WINTER PARK, Colo. — Tommy Ford dresses a little like Ted Ligety, performs even more like him.

Ford used a blazing second run on mushy snow to defend his giant slalom title at the U.S. championships Thursday, edging Tim Jitloff and Ligety.

After the race, Ford almost apologized for knocking off Ligety, the heavy favorite following a World Cup season in which he captured his second straight GS title.

"He's been skiing well all year and I've been struggling a little bit," said Ford, who donned a helmet and orange-rimmed goggles designed by Ted Ligety's company, Shred, along with wearing a matching racing suit. "The conditions are a little different than what we usually race on. He's still a good skier."

On this afternoon, though, in soft snow that led to plenty of ruts, Ford was simply a little bit faster.

Ford, of Bend, Ore., flew through the course in a combined time of 2 minutes, 22.24 seconds, holding off Jitloff by .09 seconds for yet another title at nationals. Ford won the giant slalom, slalom and combined at the event last spring.

"Tommy is a tough skier," Ligety said. "No surprise that he won it."

Ligety led after the first run, but momentarily got tangled on a gate during his second trip, the cloth portion wrapping around his boot. He made up for the lost time by powering through the bottom portion of the course, finishing third, .30 seconds behind Ford.

"The course is so bumpy and soft, it's hard to control what's going on with your skiing," Ligety said. "To get on the podium with that mistake is good."

Before his second run, Ligety visited with a group of children and took them onto the course, instructing the kids to raise their arms in the air as they glided across the finish line.

Ligety couldn't quite follow their lead.

Even with little on the line except bragging rights, Ligety showed up at the U.S. championships, vowing to hold nothing back.

He made the roughly 400-mile drive in from Park City, Utah, stayed barely a day and took off again, skipping the super-G and slalom events later in the weekend.

"We're so cooked by this time, it's hard to take it seriously," Ligety said. "It's hard to get motivated after you get done with World Cup finals, to race again."

Once nationals conclude, Ford will rest his body and work his mind as he takes a few classes at Dartmouth. It's time off he said he desperately needs.

This was an up-and-down season for Ford, who finished 11th in a World Cup super-G event in Hinterstoder, Austria, only to break his right thumb later in a European Cup event.

Winning at nationals also provided a confidence boost, even if it was hard to take much satisfaction out of beating Ligety in such soft snow.

"It's hard to have a clean run in those conditions," Ford said. "He's definitely a dominant skier."

Ford had the fastest second run, allowing him sneak past Jitloff, who won the GS at nationals in 2008 and '09.

"Tommy fought me really well, he just nipped me there at the end with a great second run," said Jitloff, who's from Reno, Nev. "He's a good guy, a good skier and I'm happy for him."

Marco Sullivan returned to the starting gate Thursday, only not as a competitor but as a forerunner.

Hardly mattered, the Squaw Valley, Calif., resident was just as eager to fly down the mountain again, even a little nervous as he tested out the course before the competition.

Sullivan missed a bulk of the World Cup season after suffering a concussion when he wiped out during a downhill training run in Bormio, Italy, last December. He simply landed awkwardly after a jump and was flipped around, smacking his head against the snow.

For weeks, Sullivan didn't feel right, had no desire to put on the skis. That was quite a shock to Sullivan, because that's never happened.

"Every other injury I've had, I wanted to get back as soon as I can," said Sullivan, who also had a scope on his right knee as a result of the crash. "The concussion was unique in that it changed my mood and mindset a little bit. For a while, I didn't want to do anything. I'm glad I'm over that phase."

Sullivan was recently cleared for a comeback, passing all the required concussion tests. Ever since, he's been sneaking in some powder skiing as he makes up for lost time on the slope.

"This is what I love to do," Sullivan said.

He was surprised at the jitters as he crouched into the gate.

"I was like, 'Is it right for me to be nervous just forerunning?" Sullivan said. "But with any sort of competition, I want to do well. It's just great to get out there and ski with my friends again, just have fun."