Nearly 6,000 long distance Nordic skiers were all winners Saturday at Hayward, Wisconsin as snow and frigid temperatures greeted 3,782 finishers in the American Birkebeiner 50-kilometer (31-mile) freestyle race and the 1,865 in the Birkebeiner 54k (33.5-mile) classic event.
It was a hard slog through three to four inches of snow and sub-zero wind chills. Fresh snow dumped on the area Thursday, and temperatures were 2-below-zero at Saturday’s starting line. Still, there were an estimated 20,000 spectators for America’s biggest cross-country ski race.
Top Wood River Valley racers were Matt Gelso and Chelsea Holmes of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Gold Team.
Once again the Wood River Valley was well represented with 12 finishers in the 50k skate and eight in 54k classic. Out of those 12, five were age-class winners—Matt Gelso, Del Pletcher and Elizabeth Youngman in freestyle, and Muffy Ritz and Bob Rosso classic.
Winners of the 41st annual Birkebeiner at the 50k skate distance, both 2010 Winter Olympians, were Tom Reichelt, 31, of Oberwiesenthal, Germany in 2.14:29 and Caitlin Gregg, 33, of Minneapolis, Minn. in 2.40:57.
Total cash purse was $39,000 for the top six 50k skaters.
Gregg captured her second straight women’s Birkie title and became the first woman to win three Birkebeiners. A four-time national Nordic queen, Gregg was 60th overall in Saturday’s challenging conditions.
She pocketed $10,000, including $7,500 for first place and $2,500 as the top American. The former Caitlin Compton of Vermont and Northern Michigan University background might have won four years in a row if not for a half-second loss to Holly Brooks in 2012.
Reichelt broke away from four Italians and finished with a pace of 2:41 per kilometer. Last year’s Birkie men’s winner Sergio Bonaldi of Milan, Italy placed third this year at 2.14:30.8. To illustrate how the conditions affected the final times, Bonaldi’s winning time last year was 2.09:18.
Third-year SVSEF Gold Teamer Gelso, 25, continued his fine skiing as of late with a lofty seventh-place finish in 2.15:03 just 34 seconds off Reichelt’s top time. The 5-9, 160-pound skier from Truckee (Ca.) High School and the Auburn Ski Club was the top American in the Birkie.
Gelso, a former U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Junior National champion and All-American skier/national champ at the University of Colorado, was skiing one week after winning the Battle Creek Park USSA SuperTour 15k mass start classic race at St. Paul, Minn. and placing second in the 10k interval start skate race there.
SVSEF second-year Gold Teamer Chelsea Holmes, 27, earned the sixth-place $1,000 women’s prize for her 2.44:42 Birkie skate, good for 78th overall. From Kirdwood, Alaska and Dimond High School in South Anchorage, Holmes was a four-year skier at the Univ. of Nevada-Reno and two-time Canadian national skate champion in 2011.
Gold Team head coach Colin Rodgers, 32, was 33rd overall and fifth in the 30-34 age class at 2.28:43. SVSEF Gold Teamer Mike Sinnott, 29, placed 27th overall in 2.25:09 (10th Men’s 25-29).
One of the best local finishes was 54-year-old Elizabeth Youngman, winning the 50-54 class and placing 11th among all women in 2.53:53.
Birkie 54k mass start classic winners were Santiago Ocariz, 27, of Ely, Minn. in 3.01:00 and Natalja Naryshkina, 29, of Cable, Wisc. 3.26:00. She was 49th overall and first among the 410 classic women.
SVSEF wax technician Shane MacDowell, 26, of South Portland, Me. finished 33rd in the 54k classic race in 3.19:24, and fourth in 25-29.
Here are Birkie 50k skate and 54k classic results for other Wood River racers, with overall placing, name, age, time and class finishes:
Freestyle: 207—Jim Santa, 53, 3.03:00 (15th 50-54). 578—Kelly Allison, 53, 3.34:48 (10th 50-54, 63rd female). 685—Del Pletcher, 70, 3.42:40 (1st 70-74). 1231—Eric Huus, 43, 4.11:46 (141st 40-44). 1788—Eric Kafka, 43, 4.38:53 (185th 40-44). 1924—Kirsten Ritzau, 46, 4.45:26 (35th 45-49, 271st female). 2736—Peter Maier, 73, 5.27:41 (7th 70-74).
Classic: 134 (tie)—Mike Wolter, 48, 3.51:31 (15th 45-49) and Bob Rosso, 66, 3.51:31 (1st 65-69). 291—Muffy Ritz, 56, 4.15:16 (1st 55-59, 31st female). 366—Richard Knoebel, 60, 4.24:57 (22nd 60-64). 481—Jon Engen, 56, 4.41:35 (59th 55-59). 669—Michael Dunham, 64, 5.05:36 (46th 60-64). 754—Joney Otteson, 53, 5.14:17 (13th 50-54, 125th female). 1122—Joni Cashman, 59, 5.57:58 (20th 55-59, 198th female).