VAIL, Colorado - As the Vail parking garages filled up Saturday morning and skiers and snowboarders waited in lift lines, the competitors in the Winter Teva Mountain Games Ski Mountaineering event were getting up the mountain the hard way.
They passed right by chairlifts, but they couldn't get on them. They skinned up the mountain and skied down it - from Lionshead to Blue Sky Basin and back - and they did it in about four hours.
The Ski Mountaineering race, part of the Winter Teva Mountain Games' Ultimate Mountain Challenge, began around 7:30 a.m. with a running dryland start. The athletes, which included competitors from the citizen, advanced and elite divisions, ascended the front side of Vail Mountain and then followed the ridgeline above the Sun Down Bowl over to Blue Sky Basin. They crossed every type of terrain imaginable on the course, from valley floor flats to tight trees, and then heading up to Blue Sky Basin from the west, up across the ridgeline and down to the east of Pete's Express lift.
The top three men in the field - Marshall Thomson, Bryan Wickenhauser and Brian Smith - stayed together for the entire course. They crossed the finish line in Golden Peak with smiles on their faces, congratulating each other with hugs and handshakes.
"Marshall and I have been within 30 seconds of each other all season" Smith said. "You can always count on him to be on the podium, unless he's having an off day."
Smith, who finished first in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge field in Friday's Nordic event, came in third Saturday. He had enough time on Thomson from the Nordic event to remain ahead after Saturday's race, putting him in a good position for Sunday morning's uphill event, the final event of the Ultimate Mountain Challenge.
Thomson expects to beat Smith in the uphill, but he knows he won't gain enough time to pass him for the overall Ultimate Mountain Challenge.
"Brian has like 4 1/2 minutes on me from (Friday) - I'll beat him, yeah, but by like five seconds, not four minutes," Thomson said.
Smith, of Gunnison, and Thomson, of Crested Butte, compete against each other all the time. Thomson said the two have been "dueling it out for first and second all season."
Mike Kloser, of Vail, was in a good position going into Sunday's uphill after the ski mountaineering competition, but the 52-year-old said he isn't sure his fitness is where it needs to be in order to gain enough on Smith and Thomson in Sunday's race.
He was surprised with how fast everyone finished Saturday, though. He thought the race would take more like 4 hours and 45 minutes - not just over 4 hours like it did.
"We blew through it," Kloser said.
And so did the top two ladies, Sari Anderson, of Carbondale, and Janelle Smiley, of Crested Butte.
Both Anderson, who finished first Saturday, and Smiley are Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitors and they were neck and neck in Saturday's competition. Anderson joked at the finish that she realized she had to kick it up in order to lose Smiley, who was right behind her almost the entire course.
"She was on my tails all day long. I finally just said, 'I've got to kill myself to get away from her - I've got to get a little bit ahead,'" Anderson said.
The strategy worked. Smiley said she noticed Anderson put the hammer down on the second climb, and she caught up to her, but on the last climb Anderson got away.
"On the last climb, she put it down," Smiley said. "And I was like, 'You know what, I'm second. I'm going to enjoy the rest of this and do the best I can. ... Sari's an incredible athlete. She's just super strong. She upped the ante and went for it. It's her ex-home town, so I'm happy to come in behind her - I'm psyched for her."
Smiley enjoyed the course, but said it definitely got flat at times. She said those with a good Nordic skiing background probably had an advantage.
But with 9,000 feet of climbing, Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitor Eric Sullivan called the course a "war of attrition."
He looked around at the finish area, seeing so many familiar faces from Crested Butte and Gunnison, and just took it all in. No matter where he goes, he said he always sees the same faces.
"We're all here," Sullivan said. "I love Vail. It's a great venue - there's so much terrain, so much water, cliffs, steeps, fast skinning, hard skinning - and it's a nice temperature, not 30 below."
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.