RIPTON, Vt. – For Colorado University sophomore Rune Ødegård, two laps around the Rikert Nordic Center’s five-kilometer course on Thursday didn’t seem too threatening.
Conditions were tricky for the 10 k classic individual start at the NCAA Skiing Championships with most teams opting for some combination of klister and hard wax. Ødegård reasoned if he started fast and refused to let off, he had as good a chance of anyone at winning.
Compared to training in Boulder, coming down more than 5,000 feet in elevation would definitely help. The 23-year-old Norwegian had raced at sea level a few months ago in late December, returning back to Europe for some tune-up FIS races in Östersund, Sweden. There, he placed 19th in the 15 k freestyle individual start and 23rd in the 15 k classic.
Hailing from the small coastal town of Molde, Norway, Ødegård wasn’t exactly familiar with Vermont’s Green Mountains, but he had a sense of what the air would feel like on his lungs. So he decided to go hard from the get-go.
“I felt like this course is pretty fast,” he said. “You get some rest in the downhills and when you have strong guys behind you, you want to give them a little tough back splits that they’re behind. It makes it tougher for them. That was definitely part of the plan to go out hard and try to get myself a little bit of respect.”
Fifth in the 10 k freestyle individual start at last year’s NCAA Championships and seventh in the 20 k classic mass start, Ødegård was also out to get a little redemption. He did so winning Thursday’s individual classic race, the first of two at the 2013 nordic championships, with a time of 26:00.2.
Fellow Norwegian Mats Resaland of the University of New Mexico was second, 5.2 seconds back, and Sweden’s Viktor Brännmark (University of Alaska-Anchorage) placed third (+28.3).
“I had a dream about winning,” Ødegård said. “I felt like podium would be realistic, and that was what I was aiming for. I definitely wanted to get one win on the week so now I have that one and I can relax for Saturday and do my very best in that race.”
But for now, he’ll soak up the victory. The brother of Unni Ødegård, a six-time All-American who skied for CU (and made the first team five times) from 1998-2000, he said this result was exactly what he was shooting for ever since the 2012 championships in Bozeman, Mont.
“Last year I really screwed up at NCAAs so this is what I’ve been focusing on, getting back in shape to really peak now,” Ødegård said. “It seems like it it’s working.”
The 35th of 40 starters, Ødegård knew some of the best skiers were behind him, including the University of Vermont’s Scott Patterson and Miles Havlik of the University of Utah. Havlik ended up crashing on a technical downhill with variable conditions and tied Patterson for sixth (+46.0).
“When they all fell on the downhills it makes it a little bit easier for me,” Ødegård said.
Even so, he said he faded late in the race. “I was gaining a little bit on the second lap compared to the first one,” he said. “But I lost a little bit at the end, I was super tired going into the finish.”
Relying on a similar tactic, Brännmark, a 20-year-old Swede who moved to Alaska to ski for UAA this season, surpassed his goal of a top 10 at NCAAs and made the podium.
“My coach told me to open relaxed but I just hammered in the start,” he said.
About 1 ½ kilometers in, Brännmark heard he was leading by 10 seconds. But he had to keep in mind that he started ninth.
“I caught a lot of guys, but I didn’t know how good I was actually skiing because all the best guys started last,” he said. “We’ve been racing at altitude the whole season, [which] I’d never done before until I came here to the U.S. so I knew that if you get tired here you can keep pushing it, you don’t die. I knew I could do something like this down here.”
For him, third in that particular race was about all he could ask for, except for getting beat by two Norwegians. Resaland, an UNM sophomore who won the 15 k classic mass start at the Bozeman SuperTour in early December, has consistently made the top 10 on the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA) circuit this year.
Brännmark led three UAA skiers in the top nine (including Lasse Molgaard-Nielsen in eighth and Lukas Ebner in ninth) to help the Seawolves post the highest score of in the event with 108 points.
“I’ve never really done a good classic individual start before so this is unbelievable,” Brännmark said. “I’m so happy right now. … It’s been a crazy experience.”
Middlebury College captain Ben Lustgarten, a junior from Burlington, Vt., was the top American in fourth (+32.4). Silas Talbot, a sophomore at Dartmouth College, also made first-team All-American honors in fifth (+36.6).
“Home-course advantage definitely helped,” Lustgarten said of his NCAA debut. “The cheering was unbelievable. It got me up those climbs.”
Starting 30th, Lustgarten said he was getting ranging splits, some about being the top 10 and others saying he was in contention for second.
“I didn’t really know which one to believe, like ninth place, second place, but I was just trying to go as hard as I can,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking out there too much.”
He learned at the Middlebury Carnival that going out too hard on Rikert’s new 5 k course could backfire. “I went out a little easier to try to save it and just hit the last lap about as hard as I could,” he said. “It worked. … I’m ready for Saturday. I can’t settle; I gotta go for it again.”
Rounding out the top 10, Erik Soderman of Northern Michigan University – last year’s NCAA champion in the 10 k freestyle individual start – was 10th (+56.3).
Racing resumes Saturday with the women’s 15 k and men’s 20 k freestyle mass starts.