Owl Creek Chase returns Saturday | AspenTimes.com

Owl Creek Chase returns Saturday

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen’s premier nordic race is back, and no one is happier about that than Aspen’s Casey Ward.

One of Colorado’s elite nordic marathoners, the 28-year-old Ward grew up alongside the Owl Creek Chase ” a 25K freestyle race from Snowmass Village to Aspen that was founded in 1985.

After a two-year hiatus, the Chase returns for its 17th running Saturday morning at 10 a.m. on its namesake Owl Creek Trail, starting from the Snowmass golf course.

Ward’s older sister, Natalie, captured two Owl Creek Chase women’s crowns in 1997 and ’98, a time when Casey found himself consumed with racing and training at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Casey Ward glided on skis before he could walk, came up with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and graduated from Aspen High before following Natalie to Boulder and the Buffs ski team.

While Natalie, 34, became an All-American at CU, Casey was part of two NCAA championship teams in 1998 and 1999. He graduated from CU in 2001, the year that saw the last running ” until Saturday ” of the Owl Creek Chase.

In the past two seasons Casey has followed (and raced in) the nordic Nor Am tour relentlessly, improving to 15th overall this season (based on 16 events), up from 26th overall last winter.

On Saturday, some of Casey’s oldest rivals and friends, including former Buffs Nathan Schultz and Eric Meyer, both of Boulder, will be in the field, among other top racers in the region.

Casey, however, made clear his expectations yes-

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terday afternoon.

“It’s a race I’m definitely gunning to win,” he said.

“It’s been a race I basically grew up watching or helping with or racing in as a kid. And it’s a race in my hometown. There’s always something special about winning a race in your hometown. I think there’s more prestige, maybe pride, to it, especially when there’s tough competition.”

On the women’s side, Natalie Ward will likely be dueling with Sweden’s Maria Wiik and Austria’s Irene Eder.

Many of the top racers, including the Wards, Schultz and Meyer, all raced the prestigious 32K Boulder Mountain Tour last Saturday in Sun Valley, Idaho. A record 1,047 skiers competed, with Schultz the first across the line ” and Casey Ward the fifth. Natalie Ward finished seventh in the women’s division.

“Nordic heavyweights,” Mike Trecker of the Ute Mountaineer said in surveying Saturday’s field.

Trecker, who is married to Natalie Ward and is a former Buffs ski coach, expects the leaders to finish inside anywhere from an hour and a half to an hour and a quarter.

“Really fast. These guys are essentially one step below World Cup level,” Trecker said. “Nathan and Eric are part of the Suburu factory team, the No. 1 team in the U.S., a real slick operation like a pro cycling team, and all three [Nathan, Eric and Casey] are former CU racers. So Casey has a personal rivalry with Nathan and Eric, like who’s the best in the state, who’s the best ex-Buff, a friendly rivalry that’s carried on over the years.

“All three love to beat each other, and Casey is definitely gunning for those guys this weekend,” Trecker continued, “because he knows Nathan and Eric will be saving up a little for the Birkie. He sees that as a tactical advantage for himself.”

The “Birkie” is the annual 51K Birkebeiner race held in Wisconsin (and modeled after the Norwegian Birkebeiner). While Schultz and Meyer are slated to race the “Birkie” a week from Saturday (along with Natalie Ward), and with Schultz reportedly “gunning” for a win there, Casey’s docket is free (read: he’s willing to accept a high level of pain and suffering on Saturday).

Asked about the “Birkie” factor, Casey laughed.

“Yeah, there might be some strategy involved there,” he said.

“The three of us are the top skiers in Colorado, so you get us together and it’s a really good race,” continued Casey, who skis for AVSC and Team Alpina. “It should be a really high caliber race.”

Change of course

The Owl Creek Chase features a new course alignment this year, with climbs like the “Terminator trail” and dicey hairpin descents to Maroon Creek a thing of the past.

Trecker, one of the race organizers from the Ute, hopes the somewhat mellower course attracts a broader base of skiers. (In fact, with the widespread use of GPS technology now compared to 2001, when the last Chase was held, race officials learned that instead of 30K, as the race was always billed, the course is more like 25K.)

Trecker is expecting about 100 to 150 skiers, but ideally, in the future, race officials would like to see 400 or 500 competitors.

“It wasn’t the distance that used to make it difficult ” it was all the climbing, and the real tricky hairpin descent down to Maroon Creek,” said Trecker. “With the new bridge [over Maroon Creek], and a few shifts on the front end, we’ve been able to create a solid race course that flows really well.”

The race begins at the Snowmass Village Cross Country Center, traverses to the Two Creeks base area, then hooks up with the Owl Creek Trail to Buttermilk, Tiehack and the new bridge. Racers then follow the Moore property trails to the Aspen Cross Country Center (or golf course) and the finish.

“The top guys could always handle it, but with citizens, you can’t kick their butt that much,” Trecker chuckled.

Added Ward: “I think the course changes are turning the course back into how it originally was, back before the Two Creeks development. It makes it a little more like a ski race, with rolling hills and good flow. I think it’ll make it a lot more fun for everyone.

“And I’m glad they’re bringing it back,” he added. “Big races like this are vital both to the community and the nordic community. I’m very, very glad it’s back. Hopefully, I can win it.”

Register in advance for $30 at the Ute Mountaineer; morning-of registration at the start costs $40. A free shuttle from the finish at the Aspen X-C Center will carry skiers to the start at the Snowmass X-C Center between 8 and 9:15 a.m. Saturday.

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com]


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