FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah — If there was ever a place for Rosie Brennan to win her first national title, just outside Park City, Utah, had to be it. That’s where the 24-year-old Alaska Pacific University skier grew up; it’s where her mom convinced her to try nordic in eighth grade.
It’s where Brennan said she “had a love-hate relationship” with Soldier Hollow throughout her ski career. How better to erase the memories of some tough-to-swallow results there than dominate one at U.S. Cross Country Championships?
With a podium finish already out of the way (Brennan was third in Wednesday’s classic sprint), she climbed two rungs higher on Friday, winning the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle individual start on the second day of nationals. More than a victory, it was an affirmation for Brennan, who spent two years on the national team from 2007 to 2009 and was known as a classic sprinter.
“It’s sweet to be home, but I’ve always struggled racing here,” Brennan said after her 10.9-second win over APU teammate Sadie Bjornsen of the U.S. Ski Team. “It’s really awesome to be able to excel at home.”
Brennan’s mom, Wiggy, celebrated with her. A Park City resident and volunteer at nationals, she said it was “very exciting” to see her daughter win. “I’ve watched a lot of races in my life,” she said with a laugh.
Brennan, too, couldn’t have been much happier.
“To be honest I never thought I’d win a skate race,” she said. “Then starting in West [Yellowstone], I realized that the work I’d done this summer was finally starting to pay off, so it suddenly became my goal to start winning more skate races and now, I don’t know, maybe I even like it more.”
At the first SuperTour of the season in November, Brennan started off with a freestyle victory – her first – in a 10-kilometer freestyle individual start. With another staggered start on tap for Friday, she was excited going in.
“I actually really enjoy individual starts, I’m sort of an old-fashioned skier that way,” she said. “I like the grinding-individual mental game a lot. That’s sort of my strength.”
Brennan capitalized on what turned out to be a tough day for most, working hard in the early single-digit temperatures and resulting sluggish conditions. She said the conditions helped her pace the challenging course at Soldier Hollow (a slight variation from the Olympic 5 k with more climbing initially and a turnaround about three-quarters up Hermod’s Hill).
To survive and do well at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Brennan knew she’d have to keep her tempo low and power high throughout the two-lap race.
On the first loop, she caught teammate Becca Rorabaugh, who started 30 seconds ahead of her and ultimately placed sixth (repeating her result from Wednesday). Knowing Rorabaugh’s strength in downhills, Brennan followed her lead on the long descent before the massive climb up Hermod’s.
Meanwhile, Brennan was getting splits that she was a couple seconds behind Bjornsen. Then she started hearing she was ahead of her.
“The lead was slowly decreasing the whole time, particularly on the flats ’cause she’s a lot better there,” Brennan said. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘How can I make up seconds on the flats? There’s one more hill at the end. Just pick it up there.’ ”
She did, leaning hard as she V1ed up the two-tiered climb, and racing down the hill’s backside before the stadium for the nearly 11-second win.
“I’m so excited,” Brennan said. “My parents were here, I have lots of friends and family here, all my old coaches are here so it’s been really great.”
One of the earlier starters in bib 25, five spots ahead of Brennan, Bjornsen said she didn’t have many splits to go off, but heard she was eight seconds behind her teammate just before her last time up Hermod’s. That motivated Bjornsen to give her all.
“I skied that hill with Rosie in a camp in October, and I remember she just flew by me like I was standing still,” Bjornsen recalled. “What she told me was, ‘You know what Sadie? You have to use your weight into your legs,’ and so all I was thinking about was taking big steps and putting my weight into each step so I was just giving it every last bit.”
At the finish, Bjornsen laid on the ground longer than she could ever remember doing. “Just like, eyes in the back of the head,” she said. “So I think I really pushed it at the end.”
A runner-up for the second-straight race at U.S. nationals after placing second to Jennie Bender (Central Cross Country) in the classic sprint, Bjornsen said she “kind of had a fire” fueling her from the start. Two days ago, Bender overtook her at the end of the A-final, winning by 0.3 seconds. Bjornsen, who won a national title in the 10 k classic race two years ago, wanted more.
“I had so much determination from that that I think I did the opposite of what I always do,” Bjornsen said of her pacing, in which she felt she went out too hard. “I was just having so much fun on the transitions, then I got to Hermod’s and all of a sudden I realized I had gone out too hard and started feeling the burn. I really struggled between 5 and 6 k. I think I lost a lot of it right there.”
Even though she would retool her strategy next time, Bjornsen was pleased with her performance and even happier for Brennan.
“I knew she had a win; I said this earlier this year that she had it in her,” she said.
And with Kate Fitzgerald placing third (+38.2) to complete the APU podium sweep, she said it was simply an awesome day. Head coach Erik Flora, too, said it was incredible.
“Starting with Kikkan [Randall] this morning and Holly [Brooks] had another solid day for a classic prologue, so lot of good energy and the girls just tore it up,” he said, referring to Randall’s seventh place finish in the fifth stage of the Tour de Ski, a 3.3 k classic prologue in which Brooks was 38th.
Most of all, APU’s success came down to its team element, Flora explained.
“It’s my belief that everybody trains hard, everybody commits themselves to this, but the team is what makes it,” he said. “It gives you an advantage. Every day in the highs and the lows, you have friends you can share those with.”
Fitzgerald also enjoyed the upside, tying her best-national finish of third after last year’s classic sprint. While some felt the 15-second intervals clumped racers together making it harder to pass, Fitzgerald said she didn’t have any troubles and enjoyed the quick turnover.
“You always had someone around so you’re like, ‘All right, just follow that girl!’ ” she said after working to continually pick off people.
Fitzgerald spent the first lap keeping her heart rate in check, “trying not to go above the red line, especially up Hermod’s,” she said. There was no need to kill it in any one spot, just stay smooth.
Earlier this season in West Yellowstone, Fitzgerald’s blood sugar crashed during the 10 k, a similar distance race at altitude. She had the issue once before in a race, she said.
“Now I’m just eating a lot more carbs, which is awesome, I don’t have a problem with that,” Fitzgerald explained. “I am just really cautious about eating a ton for breakfast and dinner and things like that.”
Feeling good on Friday, she aimed to stay competitive and on-track with the split that she was in third or close to it for most of the race.
“I knew I was somewhere around podium so I was just trying to keep it steady and going,” she said.
Fitzgerald succeeded, and Annie Pokorny of Middlebury College shattered her previous best of 16th at nationals in fourth place, 2.3 seconds off the podium. After growing up in Park City, Pokorny moved to Washington and finished high school in Sun Valley. Racing at what felt like home at Soldier Hollow, she had hoped for a top 10.
“It was kind of one of those, ‘I know I can get a top 10; that would be friggen awesome!’ ” the 20-year-old sophomore said.
She had consciously worked to improve her skating since late November after placing 21st in the 10 k SuperTour opener in West Yellowstone. She met with her coach, Andrew Gardner, and told him she wanted to be better in the discipline.
“I think it’s finally starting to click,” Pokorny said. “Today was a really good day.”
After starting relatively easy then finding another gear to stick with Brennan, who passed her on the first hill, Pokorny had a sense of how well she did after finishing. But fourth? She didn’t initially believe it.
“I just like looked at the board and said, ‘All right, I’m gonna cool down and come back and see where I really finished,’ ” she said with a laugh. “When I came back, I was still in fourth and still really excited so it was a perfect day.”
Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was content with her best national finish of fifth (+42.4) despite feeling like she was missing a little “pop.” Her toes were part of the problem, she said.
“I think I got frostbite or frostnip on my toes when I was in Alaska so my feet are just frozen all the time now,” she said. “So that made it a little bit interesting.”
Rather than hurt, Patterson said they felt more like blocks of ice after racing in sub-zero temperatures at the Besh Cup two weeks ago. “But that happens,” she said.
“Today was fun,” Patterson added. “I usually can feel fairly well when I’m near the edge, the red line that I don’t want to cross at altitude, so I mostly focus on skiing really smooth and in a good rhythm and definitely a little bit conservative on the first lap, though I was hurting a little bit by the end.”
On the final climb, she looked up and saw about 10 people ahead of her and nearly came to a stop at the turnaround at the top.
“It’s a little bit too bad because I think I was pretty close to third,” Patterson said after finishing 4.2 seconds off the podium..
Rorabaugh was next in line, 49 seconds behind Brennan, for her third sixth-place finish in the last four races. She was seventh in the other, the Bozeman SuperTour 10 k classic mass start.
“I feel like it’s very consistent,” Rorabaugh said of Friday’s result. “I’d like to break through that a little bit. I think I was only 10 seconds out of top three today, which is pretty close, so I’m pretty happy.”
She recalled several different tactics throughout the day: “Annie Pokorny went out really hard and then survived, some people went out really hard and died.” She started conservatively and finished hard. “It worked for me,” she said.
Shooting for a top 30, Dartmouth College freshman Mary O’Connell, who raced for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, achieved seventh (+51.0). She was previously 19th in a classic sprint at nationals last year before competing at Junior Worlds in Erzurum, Turkey.
“I wasn’t sure what my fitness was going to be but it went really well,” O’Connell said. “I was getting splits about being in the top 10, which I did not really believe at the time.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting