After testing skis in snowless conditions on Tuesday, Wednesday's light snow falling over Soldier Hollow presented an extra challenge to the men in the 30-kilometer freestyle mass-start race.
With a cross-country skiing national title on the line, Sylvan Ellefson of Vail, Colo., decided to stick with the same skis he tested Tuesday. That proved to be the right choice, as he huffed and puffed his way to a narrow victory over Brian Gregg of Minneapolis, Minn.
Ellefson made his move halfway through the race, keeping his lead on the 5K course through the final three laps. With Gregg charging through the last 5K, the final margin, after more than an hour of racing, was less than three seconds. But, Ellefson held on, claiming his first national title in 1 hour, 19 minutes and 11.3 seconds. Gregg's final time was 1:19:14.1.
"[The race] went exactly the way I wanted it to," Ellefson said. "My plan was to see how the race was going to unfold through the first 15K. Through the first 15K, I still felt really good, still felt like the race hadn't quite began yet. Coming into the last lap, I felt totally rejuvenated and ready to go."
That feeling didn't last long though. Soon, it became the ultimate test of his endurance.
"My wheels were coming off the last time up Hermod's Hill," Ellefson said. "My coaches were telling me what was going on and that I needed to push hard coming over the top to keep this gap. I saw Brian right out of the corner of my eye and I knew it was going to be close."
As the racers came around the final corner, with the finish line in sight, Ellefson used the last of his energy in a sprint to the end.
"My legs nearly collapsed," he said. "I knew it was going to take everything I had to make it to the finish line. I'm glad I had enough to do it."
Gregg, who considers Ellefson a friend, said he was also happy with the way the race played out.
"It's cool to see him throw down and have a great race," he said. "Sylvan was right there and he did his move with 3K to go or so.
And Gregg is more than happy with a second-place finish, which he believes leaves him with a great chance of qualifying for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"My first U.S. Nationals, I was probably second or third off the other end of the results sheet second or third from last," he said. "It's good to be on top, or near the top. This is awesome. Most of my family is out here my sister, my mom, my dad. It's pretty exciting to have everybody here. Those guys have done so much to make this dream possible."
For Ellefson, the Olympics would be a nice bonus, but he's right where he wants to be at the moment.
"It's literally been 10 years of work up to one race," he said. "All I've ever wanted to do is win a national championship. I'm glad it happened, finally. Whether I'm chosen to go to the Olympics or not, I'm really happy with how this race went. It's been my lifelong dream to be national champion."
He had plenty of familiar faces in the crowd as well, something he said helped him push even harder.
"I can't tell you what it means to me to have all this support out here from my family, from my friends, from the people who have believed in me since I started this journey," he said. "It's pretty cool to have everyone out here."