Teams suffer, succeed and run the 20th Grand Traverse

“It was total teamwork”

A new course record was set, a 71-year-old man and his grandson finished, and one racer ran the better part of 18 miles of the course while his partner skied to come in ninth place overall. It was yet another legendary Grand Traverse race.

Aspen team Max Taam and John Gaston won the 2017 Gore Tex Grand Traverse presented by Dynafit and Outdoor Research in a new record time of six hours, 37 minutes and 38 seconds. The Breckenridge team of Nikki Larochelle and Eva Hagan won the women’s title in a time of eight hours, 43 minutes and nine seconds and Veronika Mayerhofer and Nick Hendrickson of Salt Lake City teamed up to take the coed title, third overall, with a time of eight hours, 18 minutes and 59 seconds.

Local podium results came from Sean Van Horn and Ben Johnson who finished second overall in a time of 8:10:30 and Stevie Kremer and Jari Hiatt who placed second among women’s teams in a time of 9:04:11. Allen Hadley kept his streak alive being the only person to start and finish all 20 Grand Traverse races.

Each and every year the Grand Traverse ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen provides tales of suffering, success and serious mental and physical stamina and the race this year provided yet more legendary stories.

At midnight on Friday, March 24, 220 teams of two headed out from the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort bound for Aspen. More than 16 hours later, 168 teams had completed the course, hitting all checkpoints on time and arriving in Aspen for their just rewards. Then there was a team out of Lakewood that continued to refuse support and reached the base of Aspen Mountain over 19 hours after starting, much to the chagrin of their wives and race volunteers.

As is often the case, Mother Nature ultimately has the last say in how the race goes, and the week leading up to the 20th Grand Traverse, she was threatening to send teams back to Crested Butte for a second reverse in a row. But Mother Nature capitulated as a forecasted storm closed off and remained southwest, dropping 20 inches in the San Juan Mountains but leaving just four to six inches blanketing the course, eliminating any cause for avalanche concern.

As a result, teams were faced with firm, fast and, at times, teeth-chattering conditions on the course.

Despite the massive gap between first and second place, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Gaston and Taam as they fell behind early in the race due to a strategy call.

“We put on our skins at the start and left them on until Star Pass,” said Tamm following the race. “A lot of other teams were ‘skating’ across the East River Valley and up Brush Creek and we thought we may have made the wrong choice.”

By Star Pass, Tamm and Gaston had the lead and never looked back. Meanwhile, Billy Laird and Eric Sullivan were in second place after dropping down off Star Pass and skiing into “Geo’s Bonfire.”

“I think the leaders were maybe five or 10 minutes in front and when we took off from Geo’s deal, no one had even dropped off of Star Pass yet,” says Laird.

Then, disaster struck at 3:40 a.m. as Sullivan’s boot broke on their way toward Taylor Pass about halfway into the 40-mile race.

“We were about 10 minutes out of Geo’s and headed up and all of a sudden his ski came gliding back to me with a metal piece stuck in the binding,” explains Laird. “His boot broke in the front and there was no way to put it back together.”

Sullivan started talking about dropping out and a discussion ensued with Laird pushing to keep going and Sullivan shattered from the equipment failure.

“I said ‘I’m not getting a DNF and winners don’t quit,’” says Laird. “It took about five or 10 minutes of talking before he stopped talking about quitting and just started going.”

“He’s the Pitbull. I was looking for the next snowmobile ride out and Billy got me fired up,” says Sullivan. “Once I got it through my mind we were finishing we just settled into a rhythm and I just wanted to give it 110 percent for Billy.”

With one ski on and one foot post-holing, Sullivan grinded his way to Taylor Pass with Laird and the two kept chugging along.

“Halfway down one of the camel humps after Taylor Pass he decided he was just going to run it,” says Laird.

“We started going really good,” adds Sullivan. “It was total teamwork.”

They were able to hang on to second place until just before the Barnard Hut when two teams passed them on the descent to the Barnard Hut. They lost some places on the run/ski along Richmond Ridge and came into the top of Aspen Mountain in fifth place. A handful of teams passed them on the 3,000-foot descent down Aspen Mountain as Sullivan had to run down while other teams skied.

“I tried skiing down on one ski but my leg started to cramp and I couldn’t ski anymore,” explains Sullivan. “My leg was on fire.”

In the end, the two still finished in ninth place overall in an incredible time of eight hours, 45 minutes. Upon crossing the finish line Sullivan threw his ski and poles to the ground and collapsed.

“Sully was the man—he did not give up,” says Laird. “Staying in second place almost to the Barnard Hut definitely helped mentally.”

While Laird has 16 races to his name, and Sullivan has 12, and both have finished on the podium before, both admit this race finish was an entirely different moment.

“The feeling of friendship and getting it done and working as a team was the best I’ve ever had,” says Laird. “I think we had the best team bonding feeling I’ve ever had.”

“That was the top two if not the top proudest moment I’ve had,” says Sullivan. “My feet are jacked from running all that way in ski boots but whatever.”

Almost eight hours later another incredible story came to an end. Dan McElroy has done the Grand Traverse with every one of his kids. This year, at the young age of 71, McElroy toed the line with his 21-year-old grandson and finished the race 16 hours, 22 minutes and 34 seconds later.

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