MARQUETTE - Diana Finkel had to be the most surprised skier in the Superior Dome on Saturday afternoon.
Informed shortly after coming indoors that she might be the women's winner of the 50-kilometer freestyle race at the Noquemanon Ski Marathon, she was incredulous.
Then when she checked in at the results station and found out it was true, she could barely contain her bewilderment.
Noquemanon Ski Marathon women’s 50-Kilometer freestyle race winner Diana Finkel, center, runner-up Chandra Shoberg, right, and third-place finisher Susan Vigland stand on the podium in the Superior Dome following their race Saturday from Ishpeming to Marquette. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)
"I'm surprised, I'm just shocked," the 42-year-old resident of South Fork, Colo., said after her first time skiing the Noque. "These were some tough conditions, so I think that helped me today.
"I'm not a great technical racer, not even close."
She wholeheartedly agreed with a description of herself as a "mudder in the snow."
Her husband agreed.
"The worse the conditions, the better she's going to do," said Ben Woodbeck, who is originally from the northern Wisconsin city of Hayward.
She got what she needed, first with the snow that fell Friday night and Saturday morning and blew around, covering up tracks set for skiers and severely slowing the pace.
Then add in Saturday's treacherous wind chill, a combination of temperatures hovering around zero and sustained winds at 15 mph and gusting to 25 mph along Lake Superior near the finish line, according to the National Weather Service website at www.weather.com/mqt.
"And this was probably too short a race for her," Woodbeck said. "A 100K would probably be better."
That's because Finkel is no ordinary 42-year-old. She's an accomplished ultra-marathoner, having run difficult trail races like the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, a 100-mile running race with more than 67,000 feet of elevation change. The overall men's winner last July needed 24 1/2 hours to finish.
Finkel didn't know Saturday's ski conditions would give her a chance to win. What she did know is Noque fashion.
"My husband and I, we always travel to one race each year," she said. "I always wanted to come here just because of their hat with the logo."
She said she often sees people at ski races wearing the knit ski caps with the event's distinctive logo, the word "Noquemanon" with the top of the letters roughly following the elevation changes of the trail.
"Even though I'm really a runner, my favorite sport is Nordic skiing," Finkel said. "I just love the feeling you get on skis."
She finished in 3 hours, 35 minutes and 7.7 seconds, about 2 1/2 minutes ahead of runner-up Chandra Shoberg of Duluth, Minn., and nearly 20 minutes ahead of third-place Susan Vigland of Traverse City.
Men's 50K freestyle winner Michael Brothers of Houghton, another 42-year-old, said strategy was key.
"I wasn't skiing fast out there, but I think with all the years of experience, I've got my technique and tactics down," said Brothers, who has won this event for the past three years while he's lived in the Upper Peninsula.
His times from year to year show the change in conditions. With a margin of victory ranging from two to five minutes each year, his winning time on a fast track in 2012 was 2:22:13.1, then with lots of freshly fallen snow last year, it ballooned by more than 22 minutes to 2:44:19.9.
On Saturday it rose another 24 minutes to 3:08:05.3, about 4 1/2 minutes ahead of Cory Ellertson of Albert Lea, Minn.
Twenty-somethings won both titles in the 50K Classic, Karl Nygren, 26, of Lakeville, Minn., for the men and Claire Luby, 25, of Madison, Wis., for the women.
Nygren, who was participating in his first Noque, is a member of CXC, or Central Cross Country, a sanctioned Olympic development team in Minnesota.
"It got snowier the further we went along, so you just had to slow down and be patient," Nygren said. "With the way the conditions were, I didn't even notice it was downhill."
With the 50K start at Al Quaal Recreation Area in Ishpeming, the course has a few uphill ticks, but overall drops nearly 850 feet in elevation as it descends to Marquette. Nygren won by more than 5 1/2 minutes over second-place Chris Pappathopoulos, even though he had a friend and fellow racer who skied with him for the first 45 kilometers.
That friend was Brent Knight of Anchorage, Alaska, who finished fourth about six minutes back and collapsed at the finish line. A race official reported that this was the Alaskan's first race since recovering from mononucleosis. After getting help taking the short walk from the finish line to the Superior Dome, and with intake of fluids, Knight looked nearly normal just 10 minutes after coming indoors.
Like Finkel, Luby was thrilled to win after a fifth-place finish in the same event in 2012 and third place last year.
Though she still trains with the Madison, Wis., Nordic Ski Team, she has also shifted her focus to coaching with Loppet Nordic Racing of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"This was probably one of the toughest races I've ever done," Luby said. "The trails were in great shape, but the weather sure wasn't cooperating.
"It was pretty brutal out there."
Top area finishers, all from Marquette, in the 50K races include Gala Malherbe, ninth, in the women's freestyle; Kyle Rambo, 18th, and Wally Pearson, 19th, in the men's freestyle; Mikael Kilpela, 12th, and Stephen Kuhl, 15th, in the men's classic; and Nancy Uschold, fifth, in the women's classic.
In the 24K classic, Northern Michigan University senior Erik Soderman won the men's race by nearly 12 minutes in 1:16:14.2, while Craig Ekstrum of Negaunee was fifth. Kristine Olender of Republic was third and Jeri Mommaerts of Marquette fourth for the women.
In the 24K freestyle, a number of Marquette racers had good finishes. Logan Zueger won the men's race in 1:13:43.7, about four minutes ahead of runner-up Joey Graci. Benjamin Wright was fourth. Jordyn Ross won on the women's side in 1:17:42.8 with Abby Potts third and Megan Edic fourth.
Marquette was also represented well in the 12K races. In the 12K freestyle, Luke Rambo of Marquette was second while Donna Marlor of Marquette won the women's. Lance Rambo of Marquette was sixth in the men's 12K classic and Ingrid Lindquist of Marquette was fourth for the women.
Two Marquette-based teams won divisions in the 50K team relay, Scott Drum and David Buhl in the men's and Tony Lackey and Missy Whalen in mixed.