Noah Hoffman humbles the field in his first Owl Creek Chase | AspenTimes.com
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Noah Hoffman humbles the field in his first Owl Creek Chase

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Noah Hoffman of Aspen crosses the Tiehack pedestrian bridge Saturday morning during the Owl Creek Chase. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN ” Clutching her skis in one hand and a black Sharpie in the other, a young girl anxiously sauntered up to Noah Hoffman on Saturday.

“Noah, can you autograph my skis?” she asked with a skittish grin.

For the first time all morning, the cross country phenom was caught off guard.

“That’s never happened to me before,” the former Aspen High standout joked.

A few more performances like Saturday’s Owl Creek Chase from Snowmass Village to Aspen, and the 18-year-old will have to get used to the attention.

Hoffman quickly turned his first chase ” his first race of more than 15 kilometers, no less ” into a one-man spectacle, humbling a field of pros and a course widely regarded as the most demanding. Hoffman jumped to the front early into the 25K and saw nothing but clear skies and vacant trails the rest of the way.

He confidently glided to an emphatic elite division victory, finishing in 1 hour, 5 minutes, 21.5 seconds ” six minutes faster than last year’s winning pace and one minute better than his nearest competitor.

“To be on my home course, and to get away as early as I did, I’m really happy,” Hoffman said, pausing momentarily to shake hands with scores of awed passers by. “I’m glad it didn’t come down to a sprint.”

Youth was served Saturday. Hoffman and friend and fellow junior Tad Elliott, of Durango, overwhelmed a field of the sport’s elite to finish first and second by a wide margin.

“I came here wanting to get a top five, but then I saw all the guys in the field ” I think three of them have been to the Olympics,” said Elliott, also a competitive mountain biker. “… I was kind of shocked to be able to get out in front. It motivated me to finish.

“I’m going crazy right now.”

Last year, Park City, Utah’s Zach Simons was locked in a dual with University of Utah graduate student Josh Smullin down the final straightaway. Simons extended his left ski tip toward the line, but Smullin clipped him to pick up the victory.

Saturday, Simons fended off a group of five with a late sprint just to secure the final podium spot.

“I wasn’t sure if it was just two young skiers going for it, and that they would fade out,” said the 2006 Chase champion, who finished in 1:08:03.42. “Halfway into it, it became pretty clear there wasn’t much of a chance that was going to happen.”

In conversing with his coach, Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club alpine director John Callahan, on Friday, Hoffman decided he would make his move on the final climb to West Buttermilk.

That plan was revised Saturday, as a “dog slow” pace encouraged Hoffman to vault to the front shortly after the start in Snowmass.

Hoffman, not one for drama, wouldn’t relinquish the lead the rest of the way.

“Noah was easily the strongest guy out there,” Elliott said. “I tried to stay with him.”

By the time Hoffman reached the base of Two Creeks, the pack of 47 had been reduced to four ” the two juniors plus Alaskan Lars Flora and Montana’s Andrey Golovko.

When he reached the top of the Owl Creek Trail’s first hill, Hoffman and Elliott were all alone.

Elliott, buoyed by his impressive ” and, in his eyes, rather improbable ” start, managed to stay on Hoffman’s tails for the first half of the race. Soon after, Hoffman’s advantage ballooned to 20 meters.

It continued to widen with each passing kilometer.

Hoffman crossed the Buttermilk pedestrian bridge nearly one minute ahead of Elliott, and was all alone as he strode up and down the Aspen Golf Course’s snow-covered fairways. He spotted Elliott on the course’s final switchback some 300 meters from the finish, and the two competitors, who have raced against one another since the age of 10, exchanged smiles.

Moments later, Hoffman skated comfortably down the final straightaway as fans lining the course erupted with applause.

“I’m not surprised that he won, but I am surprised that he was able to do it by as much as he did,” Callahan said.

Hoffman took bronze in a Super Tour 10K classic Thursday on the trails adjacent to the AVSC clubhouse. Saturday, in his final domestic race before traveling to Poland for the World Junior Championships, Hoffman was virtually untouchable.

“I’m feeling good and skiing really well,” he said. “That’s a good combo.”

On the women’s side, Swede Kristina Strandberg’s bid for a third consecutive victory was thwarted by Bend, Oregon’s Evelyn Dong, who won in 1:17:29.88. Strandberg settled for second and Abigail Larson, also of Bend, Oregon, rounded out the podium.

All the talk on this day, however, centered on the teenager from this small ski town who made one big statement.

“It’s up to [Hoffman] to make it happen. He definitely has the talent,” Simons said. “I think he has the chance to be great.”

“For him to do this at home in front of his home crowd, it was fun for him and fun to watch,” Callahan said. “He’s establishing himself as one powerful skier.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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