ANCHORAGE, Alaska — No matter how many times you looked at the start list on Tuesday, watching Reese Hanneman tag Sadie Bjornsen, and Bjornsen tag her brother, Erik, and Erik tag Kikkan Randall, it was sort of surprising.
Unusual, really, as it was the first time a mixed-gender relay had been put into motion on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) level. According to Randall, it was like a test event — athletes proposed the 4 x 5-kilometer mixed relay with two males and two females teaming up for two classic and two skate legs to the International Ski Federation (FIS) last year. FIS agreed to try it after individual nations give it a whirl at home first.
So that was the basis of USSA’s decision to hold the first event of its kind in the U.S. at the annual Spring Series and Distance Nationals at the end of the 2013/2014 season.
On Tuesday, the race that teams like Alaska Pacific University (APU) had kiddingly called a focus all season became a reality.
Each official team was made up of two men and two women from the same USSA-affiliated club. A man skied the first classic leg, two laps that amounted to about 6.6 k, then tagged off to a female teammate for the second classic leg on the same course.
Men were the first out on the 2.6 k freestyle course, two laps of which were about 5.2 k, then tagged to the final female anchor for another 5.2 k of skating.
Twenty-six teams took part, 18 of which were official (all from the same team), and two of those were junior squads from APU.
The hometown squad, APU entered eight teams into the relay — a testament to the program’s depth at home before the race even started. The Stratton Mountain School (SMS), Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) each had two teams. Six official college teams raced (Vermont, New Mexico, Northern Michigan, APU, and two from Alaska-Anchorage).
With a national title at stake, the senior race was the marquee event of the evening, with a start time of 5 p.m. under brightly illuminated skies on another bluebird day in Anchorage. The question of who was strongest on Tuesday was quickly put to rest when Hanneman of APU’s first team gapped the field early and took a 20-second lead halfway through the first classic leg.
“I came into the bottom of the big hill and just felt good and I kind of accelerated by everybody,” Hanneman said. “It was not planned, but I just decided to go with it at that point. Once you make a move you kind of have to commit.”
The last time Hannemen, 24, raced a relay was Junior Nationals — five years ago, he estimated. On Tuesday, he held on to tag Sadie Bjornsen, one of his three teammates, all of which are on the U.S. Ski Team, in first by 12.3 seconds.
“I definitely was looking back, and about 4 k into the race, a couple k to go, I was definitely dying pretty hard,” he said. “But I could hear people cheering for Lex [Treinen]. I knew he was the next guy behind me so I knew we at least had a two-pronged attack going on.”
Treinen of APU’s second team passed Stratton’s Andy Newell, who initially led the chase behind Hanneman, on the second loop. Treinen, 24, sent Rosie Brennan off in second, 3.8 seconds ahead of the University of New Mexico (UNM), which Mats Resaland put third, and 16 seconds ahead of Stratton, with Newell tagging to Sophie Caldwell.
Caldwell went on to pick off two places early to rise to second by the end of her first classic lap, but said she paid the price the second time around Kincaid’s up-and-down classic loop.
“When I started there were a couple people I could see so I just tried to catch them and then got a little tired, but I think it went well,” she said. “There were very different conditions in different parts, but we had good skis.”
From there, Sadie Bjornsen extended APU’s lead to 50 seconds, tagging off to her younger brother. Brennan put APU 2 in second, half a second ahead of Stratton’s first team. U.S. Ski Team member Liz Stephen lifted her unofficial team, Fastest of the Fast Twitch (FOTFT), with Brian Gregg, Noah Hoffman (also of the USST) and Caitlin Gregg, from sixth to fourth, 2.2 seconds behind third by the exchange.
As a side note, Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) scrambled for the team in Superman underwear outside his Loppet Nordic race suit (Hoffman did as well). Brian’s wife, Caitlin, also of Team Gregg/Madshus, anchored the team wearing a bikini outside her uniform.
By the time Erik Bjornsen finished his two-lap skate leg, he was 28.7 seconds ahead of anyone else, and Hamilton lifted Stratton to second. David Norris kept APU 2 close in third, another 6.7 seconds back.
“It’s a good atmosphere — it’s laid back but still serious,” Hamilton said after the race, with red hearts painted on his face. While the men sported their softer side, Stratton women wore painted mustaches.
Her first time around a fast skate loop, Randall widened APU’s gap to 46 seconds. Stratton’s Jessie Diggins followed, and APU 2’s Holly Brooks lapped through another eight seconds back in third.
As spectators, volunteers and teammates from the previous three legs waited at the finish, it was pretty clear who the first-ever national mixed-team title and $750 dollars ($187.50 apiece) of prize money was going to.
Randall crossed the line uncontested in 55:51.5 minutes, 45.6 seconds ahead of Diggins, who locked up second for Stratton. Brooks anchored APU 2 to third, 32 seconds behind Stratton.
“Coming into today we knew it was gonna be tough competition,” Randall said. “We knew Stratton would have a good team, our other APU team, Craftsbury, the mixed team with Liz and the Greggs and Noah, so it was kind of fun to have the nerves come into the club relay.”
Fortunately for Randall, she didn’t have to stress too much.
“I just thought it was fun to try to at least hold the gap or make time,” she said. “We have so many fans out here. I’ve had so many people say it’s fun to watch us race this week so I figured why not race with what’s in the tank today? I had fun catching a couple young [junior and university] boys out there, and giving them a challenge.”
After Eric Packer brought Stratton’s second team from seventh to fifth, anchor Erika Flowers passed Caitlin Gregg on the second lap to finish fourth, 51.5 seconds back from third and 13.9 ahead of FOTFT in fifth.
Sun Valley’s first team placed sixth, CGRP 1 was seventh, APU 3 was eighth, University of Vermont ninth, and Sun Valley’s unofficial team 10th.
So will we see this format again? Chances are, you can count on it.
“I always think it’s fun to mix it up a little and do something we don’t see on the World Cup, but I’d also love to see this on the World Cup,” Caldwell said. “To have a club event, I think we can all find an extra gear for the team which is fun.”
“We discussed the mixed relay in the FIS meetings last spring because … a lot of the athletes supported adding that to the calendar, testing it out,” said Randall, a FIS Cross Country athlete representative.
“What a great idea,” she said. “The clubs have been getting so much stronger over the last 10 years, but the depth is still building. So to have two men and two women, that makes sure it can be a very competitive race. I think it’s fun … certainly makes it interesting, hopefully this proved to be a good example so they’ll consider experimenting with it on the World Cup.”
APU head coach Erik Flora explained the relay was a motivator for his team throughout the season.
“When we did intervals back in June, we’d tell the athletes, ‘Technically this is the trials for the relays,’ ” Flora said. “We kept that joke going all year long so by the time we got to this point we had so many jokes about it was probably pretty simple.”
He said they selected the teams mostly based on recent results, with two individual races (the 10/15 k freestyle and classic sprint) earlier this week.
“Reese is in really good shape right now … and Erik always has a pretty good finishing kick,” Flora said. “Then you have Sadie who’s a really strong distance racer right now, so you put her in the middle, and then Kikkan for the finishing speed as well.”
He added that it was “a great surprise” to see Hanneman with such a significant lead after the first lap, and even more exciting when he and Treinen tagged off first and second. The fact that they more or less held it through three more legs capped off another successful day for APU.
“Coming through an Olympic cycle, we’ve been working for the last eight years toward the last Olympics and so now to turn the page and then have the depth of our team expanding so quick, it gets me fired up for the next four years,” Flora said.
“This is probably the highlight of the year so far,” Hanneman said.
“This is a really fun accomplishment for us,” Randall said. “The women’s team has certainly been strong for several year, but the men’s team is really coming on strong, so to put together a complete team today … I think everybody is gonna be super proud about this.
“The techs have been working really hard for us all week; there’s a lot of skiers to manage,” she added. “It’s really cool for our whole community-based program to see this. Our juniors are out here hopefully going, ‘Man I want to be on the APU A-team someday for the club relay!’ ”