ASPEN - Before the break of dawn, organizers bustled at the Gondola Plaza as they prepared the finish area for the 15th Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.
As the first tent went up, two illuminated headlamps danced down Aspen Mountain.
Brian Smith and Bryan Wickenhauser coasted down the mountain at 6:32 a.m. for their second win in four years.
The duo finished the 40-mile endurance race in 7 hours, 32 minutes, 23 seconds - almost two hours faster than last year's winning team.
In stark contrast to last year's race, in which competitors had to contend with fresh snow, a swollen creek provided an early obstacle; organizers fashioned a foot-wide wooden plank to allow for safe crossing.
Because of hard, packed snow, Wickenhauser said, most teams donned running shoes for as many as 8 miles.
"Many teams stopped to change into running shoes after crossing the river, but we ran in our ski boots," Wickenhauser said.
Smith added: "That's why we got the gap. We stayed in our boots, but we started to lose some ground. But we knew they would have to take some time putting the ski boots back on."
A few teams caught and passed Smith and Wickenhauser at Star Pass, but the duo took back the lead while the same teams transitioned back to ski boots. Atop the pass, they turned around and still saw other headlamps - but not for long.
At Taylor Pass, Wickenhauser saw only race officials.
"The weather was really conducive to a fast time," Wickenhauser said. "We had no problems with our skins or hands freezing up. The snow was near perfect because it was so hard and fast."
Nearing the end, at the mandatory 10-minute medical check at Barnard Hut, no other teams caught up to Smith, 36, and Wickenhauser, 39.
"We took off, and no one else came through," Wickenhauser said. "We were just like giddy schoolgirls after that. We knew we had the win."
Crested Butte's Patrick O'Neill and Marshall Thomson crossed the finish line 28 minutes after the winners. Chris Kroger, of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Scott Simmons, of Durango, finished third 10 minutes later.
The real battle of the morning was for second and third.
Andy and Jason Dorais, former Brigham Young University cross-country runners from Salt Lake City, tried to stay in the lead pack and hoped for a podium finish in their first Traverse. One of Andy's ski boots snapped near Taylor Pass, however, making every downhill portion afterward perilous.
"It was feeling like a good day, and then a lot went wrong," Jason Dorais said.
The brothers also made two costly errors, missing turns and going off course briefly after Star Pass and before Barnard Hut. The mistakes allowed Simmons and Kroger to slip into third.
At the Barnard Hut, Simmons and Kroger met up with Thomson and O'Neill.
"We were just trying to hold on tight to second," said O'Neill, who has competed in all 15 Traverses. "This was the first time we ever partnered up, so maybe we'll do something cool next year."
Thomson's second-place finish is his second straight after competing with female partner Stevie Kremer a year ago. He said he had hopes of claiming the top spot but couldn't keep pace with the winners as they pulled away on Star Pass.
"I couldn't get my foot into the binding, and Smith and Wickenhauser took off," Thomson said. "They're both really strong skiers, and they just bombed down the hill."
Added O'Neill, "It's just like in a peloton: Once you lose the wheel, it's tough to get back on."
The Dorais brothers were still able to crack the top 10, finishing seventh.
For Wickenhauser, the top podium spot was a relief after finishing out of the top 10 last year because of issues with his skins throughout the race.
Because of the ideal conditions, he thought there could be a very fast winning time.
"We won it in 2009 in a reverse route," Wickenhauser said. "It's nice to legitimize that win with the Crested Butte-to-Aspen race."
As for the Dorais brothers, they were mostly discouraged after setting a goal to take a podium spot.
Asked if they would compete again, Andy Dorais was noncommittal.
"Not after what happened today," he said. "We'll have to rethink it next year."