John Gaston, Max Taam set course record in Grand Traverse win | AspenTimes.com

John Gaston, Max Taam set course record in Grand Traverse win

Even ski mountaineering wizards like Aspen locals John Gaston and Max Taam can occasionally look like fools out on the course.

"Everyone just blew by us because we were skinning, just assuming everyone else was doing the same thing," Taam said. "And everyone just goes skating by us like we are a couple amateurs out there."

This was in the wee hours of the morning Saturday, shortly after the midnight start of the 20th running of the Gore-Tex Grand Traverse, a roughly 40-mile skimo race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Gaston and Taam didn't have much trouble from there, finishing the race in a record time of 6 hours, 37 minutes, 38.6 seconds. Second place went to the Crested Butte duo of Sean Van Horn and Benjamin Johnson, who finished in 8:10:30.3, with third place being the Aspen twosome of Tyler Newton and Steve Denny in 8:19:14.6.

"We got caught by surprise that first hour and a half, when all of a sudden it became pretty competitive for a little while there," Gaston said. "And it mentally got us more into, 'We're racing, let's go fast,' which is good."

Gaston and Taam also won last year's race, although weather conditions forced that to be run on the "reverse course," which is basically an out-and-back, beginning and ending in Crested Butte. Both well-known endurance athletes in Aspen, this is the first time either has won the full Grand Traverse race. And according to them, this is the first time an Aspen team has won the race since its inaugural running in 1998. Travis Moor and Pierre Willie won the race that winter.

"It's a bucket list thing. You want the win in Aspen," Gaston said. "This is the one that everyone talks about and remembers. I used to get asked about it so many times."

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Anyone who knows skimo knows about Gaston and Taam. They both compete on an international stage for the United States Ski Mountaineering Association and recently returned stateside after a pair of premier events in Europe.

The 30-year-old Gaston, who co-founded Strafe Outerwear alongside his brother, took 15th in an individual race and 11th in a vertical race at the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Italy in late February/early March. Both finishes were a best for a U.S. man in event history.

Gaston and Taam, 34, then teamed up to compete in the prestigious Pierra Menta race in France, where they had strong, but not quite satisfying, results. Both have competed in each of the races multiple times.

"Everything is all very planned out with them, which I think is different than a lot of racers who are still just trying to wing it," said Jessie Young, Taam's fiance. "Off the course there is a lot of talk about grams and ounces. These guys are very strategic in their racing. They put a lot of time in their training, but they also put a lot of time in off the course."

Young is a ski mountaineer herself. She partnered with Jackson, Wyoming's Janelle Smiley, who has long ties with the Aspen and Crested Butte areas, to take fourth in the World Championships in Italy. Aspen locals Lindsey Plant and Annie Gonzalez also competed for the U.S. in Italy.

Despite their experience on the international stage, there is still something special about getting to compete in one's own backyard. Taam and Young competed in the Grand Traverse together in 2011, shortly after they had started dating. Taam's first time skiing in Aspen occurred in college on a ski trip with his parents, and it happened to be on the exact day of the Grand Traverse race.

"I remember lots of people struggling down the hill on Nordic skis," Taam said. "This is different. It's a really unique race. It sort of requires a different skill set than most of the races we do."

The Grand Traverse is a relatively flat course, compared with what Taam and Gaston are accustomed to. They live for the steep ascents, and found themselves a little out of their element in the dark Saturday morning. But since the duo came together nearly six years ago, they have yet to lose a race in North America.

Among their greatest threat Saturday was the veteran duo of Billy Laird and Eric Sullivan. They finished seventh in 8:45:02.5, but only after Aspen's Sullivan encountered an equipment issue where he could no longer attach his boot to his binding. Had that not been the case, Taam and Gaston feel their substantial margin of victory would have been much narrower.

The goal now for the U.S. contingent from Aspen is to continue to grow the sport of ski mountaineering. It's still largely underdeveloped in North America, compared with their competition in Europe. But with the recent success of the U.S. team — including a first-ever bronze medal from Durango teen Quinn Simmons in a youth sprint at worlds — there is reason for growing optimism for the sport this side of the Atlantic.

"We think it's growing here, and it is. I hope it is, because it's a great sport," Young said. "But you go to Europe and you're, 'OK, we're really nowhere.' It's just so big over there and it's a part of their culture. It's growing here, but we have a long way to go."

The Breckenridge duo of Nikki LaRochelle and Eva Hagen won the women's portion of Saturday's Grand Traverse in 8:43:09.7. Taking second was Crested Butte's Stevie Kremer and Jari Hiatt in 9:04:11.2, and third Aspen's Lyndsay Meyer and Michela Adrian in 9:47:51.5.

Veronika Mayerhofer and Nick Hendrickson of Salt Lake City paired to win the co-ed division in 8:18:59.7. In second was the Steamboat Springs duo of Donnie Haubert and Amy Lawton in 8:58:44.3, and third was Ridgway's Kelly Ryan and Dave Penney in 9:03:22.3.

For complete results, visit thegrandtraverse.org.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

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