The New England Club Relay Championship 2023
The New England Club Relay Championship was held Saturday in Craftsbury, Vermont. The 2023 season has been the "season of miracle snow," with many venues pulling courses together at the last minute, often with a boost from mother nature. Today we skied on hero snow.
The New England Club Relay Championship made a tenuous return. Original plans seemed like great ideas. The thought was to have whole skiing community celebrations coupled with the Super Tour Finals in Craftsbury. The idea, months in advance, was excellent. The reality as race day closed in was stressful. Mixing the citizens' race during a national championship weekend requires a special effort from everyone. It all came together perfectly, and what a day it was!
The long-range forecast could have been better for the weekend. Fortunately, things changed, and the weather turned out to be as good as possible for a late March ski event. There is plenty of snow in Craftsbury, and the warm-up and Thursday's rain set things up for phenomenal conditions for the relay championship. The snowpack was fast and firm. The groomers at Craftsbury worked their magic to make it thrilling to ski!
The registration formalities were a bit heavy for the citizens' crowd, but team captains stepped it up and got everything in line. Some leniency was allowed, and the citizen skiers did their best to conform to the official procedures of the Super Tour. All but one of the registered teams started making for 176 of New England's finest racers participating in the weekend's main event.
The course was a new one for Craftsbury. Skiers started in the Upper Field and skied directly onto Round-a-Bit to Murphy's Field. In Murphy's, they took a cutoff instead of skiing to the bottom and up the wall. Leaving Murphy's, skiers took Inner Duck Pond (aka Duck Pond East) to Up-and-Over. Skiers then descended onto Upper Bailey Hazen, making a hard right turn onto the Pines. Keeping their momentum, skiers could hit close to thirty miles an hour down Kirby's before making the turn up John's Jaunt. The climb up John's Jaunt ended the dream, and reality hit as skiers rapidly went anaerobic with steady climbing to continue up Ruthies Cutoff onto Wilburs. A short reprieve was given on the downhill from the Cabins to the lower field, where skiers recomposed themselves for the climb up Teaching Hill to the exchange zone. The course skied very well and challenged participants with the relay aspect adding that extra touch of competitiveness. Everyone needed a few minutes to gather themselves at the end of their lap.
There was much fanfare leading up to the start. The Club Points Series had seen Ford Sayre overtake a solid lead by Mansfield Nordic Club at the Long Hall Loppet. Ford Sayre had also out-registered MNC for the relay. Both clubs brought their big guns, and it would be a showdown. NWVE was focused on taking down GMVS and moving into the top 5 after a late-season surge starting at the Flying Moose Classic. Things were tight, and the Relay Championship would be contested and not just a victory lap. Also, the announcer was really fired up to see Tom Thurston in a tutu. They stated that he would pay to see it.
Forty-four teams organized for the start from the chaos of the warm-up. After a few instructions, the race was off. A few Super Teams were constructed from those that could not field the proper configuration for the Super Tour Relay. They took an early lead. Some of NENSA's top Juniors also used the opportunity to show off their stuff. The Masters' racers hung back a bit to let things spread out and settle down.
Chris Burnham was in the pack for NWVE 1. Most teams led with a strong leg and Chris’s 11:57 earned him 14th place. He worked his way up from the back of the field and handed off to Eli Enman. Skiing the scramble leg for the other NWVE teams were Eric Tremble, Stephen Wright, Sara Graves, and Acadia Enman. Racing was tight on the fast snow, with the first wave of skiers staying close together.
Eric had a solid race, showing his excellent form even though he has not worn a bib often this season. Sara Graves was unsure what scramble leg was but clearly understood by the tag, feeling the heat from Craftsbury's Avery Ellis, and Onion River's Brian Carlson. Stephen hoped to get out early to be on firm, fast snow. That was not an issue, as the snow stayed fast for the day. Acadia was a little outsized during the initial kilometers of the race but showed her stuff weaving through traffic up the long climb. She picked up several places and handed off in a good position.
The second leg was interesting as many of the mixed teams followed the order of the Super Tour Race, going Male / Female / Male / Female. Eli found himself passing a lot of teams and pulled NWVE 1 into second place. He was aided by a race with Justin Levesque (SMS) and Eliot Schneider (GMVS). Eric handed off to me in a good pack and I skied with two juniors Isaac Novosad (Ford Sayre) and Luca Scirica (EMXC). We picked up places towards the end of the loop before the exchange.
Sara Graves handed off to Sarah Pribram, and the race continued. Sarah picked up one spot on the course and battled Craftsbury skiers Rick Costanza and Tillie Lange. Stephen handed off to Ed Hamilton. Even though Ed would prefer to classic ski, he threw it down and picked up two spots for NWVE 2, blasting by Craftsbury and Onion River teams. Jessica Bolduc was also able to pick up two spots on NWVE 5. She overtook two Craftsbury teams.
While things shook up a lot in Leg 2, Leg 3 had several position changes as the top teams heated up and spread the field out. Taking the tag from Eli was Thomas Clayton. Thomas had the duty of chasing David Norris (SSWSC). Eli had kept the gap to under 90 seconds, but the lead team was out of sight by this exchange. Thomas would contend with many of the strongest skiers in the country on Connecticut Fitness, which only helps top-tier skiing so much. He held his own but yielded a few places to the likes of peaked Tzevi Schwartz (Williams) and Matthew McIntosh (GMVS).
I needed to gain more on those I passed, giving Tyler the mission to hold off Tabor Greenberg (GMVS), who had one of the fastest splits of the day. Ellis Slover (Gould) also put down a top split reeling in Tyler. Tyler did hold off other contenders and set up Neal Graves well. Eric Darling was in chase mode closing on Thomas Masterson (Ford Sayre). He picked up a spot doing so but ran out of course, before he could catch him. Ed handed off to Jamie Wilsey right as Craig Pepin (MNC) handed off to Dunbar Oehmig (MNC). Jamie was off quickly and needed to put as much time into Dunbar as possible. Liz Hollenbach took the tag from Jessica and proceeded to pick up three places taking down Ford Sayre and GMVS Skiers.
The anchor leg is always interesting. Many teams played their ace. NWVE 1 did so with Jake Hollenbach. Jake was on a mission to crack the top five. And crack he did as he made up five spots on the course. After pushing his heart rate through the ceiling on the climbs, Jake did not look like himself but stayed composed enough to cross the line in 5th overall and win the over 100 category. Tyler handed off to Neal, who quickly picked up two spots. On the climb, he took stock of his position with no one in sight in front or behind and gauged accordingly. Tom Thurston also quickly gained two spots. I am unsure how many Benjamins it took, but Tom raced in a tutu. Sporting the tutu, he heroically sprinted to the line with the most photo-documented finish of the day.
Jamie did his best, but the race was not over. While he put a lot of time into Dunbar, Mansfield 1 had a surprise on their anchor leg. Coach Adam Terko (MNS) took the tag 90 seconds after Jamie tagged John Witmer. Craig Pepin anxiously awaited in the stadium to see who would crest teaching hill first. Could Adam make up the time on the biathlete?
Meanwhile, Liz made the tag to Cipperly. Cipperly would also prefer classic skiing but was in it to win it for the team. There were a lot of points at stake in this race, and she knew that NWVE could overtake GMVS in the Club Scoring and move into 5th overall. Cipperly did what it took to win the Women’s over 100 category!
On the course, John was feeling pretty good. As he made his way further and further in, only a little action took place. His confidence grew. Somewhere near the bottom of Kirby's, a flash of Mansfield flew by. John kept it in high gear, but the youth of Terko was too much of an advantage. However, John did place NWVE 2 second to NWVE 3 in the over 200 category helping the club gain as many points as possible on the day!
The New England Club Relay demonstrated what this sport is all about! The race was so competitive that the Club Series Leaderboard changed dramatically. As noted, Ford Sayer was defending a slight lead on Mansfield Nordic. They did so but did not see Craftsbury charging from third place with nine teams in the event. The managers must have poured over the rules and stacked their teams just right to score all of them. For NWVE, the hope was to take down GMVS and claim 5th in the series. GMVS was also keen on moving up in the rankings and dipped into their coaching staff to do it. GMVS and NWVE were matched well, and in doing so, both took out EMXC, with GMVS advancing to 4th and NWVE taking 5th in the Club Series!
The day was a great success, with the club earning several podiums in the relay, the Zak Age Groups, and the Zak Overall. Skiers traded stories on a long cooldown on the hero snow, were awed in watching the US Relay Championship, and refueled with the traditional Spring Fling BBQ! It was an incredible day to enjoy all that the sport can be!