FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 US Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah – Just like the feeling one gets when cranking the handle on a jack-in-the-box, the women’s 20-kilometer classic mass start at the U.S. Cross Country Championships had the imminent feeling that any one of the six frontrunners was going to pop.
But who would it be, when would they go, and how hard would they push?
While Sunday’s main contenders are probably too young to understand the toy reference – all below the age of 25 – they probably shared a similar sense of anticipation.
Skiing together for the duration of the four-lap race at Soldier Hollow and breaking away from more than 70 others on the first lap, each of the leaders periodically sized one another up while ticking off the loops and buying time before the final showdown.
Somewhere along the fourth lap would most likely be the turning point, but who was going to put up the biggest challenge?
Would it be Chelsea Holmes of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, the established climber, who led much of the race? What about Sophie Caldwell (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team), who sat out the preceding 10 k freestyle race in preparation for this? Then there was Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project), a quiet but consistent threat, and of course the Alaska Pacific University (APU) women – Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan and Kate Fitzgerald – contenders for a podium in any race.
Spectators flocked to Hermod’s Hill, the infamous multi-tiered climb featured in the 2002 Winter Olympics. That’s where it had to happen on the final lap; someone was going to make a move.
Bjornsen, also on the U.S. Ski Team, spared them the guesswork. She attacked on an earlier hill – the high point of the sprint course – before the long descent leading into Hermod’s for the last time. A runner-up in the two preceding races at the U.S. nationals, Bjornsen wasn’t going to let it happen again. She and the others had responded to Fitzgerald’s move earlier in the lap on one of the straightaways up top, and now it was her turn.
“I was not gonna get second again today,” the 23-year-old Bjornsen said. “The mistakes I made before was I wasn’t fully committing to really going for it, and today when I surged there, I was telling myself in my head, ‘Sadie you gotta commit, you gotta go a hundred percent.’ ”
She was especially trying to shake Caldwell directly behind her.
“When I looked behind me and it was Sophie, I tried to surge on the top of the sprint hill just to lose her sprinting legs a little bit,” Bjornsen said. “When I was coming down the hill, I saw she was still with me so I just gunned it as hard as I could to the finish and that was that.”
Bjornsen won by nearly 13 seconds in 1:05:39.2 for her second national title since dominating the 10 k classic at U.S. nationals two years ago. Fitzgerald was second (+12.9) after reigning in Caldwell on the last climb, tucking behind her on the backside descent and outsprinting her to the finish. Caldwell placed third (+14.1), Brennan took fourth (+20.4), Patterson was fifth (+24.8) and Holmes finished sixth (+36.5) in the front group.
An early leader, Becca Rorabaugh (APU) came through in ninth after falling off the pace after the first lap. She finished about 35 seconds behind Rose Kemp of the University of Utah in seventh (+3:00.6) and Annie Pokorny of Middlebury College in eighth (+3:05.4).
However, the main stories of the day were APU’s Bjornsen and Fitzgerald, who both notched career bests. Bjornsen had never raced a 20 k before yet made a point to win it. Fitzgerald had achieved two bronzes at nationals, but coming off a shoulder injury this summer, she wanted to prove she could achieve more.
Bjornsen said she had been looking forward to this race all week, seeing how classic was her favorite. Generally considered a sprinter, she wanted to erase that.
“There’s a distance skier in all of us,” Bjornsen said. “No sprint specialists.”
To succeed in her desire to win, she enlisted the motivation of her teammates overseas. Sunday morning, APU’s Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks finished 12th and 38th in the Tour de Ski. Another USST member, Liz Stephen posted the second-fastest time up the 9 k Alpe Cermis and landed 15th overall. Rookie Jessie Diggins (SMS/USST) pulled off 21st in the final standings.
“I talked to all the girls over in Europe this morning and I was like, ‘You guys are so tough today, all I’m gonna think about today is you guys, and when I’m struggling, I’ll think about how you guys went seven days in a row,’ ” Bjornsen said. “I just kept thinking about that. There’s always more when you imagine that.”
Thinking about her teammates racing up Italy’s grueling mountain made accelerating up Hermod’s for the last time slightly easier. Meanwhile, Caldwell couldn’t hold on. After attempting to stay with Bjornsen for the final kilometer after her attack, Caldwell lost ground on the major climb.
“I had really good skis, good kick, so I was hoping people would hold the attack for as long as possible, like wait until the last hill,” Caldwell said. “[That] more or less happened, but I got pretty tired going over the top.”
When Fitzgerald passed her at the bottom of the long downhill, Caldwell knew what was in store: “a double-pole showdown,” she said. Unfortunately, Caldwell was out of gas, but still happy with her first podium in a U.S. nationals distance race.
And despite contending with three APU women, which in many ways worked together, Caldwell wasn’t intimidated.
“I’ve been on a team with Rosie before; I’ve been to World Juniors with Sadie before so we’re all sort of on the same team when it comes down to it,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think they’re plotting against me or anything. It’s fun to ski with friends.”
Bjornsen said there was a bit of joking going on throughout the hour-long race.
“The coaches kept asking, ‘Do you want GU or do you want gel?’ and I was, like, just saying the opposite of Chelsea every time,” she recalled. “And Fitz was tripping over herself and we were making jokes, and then at one point I could see Rosie was pissed off, she kept getting stuck [behind] people and she just takes off and I looked at my other teammates and was like, ‘Uh oh, here she goes.’
“We all know each other’s strengths and we all know how to wreck each other if we wanted to, but we were all sort of working together,” she added. “If Rosie took off, I took off with her and it was the same with Fitz. It’s so fun to have a team, it’s just like another interval day.”
Like most of the other top finishers, Fitzgerald described the race as fun, but said it was a little stressful at times.
“It’s funny with these long races, there are times when you’re just like ‘Oh my gosh, I can barely hang on,’ ” she said. “And then sometimes you’re like, ‘Oh I feel good, all right, I’m just gonna go.’ You can never give up. You can’t count yourself out. It’s definitely cool and having so many teammates around, too, to remind you, like, OK, I can do this.”
The second-place finish was about as good as gold for Fitzgerald, who separated her shoulder in a mountain-bike accident in June. She couldn’t do much of anything for a couple weeks, and according to APU head coach Erik Flora, she trained with one pole until October. Before that, Fitzgerald missed the second half of last season while sick with a virus.
“I feel like it wasn’t a huge detriment, but I feel like I definitely have less upper-body strength this season,” Fitzgerald said of the shoulder injury. “I had a lot of help from my coaches to train around the injury kind-of-thing, so yeah, it was a bummer but I just tried my best to train as best as I could.”
“To be able to be so strong today in the double poling, it’s tremendous,” Flora said of Fitzgerald. “We know she’s really strong and a good racer, but coming off an injury like that, it’s just great to see her back on form.”
Flora had been among the excited spectators running up Hermod’s to get in good cheering position on the women’s last lap. With three of his athletes in the mix, he knew anything could happen.
“The girls train in a group so much that they know how to ski in a pack,” he said. “You could see how relaxed they were, and they were just kind of floating around and they were making good moves.”
As for Bjornsen’s victory, which mimicked that of her younger brother, Erik, who won Friday’s 15 k freestyle and was second in Sunday’s 30 k, Flora said both were exceptional.
“When they first came to us, one of our goals was the distance races and now within a couple years they’re both medalists at nationals in distance racing,” he added. “So I would say that goal’s been met and they’re just getting stronger every day.”
All living together in Anchorage, the Bjornsen siblings and Brennan resolved to become better skaters this summer, Sadie said. “We all proved it to ourselves,” she added.
Brennan won Friday’s 10 k freestyle for her first national title and on Sunday, was slightly disappointed with fourth.
“I wish that I had a little more to get on the podium, but I really can’t be upset with that; it was a good race,” Brennan said. “I actually wasn’t even sure I was gonna start so I’m glad I did.”
Feeling like she was coming down with a cold, Brennan waited until this morning to make a call on whether to race. She decided to give it a go, but felt she might have been missing her top gear. Regardless, she found herself pushing the group early.
“The pace was really relaxed for the first two laps and then on the third lap we turned it up a bit to kind of see where people were at,” Brennan said. “No one was really faltering at all. That’s when I realized that it was gonna be really a battle. I tried to go into relaxed mode without letting any moves go by. It got pretty tough at the end. Everyone was giving a little push at one point or another.”
A two-time fifth place finisher at nationals this year, Patterson said she was simply impressed with the group and satisfied she could hang on.
“The main thought that was coming to my mind when I was out there was, ‘This is one tenacious group of skiers,’ ” Patterson said. “No one was falling off. Everyone was kind of shuffling around, leading here and there and it was pretty intense. … I think I’ve got to be happy with how close I was to them at the finish and just overall.”
For Holmes, who was fifth at U.S. Distance Nationals last year in the 30 k skate race, her sixth-place finish in the classic race was a personal best and an affirmation that she was headed in the right direction.
Despite leading the group for much of the second and third laps, Holmes said she fell off the back on the flat section with one kilometer to go.
“I just couldn’t stay on and it was a little bit gone,” she said.
After starting out the season with three SuperTour podiums, including a skate sprint victory, in Bozeman and West Yellowstone, Mont., Holmes said she struggled to find her form.
“Something went downhill somewhere,” she said. “You always want to feel good. I haven’t, so I said, today I’m just gonna go ski. … Those girls are super strong so stick with them, pull when I could and see where it went.
“Honestly, I’m happier than I have been in a few weeks,” she added. “So that’s good.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting