Vail’s Mike Kloser wins Highlands Uphill |

Vail’s Mike Kloser wins Highlands Uphill

Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Send in the Kloser.

Just five days removed from his 48th birthday, Mike Kloser charged into the new year in grand style Saturday. The Vail endurance racer topped a field of 51 ” many less than half his age ” and held off a spirited push from Bernie Boettcher to win his second Highlands Uphill title.

Kloser negotiated the challenging course, which covers three miles and a vertical gain of 2,850 feet, in 55 minutes, 25.99 seconds to edge Boettcher, last year’s winner, by 2:25. Aspen Highlands ski patroller Brian Johnson was third in 59:06.68.

“He hammered it the whole way today,” Boettcher said of Kloser. “I tried to stay right behind him and look for any signs of weakness. There weren’t any.”

A directional gaffe cost Kloser a victory in 2007. He missed the course markers and took a right turn instead of a left. As a result, he finished nearly 51 seconds off Boettcher’s winning pace.

Kloser barely made one misstep Saturday. He wasted little time pushing to the front at the 6:45 a.m. start as snow fell softly. Scattered headlamps lit the way up Jerome run as the steady lull of the Exhibition lift muffled the sounds of eager snowshoers and skiers storming out of the base area.

As darkness faded into light, Kloser, on skinned cross-country skis, strengthened his grip on first as Silt’s Boettcher, on snowshoes, followed in close pursuit.

“I usually like to hold back a little at the start and let the rabbits make their move, then catch them, ” Boettcher said. “I knew that if Mike was having a good day, I couldn’t let him go ” and he was.”

As the two made their way up the steep pitch of Face of Oly ” the last push before the finishing downhill ” heavy snow complicated Boettcher’s efforts. As he struggled to steady himself by digging his snowshoe cleats through the 2-3 inches of fresh snow and into the underlying hard pack, Boettcher found himself sliding from side to side.

“I didn’t think there would be this much snow,” Boettcher said. “It was raining when I left Silt, and it was dry in Glenwood and Basalt. … Skis were the ideal gear for today. I felt like I was running in sand.”

While Boettcher struggled, Kloser extended his lead to nearly 30 seconds. Boettcher closed the gap as Kloser stopped to peel off his skins, but Kloser regained his advantage on the ensuing descent.

A stumble moments later gave him and Boettcher reason to chuckle, but ultimately did little to threaten Kloser’s advantage.

“I was going fast, doing the flying wedge, and I hit a drift and tumbled,” Kloser joked. “It was a little sketchy out there. … Randonee gear with fixed heels and edges would’ve been easier, but it’s not as fast on the way up, and Bernie is so good on the uphills.

“Skis were a definite advantage, but it was the conditions, not me [that were the deciding factor].”

Boettcher said he kept waiting for one more blunder, for Kloser to give him the slight opening he needed to jump into the lead and win for a fifth time here.

It never came.

Kloser, a two-time America’s Uphill winner who teamed with Stephen White to take first in the grueling Elk Mountains Grand Traverse in March, was all alone as he emerged from the trees on the course’s final straightaway. As heavy, wet snow increased in intensity, he skated confidently to the finish outside the Merry-Go-Round restaurant.

“It was fun to win, and I enjoy competing with Bernie,” Kloser said. “We’re equal in a lot of ways. It’s good to have him there to push you.”

Boettcher was content to finish second.

“Last year was close, but Mike got me today,” he added. “I want to be like him when I grow up.”

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