While the annual Masters golf tournament may be ringing in springtime at Augusta National and on TVs across the country this weekend, here in the High Country we have our own “tradition unlike any other.” There may not have been azaleas in bloom or dogwoods blowing in the breeze, but spring was in the air Saturday for the 23rd running of the Breckenridge Imperial Challenge.
Part bike race, part ski mountaineering, part downhill, it’s a triathlon made for the Rockies.
Race organizer Jeff Westcott called it a rite of spring and local tradition. “It’s just one of those things, when you move to Breckenridge you hear about the Imperial.”
New this year, the competition added a running option as an alternative to biking. An idea Westcott said was championed by David Ruttman, who took second in the long course run, 3 minutes 24.65 seconds behind winner Ben Kadlec of Boulder, who finished in 1:49:29.61. Breckenridge resident Jamie Falcon took first among women in 2:06:23.88.
“I’ve been bugging Jeff to add a run category,” Ruttman said after the race. “We have a big trail running community. It was time for us to represent.”
Ruttman also turned some heads on the day, adding his own twist to the competition. Last year the event added a ‘retro’ category for bikers to compete by carrying their full complement of ski gear with them during the bike portion of the race — true to one of the competition’s earliest formats. Ruttman decided to incorporate that idea with his run and carried a full pack with his skis strapped to his back — he was the only one to do so.
“I’m used to carrying a pack,” the avid backcountry skier told the Daily. “I practiced a few times before the race.”
He said running with skis definitely took a little getting used to and recommended to anyone considering trying it next year to where a helmet to avoid the skis bumping against one’s head.
Ruttman said he plans to campaign for a ‘retro’ runner category next year and hopes Westcott will even let him run in his Alpine touring ski boots. Westcott told the Daily he was impressed by Ruttman’s second-place finish and would consider adding a category, but he didn’t weigh in on the boot idea.
But while the running category — a late addition to this year’s competition — was well received in its first year, bikers were still the vast majority of the close to 200 competitors. Twenty-five runners participated.
For the fourth year in a row, Breckenridge multi-sport athlete Greg Ruckman took top honors in the men’s long course bike category. He completed the course in record time, finishing in 1:26:04.6.
Ruckman, a two-time Olympian in rowing and competitive ski mountaineering, outlasted fellow AT racer and former U.S. ski mountaineering champion Pete Swenson for the top spot. Swenson was on Ruckman’s heels for the entire climbing portion of the race. One spectator thought he may catch the former Olympian in the transition to downhill — explaining Swenson was good with transitions after the climb and a better downhill skier, but it wasn’t meant to be. Swenson finished just under 2 minutes behind Ruckman.
“I always feel lucky after winning this race. There’s so many things that could go wrong,” Ruckman said. “Guys go after it on the bike and it’s a pretty challenging road. There are opportunities for disaster everywhere. Pete (Swenson) had to stop and pull his handlebars straight, just because he was going by me so fast, hitting potholes.”
With four people ahead of him headed into the transition from biking to the ski climbing, the avid uphiller was unfazed.
“There’s plenty of time to suffer going up on the skis, so I wasn’t worried,”
Able to capitalize on with quick change from bike to skis, he jumped into the lead in the uphill portion and kept it.
“I thought I was still second,” he said, remembering his push up the hill from the base of Peak 8 to its summit at the top of the Imperial Chair. “I could see up to the first ridge and was like ‘oh boy, he’s got a big lead.’”
Marlee Dixon, also of Breckenridge, finished first among women in the biking long course category with a 1:31:56.84 time.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind race,” she said. “It’s fun and it’s good training for summer.”
Dixon, Ruckman and a number of other top finishers credited a strong ski mountaineering background as the reason for their success.
After the 6.2-mile bike race from the Breckenridge Recreation Center to the Peak 8 base area, the 3,000 foot elevation gain from the base of Peak 8 to the top of Imperial was clearly the competition’s biggest challenge. From the top, competitors raced back to the finish line in the base area.
Of the draw to compete, Ruckman said, “It’s the mountain you look at every day, so it’s fun to remember being up there at the top.”
Westcott echoed the sentiment. “To climb and summit Peak 8. There’s something special about it.”