Sprint to glory in Owl Creek Chase | AspenTimes.com

Sprint to glory in Owl Creek Chase

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Wednesday, Josh Smullin presented his graduate thesis on psychological training techniques. Saturday, in the taxing 25-kilometer Owl Creek Chase, the University of Utah student put study into practice. Smullin withstood both a course considered to be among the most demanding and a late push from 2006 elite division winner Zach Simons and hung on for the slim victory – his first ever on the Super Tour. Smullin finished in 1 hour, 11 minutes, 41.45 seconds.The 25-year-old Simons, who came from behind to nip Aspen’s Casey Ward at the finish line last year, was less than one hundredth of a second away from repeating. Boulder’s Nathan Schultz, who took third, was nearly 30 seconds off the pace.While Simons fell short in his bid for a repeat, Kristina Strandberg again bested the elite women’s field, finishing in 1:20.51. Former Colorado State and Middlebury College skier Evelyn Dong finished second and Abigail Larson, a 2006 Olympian and teammate of Strandberg’s on the Subaru Factory Team, took third.”I wasn’t feeling good at the start, but all that matters is how you feel once the race gets going,” said Smullin, a 2005 CU Boulder graduate. “This is the biggest win I’ve ever had. It’s pretty exciting.”

Circumstances at the race’s start in Snowmass were hardly favorable for the 24 year old. After just five kilometers, Smullin began to feel lactic acid building in his quads. Still, he hung close to the front – he never dropped below third – as Subaru Factory Team member Justin Easter set the early pace.As the course wound through Two Creeks and onto a steep hill section adjacent to Owl Creek Road, Smullin gained confidence. He had settled into third position and was within striking distance – Simons and Schultz were not pulling away. Schultz made a move to the front as the three skiers distanced themselves from the chase pack by 10 seconds. Then, Simons began to waver.”If we picked it up, we might have dropped Zach,” Smullin said. They didn’t. Smullin took the lead as the group hit the Tiehack Bridge, and said he never once looked back down the final stretch. He assumed Schultz continued to hold strong to second as he wound his way onto the Aspen Golf Course and was optimistic; Schultz is not known for sprinting and would have had little chance of erasing the deficit in the last few kilometers.

To his surprise, however, Smullin heard a fan cheering for Simons as he charged up and down the snow-covered fairways and he knew was in for a battle. After all, Simons beat Smullin during a head-to-head race two weeks prior in Park City. “I knew he was a good sprinter, so I knew it would be quite a challenge,” Smullin said. “I felt strong. If you’re not feeling well, there’s nowhere to hide on this course.”Smullin made a U-turn and entered the final straightaway in first place. Simons made his move, bouncing to the outside, and nearly pulled even as the two feverishly sprinted toward the line. Simons reached for the finish by extending his left ski tip, but finished mere inches behind. The race was so tight organizers were delayed for almost a minute before declaring Smullin the winner.”I came through in the exact same way last time, but I didn’t go quite soon enough,” said Simons, who lives in Park City. “I ran out of real estate.”

And Smullin picked up the improbable win. His best previous finish on the Super Tour was sixth, coincidentally in Aspen in 2005. Smullin, who helped coach the University of Utah’s cross-country team, missed last year’s chase. He also battled back problems late last year that severely hindered his training for nearly three months.”I really didn’t know what to expect when I came here,” he said. “It was quite a busy week, but a good one. I accomplished a lot.”So, too, did Strandberg, a graduate assistant at the University of New Mexico, who methodically negotiated the familiar course – and saved a little extra for one final push. While she admitted she felt nervous at the start and was sluggish as a result of a lingering illness, Strandberg bested last year’s winning time by nearly 30 seconds.”Going up those hills, I was almost dropped,” she said. “I was really hurting and trying not to concentrate on how hard it was to breathe. There were a few times where I thought I would be fighting for third or fourth. I didn’t feel fast enough.”

Strandberg held the lead momentarily earlier in the race, but didn’t vault ahead for good until just a few hundred meters remained. Because she skied the course twice Friday, Strandberg knew when to make her move – had she gone sooner, it could’ve been fatal, she said. It was clear the hour-plus grind had taken its toll on the 31-year-old moments after the finish. Still, Strandberg flashed a relieved grin.”I really wanted to win. This is my kind of race,” she said. “It was really hard, and there were times when I just wanted to stop, but you can’t let it get to you. It was pure will that kept me going.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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