Equalizing Equinox: Leadville’s 24-hour ultra-endurance ski brings a wide swath of Nordic skiers interested in finding out how far they can go
Leadville's lesser-known endurance spectacle is less about mileage and more about the people who accumulate it
It’s 9:28 a.m. on Sunday morning. Tayte Pollmann, a 26-year-old writer and part-time goat dairy farm worker from Buena Vista — by way of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bismarck, North Dakota — has skied 255 kilometers in the last 23 hours and 28 minutes.
“If you can finish this lap before 10 a.m., you can start another one,” a member of his multi-person crew shouts energetically, belying everyones’ lack of sleep.
“And if you finish that lap, you break your record from last year by one kilometer!”
Pollmann, despite having already safely defended his Equinox 24-hour Ultra Ski title after pulling away from former University of Wyoming collegiate star John Henry Paluszek — now asleep in the lodge — on the 17th 13-kilometer lap sometime around 5 a.m., gives a quick, competitive reply:
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“OK, let’s do it.”
Few things are tolerable or even worth doing for 24 hours straight. The verdict among the 30 or 40 crazies who show up for this lesser-known Leadville endurance spectacle every year from across the country with their crockpots, gel packets, boot-warmers and car campers is that Nordic skiing is undoubtedly one of them. And even though counting a day’s distance in hundreds of kilometers might seem like the sharpest point in the Herculean feats category, the underlying motif pervading every layer of polar glide wax remains distinct from accumulating mileage.
“All the best stories are the people,” said race founder Dan Batwinas, a Leadville Cross Country Ski Council groomer who built his own home in Beaver Lakes a few years ago but lives most of the time in his decked-out Ford Transit. The van has all the essentials for the Nordic-obsessed — namely a bed, a place to protect skis and poles, and a way to make coffee in the morning.
It frees him to meticulously care for the Mount Massive Ski and Snowshoe trail system — which he does with a passion matched by few Nordic center directors — and log a few kilometers at his favorite skinny-ski hotspots, Grand Mesa and West Yellowstone. The latter venue is where he stumbled upon and competed in the “original” Equinox Ski Challenge three times. He was inspired to launch his own 24-hour event after that race director left for a dream guiding job in Patagonia and the specialty event was discontinued.
“I just had a wonderful time there every time … and it seemed natural to start our very own here in Leadville,” Batwinas said before explaining the name’s derivation. From Norway to North America, elite athletes have often wrung out the remaining fitness from 11 months of dedicated training in one 24-hour spring solstice bout (the world record was set in Norway by Eirik Asdoel, who skied 476 k around a 5-kilometer lake loop).
“It greatly decreases your chance of not having a 10-degree-below-zero night,” Batwinas continued with a sly smile, having ironically just survived one such evening.
While past iterations have included perfect morning freeze-thaw snow crystals, sunny afternoons and consequentially warm slush, all followed by icy-cold nights, the fourth annual version had incredibly stable, relatively frigid conditions. It was zero degrees at the 10 a.m. start when the cast of brave characters set out for the first lap premium prize. Pollmann and the challenger, Paluszek, politely bided their time behind Batwinas, winner of the first Leadville Equinox Ultra Ski in 2020.
“Tayte and John were gracious enough to allow me to lead half of it before they got fed up and passed me,” Batwinas said.
Paluszek spent a season racing at the now-defunct University of Maine Presque Isle NCAA program before transferring to Castleton University and then Wyoming, where he’s a master’s student in botany. He figured he’d pick up the first-lap money, shoot for the “first-to-100k” prize, and go from there.
“I had no expectations coming into today,” said the 24-year-old native of Farmington, New Hampshire, noting a four-hour rollerski as being his longest session prior to the weekend. “So, I had no idea what was going to happen — if I’d get to 50k and completely collapse or if I’d be able to keep on chugging.”
What transpired was a neck-and-neck battle with Pollmann.
“We kind of just had this deal where we were working together for most of the race,” said Pollmann of the early negotiated mutual treaty, which lasted roughly 170 kilometers.
“He’d wait for me or I’d wait for him,” Paluszek added. “It’s a lot easier to ski in a pack and ski with someone. It just takes your mind off the pain.”
Paluszek, who heard about the event by word-of-mouth during one of the Wyoming team’s fall training camps in Leadville (their coach, Christy Boggs, was a Lake County High School multi-time state champion in the mid-80s), decided the Wednesday before to come up with Kaj Taylor, his Alaskan-born teammate. Taylor’s job was to warm boots by the fire inside the golf course lodge — a restroom and snack hub for every participant — and get food and chocolate milk.
“Honestly, I was just making sure he wasn’t going to kill himself,” Taylor joked of his role. He watched his friend venture into unknown physiological territory, unsure how to address the foreign distance with his collegiate sprint background.
“I don’t want to say apples-to-oranges because I don’t really like that saying, but it was just such a different animal,” Paluszek said when asked to assess where Saturday and Sunday’s effort ranks on his all-time hard scale. “My heart rate was at 115, 120 the entire time. It wasn’t about digging deep and going hard and suffering and eating the pain, it was just … keep going.”
After 221 kilometers, he collapsed on the lodge’s hard lobby floor with his head resting on the carbon plate of a random ski boot.
“I knew Tayte had skied 272k last year and I wasn’t necessarily confident of myself to do 270k as a minimum,” he said when asked what was going on through his mind throughout the epic dual. “And he said he was going for 300.”
Pollmann’s lofty goal came a year after gliding to 272 kilometers, a performance that almost cost him his big toe. The former Nike-sponsored trail runner spent the next day in a hospital bed as doctors debated on whether or not it would be amputated. He got lucky.
“I think this year, overall, went better for several reasons. For one, I didn’t get frostbite. That was the main goal,” the University of Portland alumnus said. With his blond, wavy hair and happy-go-lucky smile, Pollmann looks like he would be right at home on a California beach modeling surfboards. Perhaps ironically, he drove back from a whimsical adventure to California to play some tennis a couple of nights before the Equinox.
“Running is my main sport but tennis was my first sport and I’ve just been reconnecting with it over the past few months,” he said, adding that while the 50k trail distance was once his forte, he entered the Equinox in 2022 because he was curious to explore an all-day affair. The relatively new skier typically skis twice a week for a few hours on the Mineral Belt whenever he’s in Leadville for a low-key curling league he competes in. The renaissance man also runs 4-5 times a week, using a smorgasbord of passions to nurse back his injury-prone talent.
“It’s a good mix of stuff and I think that helps in a race like this for many reasons — mentally and physically,” he said.
“They’re all different kinds of grinds you know, and you just understand each of them. This is really …it is physical, but it is hugely mental.”
Ava Bergsten leads Vail Valley locals
Perhaps the most impressive feat from the 2022 Equinox Ultra Ski was the performance by Eagle Valley cross-country ski teammates Ferguson St. John and Lukas Bergsten, who skied 224 kilometers (139 miles) and 232 kilometers (144 miles). Bergsten returned in 2023 — albeit to support his younger sister, Ava.
“I’ve been thinking about it since last yea, but didn’t actually decide I was going to do it until Tuesday,” the Devils junior said when asked if pacing her big brother for a couple laps last year served as any inspiration.
“I think she did pretty well,” Lukas said after Ava completed her 130-kilometer effort, or nearly 81 miles, winning the women’s division over Salida’s Marisa Watson by 39 kilometers. “I think yesterday I was like, ‘I don’t think you quite understand how long it is to stand on your feet for 24 hours.’ But she made it until 1 in the morning and I was like, ‘keep going now because it’s going to be rough in the morning.’ And she did. And she skied in the morning.”
Coming in, Ava, who expertly applied a month-long taper by eschewing skinny skis every day since the Colorado state meet in mid-February, said she didn’t really have a goal.
“I was just going to ski until I didn’t want to anymore,” she said. “And then I thought I was going to get 150, but then I wanted to go to bed and I didn’t want to get up this morning.”
She survived on gossip podcasts — for a lap anyway — and numerous juiceboxes, a few Red Bulls, some ramen and a couple of bars. A bowl of warm oatmeal hit the spot when the temperatures dropped to well-below zero. “It was so hard to breathe,” she described of the coldest portions of the night.
“It was a well-documented -10,” Batwinas declared.
Eventually, Ava curled up in her dad’s truck camper as Lukas applied the coldest wax possible to her skis. “For the Leadville arctic,” said the brother, who skied 20 kilometers with his 16-year-old sister. “My eyelashes were freezing together this morning.”
“I think it’s awesome,” Jonny Bergsten replied when asked if he was at all apprehensive after his daughter posed the idea of skiing all day and night. “I mean, I didn’t know how well she’d do. I think the longest ski before was 14 miles. But yeah, I liked it. I skied a couple of laps and then I was like, ‘huh, Nordic is kind of fun.’”
It might take a while for the enthusiasm to return to the youngest of the Bergsten crew — but after 130 kilometers, she’s forgiven.
“I need to, like, forget how not fun it was before I decide to do it again,” Ava said after a French toast breakfast reward. “Because it was fun in the beginning and then it was like, not fun at all. But once I forget, I’ll probably end up doing it again.”
One Vail Valley participant who returned for another round was David Dinowitz, 65 of Edwards. “The uniform guy” at Beaver Creek Resorts, who also goes by the monicker “Double-Pole Dave,” skied three laps solely employing his namesake specialty sub technique.
“My doctor told me to take it easy so at 39k I stopped,” he said after completing his third-career Equinox. Last year, he doubled up; skiing the 55k American Birkebeiner classic race in late February and the equivalent distance three weeks later in Leadville.
“I don’t ski for 24 hours, but I ski until my body said it’s time to go home,” said Dinowitz, who is a Ski Classics super fan — he watches every major European professional ski loppet in the wee hours of the morning. “This is a great event, because every year you can ski and try to go further than you did the previous year.”
“Dan Batwinas and his son Jacob treat everyone, whether they are a season-pass holder or it’s their first time skiing at the Mount Massive ski area, like family,” he added before illuminating the ethos of the event: “This is a fun event for everyone regardless of athletic ability. This event is not about skiing for 24 hours. It’s about going out and skiing for fun and reaching new goals that you never knew you could accomplish.”
A connoisseur of all flavors of skiing, Dinowitz and his wife, Annie, who have lived in Edwards for 29 years, frequent Mount Massive when their schedules allow. Annie, famous for her homemade gluten-free desserts and brownies, crafted a decadent chocolate cake for Jacob Batwinas, who spent his birthday staying up all day and night as the event’s official lap counter and race director.
“I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to spend my birthday any other way,” the now 34-year-old said. “It’s such a fun event that I feel passionate about and we had a terrific turnout this year. It’s been really fun to watch Tayte defend his title again and all the newcomers that came out this season as well.”
One such newcomer was Jay Meservy, who came up from his Dillon home after both parents — retired Tennessee residents who spend a month or two skiing in Montana every winter — coaxed him into joining them on their way back East.
“They’re the big cross-country skiers,” Meservy said after completing 100 kilometers on the dot at 9 a.m. He went until 10 p.m. Saturday night, then slept for six hours before reaching the century mark with an hour to spare.
“This is a cool event. I’m more of a distance runner so it’s a good way to get out and do something long in the winter,” he said. “It’s a lot more gear intensive … And temperature-wise, you have to make sure you’re dressed right and stuff, so I think that’s a different aspect than running.”
The nature of the 13-kilometer loop meant participants like Merservy came by Jacob’s perch inside the lodge twice per lap. He said the unique kinship he feels with each athlete seems to grow with every revolution.
“Yeah definitely. It is fun to watch them hurt themselves,” he said sarcastically. “You can tell how the lap is going halfway through.” Nowhere was such form-observation more poignant than with the event’s oldest participant, 84-year-old Polish skier Igor Gesse, who trains with the Summit Master’s group in Frisco.
“You could tell when he came by that he’s been classic skiing for 80 years,” Batwinas said.
On the flip side, Quinn Hilmer was the youngest at less than a year old after being towed around by her mom, Ashley, for 39 kilometers.
Ski to the sunrise
A large brass bell is donated just for the event — “to wake up the lap counter if he falls asleep,” Dan Batwinas explained — by a Salida gentleman by the name of David Harwood.
“I met him here hacking away, skate skiing on some miserably bad classic skis three or four years ago,” the elder Batwinas recalled of his first encounter with Harwood. Batwinas loaned him a pair of slightly broken, but considerably more fancy, race skate skis, which the then 280-pound man mended and proceeded to religious use after taking one lesson at the golf course. The following year, Batwinas ran into Harwood in the middle of an epic 19-mile out-and-back on the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville.
“He was some 40, 60 pounds lighter,” recalled Batwinas. “Then he showed up (at the Equinox) saying his goal was 60k.” Harwood did 80, a story emblematic of the events’ virtues.
“(The bell) is our signature,” Batwinas said.
For Jacob, the first ring of the bell — to start the event — is his favorite part.
“When we have everybody here, it’s such a fun, party atmosphere. Especially this year because it happened to fall on my birthday,” he said. “And the sunrise,” he quickly added before stopping to say hello to a participant finishing his final lap. After a minute of friendly small talk, he continued.
“I love the sunrise, too. That’s always a fun thing because you think it’s never going to end.”
A little while later, Pollmann gleefully cruised down the homestretch fairway to complete his 273rd kilometer.
One more than his all-time best.