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Fresh snow greeting: Noque ski racers find relative warmth for 22nd running of Noquemanon

Matt Liebsch of Long Lake, Minn., strikes a pose after securing his victory in the 50-kilometer classic race during the 22nd annual Noquemanon Ski Marathon on Saturday in Marquette. It was Liebsch's first time competing in the Noque. (Journal photo by Ryan Spitza)

“I felt like I was in the movie ‘Frozen,’ waiting for Anna and Elsa to jump out of the woods at me.” — Matt Liebsch, winner, 50K classic race at Noquemanon Ski Marathon

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MARQUETTE — Newly fallen wet and heavy snow blanketed most of Marquette County on Friday night, but that didn’t stop more than a thousand competitors from taking part in the 22nd annual Noquemanon Ski Marathon on Saturday morning.

Held in late January each year, the event offers skiers from across North America some of the best trails and scenery the Upper Peninsula has to offer.

The 50-kilometer races kicked off at Al Quaal Recreation Area in Ishpeming early in the morning, and 31 miles later skiers found themselves crossing the finish line at the Superior Dome in Marquette.

Former Northern Michigan University All-American skier Vivian Hett crosses the finish line as the top female finisher in the 50-kilometer classic race during the 22nd annual Noquemanon Ski Marathon on Saturday in Marquette. Hett repeated as the 50K classic female champion. (Journal photo by Ryan Spitza)

The “premier” event of the day was the 50-kilometer classic race with Matt Liebsch of Long Lake, Minnesota, claiming victory in 2 hours, 17 minutes and 20 seconds in his first try at the Noque.

Former Northern Michigan University All-American skier Vivian Hett of Burnsville, Minnesota, was the female champion, clocking in at 2:40:17, good for 17th overall. Hett also claimed the female crown last year in her first Noque attempt and is now two for two in the 50K classic.

Liebsch said his strategy was to make a push right from the get-go and hope he never needed to look back.

“I just had a good, fun ski,” he said. “I went hard right off the gun, got a little gap and just decided to keep pushing and see if anybody caught back up. Nobody did, so I got to ski by myself for the entirety of the race.”

Liebsch bested runner-up Chris Pappathopoulos of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, by just over 3 1/2 minutes. Liebsch had a positive review of the course, stating that it was like something you’d see in a movie.

“It was exciting. It was super snowy at the start and then it got a little punky and glazy and wet down by the lake, but it was an awesome course,” he said. “I felt like I was in the movie ‘Frozen,’ waiting for Anna and Elsa to jump out of the woods at me.”

Hett said this year’s race was a bit more challenging due to warmer temperatures, which hovered in the 30-degree range most of the morning and into the afternoon. The 2019 edition saw temps plunge below zero.

“I would actually have to say that last year was a little bit easier for me,” she said. “Last year it was like 50 degrees colder and I like the cold, so I could stride the whole thing last year. This year was a lot more double poling. I was kind of by myself for quite a bit of the race.

“I was with a group of three or four guys up until about halfway, and then they left me. Their skis were a lot faster than mine, so they took off and I was alone for the rest of the race.”

Hett added that she’ll be back to defend her title in 2021 in an attempt to go three for three, not only for the sake of trying to win the race again, but because Marquette holds a special place in her heart as an NMU alumna.

“I’ll be back here for sure,” she said. “I went to school here and live in the (Twin) Cities now, so it’s always good to come back and be back in Marquette.”

The top U.P. finisher in the 50K classic was Crystal Falls’ Erich Ziegler, who finished eighth in 2:30:40.

Locally, Marquette’s Mikael Kilpela and Ethan Kennedy took 13th and 14th overall, respectively, while Andrew Stevens took 19th. Negaunee’s Jeremy Steele represented Irontown with a 22nd-place finish.

Marquette’s Ellen Wiitala was second in the female division, finishing behind Hett in 2:49:52. Wiitala was 23rd overall.

In the 50K freestyle, Zachary Nelson of St. Paul, Minnesota, claimed victory in 2:13:07. This was the tightest race of the day, with second and third place just a few seconds behind.

Derek Rasmussen of Minocqua, Wisconsin, was runner-up just one second back, while Zach Varty of Elk River, Minnesota, was third, 5 seconds after Varty.

Stacey Marion of Madison, Wisconsin, was female champion of the 50K freestyle in 29th overall, clocking in at 2:30:06. Marquette’s Alexander Dennis represented local competitors with a 10th-place finish in 2:21:39. Gwinn’s Mark Churchill was the next local finisher in 34th.

The 24K classic was won Jordan Woods of Mora, Minnesota, in 1:14: 26. Following Woods was Blaise Sopiwnik of Washburn, Wisconsin, just 1:59 behind. NMU cross country athlete Hannah Torvi was the top female finisher in 10th in 1:24:03.

In the 24K freestyle, Tryg Solberg of St. Paul, Minnesota, was victorious in 1: 05:41, beating runner-up Kevin Tarras of downstate Grawn by nearly three minutes.

Marquette’s Lindsey Dehlin and Ishpeming’s Matthew Pillifant finished fourth and fifth overall, respectively.

Other events on the day included the 50K touring race, 12K races, relays, snowshoe races and adaptive ski races. Festivities kicked off on Friday with the Junior Noque, featuring 5K, 3K and 1K events for younger age groups.

An awards ceremony was held at the Superior Dome Saturday night before things officially wrapped up on Sunday with snow bike, snowshoe and the Animoosh Skijor races, which feature skiers being pulled by one- or two-dog teams.

Full results can be viewed in Tuesday’s edition of The Mining Journal.

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.

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