Mighty Casey doesn’t strike out | AspenTimes.com

Mighty Casey doesn’t strike out

Combining World Cup-caliber skiing with gritty determination, Old Snowmass’ Casey Puckett barreled to victory in the 14th annual 24 Hours of Aspen.

Puckett, a 13-year U.S. Ski Team veteran who retired in April following a fourth appearance in the Olympics, led from wire-to-wire, though he never once stopped looking back.

The 30-year-old opened up a two-second lead on the first run and stretched it to as much as 22 seconds overnight. But when Monday’s noontime finish came around after 63 laps down the gut of Aspen Mountain, only 17 seconds separated him from one relentless pursuer, Germany’s Michael Brunner, the defending champion.

“He was on my tail all day and all night. He was a huge thorn in my side. I just couldn’t shake him,” said Puckett, now a coach with the Aspen Valley Ski/Snowboard Club. “I was worried about him all the way to the finish. I could’ve done the whole day, the whole night and come down here and caught an edge right before the finish and I would’ve lost the race.”

Puckett finished 63 laps with a cumulative on-snow time of 2 hours, 18 minutes and 46 seconds.

Not only is Puckett the first local resident to win since Chris Davenport and Tyler Williams did it in 1998, he’s also the inaugural solo champion as the 24 Hours shifted away from the traditional two-person, team format this year.

Switzerland’s William Besse, a four-time World Cup downhill winner, was third, more than a minute back (2:19:56), while Canada’s Roman Torn was fourth (2:22:02), and Aspen’s Fletcher Yaw was fifth (2:25:20).

“Casey was just incredible,” said Besse, who was second in a World Cup downhill on the other side of Ajax in 1992. “He did it from the beginning to the finish. I was thinking maybe he [would] go a little bit slower after 12 or 14 hours or so, but he was so good all the time. Just great. Congratulations for him.”

In the women’s division, defending champion Aleisha Cline of Whistler, British Columbia, held off Aspen’s Asia Jenkins to win her third event in Aspen in as many tries. (That’s two 24 Hours titles, last year with partner Anik Demers, along with the women’s skiercross crown at the X Games at Buttermilk, also last winter.)

“The pressure was on all night,” said an exhausted Cline. “I tried to make a lead early because I knew that I was going to have some problems. It’s really hard to do it solo.”

Cline set the women’s pace with 62 laps in 2:29:44. Jenkins was just 38 seconds back (2:30:22), followed by Canadian Wendy Lumby in third and Aspen native Lindsay Yaw, one half of the first brother-sister duo to compete in a 24 Hours, in fourth.

“I’m happy with it,” said Jenkins, a 1994 AHS graduate who grew up racing with the Aspen Valley Ski/Snowboard Club. “Everything went well, and I skied strong. I’m glad it’s over.”

Puckett set a blistering pace in the early going, which, considering his admission last week that he wasn’t “at all prepared for this,” had some rivals wondering whether he’d be able to sustain.

But on lap 5, when Puckett blitzed the 2.69-mile, 3,267 vertical-foot course in 2:08.45 to crush the course record mark of 2:10.98 set in 1998 by brothers Martin and Graham Bell (though on a slightly shorter course), it was clearly Puckett’s race to lose.

With a 15-second plus advantage just after darkness fell, Puckett soon learned how fragile a lead can be in the 24 Hours. In his haste to get out of the start, Puckett kicked a ski across the timing beam, then had to scramble and recover it before getting under way.

The ordeal cost him nine or 10 seconds, about half his advantage at that point.

“That was a rookie mistake, but I learned from it,” said Puckett. “You build up a little advantage over however many runs, 20 or something like that, and you blow it all in one mistake. That is what was wearing on me the whole time.”

After the blunder, Puckett changed his approach at the start. Instead of flying out of the gondola and jumping into his skis, he took an extra moment to make sure he was secured into both skis before planting his poles and shoving off again.

“You only give up a little time on the gondola,” he said, “so it’s stupid to lose snow time just because you’re in a hurry.”

At least four course holds, along with a slow-moving gondola due to winds before midnight, slackened the overall pace of the race this year, limiting the number of laps to 63 compared to 76 last year. The 24 Hours record remains 83 laps from 1991.

Puckett, for one, wasn’t complaining.

“I was getting to the end of my rope at certain times in the night,” he said, “and those breaks really helped. For me to take a half hour to stretch is big. I was hurting.”

Nevertheless, Brunner conceded that “the best skier won the race.”

“It was really hard for me, I skied as hard as I can,” said Brunner, 29. “Sometimes I was one second ahead [on a run], or maybe one and a half seconds ahead after two times, but on the third run, Casey was two seconds in front of me. So it went the whole race.

“It was absolutely no surprise to me,” he continued. “He skied until last year on the World Cup, so when he said he didn’t train so much, it was of no matter. He can still profit from his training. But I retired three years ago; some of those muscles are gone now.”

While the solo format, by all veteran accounts, was a greater challenge this year, only three of 17 starters did not finish.

Historically, the rate of attrition has been about a third of the field. Slovenia’s Ales Brezavscek withdrew after lap 30 due to back pain, and Germany’s Christian Deissenboeck, who won last year with Brunner, dropped out at about 4:45 a.m.

Deissenboeck had been running in third place, behind Puckett and Brunner, when he crashed about 100 yards from Kleenex Corner and piled into the fence.

“The right ski went right, the left ski went left, and I was in the net,” he said. “I decided not to continue because I was not in a leading position anymore. I thought it was OK to stop because it makes no sense for me.”

Anik Demers of Canada, who won last year with Cline, was the last racer to pull out, at about 10:20 a.m. yesterday on lap 57.

Demers, who had continued after a crash in the third hour on Sunday, was unhurt in the second crash at the base of Spar Gulch, but did not continue.

“For a little moment down Spar I didn’t pay attention,” she said.

Puckett’s support crew was headed up by his wife, Katie McBride Puckett, who owns a record six 24 Hours of Aspen titles. Each time he pulled into the gondola, a U.S. Ski Team trench coat was thrust over his 2002 U.S. Olympic Team speed suit. And at the top of the gondola, a crew of U.S. Ski Team and Atomic ski technicians worked around the clock to keep his skis running fast.

“I was so impressed with my crew,” Puckett said. “It was a professionally run deal.”

“He’s just a steam engine,” said McBride Puckett in summary.

“At first he was saying, ‘You know, I’m a little bit like you. Isn’t that great?’ But at the end of the race, he said, ‘Kate, you’re nuts!'”

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com]

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