CARRABASSETT VALLEY — In ski racing there’s a fine line between skiing your fastest and skiing to finish.

And when the conditions are as brutal as they were Monday – when sleet, snow and wind pounded the Narrow Gauge at Sugarloaf during the U.S. women’s giant slalom national championship – that fine line is magnified even more.

For many of the skiers it became a battle just to finish the course, which was reset after the first run.

Of the 66 skiers who started the day, only 24 finished. Twenty-seven did not finish the first run and three others didn’t even start. In the second run, seven more DNF’d, two others chose not to start and three were disqualified for missing a gate near the finish line.

“There’s just one word for today,” said Hannah Johnson, a Bates College junior who made it to the second run but couldn’t finish it, “and that’s gnarly.”

Two skiers, including Saturday’s women’s super-G winner Laurenne Ross, were injured and taken down the mountain on a sled. The extent of their injuries is unknown.

Megan McJames, a 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, not only tamed the course, but won her first national championship. McJames ignored the conditions to finish with a time of 2:05.03. Foreste Peterson, a member of Dartmouth College’s ski team, finished second at 2:05.36.

McJames, who competes on the World Cup circuit as an independent (meaning she is not a member of Team USA and has to pay her own way) had the best time on both runs and was the last skier down the course. She knew she had to go all out to catch Peterson.

“For me today the weather was challenging but the surface of the snow was really good,” she said. “So I just had to focus on that and focus on charging because I really wanted a national title.”

McJames, who finished tied for second with Stacey Cook in Saturday’s super-G, went out hard and fast, and kept that pace for the entire second run. She said she had a good course inspection that helped her navigate the difficult terrain and gates.

“If you do a really good inspection you know where you have to be smart and go everywhere else,” she said.

Danny Noyes, the ski coach at Colby College (which uses Sugarloaf as its home course and trains there three times a week), said you can’t let the conditions dictate how you go down the mountain.

“If you’re thinking too much, if you’re trying to be too tactical or calculating, then you will not ski fast,” he said.

And skiers like Lila Lapanja, who finished eighth in 2:09.47, want to go fast. She said she loved the conditions.

“Blustery, wild, windy … makes me feel alive,” she said. “It’s what I live for when I ski race.”

Lapanja, a member of the U.S. ski team, was 13th after the first run and knew she had to let it loose in the second – even if, she said, she was a little scared.

“I think we all are a little bit (scared),” she said. “The ones that don’t admit it are lying to you.”

But she was going to attack the hill, even if she couldn’t always see exactly what was in front of her.

“I mean, if you want to win you have to risk it all,” said Lapanja. “I would say on that (second) run I had moments where I was risking it all and moments where I was cautious.”

Haley Cutler finished just behind Lapanja. At the time she finished her second run, her time of 2:11.32 put her in first. She didn’t think it would hold, but she knew she couldn’t be cautious on her second run.

“There’s a part of you saying you’ve got to go for it,” she said. “So you can’t just sit back.”

There were others who felt comfortable on the course, especially the skiers from Colby. When the day began with sleet and wind, senior Mardi Haskell and freshman Sandra Schoepke were almost thrilled.

“We were talking about this on the chair lift,” said Schoepke. “This is a pretty good bad day. Normally it’s like negative-10 degrees out when it’s like this. So this was a little warmer.”

Colby’s Noyes said he tried to convince his skiers that they had a big advantage in this race.

“In conditions like this, I just say, ‘You’ve seen it before, we’ve done it, this is easy to us,’ ” he said. “‘Now let’s think about going faster.’ So while the rest of the field is worrying about the wind, the ice – oh, somebody else just fell – our kids have done it before. This is easy.

“It’s not easy but the key is convincing them that it is.”

Haskell, in her final competitive race, finished 11th (2:12.50) and Schoepke was 17th (2:16.36).

When Haskell finished, she hugged her mother, Annie, at the finish line and broke down in tears.

“Very emotional day,” she said.

But she was determined to finish the race, especially the second run, when she held on to just catch the final two gates.

“Happy and healthy,” she said, smiling.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH