VAIL - Watching the skiers cross the finish line in Friday morning's 10K Nordic Freestyle was proof to those on the sidelines that these athletes have what it takes - the heart and the lungs - to set a serious precedent during the inaugural Winter Teva Mountain Games.
It was the first event ever for the Teva Winter Mountain Games, and you could see the skiers floor it as they left the start gate together, fighting to gain a spot toward the front of the pack. The Vail Nordic Center in East Vail transformed from its typical serene oasis into a place where athletes went to battle.
The competition was two-fold, as the Nordic Freestyle race included both those competing for the Nordic win and those competing toward the Ultimate Mountain Challenge win, which includes two more races - Ski Mountaineering and the Vail Uphill-- and culminates Sunday. The athletes with the fastest overall times will be crowned the Ultimate Mountain Challenge champions.
For Rebecca Dussault, of Gunnison, her sights were set on both wins Friday morning. Dussault, a 2006 Olympian, was determined to win. She felt competitive and strong, and it paid off for her.
"Gosh, I just wanted it really bad," she said. "Colorado's my home state - I wanted to perform for the home crowd."
Before the race, her competitors knew she would be the main threat of the day. Ultimate Mountain Challenge athlete Sari Anderson, of Carbondale, was comfortable with that, though.
"I'll lose five to 10 minutes to Rebecca on the skate today, and I'll be OK with that," Anderson said. "Hopefully I can make up some time on her tomorrow."
Anderson came in just under five minutes behind Dussault, and she feels confident she can regain the lead Saturday.
"Tomorrow's my day," Anderson said. "I've been ski mountaineering racing for four or five years - that's my thing now. The amount of time we'll be out there tomorrow will be helpful for me. Today is to minimize my losses without destroying myself and enjoy tomorrow and try to get some time back."
On the men's side, the top Nordic 10K finisher Friday was Leif Zimmermann, from Montana. The top Ultimate Mountain Challenge athlete finisher was Brian Smith, of Gunnison.
Smith, racing in the 30-39 age class, is one of the men to watch this weekend, said fellow Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitor Mike Kloser, of Vail. Kloser, racing in the 50-59 age class, said Smith is "just solid in everything."
"He's a young guy - he's a rocket," Kloser said.
Kloser got what he expected out of the Nordic Freestyle race Friday - it was fast and hard, and it was a lung-burner, he said.
"But I tried to really keep it in check as much as possible today, knowing that tomorrow's the real big day," Kloser said. "A minute lost or gained here could be irrelevant tomorrow - it will most likely be irrelevant tomorrow - considering the length and the difficulty of tomorrow's race."
To have the Teva Mountain Games in Kloser's hometown during winter, though, is just something that makes him smile. He's not sure he'll be back to compete much longer after this year, but he's happy to be a part of it now.
"I think it's awesome," Kloser said. "I wish it was about 10 years ago so I could enjoy it for another decade. This might be my one and only go at it."
Kloser had the third-best Nordic time among the Ultimate Mountain Challenge men Friday, though. His racing days certainly aren't over, yet.
That's the thing about these endurance athletes - they live for the competition, but also the fitness. As Dussault came across the finish line and fell to the ground, her chest visibly expanding and contracting and she gasped for every breath, she still smiled. When she got her breath back - it didn't take long - she smiled as she described how "incredibly hard" the race was and how much she loves skiing at altitude.
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.