The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Skiers, volunteers not detered by weather


Jason Juno/Daily Globe

Randy Ahnen of Bessemer skis about 1 kilometer from the Finnish line of the Sisu Ski Fest in Ironwood on a frigid Saturday with wind chills well below zero.


Ironwood - As cold as it was Saturday, it's been worse for at least two of the Sisu Ski Fest winners.

They've suffered frost bite in previous cross country ski races, including to their eyes.

All four 31-kilometer race winners hailed from the Twin Cities. The lone local winner came in the 15K Classic race, Luther L. Wright High School sophomore Nick Niemi.

Sisu race officials monitored the forecast throughout the week and decided to hold the race despite a strong west wind keeping wind chills near 20 degrees below zero. A total of 448 skiers finished the 31K and 15K races.

Niemi decided to dress in layers to stay warm and ditch the race suit.

"The conditions with the fine, grain snow that we had, it was just so slow and I knew I was going to be out there for awhile," he said. "I didn't want to risk getting frost bite."

"I was racing to stay warm," said Matt Liebsch, 33, who won the 31-kilometer freestyle race. "I was trying to get here inside (at Main Street Fitness for bib pickup) as quick as I could, that was my goal. I was going as fast as I could just to get inside. It was like a race for survival, for survival of the skin on my face. But yeah, super fun, good warm-up race for the Birkie."

It seemed portions of the race in the woods, such as near Norrie Park, weren't so bad. But where the landscape opened up, such as near the Hiawatha statute, it was absolutely freezing for skiers and volunteers alike.

Falling and drifting snow slowed times.

But skiers turned out, volunteers braved the weather and there was still a good crowd in downtown Ironwood to congratulate runners as they crossed the "Finnish" line.

"It was a good race," said Ingrid Leask, who won the 31K Classic women's race. "The thing I like best about this race is the volunteers are so good. It's amazing they're willing to take the time to be out there. Nordic skiing is a huge part of my life. I work full time and I train. I take time away from my husband and my family to train, so it's big for me that people would volunteer their time to cheer us on and I know they're there for the last people, too, which is big."


Niemi, 15, of Ironwood led from the start and finished in 1 hour, 8 minutes and 51 seconds.

Of the eight winners in the 31K and 15K races, he was the only hometown winner.

"I think it's pretty cool," he said. "There was a lot of fairly good competition. A lot of people came out."


Liebsch, 33, of Long Lake, Minn., was the first skier to enter downtown Ironwood, finishing the 31K freestyle in 1 hour, 41 minutes, 41 seconds.

He won the 42K Sisu event the last two years; that event is now a 31K.

He didn't have much of a warmup, opting to stay inside and layer up, because he's been frostbitten before, having not covered up enough in past races with temperatures of minus 20 to start. His retinas have been frostbit in the past.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case Saturday.

"I started to lose my feet so I started to ski real hard 2K in," he said. "I just held that until 8K when I finally got warm and then I had a gap and I kept cruising like that. Then I started to get really cold the last 8K. It was more exposed terrain."

Poor conditions because of the falling and drifting snow slowed him and most people down.

"It was like skiing on sandpiper," Liebsch said. "The colder it gets the more friction it gets. It was cold and snowing. Where it was groomed a little bit and there was tree protection to keep the snow off the trail, it was pretty fast, but once you got to the open sections, there was maybe two, three inches of drifting snow that hadn't been groomed, it was just so new.

"It didn't feel like skiing, it felt more like snowshoeing."


Ingrid Leask, 26, of Wayzata, Minn., has had frozen eyeballs before, but the cold didn't really bother her Saturday when she won the 31K classic women's race in 2:38:01.

Nor did some unanswered questions about her heart, which she had an EKG for on Thursday and still needs to get an echocardiogram this week. She's had palpitations, but not while competing. Her doctor let her race Saturday.

"Even though I know I have a heart thing going on, there's still something going on in my body that decides I'd rather win than be in the back even," she said. "Maybe my doctor wouldn't agree.

"The doctor said I could race, but I don't know if they really understand what I do when I'm competing. 'Oh, you're going to ski 31 kilometers in sub-zero temps.'"

She wasn't nervous because she planned to stop right away if she got dizzy and the way she skies in the Classic race keeps her heart rate down.

"I stride really really long, I ski really relaxed, so I kind of try to cheat as much as I can by balancing on one foot, so that keeps my heart rate down. I stayed nice and relaxed. That allowed me to have energy at the end to hammer," Leask said.

Which she did because she doesn't take to losing very well.

"With 5K to go, I saw some of the other women stop at a water stop and I was like, 'I don't really want you to be by me today.' So I went and hammered," Leask said.


Andrew Brown, 27, of St. Paul, Minn., took second two years in a row after finishing well back in the pack one year after getting lost on the course and skiing an extra 13 kilometers.

His luck changed this year as he won the 31K Classic in 2:03:58.

He skied with a group of three people until one of the big climbs at ABR Trails.

"Then I had really fast skis, so on the downhill, I put 20, 30 yards on them," Brown said. "Then I saw the gap and I put the hammer down and hoped no one would catch me. I kept glancing to make sure no one was coming behind me, but I held it the whole time."

The cold didn't bother him, he said it felt warmer than predicted and he had two layers of long underwear on under his racing suit that kept him "toasty."

He said the slow snow was more of a factor.

"I think there's going to be a lot of tired people," Brown said. "It was really tough conditions, really slow snow and it was nice some of the skaters caught me and they packed some of the snow down and I was able to hop in there and that sped it up a little bit. It was a great race, good conditions, good grooming."


Mary Beth Tuttle, 53, of St. Paul, Minn., won the women's 31K freestyle race in 2:04:26. She was pretty happy after the race and it wasn't just because she was out of the biting wind.

"I was second at this race two other times, I was really excited to win," she said.

She had only raced in one other event in the last two years.

"I think I went out a little too hard, so it was kind of hang on for survival," Tuttle said.

She said the Sisu volunteers were amazing and the open areas were really windy.

"My glasses fogged up - I think everybody's did right away, so you had to have them up - and then the wind would come," Tuttle said.


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