Holly Brooks caught a train near the end of the 42nd American Birkebeiner and rode it all the way to victory Saturday in Hayward, Wisconsin.
Brooks claimed her second win in North America's biggest cross-country ski race and reclaimed the lead in the FIS Marathon Cup by hitching a ride with the elite men as they passed the women's frontrunners with about 10 kilometers to go in the 51-kilometer freestyle race.
The women started 20 minutes ahead of the men and took on trail-breaking chores on a course covered with new snow. When the top men caught up to the top women -- a pack of four -- Brooks took advantage.
"There was a snowmachine filming us the whole time, and I was leading the girls' train and all of a sudden I realized there were two snowmachines -- it was the elite men," Brooks, a two-time Olympic skier from Anchorage, said in a phone interview.
"The first guys kind of flew by and I was able to make a move and hang onto the last guys in that lead pack. I said, OK, it's now or never."
The women's lead pack of four was reduced to two, Brooks and Aurelie Dabudyk of France. They stayed together until the final two kilometers, when Brooks made another move.
"I didn't want to leave it up to a sprint on Main Street," she said.
And for good reason: In 2009, in her first Birkebeiner, Brooks lost a photo finish at the downtown Hayward finish line, finishing second by one inch. Though she won the Birkie in 2012, she hasn't forgotten the disappointment of losing another close call, and she was determined to avoid another photo finish.
"I turned on the jets and I dropped her," Brooks said. "I was going so hard I had no idea where she was. It turns out I would've had time to grab (an American flag) and have a good photo opp, but I didn't want to make that mistake of leaving up to a sprint.
"Being the Birkie champion is a great feeling. Second place is really admirable too, but people talk about the Birkie champion."
Brooks finished 28.1 seconds ahead of Dabudyk, recording a time of 2 hours, 34 minutes, 51.9 seconds. She collected $7,500 for her effort.
Brooks was the leader of an Alaska contingent that included the fifth-place finisher in both the men's and women's races. Lex Treinen was the top American in the men's race (2:12:45.7) and Caitlin Patterson was the second American in the women's race (2:43:23.8), and each took home $1,500 in prize money.
Others posting top-25 finishes were Patrick Johnson (12th among men, 2:18:14.6), Mark Iverson (19th among men, 2:23:09.5), Andrew Dougherty (21st among men, 2:23:16.1) and Kristy De Yong (23rd among women, 2:57:33.0).
Sergio Bonaldi won the men's race in 2:12:21.1, beating Christoph Perrillat-Collomb by sixth-tenths of a second.
Brooks declined an invitation to spend another season with the U.S. Ski Team, opting to spend the season racing marathons -- a choice that gives her more flexibility. This winter, for example, was the first in about five years that she was able to spend the holidays in Anchorage with her husband, Rob Whitney.
The Marathon Cup consists of nine races. The Birkie is the sixth in the series, and Brooks decided to risk her lead in the Marathon Cup standings and skip the fifth race, held last weekend in Estonia, so she could return to the United States and prepare for the Birkie.
"I rolled the dice and came here two weeks early, just to be in the U.S. and get some home-cooked meals and be in a house," said Brooks, who stayed in friend's cabin outside Hayward during her time in Wisconsin.
Skipping the Estonia race was a gamble because it meant other racers collected points there and Brooks did not. In the first four marathons of the season, Brooks registered two wins and two runner-up finishes to grab the series lead, but she slipped to third place after the race in Estonia. The Birkie win puts her back on top.
"My goal is to win this overall thing," she said.
And so Brooks will fly to Europe on Monday for a Saturday race in Poland, followed by a race in Swizterland on March 8. Then comes a long gap before the Marathon Cup finale April 11 in Russia -- which might give Brooks enough time to secure a visa to travel to Russia. Back in her U.S. Ski Team days, those kinds of issues were generally taken care for her. Now she's on her own.
Brooks said she misses the logistical support of the U.S. Ski Team and she misses her teammates even more, but she's content with her decision to spend the season competing in 40-K and 50-K races.
"This has been a good change for me," she said. "In a post-Olympic year it's fun to have a new challenge, and this is that. I'm figuring everything out by myself and meeting new people and seeing new venues, but I'm chasing the podium and that's really fun."