Traverse comes down to the wire
Forty miles of rugged backcountry wilderness separates Crested Butte from Aspen. On Saturday, after traversing those 40 miles and some 6,000 vertical feet on classic nordic skis, five seconds was all that separated teammates Jon Brown and Brian Smith from Dave Penney and Eric Sullivan.
Brown and Smith, both of Gunnison, won the closest finish in the nine-year history of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, swooping down the face of Aspen Mountain just before 8 a.m. to edge Sullivan at the finish line. Penney was the first racer to arrive in the finish area at the base of the Silver Queen gondola, but he could only watch as Smith crossed the line next, then Brown.
Smith and Brown’s official time was 7 hours, 52 minutes and 30 seconds; Penney and Sullivan ” both of Crested Butte ” clocked in at 7:52:35.
The conclusion brought back shades of the 2002 Grand Traverse, which was also decided on the final downhill descent through Spar Gulch. However, Penney and partner Geo Bullock won that year by a margin of 26 seconds to become the first and only team ever to repeat.
“It’s the closest ever,” said Penney, an international mountain guide based out of Crested Butte. “It might be the best year, too. The conditions were great ” it was warm, and the snow was soft. I had more fun this year than I’ve ever had.”
What made the gripping finish even better was that it almost never happened. Penney had planned to do the race this year with his wife, but she backed out last week, which left him scrambling to find a partner.
Sullivan, a member of the adventure-racing outfit Team Salomon/Crested Butte with Brown, decided to team up with Penney on Tuesday.
Brown was also a question mark before the race. After coming down with a contagious virus earlier in the week, he spent four days in bed on antibiotics. Smith wasn’t sure his partner was even going to be able to complete the race, much less win it.
“Once he commits to something, there’s no turning back for him,” Smith said. “He dug deep today.”
One hundred two-person teams set off from the Crested Butte Community School at the stroke of midnight Friday. Smith and Brown took over the lead about a quarter of the way through the race after crossing the East River.
The duo then distanced themselves from the rest of the pack while ascending the two passes on the trek to Aspen ” first Star Pass at 12,303 feet, before descending into Taylor Basin, then over 11,929-foot Taylor Pass in the middle of a whiteout.
By the time the two reached the Barnard Hut on Richmond Ridge, the final mandatory checkpoint before the push to the finish, Brown said he had reached his breaking point.
“We didn’t know what the gap was until we reached the hut,” Brown said. “We were about six minutes ahead. I was wasted at that point, but Brian pulled me through. I didn’t have anything left. If it weren’t for him, we probably would still be out there.”
Penney wasn’t disappointed about overtaking Smith and Brown during the frantic final descent, only to lose the race. Rather, he was excited that two teams from the Gunnison/Crested Butte area had finished 1-2.
“That’s always the mission, to get it back home,” he said. “It’s back in the Butte again.”
“There’s definitely some bragging rights there,” Smith added “It’s nice to have it back in our area, for sure.”
Defending champions Mike Kloser and Dan Weiland, both adventure racers from Vail, finished a disappointing fifth in 8:11:10, behind Chris Clark and Trond Flagstad (7:54:25) and the Breckenridge duo of Teague Holmes and Brad LaRochelle (8:11:00).
Weiland became ill midway through the race and after vomiting was unable to keep down any food until the duo reached the Barnard Hut checkpoint.
With nothing in his stomach, it was impossible to keep up with the leaders, he said.
“Everything was fine, then all the sudden, it was like, ‘I know I’m getting sick,'” Weiland said. “Literally 20 seconds later I pulled off to the side and barfed. I didn’t really feel good the rest of the way. … It was not the best day. We knew going in that it’s hard to defend here.”
Weiland and Kloser won their first Grand Traverse title in 2003 after finishing second to Jimmy Faust and Pat O’Neill of Crested Butte in 2002. Faust and O’Neill won again in 2004, before finishing second to the team from Vail last year. On Saturday, Faust and O’Neill failed to finish.
Smith said the two encountered an equipment problem early at the beginning of the race and turned back.
LaRochelle and Holmes were shocked to finish in the top five, after finishing sixth last year, and 14th the year before.
“It’s just a fun race,” LaRochelle said. “We don’t take it too seriously, but we like to do well. We’re pretty psyched, for sure, but still, it’s all about having fun.”
An avid nordic skier, LaRochelle joked that the hardest part of the race was the final descent down Aspen Mountain on lightweight cross-country skis.
“I actually sat down and laid down on my backpack and slid down through a lot of the slush,” LaRochelle said. “Teague’s an incredible downhill skier, and he loves it, but I struggle.”
The coed winners also represented a last-minute pairing, as Jari Kirkland, another member of Team Salomon/Crested Butte, teamed with Allen Hadley, also of Crested Butte, to finish in 8:48.50 ” good for eighth overall.
Defending coed champions Pete Swenson of Boulder and Monique Merrill of Breckenridge did not enter the race.
Hadley, a nine-year veteran of the race, and an ultramarathon runner, noted that he had always been looking for the perfect woman to win the coed title. When his male partner got hurt last week, Hadley called up Kirkland, and the two finalized plans on Tuesday.
“If I was going to show up here and take the coed title, Jari Kirkland was the lady to do it with,” Hadley said. “I knew we would be contenders. It was just a matter of whether I could keep up with her.”
Kirkland teamed up with Sullivan last year to finish 15th overall and had wanted to do the race again. When Hadley called, she jumped at the chance to compete with one of Crested Butte’s most revered endurance athletes.
“It was like, if I’m going to do it and work myself for 10 hours, I’m going to win,” Kirkland said. “Allen Hadley does everything and does it well. It was a great opportunity.”
Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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