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MIDWAY, Utah – In what was a flawless day at Soldier Hollow, Erik Bjornsen of Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the U.S. Ski Team achieved his second national championship in the 15 k interval start at the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships. He finished 0:14 ahead of Reese Hanneman (APU) who placed second. Kris Freeman of the Maine Winter Sports Center finished third, 22.8 seconds back from Bjornsen.
The first day of nationals could not have been more perfect, with temperatures in the mid-20s and plenty of sun to go around. The 15 k, set on a variation of the 2002 Olympic course, consisted of three 5 k laps that twisted up and down a hillside that has seen many historic events. Saturday, was Bjornsen’s chance to add a little history of his own.
Despite his convincing win, the 22-year-old Washington native didn’t make his victory look easy. The challenging course took its toll on all athletes, and Bjorsen was no exception. His feelings in the race were much like the ups and downs of the course.
“At times it felt good, and at times it was really hard,” Bjornsen said.
Bjornsen started his race with a blistering pace that gave him first place splits. However, when after hearing he was several seconds up on Freeman he worried that his start was too fast. This fear was confirmed when he entered his second lap and began to struggle.
After this realization Bjornsen skied with more control and focused on his finish.
“The rest of the time I was getting splits I was 5 or 10 seconds off of [Freeman]. In the last lap I was very confident with my finishing so thought I might have a chance,” he said.
He also chose to go for fast skis instead of more kick, and said that factored into his result. While it was a risky move on such a hilly course, he said it “seemed to work.”
For Bjornsen, the win is confirmation that his training since the end of last season is paying off. And with a winter that has had few domestic opportunities to demonstrate ability, he has found assurance in his chances for the rest of nationals.
“It’s a confidence booster going into the rest of the races. Coming into this series I knew that the 15 k classic was my favorite event,” he said, “I’m feeling good so hopefully I can have another couple good results.”
While Bjornsen was expected to podium in Saturday’s race, Hanneman was not. Hanneman, an APU skier from Fairbanks, Alaska, has traditionally excelled at sprinting, but defied tradition and placed second.
“It’s just a little surprising on that type of course with this altitude,” Hanneman said. “It’s the hardest course I’ve skied since the World Cup in Canmore. I tried to go out pretty easy, like level 3 for two laps, which usually would just be way too conservative. But I was getting really good splits early on and I knew I had some left in the tank.”
Hanneman, who placed 21st in the 15 k at the 2013 nationals, knew that with a demanding course he would need to conserve energy if he wanted have a chance at the podium. In an effort to ski with utmost efficiency, Hannemen took the steepest hills conservatively and pushed on the sections of the course that were gradual and flat.
“I knew that if I went too hard I would just be walking along on the top,” he said. “Part of the success was that I was able to execute the plan.”
Looking forward, Hanneman is excited for the two upcoming sprints, one of which will take place tomorrow. While these Championships will determine the rest of his season, he’s decided not to worry too much about the future.
“I’m going to try and stay relaxed about everything, have fun, enjoy the good weather, and ski fast.”
Third-place finisher and veteran skier Kris Freeman expressed support for the first and second place finishers.
“It’s great to see Reese step up like that and Bjornsen on form,” he said. “I’m just hoping to find mine.”
The former longtime U.S. Ski Team member fell off his front-running pace on the final lap.
For Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club of Vail/Team Homegrown) in fourth, it was his support group and encouraging splits that got him through a race that had him puking “his brains out” by the end.
“I heard I wasn’t that far from Freeman at the top of Hermod’s so that’s what got me going the last two k,” he said.
Brian Gregg, who finished fifth, was happy to tie his best-ever classic finish at U.S. nationals. He also laughed at the fact that both he and his wife Caitlin were the first starters for the men’s and women’s races. “What are the odds?” he joked.
Rounding out the top six was Ben Lustgarten of Middlebury College. Lustgarten’s finish was a surprise to many at nationals, but not to his teammates and friends who have seen his hard work in Middlebury, Vermont over the past four years.
“I’ll try to keep my focus,” he said. “I’m at a good point with my fitness and strength. I’ve just got to keep racing hard and staying in the game.”
With this year’s college circuit ahead of him and a possible bid for the U23 World Championships, Lustgarten is definitely an up-and-coming skier.
Absent from from the results was Tad Elliott (SSCV/Team HomeGrown) who was second in the 15 k skate at the 2013 nationals. In an email, Elliott explained that he has mono, or mononucleosis, a virus that often causes severe fatigue.
“I got it this fall and it took awhile to diagnose, and I am still recovering,” he wrote. “I am flying into Nationals Monday. I am planning to try and race the 30k.”
All in all, the 15 k demonstrated that the men’s field at Soldier Hollow is a group of very talented athletes who are willing to put everything they have into the chance at advancing in the ranks of U.S. cross-country skiing. As if the competition wasn’t hard enough, Soldier Hollow has provided some of the most difficult courses in the country, making every factor from tactics to fitness to mental toughness equally important.
Action will continue Sunday with the freestyle-sprint qualifiers kicking off at 10 a.m. MST. In a field as diverse as this, the race could be anyone’s.
Results (scroll down to see men’s results)
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting