Master of Fire and Ice
With just 20 meters to go in the race, Gunnison resident Brian Smith made his move to win the inaugural XTERRA Winter World Championships in Ogden, Utah Saturday, March 8 by a little over one second.
Rebecca Dussault, also of Gunnison, took second place in the women’s pro division, and Eric Sullivan, the third member of the Gunnison XTERRA contingent, won the men’s amateur division.
With the win, Smith took home the first ever Fire and Ice award for the pro men category. The award is given to the individual with the best combined time from the XTERRA World Championships in October 2007 in Hawaii and the winter event.
The winter version of the XTERRA race involves four stages opening with a 10-kilometer bike section on snow, followed by a five-kilometer snowshoe, a five-kilometer run in snow and ending with an eight-kilometer randonnee ski race with 2,000 vertical feet of climbing.
The inaugural event attracted some of the top athletes in a variety of disciplines including Nicholas LeBrun of France, a two-time ITU Winter Triathlon World Champion and XTERRA Summer World Champion as well as Josiah Middaugh, a three-time National Snowshoe Champion and five-time Winter Quadrathlon Champion.
Smith took the lead in the opening mountain bike stage of the race posting the fastest bike split, keeping fuel in his tank for the next three stages.
“I was fairly conservative,” says Smith. “I just wanted to limit my loss as best I could during the snowshoe.”
While Smith did give up several spots during the snowshoe portion of the race, he managed to hold third place in striking distance as he headed out on the run.
Smith remained focused on the run in an effort to make up time without maxing out, and by the time he reached the final randonnee ski stage, he was back in third place.
“I just started nipping away at the gap,” says Smith. “I felt really, really good.”
When he entered the transition, he saw Greg Krause in second place was hurting, but Middaugh was well in front and looking strong climbing on lightweight Nordic gear. Smith, on lightweight AT gear, thought he might be able to make up time on the downhill sections of the randonnee stage.
“Josiah (Middaugh) I thought was pretty much out of reach,” says Smith. “But, I knew I had an advantage for the descents.”
Smith managed to climb into second place with the Frenchman LeBrun close behind and Middaugh about one minute in front. Smith missed a transition zone and was forced to turn back to put his skins on as LeBrun passed him, leaving him in third place once again.
It wasn’t until the final downhill that Smith made his most important move. Actually, it was a decision he made months prior to the event that ended up making the difference.
While some competitors chose to race on Nordic skis—i.e., narrow with no edges—Smith opted for a more traditional randonnee set up. It was a decision he made back in October when he took third place at the XTERRA World triathlon in Hawaii.
“As soon as I crossed the finish line in Maui and got a good pay day there, I went out and bought the gear,” says Smith.
He familiarized himself with the gear to cut down transition times over the winter, making all the difference in the final randonnee stage.
“Having the gear is one thing but you need to know how to use it,” says Smith.
Smith passed LeBrun again when LeBrun crashed and entered one final herringbone climb portion before the final descent, sandwiched between Middaugh and LeBrun.
Smith headed into the last descent of the race and when Middaugh crashed, Smith made his move. Middaugh recovered but was snowplowing through the final four gates on his skinny skis and Smith let his skis run, taking full advantage of his metal edges as well as his years of ski racing growing up.
“I looked ahead and could see Josiah snowplowing and I passed him on the second to last gate,” says Smith. “Everybody thought he had it wrapped up.”
Smith crossed one second ahead of Middaugh with a time of one hour, 58 minutes and 29 seconds for the win and the Fire and Ice overall title.
“It was pretty amazing,” says Smith. “Two minutes before the finish it could have been anyone’s race. Basically what it came down to is I was just conservative through the whole race.”
Dussault entered the race at the last minute at the advice of Smith. She admits that the event is new to her but was feeling strong this winter and decided to go for it.
“I thought, I want to try that too,” says Dussault. “It was all kind of new but I felt that I’ve been in a groove all winter.”
Dussault had an explosive start in the opening mountain bike stage as well. While the competition struggled through the snow, Dussault charged out to a four-minute lead with the fastest bike split of the women.
“I just stayed upright and pedaled hard and never put my foot down,” says Dussault. “I know how to play the snow game.”
Dussault managed to maintain a three-minute lead through the snowshoe and running stages despite a field of professionals trying to reel her in.
“I knew the field was stacked so that was pretty nerve-raking,” says Dussault. “I just wanted to keep going and keep the intensity high.”
Dussault’s demise came with her equipment choice for the randonnee stage. Unable to track down AT gear at the last minute, Dussault resorted to her telemark equipment for the race.
While Dussault was pulling telemark gear, Sari Anderson picked AT gear as her weapon of choice and passed Dussault to take over first place two-thirds of the way into the final stage to win.
Anderson finished in a time of two hours, 29 minutes and 47 seconds, while Dussault crossed in second place with a time of two hours, 31 minutes and 43 seconds.
“All in all, it was totally the wrong equipment,” says Dussault. “She was just gliding on these lightweight skins and my skins were completely globbing up.”
Sullivan finished with the amateur title in a time of two hours, 10 minutes and 51 seconds, fast enough for seventh place in the men’s pro division.
All three local racers now have their collective sights set on the upcoming Elk Mountains Grand Traverse on March 28-29.