Imperial Challenge celebrates winter, heralds the changing seasons

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Boulderite Ben Kadlec, 31, is quick to say that skiing is his favorite winter sport. He and his wife own a cabin in Blue River and spend almost every weekend at Breckenridge. But the reality is that because the software engineer lives on the Front Range, he logs a lot of winter trail running miles. All that training paid off on April 12 when Kadlec won the men’s running division of the Breckenridge classic: the Imperial Challenge.

What, you ask, is the Imperial Challenge? It’s a trifecta race where competitors bike or run (running was just added this year) to the base of Peak 8, skin to the top of the Imperial Lift, and then ski back down. This year’s was the 23rd annual Imperial Challenge.

“It’s a real fun community event,” says Kadlec. “You get to see lots of familiar faces and everyone is in a good mood.”

Kadlec started the race thinking he might be a podium contender, thanks to his strong running background and his penchant for suffering uphill on ultralight ski gear, breathing hard, and sweating a lot.

ImperialChallengeBlog1At the race’s start, he jockeyed with another competitor for the lead until breaking away for the remainder of the 10-kilometer run. At the transition zone, he swapped running shoes for ski boots, clicked in and sped up the mountain.

“I made some distance on everyone else pretty quickly,” Kadlec said. “I wasn’t sure who else was in the race or who might catch me, so I went as fast as I could.”

From the top, he stripped his skins and pointed his tips downhill. The warm weather made for soft snow and fast conditions. Make that: faster than expected conditions. When Kadlec crossed the finish place, race organizers weren’t ready for him.

With a total time of 1:49, Kadlec clenched first place for the running category and a prize of $150.

But really, he said, the race is more about the event than the prize. Established circa 1992 by Sandy Metzger and Becky Hamm, both of whom worked in the ski area’s marketing department, the Imperial Challenge has long celebrated the mountain town athlete ready to bike, skin, and ski—and, this year, run—in any weather conditions simply because it’s fun.

More than that, it’s a heady end to a full season, said Kadlec.

“The Imperial Challenge is a symbolic transition from ski season to mountain biking or trail running season,” he said. “It’s a celebration of winter and a looking forward to summer.”

— Rachel Walker