The American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon renewed its affiliation with the FIS Marathon Cup this year in an effort to attract more world-class skiers.
Results were mixed during the 37th running of the event Saturday: Not as many elite Europeans showed up as officials had hoped, but the ones who did were the class of the field.
Leading the European invasion was Italian Fabio Santus, who renewed his country's dominance of the event by covering the 50 kilometers from Cable to Hayward in a record 1 hour, 56 minutes, 58.6 seconds, just eight seconds ahead of runner-up Tad Elliot of Durango, Colo.
Asterisks may need to apply because Mikhail Botwinov's 1997 record of 1:57:51.6 was set over 52K, but the 2010 Birkie will be remembered as one of the fastest in history as an incredible 17 skiers broke 2 hours under optimal conditions and 30-degree temperatures.
Rebecca Dussault of Gunnison, Colo., was equally impressive in defending her women's title with a record-breaking 2:18:18.1, 31 seconds ahead of Tazlina Mannix of Anchorage, Alaska. Dussault's time topped Gudrun Pflueger's mark of 2:19:45.5, also set in 1997.
Dussault, a 29-year-old mother of two sons, battled what she believed to be a respiratory infection leading up to the race. The 2006 Winter Olympian looked behind just before the finish and didn't see any challengers, then pumped her fists as she crossed the line.
"I love this race, and I love you, Hayward!" Dussault yelled to the crowd in a postrace interview. "I just wanted this so bad - again. It's almost more special than last year because I was sick all week, and there were a couple times where I broke down and thought, ‘I don't know if I can do this.' "
Italians won six straight Birkie men's titles and four straight women's titles before skipping the event the past three years, so Santus' win came as no surprise. The European contingent was expected to make waves, but it wasn't quite the Italian romp some may have expected as countryman Marco Cattaneo, a two-time Birkie champion, stayed in Europe to concentrate on next weekend's Vasaloppet in Sweden.
The Birkie men's field was jammed for a good portion of the race as defending champion Matt Liebsch led a huge pack at the halfway point before Italians Santus, Sergio Bonaldi and Bruno Carrara broke away, with Elliot in tow. Bonaldi and Carrara eventually fell back, but did their part in helping set a good pace for the 33-year-old Santus.
"Sergio and Bruno are good people to have for teammates. They did a good job," Santus said. "This was my first race here, and I'm very happy. It was a very good track, and the people were very good. I had a good feeling [Saturday]."
The 21-year-old Elliot suddenly found himself alone with two of the veteran Italians. He hoped they would expend their energy leading the way, but they would have no part of it. They yelled at him to work together, and the skiers took turns exchanging the lead the rest of the way.
Elliot stayed with Santus until they crossed Lake Hayward. The Italian made his move just before the turn onto Main Street.
"At about 35K, I was like, ‘Oh man, I don't know if I can stay with these guys. This is a long way out,' " Elliot said. "Those guys were really strong, and it's like they just knew they could beat me up across the lake, but I just kept working hard. It was awesome."
The two elite Norwegians in the men's field were no slouches, either, both finishing in the top 12.
Santus and Dussault each received about $7,000 for their victories. Adam Swank (15th) and Andre Watt (20th), along with Elaine Nelson (13th) and Patti Harvieux (25th) in the women's race, were the top Duluth finishers.
"There were mental hurdles I had to overcome all the way to the start line," Dussault said, "so to pull this off is like a dream come true."
Contributed by Duluth News Tribune