VAIL - At the beginning of the day in Lionshead, conditions for the Winter Mountain Games' nearly four hour elite Ski Mountaineering course looked great - the sun was shining and it wasn't too cold.
By the time the men and women in the recreation, advanced and elite divisions made it toward the top of Vail Mountain, conditions changed significantly.
"The beginning was nice and sunny, but it got cold and windy on the top," said Jan Koles, who finished first in the non-Ultimate Mountain Challenge elite division of the race and took second place overall behind Ultimate Mountain Challenge athlete Brian Smith. "I like these conditions - you don't overheat."
Because Koles was the top elite Ski Mountaineering finisher not competing in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge, he took home the $1,000 prize money for the race. It's a detail that Vail resident Mike Kloser isn't thrilled about this year.
Last year, the Winter Mountain Games Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitors were also eligible for prizes in the individual events. This year, they're not.
"It took a lot of the incentive out of pushing yourself harder," Kloser said Feb. 9 after finishing around 10th in the Ski Mountaineering race. "So many athletes didn't bother doing the whole thing because they wanted to specialize in one event. ... It's a shame - why have 15 Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitors when you could have 55?"
Kloser had a gear problem Feb. 9 with a buckle string on his boot and had to stop to fix it, which slowed him down. He knew after the finish that he'll now be racing for second place in Sunday's uphill.
"It was a great course - a really tough field of competitors as well, and hats off to these guys who took the top three spots," Kloser said.
Smith said the climb up on the backside of Vail Mountain was more direct this year and it had a bootpack section - that's what accounted for the faster times in this year's race versus last year's race. Smith said the conditions got really cold on Feb. 9 - he looked at Koles and couldn't believe he wasn't wearing a jacket.
"I don't know how he made it without a jacket," Smith said. "I put my jacket on two or three times throughout the race."
Todd Smith, of Breckenridge, came through the finish with icicles all over his beard, eyelashes and eyebrows. He didn't wear any goggles during the race and said visibility was pretty hard.
"It's unforgiving," Todd said of the course. "You're just constantly working."
Avon resident Mark Roebke called the race "super fun." These athletes are the kind of people who would say something like that about a 31⁄2 -hour race going up and down mountains in blustery, frigid weather.
Turns out they're human, too, though. While many of the men and women who crossed the finish line had smiles on their faces, most of them were visibly struggling and wanted the race to end.
"I'm stoked to be done - that's for sure," Roebke said.