It was a family and friends sweep of the marquee race at Saturday’s Sleeping Giant Loppett.
In unprecedented fashion in the men’s 50-kilometre race, Americans Brian Gregg and CXC teammate and long-time friend Matt Liebsch crossed the finish line arm in arm, becoming the first dual winners in the event’s lengthy history.
Not to be outdone, Minneapolis’s Caitlin Compton, who skied for the U.S. Olympic team at last year’s Vancouver Games and happens to be Gregg’s fiancee, took the women’s 50-kilometre free skate title.
The 31-year-old Compton, who finished sixth in the Olympic team sprint competition, said the double victory for her and her fiancé was a great way to justify the trip north.
How Gregg was doing was on her mind the entire race, up until she crossed the finish line ahead of the pack and he rushed to greet her with the good news.
“I didn’t know how he did, so I was a little nervous out there thinking I wonder what’s happening out there in the boys race, we can’t see anything,” said Compton, fresh off her recent win at the American Bierkenbeiner
What was happening had apparently been pre-determined earlier in the day.
“It was fun. We sort of talked it over this morning to work together to see if we could take the win together. We’ve both ski for CXS. It’s a team based out of the Midwest, so we thought we’d work together and split the prize money,” Gregg said.
The duo spent the entire race skiing together, he added, breaking away from the pack just after the 20-kilometre mark.
“It was down to four of us, a couple of Thunder Bay boys, Stephen Hart and Adam Kates ... Matt did the majority of the work. He skied with the backpack with the water bottles, so he was the workhorse today,” Gregg said.
Liebsch said it was an easy decision to go for the tie.
“We’re really good friends and good teammates, so there was no sense in trying to bash each other’s brains in. We’ve still got some racing to do this season and Brian wants to peak for Sun Valley end of the season races in the U.S. If we blow each other out in a 50-K, it’s not good.
“So we just worked together to try to strategically get away and we toe it up at the line and just split it up.”
The pair crossed the finish line in identical 2:09.19 times, just 0.19 seconds ahead of Hart, the top local finisher.
Compton, who finished in 2:27.06, good for 13th overall, said she had no complaints about the race, which started out in chilly temperatures but saw the day warm up as the competition got heated.
“It was fantastic out there today,” she said. The course was in perfect shape. The trails are just gorgeous, the terrain. You couldn’t have asked for a better technique trail.
“We came up here because we heard it was a great event. And it’s not too far away. It’s definitely something we’re going to recommend to others in the future.”
That should be music to the ears of race co-ordinator Peter Gallagher, who once again saw the pre-race goal of 1,000 entrants fall short.
“We got about 800,” he said. “We set a goal and tried to get 1,000. We were well ahead of that during early registration, but I think we convinced everyone to early register this year and they didn’t late register. But I’m still happy with 800 skiers. It’s a great number of participants.”
Also on hand was two-time Olympic medallist and current International Olympic Committee member Beckie Scott, who in 2002 became the first North American skier to win a cross country medal.
Scott, who said her first taste of elite-level cross country skiing came in Thunder Bay, is in town to speak at a loppet banquet Saturday night.
“I just thought I’d come out and see the races and take in a little bit of the atmosphere here,” she said. “It’s a beautiful day for a ski race. You see great spirit and atmosphere around this loppet.”
Scott, 36, who arrived with son Teo in tow, handed out the medals during the post-race award ceremony.
Thunder Bay’s Timo Puiras took the 50-kilometre classic men’s race, while Grand Marais’ Kerrie Fabius was the first woman to cross the line. In the 35-kilometre event, Ham Lake, Minn.’s Chris Hecker won top spot in a time of 1:44.10, about 12 minutes faster than Frank Luckai, the No. 1 local finisher. Thunder Bay’s Britt Bailey, a member of the Lakehead Thunderwolves squad, was the top female in the category, crossing the line in 1:59.10.
In the 20-kilometre race, Harry Seaton of the National Development Centre-Thunder Bay team in 47:56, while teammate Erin Tribe of Thunder Bay won the woman's race in 58:40.
Thunder Bay’s Emile Hamm won the eight-kilometre event in 24:41, while Susan Takahashi was the top female at 30:39. Wolfie, the LU mascot, timed in at 35:04, while Rock 94 morning show co-host Dee Jaroway was 114th overall in 1:08:01.