The race course plunges 3,267 vertical feet down Aspen Mountain and includes a half dozen ski-jump-style airs; a steep, straight section called Spar Gulch; and the treacherous Kleenex Corner, a narrow hairpin turn hugging a granite wall. At noon the teams started at 75-second intervals. All the competitors skated furiously across the top flats before dropping into tight tucks. The course was glazed with ice. The racers sped clown Spar, accelerating to more than 90 mph and creating a noise like that of incoming missiles as they flew by. Behind each racer trailed a stream of ice crystals suspended in the air like jet contrails.
During the run each skier tried to remain as close to his or her teammate as possible, so that the pair could derive the greatest benefit from drafting. Some teams elected to alternate the skier in front from run to run, some remained in the same positions for the whole race, but the fastest—and most daring—strategy was the slingshot technique, in which the skiers would change position two or three times during a run, often passing one another while in the air or rounding a bend. "Skiing so close together at high speed is amazingly dangerous," said Bell, a 15-year veteran of the British national team. "Every time you see your partner in front of you make a tiny twitch or bobble, you think, Which way will I go when he crashes? It's nerve-racking. And when it gets dark and you can't see as well, the danger is doubled."
At the end of each run the competitors, legs burning from the 2½-minute descent, came tearing into the base area, where a team of "catchers" was positioned to stop them from slamming into the gondola building. The teammates burst out of their skis and dived for the nearest gondola, while a swarm of attendants provided them with blankets, heat packs, energy drinks, pasta, vitamins and brief massages. The all-too-brief gondola ride back up offered a chance for the skiers to rest, stretch, eat, strategize and, if necessary, use the bathroom—a bucket half-filled with Kitty Litter.
At the top they leaped out of the egg-shaped gondolas, jumped into their skis and started the whole process again. "I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day," said Canadian racer Ian Sullivan at 2 a.m. while riding up to make his 42nd lap. "Every time the gondola doors open up, it's like, Oh, no, here I am again."
The first three hours of the race produced two brutal crashes, both at Kleenex Corner, both by Americans—Jeff Hamilton, from a team of Olympic speed skiers, injured his back, and Megan Harvey sprained her neck. Night came quickly (in December it is dark 14 hours a day in Aspen), and the course lights were switched on. The long night took its toll: A tumble forced the German team to quit, and the remaining competitors became less and less lucid.
The women's team of McBride and Sutro, reduced to eating nothing but Tunis, would collapse into deep sleep for the entire gondola ride. "Depression has set in," Erskine reported just before dawn. "I think we're all feeling it."
Everyone but the Austrians. In their fourth year as 24 Hours teammates, Naglich and Reindl dominated the competition, holding tighter tucks, skiing closer together, and repeatedly having the fastest lap times. "I'm not feeling any pain," claimed Naglich as the end neared. "Really—nothing at all. If you paid me a million dollars, I'd ski another 24 hours."
Said teammate Reindl: "Make that two million."
In the end the Austrians weren't paid a dime, but they did ski 212.51 total miles, shy of the world record of 223.27 set in 1991 by Canada's Chris Kent and well ahead of the _ second-place U.S. team of Bryan and Williams. McBride and Sutro finished fifth overall on their way to a second women's title. "We trained all summer, every day, specifically for the 24 Hours," said Naglich, standing on the victory podium and swigging from a champagne bottle. Then he winked to the crowd and pointed at his partner. "I don't plan to talk to Chris for the next six months. I'm tired of being with him."