Zimmermann fastest in Owl Creek Chase
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – As snow fell from the sky and stiff gusts of wind blew from the south, Leif Zimmermann glided across the final 100 meters of Sunday’s Owl Creek Chase nordic race from Snowmass to Aspen with a smile.
Last year, blue skies and a warm sun meant hot conditions for all the racers. This year was in complete contrast.
“I like the cold more, for sure,” Zimmermann said.
Leading by eight seconds over Matthew Philip Gelso in the final five kilometers, Zimmermann approached the finish at the Aspen Ski and Snowboard Club at an easy speed. At 59 minutes, 9.9 seconds, he finished well ahead of second-place finisher Gelso and improved upon his third-place finish from last year. Patrick O’Brien took third in a final sprint to the finish with Nils Koons.
“This race is really about if you’re feeling good that day and you have something in your legs,” Zimmermann said. “I felt a little bit better this year, and I’m really on an upswing in my training.”
Regarded as one of the most grueling courses of the U.S. SuperTour events, the Owl Creek Chase tests competitor’s conditioning with many uphill climbs and tricky downhill descents. It was on these difficult uphills where Zimmermann found success.
“My strength is climbing this year as last year I usually tired on them,” Zimmermann said. “I was able to pull away and I felt really good on the hills.”
Zimmermann set the pace from the start as a small group of six skiers formed a front pack. Gelso and Zimmermann traded the lead back and forth until a difficult hill around the 10-kilometer mark.
“We knew we were going to be fighting it out if we both felt good,” Zimmermann said of Gelso. “We swapped leads until the first set of climbs.”
Zimmermann pulled away from the group as Gelso tried to keep pace. Behind the two men, O’Brien, Koons and Josh Mullen formed a chase group vying for third. As the five men reached Buttermilk, Gelso was about eight seconds behind Zimmermann, and the chase group of three were five seconds behind Gelso.
O’Brien, a Vermont native and first-time racer in the Chase, struggled with the altitude and found out in a hurry just how challenging the course is.
“You really have to pace yourself, especially with all the climbing in it,” O’Brien said. “I tried to conserve as much energy as possible. … When Matt and Leif took off, we knew it was going to be a fight for third. I tried to save as much as I could for the last hill.”
Thirty seconds after Zimmermann finished, O’Brien and Koons turned the corner off the last hill and onto the 100-meter straightaway with O’Brien in a very slight lead. Conserving energy during the race paid off for O’Brien as he outsprinted Koons for the third and final podium spot.
“I had a feeling it would come down to a sprint between him and I,” O’Brien said. “He was leading at the soccer field, and as soon as we hit the last hill, we got side by side, and I had a little bit more left in the tank.”
The podium finishes for each competitor in the 21-kilometer Owl Creek Chase was not the only medal each man took home over the weekend. Gelso took first in the 10-kilometer SuperTour Classic, 13 seconds over Zimmermann in second. O’Brien took third in the 1.4-kilometer SuperTour Sprint.
Gelso, who sat out last year’s Chase because of an illness, was satisfied that he gave everything he had but couldn’t quite catch Zimmermann at the end.
“I thought I could get him if he started to fade, but he didn’t,” Gelso said. “He stayed strong, and I realized I wasn’t going to catch him.”
O’Brien added, “Leif was definitely the strongest guy on the course today. He just got free and clear and didn’t give it up.”
After finishing third in both of Zimmermann’s two other appearances in the Chase, a top-place finish finally came for the Bozeman, Mont., native.
“It was one of my goals the last couple weeks to do this,” Zimmermann said. “I thought if I had good legs I could get it, and I’m really pleased with how I felt today.”
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet welcomes back Compangie Hervé Koubi to Aspen for the first time since 2019. The 13-member ensemble will perform choreographer Hervé Koubi’s Ce Que Le Jour Doit a la Nuit (What the Day Owes the Night) at Aspen District Theater on Sunday Jan. 29.