Scott O’Brien

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Jackson Hole’s annual Moose Chase ski race—it has Nordic and classic categories—started twenty-two years ago. It was shortly thereafter that Scott O’Brien showed up at its starting line for the first time. He’s done the race almost every year since, with the exception of the years he was its race director.  This year’s Moose Chase is February 15. Now 51, O’Brien will again be at the starting line.

We got him to give us some race tips—on the course, gear and waxing. If you’re not interested in Nordic racing or the Moose Chase, fear not. Scott also tells about some of his favorite places to skate around Jackson Hole on non-race days (free clinics?). And perhaps also, because he is a new co-owner of Skinny Skis, Jackson’s go-to shop for classic and Nordic equipment, Scott talks some gear.

Did you grow up Nordic skiing?
I grew up in Illinois, just outside of Chicago. I probably started Nordic skiing when I was 12. There weren’t a lot of alpine ski areas that we could go to. Nordic skiing was kind of the natural go-to winter activity.

You’ve been in a place that does have nearby alpine skiing areas for three decades now. Have you picked up other winter sports?
I’m an alpine skier as well. I do a little obit of everything in the winter now: alpine skiing, telemark skiing, alpine touring. We have a nine-year old daughter now who’s involved in Nordic too.

How do you decide what sport you’re going to do on any given day?
It’s condition related. If we just had a lot of snow, I might go out and do either classic skiing during the week or alpine skiing on weekends. If we’re in a high pressure system and haven’t had snow in a while, the tracks are usually pretty firm, so it’s great for skate skiing.

What’s the Nordic scene like in Jackson?
It’s an uphill struggle. We’re at the base of one of the best alpine venues in the country. That said, over the past 10 years or so, Nordic really has gained in strength, starting with the junior programs.  Parents are getting involved in the activity after their kids start.

How has the Moose Chase changed over the years?
The race started at Trail Creek Ranch, and then it was moved to start in Teton Village and end at Teton Pines. Now it’s back at Trail Creek.  When it started in the Village, the terrain was quite different; it was a much faster race. At Trail Creek, you have some really decent climbs. It requires more all-around abilities. For someone to be competitive, they have to be able to climb well, have decent speed, and also have endurance. The race is 30k.

What’s your favorite part of the course?
The downhills are a lot of fun—curvy and fast. These are concentrated more in the race mid-point. The race now is two 15k loops. It’s around the 7k mark of the 15k loop that things get fun and interesting.

Is there one hill that’s more challenging than others to climb?
Grunt Hill is within the first 3k-4k of the race. It’s an exceptionally steep uphill. At that point, the course is also fairly narrow, so it’s challenging to get around other skiers. But also, the hill is early enough in the race that the first time you hit it you tend to be skiing in a decent size group. So it’s challenging for several reasons. Also, it’s a bit off camber, so it drops downhill slightly to your left-hand side.

Is this a typical hill out at Trail Creek?
I’d say it’s about medium in length, but steeper than most. It’s maybe 150-200 yards long and climbs a couple hundred vertical feet.

Who does the Moose Chase?
In past years, we might get a total of 200 participants. Age groups starting at maybe 5 or 6 years old—they don’t ski the full 30k, of course—on up through master racers in their 70s. Racers come all over the region—Utah, Idaho, elsewhere in Wyoming. The number of skiers you get from Jackson is significant, but it is great to see some many racers from the intermountain region.

Do you have a standout memory from one year?
A couple of years ago a long-time athlete and then coach with the [Jackson Hole] ski club, Ben Morley, won the race in spectacular fashion. In the last several kilometers, Ben was in a group of maybe five skiers. All of a sudden he just skied away from everybody. I would guess he had a 10 second gap at the finish, which is a significant. It was great to see a kid that grew up in the program and had then became a coach with the program win the race in such great fashion.

Where do you like to skate ski when it’s not Moose Chase weekend?
Personally I tend to utilize the groomed pathways more than anything else. That is more to do with time constrictions than anything. It seems there is almost always a groomed pathway around and I can get in a ski at lunch or a quick ski after work. I like the ones around Stilson Ranch.

We’ve heard there are some free lessons somewhere in the valley, know anything about them?
There are. Two brothers are Nordic Ambassadors from the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. On Saturdays, they put on free clinics around the Stilson pathways.

Do you have a pre-race routine?
The day before is generally a rest day. I’ll go out and do a short ski, maybe half-an-hour just to keep everything running. I’ll eat a fairly normal dinner. The morning of the race, I’ll eat a decent breakfast about 3 hours before my race starts. I try to get to Trail Creek about an hour-and-a-half beforehand. I like a progressive 45- to 60-minute warm-up. I’ll start easy and finish with a handful of harder efforts.

What about gear prep? Waxing can be a huge deal in Nordic racing.
For the Moose Chase, historically it’s pretty simple. Typically we have cold snow conditions. Even if air temps aren’t that cold, the snow tends to stay cold. You’re generally pretty safe going with something in the blue wax range. You can get ridiculously about wax, but I think it’s better to get your wax job done the night before in 20 minutes or so and then just take the rest of the night. Get to bed early. Lots of time sleep is more important than stressing about the last bit of special wax.

And your gear this year?
I’ve been skiing on Madshus for probably 15 years. Their boots have just always fit me well and I trust their skis and poles. They’re one of the top ski manufacturers—a Norwegian company that’s been around for over 100 years. They put a high-level of design and construction into all their stuff.

NOTE: If you’re not in Jackson Hole for the Moose Chase, Trail Creek is open during daylight hours. A day-use pass is $10. The former Moose Chase venue, Teton Pines, also groomed tracks. Additional trail info and grooming reports can be found at jhnordic.com.

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