JAY, Vt. – Every uphill has to end at some point.
But what if it’s a mountain, and what if you can’t see the top?
Nearly 70 women and 90 men probably thought something along those lines as they ascended a 1.8-kilometer freestyle hill climb at the Jay Peak alpine resort on Wednesday.
As part of the SuperTour Finals, the event was a pursuit with the mini-tour leader starting first and the rest of the field chasing. In the women’s race, U.S. Ski Team and Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier Sadie Bjornsen was the carrot.
Behind her, Jessie Diggins (Central Cross Country/USST) played the role of closest rabbit.
Knowing what was in store for the 1,079-foot ascent, Bjornsen spoke to Diggins before the race.
“I told Jessie before the start, ‘when you pass me, remind me to stay positive as you pass by me standing still,’ ” Bjornsen wrote in an online chat after the race. “She made a little joke as she went by.”
After starting 31 seconds back, Diggins passed the SuperTour Finals leader within about two minutes, according to Bjornsen. More of her World Cup teammates, Liz Stephen and Holly Brooks overtook Bjornsen about four minutes in.
She knew it was going to happen; it was just a matter of when, Bjornsen explained. She kept herself in the race by reciting, “Think like Johaug, think like Johaug,” in her head.
While Norway’s Therese Johaug championed the Tour de Ski 9-kilometer freestyle hill climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy, earlier this year, the woman that placed eighth behind her, Stephen, returned to the hill on Wednesday.
It wasn’t the infamous Alpe Cermis, but Jay Peak was still pretty grueling. Stephen put her head down and clocked the fastest time to the top in 15:06.7.
The first to finish after starting second, Diggins captured the overall SuperTour Finals title. She had the second-fastest split (+6.6), and Chelsea Holmes (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) was third fastest (+13.9). Brooks (APU) was fourth and independent racer Rebecca Dussault was fifth.
Bjornsen, who ranked 14th on the day, finished fourth overall behind Diggins, Stephen and Brooks, respectively. Those three rounded out the SuperTour Finals podium, which does not include Friday’s 30 k freestyle mass start, part of U.S. Distance Nationals.
Cheering his daughter about halfway up, Mark Stephen said he remembered driving his two children nearly two hours from their home in East Montpelier, Vt., to Jay for alpine races. Liz caught the nordic bug at Burke Mountain Academy as a sophomore, and the family hadn’t spent much time at Jay Peak since.
Exhausted at the top, she marveled at what she and her competitors had accomplished in finishing.
“I’m really tired, but that’s how its supposed to be,” Stephen said. “We just climbed up an alpine mountain. Usually people go down so it was great.”
Third at the World Uphill Trophy in February, Stephen scaled 4 kilometers up an alpine trail in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, then navigated 4 more on a hairy descent. Looking back, she said the Tour de Ski topped them all.
“The Tour de Ski hill climb is the hardest ever and this is pretty damn hard,” Stephen said after starting 1:02 back and climbing to second overall.
“I just kind of tend to start at one pace and see how long it lasts, not a sprint pace but a hard Level 3,” she said. “By the top, you’re just going all out, just trying to move up the hill.”
Eighth in last year’s SuperTour Finals hill climb in Sun Valley, Idaho, Diggins said she couldn’t wait for the end of Wednesday’s race after skiing alone for most of the second half. She kept looking and waiting for a sign, but it never came.
“It was really hard,” Diggins said. “People kept cheering, and I kept being like, ‘But where’s the line?’ … It just kept going and it was really painful.”
A series of sharp switchbacks near the top made it difficult to gauge where the finish was. Diggins said she did some singlestick coach skating and felt like she was hiking at certain points.
“It feels really good to be done,” Diggins said. “It was a lot of fun, but it’s also a big pain fest.”
Also third in last year’s hill climb, Holmes said she knew how to attack the race, and she had some uphill results to show for it. In September, she won a trail run called the Baldy Hill Climb, which ends at the top of a 9,150-foot mountain in Sun Valley.
“I was psyched for today,” Holmes said. “It was actually pretty fun in that sadistic sort of way.”
After starting more than 4 ½ minutes and 15 places back, Holmes worked her way to ninth overall. She caught Caitlin Patterson near the end and did her best to stay with the University of Vermont skier to the finish. Patterson finished sixth by time and eighth overall.
“I start pretty hard, that’s just what I do,” Holmes said. “I’m not one of those people that can say I’m saving it for later.”
While she didn’t sprint, she gave the course most of what she had. On the steepest part, which she called “the wall,” Holmes said going almost as hard as possible was just about as fast as pushing 100 percent.
Starting 37 seconds out of first, Brooks said Stephen, who was nearly 30 seconds back, caught her about a third of the way up.
“That didn’t really surprise me, but it was impressive,” Brooks said.
She stuck with Stephen and the two skied together trying to catch Diggins. Brooks said the overall series winner was ultimately out of reach and Stephen later pulled away near the finish.
“The starting order really made it a fun, exciting race because there were a lot of us packed right in there,” Brooks said. “With Liz starting at the back, she’s by far, obviously the best climber of the field.”
For Brooks, one of the biggest challenges was knowing where the finish was. Without previewing the course, she relied on spectators and markers along the way.
“It’s funny because you get to the top or near the top and there are lots and lots of people and everyone says you’re almost there,” Brooks said. “That’s a really subjective statement.
“Then there were all these signs that just said ‘race’ and arrows,” she added with a laugh. “I know it’s a race, but kind of wanted to know where we were.”
Regardless, she enjoyed it in hindsight. At least her skis didn’t have holes in them like they did after the Tour de Ski hill climb, in which she placed 31st.
“It was as huge mass start and it was extremely aggressive,” she said. “We had S-turns going up this steep hill so there were a lot of people trying to cut the inside of the gates going on corners. I just have holes punched in the top sheets and the sidewalls of my skis. … This wasn’t quite as long, not to say it wasn’t hard, it was extremely hard, but it was fun.”