WHISTLER, B.C. – Canadian Cross Country Nationals ended the way it started at Whistler Olympic Park, with exciting racing and sunshine on a freestyle-technique day.
In the men’s 50-kilometre race, American Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol) attacked on the final hill and held on to edge Brent McMurtry of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) by just 0.4 seconds in 2 hours, 4:55.2 minutes. His girlfriend, Bettina Gruber of Switzerland, later won the women’s 30 k.
The men’s runner-up by a ski length, McMurtry, 26, ended his season and career as a National Senior Development Team athlete with one last Canadian title (he won the 15 k classic earlier in the week).
His teammate, Kevin Sandau was third, 1.8 seconds behind Koos, and Brian McKeever of the Para-Nordic Ski Team took fourth and the Canadian bronze (+2.2).
The race started at 9 a.m. Saturday at -2 degrees Celsius with the sun starting to rise over the mountains to warm the stadium. The first hour featured hard, crusty snow, with fertilizer making a few climbs hard enough to be difficult for skating. The first lap was the blue 5 k (Olympic skating) loop, then the men settled in for six 7.5-k laps, featuring the first 4 k of the red loop (Olympic class) then the last 3.5 k of the blue.
This was the fifth event and eighth day of cross-country nationals and tired bodies contributed to a relaxed pace on very fast snow (the opening 5 k, with a total climb of 170 meters, was completed by the leader at the time – McMurtry – in just over 11 minutes). The next four 7.5-k laps were completed in about 19 minutes each, with slightly softening snow and increasing intensity resulting in an even pace. An all-Academy pack with McMurtry, Michael Somppi and Chris Hamilton led much of the opening 35 k, while Graham Nishikawa (AWCA) and Koos skied relaxed in the group.
On a slower-starting sixth lap, Somppi tried a push before Sandau made a real attack, but Koos ultimately closed on Sandau.
“I was a little worried; that was the first time I thought maybe I’m not going to have it today,” Koos said. “Two k’s later I felt good again, and I was like, ‘Okay, all right, I know how to win this race.”
Fifteen men were still together at the start of the final lap.
“With 5k or one lap to go, I thought Torin was the guy to mark,” McMurtry said. “I was trying to stay on him, watch him.”
Koos went to the front with about 1.5 k to go and “just slowed the pace to his speed,” Sandau said. “He was definitely one of the guys you didn’t want to bring to the finish line, but he had some good endurance today.”
“I am a little disappointed,” McMurtry said of his second place. “I had the gas at the top of the hill, but I was behind Brian [McKeever] and I didn’t push to get on Koos. He opened up a bit of a gap. Coming into the stadium, I used some gas to catch up to him. In the final stretch, I just didn’t have the legs to get around him.“
“I felt really strong and had perfect skis,” McMurtry said, “I enjoyed the final race of my career.”
McMurtry’s first Nationals win, as a juvenile boy in 2001, was in the sprint where he was beaten by an American, so it was “a fitting way to end my career with a title but also getting beat by an American.”
The men had similar views on the course conditions:
Koos: “It was awesome!”
Somppi: “Conditions were awesome.”
McMurtry: “It was amazing. A perfect day for ski racing in March, or almost April. You can’t really ask for anything more. Sunny, super fast at the beginning, and still held up really well. A perfect way to go out, a super, super day.”
In the junior men’s 30 k, starting just after the open men, national-junior team member Raphaël Couturier of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) attacked with more than a kilometre remaining to take the gold by 8.3 seconds in 1:18.15.4. Matthew Vrielink of Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR) placed second, and Sebastien Dandurand (Callaghan Valley TC) outsprinted four others to take the bronze medal, 18.8 seconds after Couturier.
Gruber Dominates Women’s 30 k
The women’s freestyle mass start began just before noon with the temperatures already up to 9 degrees Celsius and sun on most of the course. Organizers previously fertilized the entire stadium, plus the climbs and corners, to preserve the course and it held up well for the women, with a thin layer of slush over a frozen base for most of the blue 5 k course.
The action started on the first climb out of the stadium with Japan’s Chisa Obayashi (Madshus/Black Jack) taking a hard fall, breaking her pole across both knees, and losing about 40 places. Obayashi quickly rejoined the leaders, finishing the first lap in the top 10.
The second lap quickly separated with a group of four who would ski most of the race together at the front. Heidi Widmer (AWCA), Zina Kocher (Biathlon Canada), Bettina Gruber (Swiss National Team) and Obayashi slowly grew their lead through three laps.
On the fourth lap, Obayashi dropped back, with the combination of a tired body from chasing back to the group on the first lap and swelling knees slowing her down.
On the final lap, Kocher made a hard attack up the first hill out of the stadium and only Gruber followed. By the staircase climb, Gruber was comfortable again.
When Kocher faltered, Gruber was able to ski away for the victory in1:18:41.1, 40.2 seconds ahead of Kocher, the top Canadian, in second. Widmer wasn’t able to close on Kocher, finishing another 19 seconds back in third.
Resurgent Brittany Webster (Highlands Trailblazers) skied two fast final laps and outsprinted Obayashi for fourth place and the Canadian bronze. Eliska Hajkova (University of Colorado-Boulder), who struggled with ski speed as the snow softened, took sixth.
“Until about 15 k, it was four girls together, it was solid speed, a good pace,” Gruber said. “Then it went a little bit faster, and we dropped Chisa.”
“We kept it pretty easy until that final lap and then we really tried to put on the moves,” Kocher said. “The first one I did and dropped Bettina a bit, but she caught me after the downhill and then she made a move on me on the second uphill in the woods and I could go for half of it, and then I was done.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Widmer said. “I definitely exceeded my expectations as far as 30 k’s go. Really strong girls to ski with; Zina, Bettina, Chisa Obayashi and I skied the first four laps together and then on the fifth lap Chisa dropped off.
“At the end, coming out of the stadium for the sixth lap, Zina and Bettina attacked and I didn’t have the gas to go with them,” she added.
“That race was really fun,” Webster said, despite struggling with the pace from the start. “I was yoyo-ing off the back, got swallowed up by the girls behind and then kind of accelerated again.
“I had the best skis ever, so that was definitely a bonus,” Webster added. “Foothills Nordic did my skis, and yeah, they were phenomenal.”
“After start, I crashed, my pole is broken and I scratched my knees,” Obayashi said. “First lap, I used too much energy, so fourth, fifth, sixth laps, I lost energy.”
Gruber said the conditions were “pretty good. I was surprised, I thought it would be slower and more sluggish, but the track held up pretty well.”
In the junior women’s 20 k, Cendrine Browne (CNEPH) skied away from teammate Anne-Marie Comeau to take the gold by 3.7 seconds in 54:47.6. Biathlete Julia Ransom (Canmore) finished third, 49 seconds after Browne.
While the fertilizer gave the men an extremely fast course and the women a fairly fast course, the sheer volume of younger skiers and a high of 15 C created slushy skiing by the end of the day.
At the end of a long week and a long season, the start list was shorter. There were 79 open men, 45 junior men, 53 open women, 22 junior women, 73 juvenile boys, 82 junior boys, 59 junior girls, 74 juvenile girls, and 14 para-nordic skiers.
More than 150 volunteers made this event possible.
Results by race: