Puckett in control | AspenTimes.com

Puckett in control

Dozens of race fans line the start area of the Audi 24 Hours of Aspen race Sunday afternoon. Daniel Bayer photo.

By shattering the 24 Hours of Aspen record for a single run in the early going, Old Snowmass’ Casey Puckett established himself as the fastest racer in the field.

Whether he’s also the so-called “world’s toughest skier,” however, remained to be seen last night.

Despite an admission Thursday that he was “not at all prepared for this,” Puckett dominated the opening stanza of the race as it approached the midway point last night.

The 13-year U.S. Ski Team veteran, who retired in April following his fourth Olympics, led the field of 12 men and five women from the onset.

Not only was he the fastest racer on the very first run of the race, Puckett bolstered his lead to as much as 16 seconds by laying down a course-record run in 2 minutes, 8.42 seconds. But a small mishap coming out of the start after darkness fell ? he kicked a ski across the timing beam and had to scramble to recover it and get back under way ? cut his lead in half.

After lap 22, or approximately 11 p.m., Puckett’s cumulative on-snow time of 48:18 led the defending champion German team of Michael Brunner and Christian Deissenboeck by 7 minutes and 24 seconds, running in second and third, respectively.

Slovenia’s Ales Brezavscek and Switzerland’s William Besse were tied for third, a minute and a half back, followed by Canadian Roman Torn and Aspen native Fletcher Yaw, who was more than two minutes back.

“Casey’s really fast,” said Brunner, a former German national team racer of 10 years. “I must give 100 percent to be as fast as he is.”

In the women’s field, defending women’s champion Aleisha Cline of Whistler, British Columbia, enjoyed a 30-second-plus margin after lap 22, with a time of 52:52. Fellow Canadian Wendy Lumby was running second (53:29) with Asia Jenkins of Aspen in third (53:35). Aspen’s Lindsey Yaw was fourth (54:06).

Heavy winds buffeted the course all afternoon and into the evening.

A gust of 53 mph was recorded in the 5 o’clock hour at the top of Bell Mountain, according to chief of course David Payne of the Aspen Valley Ski/Snowboard Club. And race officials experienced at least one blast estimated at over 60 mph at the bottom of Chair 3.

That gust toppled a bank of floodlights at the base of Chair 3, which, coupled with the wind, prompted a course hold from about 4:50 p.m. until about 6:30 p.m.

When racing resumed, the gondola was slowed considerably ? 22 minutes for the trip to the top compared to 14 minutes when at full speed, Payne said. As long as high winds persisted, the gondola would continue to hold at the slower pace, he said.

Meanwhile, during the course hold the racers recouped in the Sundeck, all with boots off, swaddled in blankets and communing with friends and crew.

“It’s pretty fun so far but the wind has been crazy,” Puckett said during the course hold. “Lots of tail winds, head winds and cross winds and everything else, and lots of variations in the snow.

“I’m feeling a little fatigued, but that’s normal ? I’m hoping,” he added with a laugh. “I’m the guy to beat right now, but we’ll see.”

It’s a much different tune from Thursday evening, when Puckett frankly revealed that his training was lacking and that his legs were on fire after just the first training run down the 2.69-mile, 3,267-vertical-foot Spar Gulch course.

“I’m not all that prepared for this, but I think I do have plenty of strength leftover from my days as an athlete,” Puckett said Thursday night.

@ATD Sub heds:’This race starts at midnight’

@ATD body copy: Aspen native and resident Fletcher Yaw was clearly the most restless racer of the bunch in the Sundeck during the course hold. He seemed anxious to get back out on the course, back out into the elements.

“Feeling good, feeling strong, and I’m not fatigued too much,” Fletcher said. “This race starts for me at midnight, so I’m just getting ready to turn it on.”

After lap 22, Fletcher Yaw was running in seventh place. It’s a situation reminiscent of last year when Fletcher Yaw and partner Matt Ross of Aspen battled back from sixth place overnight to finish in third.

“The course hold helps everybody out, lets you dry your boots out, get warm. But I’ve got to win this race on fitness, so hopefully we won’t have any more breaks. Just keep it consistent, and I’ll try to get on the podium,” Fletcher said.

The Swiss sensation Besse, the most decorated racer in the 14-year history of the 24 Hours, said he was biding his time, feeling out the field and the course.

During a 12-year career with the Swiss national team, Besse won four World Cup downhills, appeared in four Olympics, and finished on the World Cup podium 10 other times, including second place in a World Cup downhill on Aspen Mountain in 1992.

“The race is not starting now,” he said. “It’s just six hours now, and I feel already a little bit tired. But I need to wait a little bit and then the race begins.

“The guys now are going really fast on the front; I don’t know if they can do that all the time. I’m trying to keep my rate, not too fast and keep a little bit in reserve and let’s see what happens.”

Cline, the clear leader in the women’s race, said she was keeping things simple.

“One run at a time, trying to be methodical,” she said. “The wind was terrible, awful. It’s really scary.”

Crash light

All 17 starters were still in the race as midnight approached last night. The only notable crash occurred at 2:10 p.m. when Anik Demers caught an edge after sucking up a compression on Little Nell. Her skis wobbled into the splits, and she spilled.

After a few tense moments, Demers gathered himself and continued on.

“I’m OK,” she said during the course hold. “I have no idea what happened though. I’ll have to watch the video.”

At nearly the same time, New Zealand’s Geoff Small also went down in the finish area. He caught an edge after crossing the finish line and slid into the wall. Puckett, who had been on his heels, took advantage and left Small in a cloud of snow as he slipped past him into the gondola building.

Records of note

Puckett’s course-record run time of 2:08.42 should perhaps include an asterisk, said Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co.

The former course-record time, 2:10.98, set in 1998 by brothers Martin and Graham Bell of Great Britain, was recorded on a slightly longer course. This year’s finish line is about 100 yards farther up Little Nell than previous years, he said.

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

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