Aspen senior eyes the finish line | AspenTimes.com

Aspen senior eyes the finish line

Jon Maletz

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Aspen’s Noah Hoffman continues to replay last year’s 3A state cross country championship over and over in his head.He went out fast to keep pace with the lead pack. Too fast. After passing the first mile marker in 4 minutes 56 seconds, Hoffman “blew up.” Fatigue set in. He couldn’t keep pace with the front-runners on a flat Colorado Springs course on which speed was pivotal. He was caught and passed multiple times before crossing the finish line in ninth.”I finished eighth or ninth, either way it was awful,” Hoffman said Wednesday. “The lead pack dropped me at a mile and a half, and after that I was going downhill.”I’m glad that wasn’t my last race. I want to go back and try again.”Saturday he gets his chance to cap a storied season in what very well may be his last cross country race – he is currently pondering whether or not to focus solely on nordic skiing at the college level.

There’s only one thing on his mind this week. And anything but a top-three finish will be a disappointment, Hoffman said.”I’ve run that course so many times that I know what to expect,” he said. “I’m a little nervous, but I feel ready.”After Hoffman’s performance thus far in 2006, there’s no reason to doubt him. He won four races – double his total from 2005 – including a second consecutive regional crown. Only Rocky Ford’s Victor Montoya beat Hoffman this season. Montoya beat Hoffman by nearly 17 seconds at the Liberty Bell Invitational Sept. 15 at Heritage High School.”In light of what happened at Liberty Bell, Noah’s not the favorite going in to this weekend,” Aspen head coach Chris Keleher said. “That plays to his advantage. I’m anticipating watching this race more than a lot of others in recent memory.” After missing the season-opening Delta Invitational Sept. 2, Hoffman finished first one week later at the Steamboat Invitational. He was one of five Skiers to finish in the top five. Hoffman took first two weeks later at the Holy Family Invitational, outclassing a field of 72.

Perhaps his most dominating performance came in the Chris Severy Invitational Oct. 7. He bided his time at the start on a familiar Aspen High School course, then let his hill-climbing prowess take over. He was all alone as he emerged on the final straightaway and finished 49 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor. In Saturday’s regional at Delta, Hoffman overcame a cold to win, catapulting Aspen to the team title.”I had a bad warm-up, and I was happy the others didn’t go out fast,” Hoffman said. “I really didn’t know what to expect going in.” That will not be the case Saturday. Hoffman, who said he is back to 100 percent, is familiar with the task and course that awaits him. “The course is pan flat, and you run up and down fairways,” he said. “The one hill on the course is 8 meters. Obviously I’d like more hills, but I’ve worked to improve my leg speed.”Hoffman has also developed into a more astute runner, Keleher said.

“He’s very attentive to how he approaches races. He wanted to have a plan going into each one,” Keleher said. “He’s grown up a lot as far as his approach and focus.”The person who runs the smartest race [Saturday] is going to win. Everyone is as fit as everybody else, so the person with the better plan will have the advantage. You need to make them run your race, not react to what they’re doing.”Hoffman is one of five runners who have a legitimate shot at winning the state title, Keleher said.”He’s been to states twice and finished in the top 10 both times, so he’s talented enough to do it,” Keleher said. “In a perfect world he wins the state championship, and the boys finish in the top five or on the podium. Every coach who’s taking a team there and has an excellent athlete would say the same thing.” Hoffman, spurned by an unfavorable ending to his junior season, has been running with renewed purpose. He said he’s learned from his loss to Montoya, when he went out too slow and did not allow himself enough time to catch up. He said he’s never felt more fit. After 17 minutes Saturday, he’ll find out whether his effort culminates in one final victory. Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com