BEND, Ore. - Race newcomer Santiago Ocariz fended off the tough challenges of two past winners of Central Oregon's iconic multi-sport event to capture the men's elite crown in Saturday's 37th annual U.S. Bank Pole Pedal Paddle.
Sarah Max, winner of back-to-back women's elite titles in 2008 and 2009, captured her third winner's mug, finishing just ahead of Zoe Roy, the daughter of 2003 PPP winner Muffy Roy.
This year's race started off throwing the athletes a bit of a curveball: snow -- the first in days if not weeks -- up at Mt. Bachelor for the downhill ski portion.
It was 2011 winner Andrew Boone down first for the men, while Roy made it down the leeway run fastest for the women.
And then, an unexpected sight: five-time champion Marshall Greene, 32, taking a wrong turn in the transition to the Nordic ski leg.
But he would make it up in the Nordic section, as he finished that leg first, only to see the 26-year-old Ocariz pass him in the transition stage.
Again though, Greene made that time up quickly, as he had a 2-minute lead off the bike and into the run portion.
Once they hit the water in the kayaks, things got interesting in a hurry. Greene's lead had shrunk by that point, and it wasn't long before Ocariz passed him.
"I was unsure how we would compare paddling," Ocariz said. "But as soon as we got in, maybe a minute in, I was gauging how he was paddling and how I was paddling, and how close we were -- and that's when I knew I had it."
Greene recalled later, "When we got to the first buoy and I looked back, I actually thought he was going to go by me like I was standing still. Instead, it was a slow, painful death. He slowly went by, slowly gained on me, and when he actually did go by me, he went by me pretty easy."
From that point on, it was all over but the coronation, as Ocariz won his first PPP in a time of 1:44:35, 49 seconds ahead of Greene.
"It was exhilarating," Ocariz said later. "I was very excited. It was very fun to win ‘the' race in Bend. I guess my inexperience played to my advantage. because I prepared well. I was training scared because I knew what I was up against."
The ladies' race followed a somewhat similar, dramatic script on this 37th running of Bend's big race.
Roy had the lead after the Nordic portion, but found herself second heading into the run after two-time champ Sarah Max passed her up.
It would be back and forth the rest of the way, as Roy would re-take the lead in the run, only to see Max snatch it right back up in the kayak leg.
"Near the end of the run, I heard someone say 'Go Zoe!' -- and I turned around and even said to her 'Oh, boy!' Max said later. "And she passed me on the run. I actually thought it was over then."
A sore ankle almost proved Max's undoing: "She (Roy) was running strong, and I was hurting. And when we got in the boat, I honestly just wanted it to be done. So I paddled as hard as I could, and when I started to put time on her, I thought, ‘Maybe it's not over. I'll give it one more try.'"
Roy said of her runner-up finish: "It was a little frustrating. I wish the kayak was maybe a lap longer, because I felt like I was just warming up by that buoy down there. But she did a good job. She did a really good job."
And after a two-year hiatus from the event, Max became the fourth woman to win her third Pole Pedal Paddle, finishing in a time of 2:04:24.
"It felt really good to cross the finish line today," Max said, "because I was so tired, and it just felt good to be done. This was a fun race just to be so close, and to have so good competition back and forth."
Ocariz -- a new dad, like Greene and Boone -- is a top cross-country skier who was praised before the race by XC Oregon's coach, J.D. Downing, as a very well-rounded athlete and would give the past champs a run for the money -- make that the PPP winner's mug.
Ocariz had returned to Bend for the race from his new home in Minnesota, where he's started nursing school.
With 2012 winners Kris Freeman and Stephanie Howe out of this year's race, new champions were going to be crowned.
Nearly 3,200 competitors, team and individual, kids to seniors, were following the elites in the big race, the main fundraiser for the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation.