Editor’s Note: This is the first of two race reports on Friday’s classic mass starts, the final races of the season at U.S. Distance Nationals. Please bear with us for the men’s report, as this FasterSkier has a flight to catch.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Liz Stephen was having a bit of an inward battle on Friday at the last day of U.S. Distance Nationals in the last women’s race of the season.
Like always, the 27-year-old U.S. Ski Team (USST) member, known as a hill climber and distance skier, really wanted to win the 30-kilometer classic mass start. But as the three-lap race around Spencer Loop at Hillside on the southeast side of the city played out, Stephen started to realize she was going to have to beat Sadie Bjornsen to do so.
“I was secretly hoping Sadie was gonna win this race,” Stephen said afterward of Bjornsen, a member of both Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the USST. “I had a feeling a few days ago this was going to be her day.”
Neither had won an individual race at the weeklong Spring Series in Anchorage. Another one of their teammates, Kikkan Randall (APU/USST) had dominated the two earlier events: the 10 k freestyle and classic sprint. On the third day, the first of U.S. Distance Nationals, Randall anchored APU to another victory in the 4 x 5 k mixed relay. While the 30 k classic might not be her strongest event, it was hard to bet against Randall at home on Day 4.
So as the 30 k unfolded, Randall started off by leading to the top of the longest-and-largest hill known as Wall Street (with 87 meters, or 285 feet, of climb) around 5 1/2 k. She grabbed the first of two $100-dollar primes at the summit in doing so, and went on to follow Bjornsen into the 10 k checkpoint 0.8 seconds back in second.
Another USST member Jessie Diggins, also of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team, was third at 10 k, 2.4 seconds behind Bjornsen, and Stephen was almost even with her in fourth.
By lap two, Stephen opted to go big — rather than wonder what could’ve been if she didn’t try — and attacked at the bottom of the multi-tiered climb up Wall Street, the high point of the course around 950 feet above sea level. The move worked, initially, as Stephen took the second money bonus over the top and gapped Bjornsen and Randall slightly by 16 k.
Bjornsen later said Stephen exposed her weakness on the steepest part of the course.
“These hills are really good for me because I can stride out quite well, but the top of Wall Street is too steep for me and so I have to run and that’s not what I’m good at,” she said. “I think Liz figured out pretty quickly that’s where she could make time on us. Every time she went there, she came around us and just started hammering.”
Trailing Stephen by a few seconds at the top, Bjornsen met her own crossroads and decided to push forward in pursuit. She left Randall in doing so and caught Stephen on a series of climbs on the second half of the course.
“I tried to make a break and I had a little bit of space, but Sadie was able to close it,” Stephen recalled. “We both kind of looked at each other, like, yeah, these girls [Randall and Diggins] are coming back so we gotta go. … I’m terrified when I’m on a downhill and Jessie’s on my tail. The whole time we were like we cannot ever let up on these downhills, these two are gonna work together and come back on us.”
For the next 12 or so kilometers, Stephen and Bjornsen stuck together, with Stephen leading through 20 k by 2.4 seconds. Randall came through another 18 seconds back in third, followed by Diggins 11.6 seconds later. The fifth-consecutive USST member, Ida Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was another 25.4 seconds back at 20 k.
“We were just pushing so hard out there, making sure nobody was catching us,” Bjornsen said. “You always go into this race, the last race of the season like, ‘Oh, I hope we don’t go as hard as we can the whole time because I’m so tired,’ but when it comes down to it, it’s always more fun to do that anyway.”
By the time the third lap came around on a sunny morning with temperatures rising rapidly from the teens at the start (and no ski changes allowed), Stephen continued to lead Bjornsen up and down the backside of Wall Street into the last set of kicker climbs. There, Bjornsen made her move, dropping Stephen and racing down into the stadium in first, at least 15 seconds ahead of Stephen.
“You always go into this race, the last race of the season like, ‘Oh, I hope we don’t go as hard as we can the whole time because I’m so tired,’ but when it comes down to it, it’s always more fun to do that anyway.” — Sadie Bjornsen, 30 k classic champion
The race turned out to be about 31.5 k, long enough to Bjornsen to extend her gap to 29.1 seconds at the finish. The 24-year-old Washington native, who’s lived in Anchorage for the last several years, won her third national title and first at Spring Series in 1:35:58.1 in front of a hometown crowd. Stephen placed second, and Randall notched another podium in third, 2:08.8 behind Bjornsen.
Last year at Spring Series in Truckee, Calif., Bjornsen podiumed in four individual events (placing second in the 10 k classic and third in the skate prologue, skate sprint and hill climb). At 2013 U.S. nationals in Midway, Utah, she won both the skate sprint and 20 k classic mass start.
This race, at home on the trails APU she trains on (when she’s not racing the World Cup circuit overseas), was essentially made for her, which was ironic, because a lot of people previously wrote her off as a sprinter.
Not APU, and not Stephen.
“This is probably one that I’m going to remember most for the season, this and Holmenkollen, to do well in a 30 k because I feel like it’s the hardest race,” Bjornsen said. “I was told when I was young that I was only a sprinter. Since joining APU I’ve realized I may be more of a distance skier than a sprinter and, you know, I prefer that. I always want to sprint, but distance skiing is so fun for me.”
Stephen said she had fun skiing with Bjornsen, who worked the flats and downhills, and Stephen would help on the climbs.
“I think we were pretty good team out there,” Stephen said.
Diggins made the most of her fast skis and downhill skills to catch Randall on the third lap and finish 7.8 seconds behind Randall in fourth.
“I felt like I needed to go out in the beginning of the race and set a good hard pace and see if I could hold it,” Randall said. “It went pretty well for the first half of the race, and then going up the major climbs on that second lap, these guys picked up the pace and I started to hit the wall a little bit. Things started to cramp a lot on that last lap.”
Before that point, she remembered watching Stephen and Bjornsen pull away on final climbs on the second lap — first by five seconds, then 10 seconds.
“I was really trying to stay on the horse and try to get back in that group but they started to pull out of sight,” she said. “Jessie caught me on the downhill, but then it was great because her and I could work together. She was a little faster on the flats and downhills and when we started climbing again, I felt like I need to ski my own pace. I was able to pull back a little bit, then it was like, it’s the end of the season, it’s the end of the race, just kind of ski as hard as you can up the hills.”
After falling once when someone rode over her ski from behind, then getting tangled behind a crash involving Becca Rorabaugh (APU) within the first 3 k, Sargent skied alone for most of the race — at least 26 k, she estimated.
“I finally pulled my way up to the front on the Spencer Loop the first time and they really went for it going over the top,” Sargent recalled. “I wasn’t feeling great at that point so a little gap opened up over the top … and once a gap opens up, it’s just really hard to make it back.”
Sixteen seconds ahead of Rorabaugh in fifth at 10 k, Sargent maintained her gap on those behind her with a 14-second cushion to Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) at 20 k.
“I tried to split it up into little bits, like, OK I’m gonna get up that hill,” Sargent said. “Once I settled into a pace, it felt really good. I think it would’ve been more fun to ski with people, but it was a good, different challenge. Thirty k has always been a tough distance for me — it’s pretty long — so I’m happy to have been able to hold it in there.”
She held onto fifth, finishing 41.5 seconds after Diggins. The USST swept the top six, with Sophie Caldwell (SMST2) edging Gregg by 1.5 seconds for sixth. Stratton put four in the top nine with Annie Pokorny notching eighth and Erika Flowers taking ninth, 16.4 seconds ahead of Caitlin Patterson (CGRP) in 10th.
“We were just talking about how all of us have different strengths and how this summer we want to pinpoint where each of us can help the others get better at everything so we can all move up as a team,” Stephen said. “It’s fun because we all have something that’s really strong that somebody else doesn’t have.”
“I certainly felt like today the caliber is the highest it’s ever been for one of these races,” Randall said. “I know these guys can ski really well on the Word Cup so it’s like, you know you’ve got to bring you’re A-game on a day like this.”
“It’s really fun to come out and race on these hills we always train on and end things on a good way at home,” she added.