BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — Eli Brown and his family have been spending the month in a trailside cabin at Timber Ridge Resort.
It was a family Christmas present.
"So I've been getting to know the (Vasa) trail even more intimately," said Brown, a cross country ski instructor and defending Vasa 50K champion.
First, though, Brown — along with other area cross country skiers — are in Upper Peninsula today, ready to start a three-week race blitz that gets underway with the Noquemanon in Marquette. That will be followed next weekend with the White Pine Stampede and the week after with the Vasa.
"It's always a little interesting going into this three-week stretch because how you go in (physically) and how you come out can be completely different," said Williamsburg's Milan Baic. "It's a big three. It's kind of nice the White Pine is a 40K. That takes a little pressure off from doing all 50s."
A large throng of area skiers, including local high school racers, will take part in the Noquemanon. Traverse City Central senior Andrew Bruning won the 24K freestyle last January.
Brown and Baic will be in the featured 50K classic today. Brown was sixth overall last year, Baic 16th
"My goal is to have one good last ski before I turn 40 (on Monday) and everything goes to hell," said Brown, laughing.
Brown went to Northern Michigan University, where he skied and then started his college coaching career.
"For me, it's a walk down memory lane," he said of his return to Marquette.
The field is always competitive.
"It's just fun to be competing with those guys," said Brown. "I don't have any aspirations, but I sure enjoy the opportunity to be healthy and ski fast with some of the top guys in the country, at least as long as my body will let me."
A year ago, Brown finished right behind former NCAA All-American Martin Stuge Banerud and right ahead of Dave Chamberlain, who represented the United States at three world championships.
Baic is hoping for a finish similar to last year.
"You never know exactly who will be there, but there's always a solid field," he said. "I'm really kind of shooting for a top 15 overall. It probably won't be a whole lot better than that and hopefully not a whole lot worse. Top 15 would work for me against the younger group."
Baic, by the way, is 53.
"I'm not used to seeing 53 next to my name," he said. "That's scary. It's like, 'Wow, really?'"
In the 50K freestyle, Lake Ann's Amy Powell placed third last year while Traverse City's Sue Vigland took fifth, Deb Westphal 14th and Mary Lanin 16th. Powell, Vigland and Westphal are all in the 50K freestyle again today.
Powell was just over three minutes behind the overall winner last year.
"She's done really well the last few years," said Baic. "I think she was contemplating the classic, but she's come so close to winning the 50K skate I think she wants to give it another shot."
Traverse City's Jeff Koch placed second and Ben Lanin sixth in the 2012 50K freestyle. Koch is not entered, but Lanin is back.
Bruning, 17, won the 24K freestyle by less than a second. He's skipping the 24K to race the 12K classic and 10K skate instead.
"It was definitely cool to win last year," said Bruning, who has competed in the Nordic Junior Nationals the past two years and is on pace to earn 12 varsity letters at Central. "I'm looking to do as well as I can (this weekend)."
Recent snowfall has been a godsend for race organizers. A ski marathon in Ironwood earlier this month was canceled the morning of the race because of conditions.
"Drove 10 hours up, turned around and drove 10 hours back," said Brown.
Brown and Baic ski almost daily on the Vasa trail.
"It's been a little dicey, but probably better than last year overall," said Baic. "We've had snow, but we've also had a couple of bad rainy periods. The base, though, has never gone away and just this little bit of snow (this week) has really helped. Now, hopefully, we're in business for good."
Added Brown: "If this is a sport that you choose to participate in and love, then you have to make winter happen.
"As long as the ground is white, I'm out there sliding around."
Baic and Powell will compete in the masters world championships in Italy right after the Vasa. Because of that, Baic said he plans to do the 27K freestyle at Vasa instead of the 50K.
"I had to do the smart thing," he said.