|Merrill, Kloser reclaim top spots at Imperial BY DEVON O'NEIL from the Summit daily news. April 22, 2006|
|BRECKENRIDGE - It was a sight so many had seen before. Mike Kloser skied into the Imperial Challenge finish area before anyone else. A few minutes later, Monique Merrill did the same, ahead of the rest of the women's field.|
Were it not for an unpredictability-riddled 2005 Imperial, Saturday's scene at the finish corral might have seemed like just another year of domination from the race's unofficial king and queen. In fact, it was anything but.
This was about redemption, for both Merrill and Kloser. It was about reclaiming their spots on top of a coveted totem pole, which they used to own.
By overtaking defending champion Sari Anderson on the downhill homestretch, Merrill won her seventh Imperial Challenge, and first in three years. She also broke the record Anderson set last year (as Sari Chwalk) by more than seven minutes. Anderson had set the record by eclipsing Merrill's old mark by six minutes.
On the men's side, Kloser won his fifth career Imperial crown by holding off fellow Eagle County resident Jay Henry. Kloser had won four in a row before Pete Swenson, the runner-up to Kloser in 2003 and 2004, finally figured out how to beat his rival and shocked everyone with a 56-second victory last year. Swenson broke Kloser's record in that race, but did not compete on Saturday, electing instead to take part in a Randonee race at Silverton.
Kloser was the first to point out his victory on Saturday would have meant more if Swenson had been in attendance. Swenson won last year's race by swooping past Kloser on the descent, thanks to the advantage his alpine-touring ski setup allowed over Kloser's lighter Nordic gear.
"I wanted to see what it would've been like if we had the same equipment," said Kloser, who switched to an AT setup this year and set a new record in the process, finishing in an almost unbelievable 1 hour, 22 minutes, 5 seconds - 44 seconds better than Swenson's mark.
The Imperial Challenge opens with a 6.3-mile uphill bike ride from the Breckenridge Rec Center, then continues with a 2,998-foot ascent from the Peak 8 base area at the Breck Ski Resort to the top of the Imperial Bowl, elevation 12,998 feet. From there, competitors must maneuver a bumped-up bowl before finishing on a slushy groomed run back to the Peak 8 base.
Merrill's winning time of 1:32:52 trumped Anderson's 1:33:39 - and was nearly 14 minutes faster than the women's record as it stood two years ago.
Like Swenson last April, Merrill used her AT setup to pass Anderson (Nordic setup) on the descent and reclaim her crown. The two women alternate on the vaunted Team Nike adventure racing team that Kloser is also a member of.
"I felt a little bit of pressure," Anderson said of defending her title against Merrill, "but I felt like I pushed as hard as I could, so that was what I could do."
Merrill, of Breckenridge, and Anderson, of Eagle-Vail, were the fourth- and fifth-place finishers overall, men included.
Henry, 31, a two-time U.S. mountain biking world championship team member, finished in 1:23:44, not bad for a guy competing in his first Imperial Challenge.
He finished the opening leg of the race about 30 yards ahead of Kloser, 46, who himself is a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. But Henry couldn't keep up on the ascent.
Improving a spot from his finish last year, Army Maj. Mike Hagen of Colorado Springs took third in the men's race (1:29:39). Hagen later said he wished he hadn't done what he did the day before the race: swim for 1 1/2 hours, bike for 1 1/2 hours, then skin up to the summit of Peak 8 from the base of Peak 9.
The surprise of the day had to be 17-year-old Kevin Soller finishing fourth (1:34:02). A Summit High School senior, Soller said he'd always been a little intimidated by the big, bad Imperial - until he did it for the first time Saturday.
Dawes Wilson of Vail represented the 50-59 age group in fifth among men (1:34:40), followed by Breck's Mark Beardsley, who sported his trademark duct-taped jeans and finished sixth (1:35:15).
Breck locals Scott "The Human Lung" Yule, 50, and Bob Nothnagel finished seventh and 10th, respectively.
Among the women, perennial contender Susie Nothnagel was just that on Saturday, taking third in 1:45:08. Fellow local Jill Walker claimed fourth (1:45:30), followed by the rest of the top-10 finishers: Eva Hagen (1:54:41), Blair Hurst (2:02:58), Kate Chapman (2:03), Tina Biddle (2:06:15), Jaime Falcon (2:10:19) and Kim Eytel (2:16:52).
Breck's Mark Taylor, the only person to complete all 15 Challenges, said Saturday's 68-degree, sun-baked weather was the best he'd ever seen at the race, which attracted 246 competitors this year.
Gordon Herwig and Julie Curnutte won Saturday's short course race, which went to the top of the T-Bar track.
Devon O'Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13630, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.