BY DENNIS CHASE
— MARQUETTE — John O'Hearn stuck to his plan Saturday.
The 32-year-old Traverse City cross country skier surged to the lead at the 14K mark and never looked back in winning the Noquemanon 24K freestyle race. O’Hearn finished in 1:07:29, more than three minutes ahead of runner-up Ben Wright of Marquette, who was clocked at 1:10:35. Traverse City’s Cliff Onthank came in third at 1:11:05.
“I’ve been having an okay season, but not getting the results I wanted,” O’Hearn said. “So (Saturday) I wanted to go out with the leaders, but I didn’t want to take the lead early. I kind of blow-up when I do that.”
So he stayed behind Wright until just past the halfway point.
“I was itching to get in front of him,” O’Hearn said. “I could tell he was struggling a little. I didn’t want to take it too soon. But around the 14K mark, he looked back to see where I was and I could see he was struggling. And I felt good.
“Having the lead, I knew he was working a little harder than I was. So, at the 14K mark, when I saw he was a little tired, I went around him and then put the hammer down good for about 30 seconds just to let him know, ‘you’re going to have to work hard if you want to stay with me.’”
It was the deciding point of the race.
After that, O’Hearn was by himself.
“I continued to push hard, but I felt comfortable,” he said. “It was nice.”
O’Hearn was one of three Traverse City skiers to win first-place medals. Andrew Bruning captured the 12K classic and Kelly Peregrine the 12K freestyle.
In the event’s featured race, the 50K classic, Williamsburg’s Eli Brown finished second and Milan Baic sixth. Baic is O’Hearn’s father-in-law and coach.
Traverse City’s Erin Lipp placed second in the 12K classic and Joanne Peregrine second in the 12K freestyle.
Lake Ann’s Amy Powell came in third in the 50K freestyle.
“We have a strong (ski) culture going here.” Brown said, alluding to the local finishes.
O’Hearn, who plans to ski the 40K at the White Pine Stampede, just started ski racing three years ago.
“I feel like I have the skills and conditioning,” he said, “but now it’s just learning how to race. It’s a totally different ballgame.”
Saturday was his first win.
Brown, meanwhile, was coming off a win last week in the Cote Dame Marie Ski Loppet 24.4K in Grayling. He was sixth in the Noquemanon a year ago. The 50K skiers had to deal with a fresh snowpack Saturday.
“The Noquemanon is always an adventure,” Brown said. “They (officials) groomed all night, stopped at 5 in the morning and then all of a sudden six inches of snow fell before our race started at 9.
“The classic race is the first to go off. We were literally breaking trail the whole way. When you have so much soft snow the racers tend to group up. Through the first 20K we had a group of 30 guys in the lead pack.”
That’s when Brown, who attended Northern Michigan University and has skied those trails numerous times, decided to make a move.
“I got a little antsy there at 20K and ended up skiing out front,” he said. “I got up to a minute lead at the halfway point. I didn’t know what they (pack) were doing so I kept pushing. Some ended up catching me and we regrouped as a pack of five about 20K from the finish.”
That pack included the eventual winner Santiago Ocariz.
They stayed together. And then with 10K to go a familiar face made a charge.
“At 10K (to go) Milan catches us,” Brown said. “He went right to the front and started pushing it. He had an unbelievable race.”
With 8K left, Ocariz, the defending champ, made a break.
“I tried to go,” Brown said. “I strung those guys (in pack) behind me for the last 8K and was barely able to hold on to my position. I’m excited about how I did. I just wanted to enjoy it. What a way to celebrate my 40th birthday.”
Ocariz finished in 3:03.50, Brown in 3:05:55 and Biac in 3:08:34.
For the second consecutive year, Powell placed third in the women’s 50K freestyle. She had a time of 3:06:55. Traverse City’s Ben Lannin came in ninth in the men’s 50K freestyle in 2:52:52.
The Traverse City area had five of the top 13 overall finishers in the women’s 24K freestyle.