-year-old Dave Wiens, a six-time Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race champion. As the director of mountain sports at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, he brought four from WSCU to the competition.
There was also a recreation short track, single-lap competition with Lindsey Meyers winning the women’s race and Heather Bradford in second. Caleb Mueller won the men’s race with Grand Junction’s Robb Parsons second.
With so many competitors from Gunnison County and so many familiar faces competing throughout the season, the camaraderie is evident among the competitors.
Thompson, who turns 35 today, smiled when he admitted that everybody wants to win, but it’s a friendly competition.
“So many of us ski and train together,” he said. “What fun is it if you can’t hang out and have a beer after the race?”