Return of Imperial Challenge brings racing vibe back to Breckenridge
More than 130 skiers, riders, runners and cyclists take on Summit spring sporting challenge
To event director Jeff Westcott, the first Imperial Challenge in two years felt like a joyous holiday.
“It felt like Imperial Eve,” the Breckenridge resident said about Sunday night.
For women’s lightweight champion Jill Sorensen, the Imperial’s return felt like a community reunion of friends even though it was physically distanced. To men’s lightweight race winner Chris Tatro, it felt like an end-of-winter, start-of-summer cornerstone.
“For the first time, it felt like we’re getting back to normal,” Tatro said. “It felt good for me, personally, and it felt good as a community. It was a wonderful day.”
Technically, it was two wonderful days due to local public health regulations that set a 75-person maximum. Semantics aside, the return of the iconic Imperial “pseudo triathlon” race Monday and Tuesday in Breckenridge brought back a Summit County sporting celebration.
For the 135 runners, bikers, skiers and riders who took on the traditional Summit spring challenge — which has athletes run or bike the first half of the course before ascending and descending Breckenridge Ski Resort on skis or a snowboard — this felt a lot like the good old days.
“I’m thrilled — thrilled — to be doing something real, even if it’s a modified format,” Westcott, of Maverick Sports Promotions, said.
Monday and Tuesday’s finishers truly showcased the special spectrum of athletes that comprise this county’s community of crushers. The group included everyone from an aspiring ski mountaineering world champion (Grace Staberg) to an average Joe-turned-title-contender (Tatro) to a mother and father racing with their young kids in a tandem fashion (Kate and Tim Zander and their boys Logan, 5, and Rowan, 3).
There was even longtime Breckenridge resident, Drew Mikita, who once again finished the race in a patched up cloth dinosaur onesie.
“I think we need things like this right now to remind us of the joys and beautiful things we get to do in this beautiful place we live in,” Mikita said at the Peak 7 base area after completing the course in 2 hours, 41 minutes and 5 seconds in the retro open division.
Staberg felt that way about the Imperial even after a winter trekking all over Europe and podiuming against the world’s best ski mountaineers her age. It might not be a world championship in Andorra, but the Imperial is a hometown race for the 19-year-old, who won the running division a figurative mile ahead of her nearest competitors with a time of 1:31:11.
Staberg’s astounding run-skin-ski time — even by her standards — came on a course that featured a 5-mile bike or run (competitor’s choice) before a climb from the Peak 7 base area at 10,000 feet to the top terminal of the continent’s highest lift, Imperial SuperChair, at 12,840 feet. The last leg of the course is the downhill ski or snowboard back to the finish line at the Peak 7 base area.
Staberg credited her time to downhill skiing on icy snow in Europe in recent months.
Westcott called her time “nuclear fast” and “superhuman.”
“Anything under 1 (hour) 45 (minutes) for this event is exceptional,” he said. “Anything under 1:30 is otherworldly.”
Staberg by run and Sorensen by bike (1:27:24) were once again the standout women’s racers at this year’s Imperial. Winning the women’s lightweight division was great for Sorensen, but the nostalgia of grinding up the steep T-Bar hill and remembering back to moments like this from Imperial yesteryears was even better.
“We were all so happy to be racing, those of us who race a lot,” Sorensen, 43, said. “I was invigorated to be out there.”
After a year of COVID-19 shutdowns, no one improved on their previous races as well as Tatro. The 39-year-old won the popular heavy metal rec division in 1:38:49 — light-years faster than his first Imperial two tries ago. Back then, he crossed the finish line pushing four hours while Westcott read out award winners and podium placers. Tatro, who raced Monday with his brother Tyler (sixth, 1:53:42), said a year dedicated to 8,000 vertical feet per week at Breckenridge manifested not only an Imperial victory but also a zen-like state.
“It’s great for me mentally,” he said. “It’s the one thing I can do where I can zone out. I spend most of the time with my eyes closed when I’m skinning, for some reason. I end up in a groove, and it’s a great release for me.”
Chris Carr, 37, of Golden finished with the fastest time either day, 1:13:22. Carr said the Imperial on Tuesday yielded “an unfamiliar feeling.” It’s a competitive sensibility he hadn’t wrestled with in seemingly forever.
“A feeling to go that deep for that long — I had that feeling out on the course today,” he said.
And then there were the Zanders. Like so many others, the Zander family has been excited for the Imperial for months. After recent ski camping and hut trips with their young boys, Tim Zander had the idea for the family to enter as a four-person tandem team. On Monday, that meant Kate Zander biked the 5 miles while towing Rowan in a third-wheel trailer. Once mom tagged dad in, Tim Zander did something unheard of: He skinned nearly 3,000 feet while towing 50-pound Logan, who was strapped into traditional downhill bindings behind him. The Zanders finished in under 3 1/2 hours. It was a “big happy family” race experience that Tim said felt more difficult than the Power of Four ski mountaineering race in Aspen.
“It was way harder than I expected,” Tim Zander said.
• Men’s Heavy Metal Rec Open: Chris Tatro, 39, Breckenridge, 1:38:49
• Women’s Heavy Metal Rec Open: Hana Hejduk, 40, Littleton, 2:01:07
• Men’s Splitboard Snowboard: Eugenio Perez, 40, Frisco, 1:46:22
• Women’s Splitboard Snowboard: Jennifer Tilley, 43, Carbondale, 2:03:56
• Team Relay Bike: Tara Gregoire and Jenna Duncan, Breckenridge, 2:40:08
• Team Relay Run: Eva and Mike Hagen, Breckenridge, 1:40:08
• Men’s Light Gear: Chris Carr, 37, Golden, 1:13:22
• Women’s Light Gear: Jill Sorensen, 43, Dillon, 1:27:24
• Men’s Retro Open: Jonathan Tashkin, 48, Golden, 1:29:12
• Women’s Retro Open: Elizabeth Schneider, 43, Westminster, 3:03:17
• Men’s Runners: Stephen Rosenman, 31, Frisco, 1:42:47
• Women’s Runners: Grace Staberg, 19, Silverthorne, 1:31:11
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