Steamboat Springs After finishing 12th -- and being the second American to cross the finish line, Mark Iverson put Saturday's NCAA cross-country ski race at Howelsen Hill in perspective.
"The top skiers here would be in the top 10 or five in the nation," he said.
Those who braved the single-digit temperatures Saturday morning witnessed a rare event in Steamboat Springs: NCAA Division I cross-country ski races.
The University of Colorado is hosting the 2006 NCAA Skiing Championships, and Steamboat is the host venue. The colleges and universities in the Western half of the country used Friday and Saturday's cross-country races as an opportunity to preview the Howelsen Hill course where the Nordic championship races will be staged in March.
"It is a brutal course," said Mike Gleason, a 2005 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School.
Gleason and Iverson were in the men's field Friday and Saturday, skiing for Montana State University. Gleason is a freshman still making the adjustment from skiing with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club to skiing at a Division I level.
He finished 41st in Friday's 10-kilometer classic race with a time of 32 minutes, 42.2 seconds.
"I was disappointed," Gleason said. Staying with his parents and being back in Steamboat was more of a distraction than an advantage, he said. After getting accustomed to the travel routine, he stepped out of the comfort zone this weekend.
"If I qualify for NCAAs, I'm staying with the team," he said.
Iverson, on the other hand, is a senior and a more seasoned racer. Iverson placed 17th on Saturday with a time of 29:32.0. MSU teammate Chris Coe edged past Iverson in 29:31.9. Iverson's Grizzlies teammates stayed at his parents' Steamboat home, and he took advantage of the familiar settings, placing 12th in Saturday's 20-kilometer freestyle race in 59:53.9.
His top-12 finish Saturday, coupled with a top-10 finish in Soldier Hollow, Utah, earlier this season, has earned the former Winter Sports Club athlete a prime position for a return trip to Steamboat in March. He will qualify for the NCAA Championships in freestyle cross-country skiing, but he will be able to compete in the classic and freestyle disciplines during the championships.
"I skied much better (Saturday)," Iverson said.
Those impressed with the talent in Friday and Saturday's races need to turn out in March, when the top skiers from the Eastern Region will join the field.
"The Eastern Region has really fast skiers, but they don't have as much depth," Iverson said.
Much of that Western depth comes from the institutions' desires to recruit international talent. Foreign skiers -- mostly European -- attend American colleges and universities for the education and the chance to ski. Europeans often dominate the skiing events. Iverson was 12th Saturday, but he was the second American across the line.
University of Denver skier John Stene won Friday's 10-kilomter classic race in 27:30.3. University of Colorado skier Maria Grevsgaard won Friday's 5-kilometer women's race in 15:29.1. University of New Mex--ico skier Dirk Grimm was the men's 20-kilometer winner Saturday, finishing in 58:10.1. Grimm is from Germany, and Stene and Grevsgaard are from Norway.
Winter Sports Club Nordic Program Director Todd Wilson served as chief of race, and he said the crews were working at 3 a.m. to prepare for Saturday's race. The crew is looking forward to the return of the NCAA Championships. The extra work is worth the show, Wilson said.
Steamboat's Korie Steitz, a freshman at MSU, was 36th in Friday's race in 18:35.9. She did not finish Saturday's 15-kilometer freestyle race.
CU hosts Alpine ski races Friday and Saturday at Steamboat Ski Area and Howelsen Hill. The giant slalom will be on the Concentration ski run, and the face of Howelsen will be used for the slalom course. Winter Sports Club athletes Joel Adams, Lisa Perricone, Josh Bryan and Pat Duran are scheduled to compete.