‘Pure fun’: Breckenridge locals O’Keefe, Howdyshell go 1-2 at Imperial Challenge bike-skin-ski race
When suiting up for Saturday’s Imperial Challenge event, Breckenridge local Sam O’Keefe expected conditions to be a bit warmer than how they ultimately turned out. So, O’Keefe chose to wear an under layer of a cotton-blend pajama gifted to him at Christmas by his sister.
“It was spring, like, a week ago, and all of a sudden it’s not,” O’Keefe said after the race. “I just had to kind of re-adjust. It was super windy at the top. That was kind of a surprise, though we heard it was going to be windy. It was really windy up there.”
Welcome to the end of winter in Breckenridge. Welcome to the start of spring in Breckenridge.
And, welcome to the Imperial Challenge, Sam.
On a day in Breckenridge when the weather was variable and complete with chilly winds and on-again, off-again snowfall, O’Keefe’s choice of pajama attire may not have been perfect for the conditions. But for the accomplished mountain biker who was racing in his first Imperial Challenge, Saturday was more about the community vibe and fun-loving experience and less about having a hell-bent focus on victory amid the typical Breckenridge in-between-seasons weather conditions.
In fact, Saturday was O’Keefe’s first time in his life at the 12,987-foot summit of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 8. And it was moments like that he focused on after he won Saturday’s race.
“It was fantastic, I loved it,” O’Keefe said of summiting Peak 8 during the race. “This was just an awesome community event, where it’s all kinds of people trying to have a good time, or race it. People approach it in all of these different ways. It’s pure fun, nobody taking it too seriously. And, as I was going up, I thought, ‘alright there’s Peak 8. I see it every day from my place. Just get to the top as fast as I can and ski down. And, that’s the race.’”
With that sound bite, O’Keefe makes the annual race — which consists of a multi-mile bike or run then ascending up Breckenridge Ski Resort on racers’ choice equipment before skiing back down — sound a lot more simple than it was. Each year it can feel like the weather for the Imperial is a guessing game. Sometimes, it’s sunny with spring-like slush. In other years, it can feel like mid-February. On Saturday, it felt more like the latter, as variable morning conditions left patches of road icy for the bike and run portion of the event. Then, sideways snow greeted skiers through some of the steeper portions of the uphill at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
O’Keefe may have approached Saturday’s Imperial Challenge without a competitive mindset on finishing the bike-skin-ski course with a faster time than anyone else. But, as the old football saying goes, “The fun’s in the winning.” And O’Keefe did just that on Saturday, completing the course in one hour, 21 minutes and 12 seconds, more than seven minutes faster than any other competitor.
O’Keefe credited his win not to his choice in pajamas, but to his choice in bike. For Saturday’s race, O’Keefe and runner-up Joe Howdyshell of Breckenridge (1:28:30) said riding a mountain bike proved to be a make-or-break decision for some of the racers who comprised the lead pack. Both O’Keefe and Howdyshell opted for mountain bikes on Saturday, a decision that helped them to enter the uphill, on-snow portion of the race in first and second positions, respectively.
For O’Keefe, the bike he rode was the same bike the accomplished mountain biker rides at competitions like the Leadville 100 each summer: a hard-tail, specialized mountain bike with 29-inch wheels. Riding this preferred bike, O’Keefe kicked it into overdrive when ascending some shady, icy portions of the bike course that switch-backs up from downtown Breckenridge to the base of the resort’s Peak 7. It was during this stretch he created distance between himself, Howdyshell and the rest of that lead pack.
“I felt like I wouldn’t have to worry about crashing as much if I were on a mountain bike,” O’Keefe said. “There was kind of a group of people racing together. And, then, on the first icy spot, I knew I felt more comfortable on the mountain bike than some of the other guys on road bikes. So I put an effort in and got a gap by the second climb.”
O’Keefe said he was unsure if he’d be able to hold off strong uphill skier Howdyshell if they were close together once on snow. With that focus, O’Keefe began skinning up the resort’s Claimjumper trail on Peak 7 as Howdyshell entered the bike-to-ski transition area at the base. From there, he tried to stay as out-of-sight of his competitors as he could manage.
“It makes a big difference if you can see the person you are chasing,” O’Keefe said. “So I wanted to get out of sight on the bike and hopefully hold it on the skis.”
O’Keefe did just that, though he made it clear the Imperial was more difficult than he expected. O’Keefe has performed well at other ski mountaineering type events like the Power of Four in Aspen earlier this winter. But events like the Power of Four or Grand Traverse are marathons compared to the Imperial’s sprint. All of that energy exerted within such a short amount of time meant O’Keefe could feel it in his legs as he rode his Hagan Alpine-touring skis down the above-treeline Vertigo terrain beneath the Peak 8 summit.
“My legs were super tired after getting all the way up there — that’s definitely kind of an overlooked challenge of the ski mountaineering races,” O’Keefe said. “That you have to be able to ski when your legs are really, really tired.”
O’Keefe and Howdyshell were joined in the top three of the overall men’s competition by Breckenridge local Duke Barlow (1:31:18). In the overall women’s competition, Dillon local Jill Sorensen won with a time of 1:40:18, ahead of runner-up Marlee Dixon of Fairplay (1:45:39).
Soresen and Fairplay were joined on the women’s overall podium by 17-year-old Breckenridge local Elsa Bates (1:55:15). Bates was one of several local youth athletes who excelled on Saturday, including Max Bonenberger (1:33:01), Finn Remias (1:33:41) and Connor Albin (1:38:40) of Breckenridge. In the open women’s run race, Grace Staberg, 17, of Dillon, a Summit High School cross-country star, smashed the women’s running competition with a time of 2:16:26.
“They had a blast,” Howdyshell said of the local athletes, who he’s coached as part of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering team and Summit Endurance Academy. “They were flying.”
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