Schultz fends off Ward in Owl Creek Chase |

Schultz fends off Ward in Owl Creek Chase

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With his hometown course and a long break laid out in front of him, Aspen native Casey Ward was prepared to give his all Saturday in the Owl Creek Chase ” a 25-kilometer nordic race from Snowmass Village to Aspen.

But for Ward, capturing gold also meant catching Nathan Schultz, which is not an easy task. The 32-year-old nordic icon from Boulder has a body built for the Owl Creek’s hilly, exhausting climbs ” he’s compact, tight and light.

Ward on the other hand is tall and lanky, and heavy compared to Schultz.

In the end, Schultz was too much, cruising to his first-place finish in 1 hour, 10 minutes and 44 seconds, a minute and a half ahead of Ward in second place.

“Casey doesn’t have a chance against someone small like me on those hills,” Schultz said after the race. “I was able to get away from him early in the race ” I think he’s pretty tired from a long season.”

While there’s a net loss in vertical feet from Snowmass Village to Aspen, the course traveled over steep mountainous terrain en route to the valley floor and the finish line at the Aspen Cross Country Center.

“There are a lot of steep, hard climbs,” Ward said. “It’s a really hilly course from the start.”

“It isn’t one hill that gets you, it just keeps going and going,” Schultz added.

The race attracted 95 skiers from around the country, with Chantel Knapp-Thompson of Louisville and Berit Bjerke-Daniels, a native of Sweden who now lives in Carbondale, finishing first and second, respectively, in the women’s division.

“The course was unbelievable ” it’s in perfect condition,” Knapp-Thompson said. “They made some big changes, it can’t be more buffed out [or perfect].”

The changes from past races included removing the “Terminator Trail,” a taxing climb, and generally improving the flow to attract more racers.

“It’s a really fun race, it’s world class and it has potential,” Ward said. “Hopefully the powers that be around here will make this a [marquee] race.

“It’s always nice to have more people in the race and to get the top-end athletes to show up.”

Ward, who developed in the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and raced for the University of Colorado, Boulder, after graduating from Aspen High, has become one of the most competitive nordic racers in the country.

This season, he upped his overall standing in the Nor Am tour from 26th last winter (based on 16 events) to 15th.

“He’s really stepped it up this year. This was kind of a breakthrough year for him,” Schultz said.

Ward, 28, said nordic racers don’t reach their peak until they’re about 30 years old, and he feels he has a few solid years left to get to the next level ” the World Cup and Olympics.

“I’ve been really excited about it, I’m racing really strong,” he said. “I’ve been focusing on short races, 10K’s, to get my speed up ” it carries more into larger races.

“If you can’t go fast short, you can’t go fast long.”

Last week, Ward and Schultz and over a thousand other nordic racers competed in the 32K Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, Idaho. Schultz won that race too, with Ward placing fifth. Ward’s sister, Natalie, finished seventh in the women’s division.

Next week, the Birkebeiner, a 51K race in Wisconsin, takes center stage. Schultz will make the trip, while Ward will stay home for a much needed rest.

“I’ve been racing so much, I need a break,” he said.

Ward will be refueling and training for the Colorado International Spring Series, held in Winter Park March 27 through April 4.

“[Those races] are a unique opportunity,” Schultz said. “Average Joe’s can start standing next to world champions.”

Top 10 Men

1. Nathan Schultz Boulder 1:10:44

2. Casey Ward Aspen 1:12:15

3. Scott Oberbreckling Lafayette 1:15:41

4. Kraig Koski Longmont 1:16:21

5. Danny Sullivan Littleton 1:16:58

6. Pierre Pelletier Aspen 1:17:34

7. Russell Bollig Boulder 1:18:23

8. John Carnie Vail 1:19:22

9. Antonio Marxuach Steamboat 1:19:24

10. Pierre Wille Basalt 1:19:32

Top 10 Women

1. Chantel Knapp-Thompson Louisville 1:21:43

2. Berit Bjerke-Daniels Carbondale 1:26:25

3. Fiona Lohman Tabernash 1:34:30

4. Katie Meyer Boulder 1:35:20

5. Valerie Kahn Winter Park 1:37:39

6. Carole Sharpe Aspen 1:39:33

7. Helen Carlsen Basalt 1:42:13

8. Laura Dickinson Frisco 1:43:33

9. Nancy Citriglia Winter Park 1:45:01

10. Alice Plain Edwards 1:45:20