ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It was what most locals, or those familiar to the area, referred to as standard Anchorage weather: heavy, wet snow, temperatures reading around 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and a darkened sky that seemed to be brooding over whether or not to let the sun out of bed — the sky covered in a shroud of gray.
With the Pacific Ocean just 600 meters to the southwest and Kincaid Park’s nordic venue, the host of this year’s 2018 U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships, nestled in the state’s gulf socket, low-visibility and unpredictable weather was, ironically, a foreseeable factor to Wednesday morning’s women’s race.
After all, during the first week of January, sunrise in Anchorage is scheduled around 10:15 a.m. and the opening race of this year’s championship event, a women’s 10-kilometer freestyle individual start, was not slated to get underway until 15 minutes before then. The internal dialogue for a few early starters was whether a personal light might be a good addition to the commercial ones dotting the four-lap, 2.5 k manmade loop.
“For a moment while I was warming up, I was wondering if I’d have to wear a headlamp,” Rosie Frankowski, who skis for Alaska Pacific University (APU) and started in bib number 20, said after the race. “But that’s Anchorage.”
By the time the first women’s starter, Becca Rorabaugh, also of APU, departed the start gate, the continual glow from a few stadium lights outshone the dim carpet-colored sky. Close to half an inch of slushy snow covered the trail and more was well on its way.
Skiers would not be deterred, however, as potential spots for the U.S. 2018 Olympic team were on the line.
“I haven’t skied up here in a few years, but Alaska is sort of always unpredictable — this weird combo of manmade and freshly falling snow with bad visibility,” said Caitlin Patterson, who grew up in Anchorage, went to college at the University of Vermont, and currently trains and races with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) in Vermont.
“Until yesterday, I’d never skied that wall hill before; we’d always used that as a downhill, but otherwise I’m pretty familiar with [the trail],” the 27 year old continued. “The loop in the stadium and all these things were ones we used for Alaska State over the years, so even when I couldn’t see through my glasses, to know the corners and so forth was good.”
Familiarity with the course wasn’t the only edge Patterson had heading into the race. She also entered Wednesday’s 10 k as the overall SuperTour leader, an honor garnered thanks to her win in the 10 k freestyle at Sovereign Lake, British Columbia, and her second- and third-place finishes in the 10 k classic mass start and freestyle sprint qualifier, respectively, in West Yellowstone, Mont.
The victory was her third national title. In 2016, she won both the 10 k classic and 20 k freestyle mass start.
Combined with her World Cup performances in previous seasons, Patterson was a prime candidate for Wednesday’s win, which she claimed in a time of 27:09.1, though there were moments on course when she questioned the outcome of her race.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to turn into a win even midway through the race,” Patterson said.
Patterson was the fourth starter to push past the wand and by the time she looped through the stadium for her second lap, APU’s Chelsea Holmes (bib 16) and Team Gregg’s Caitlin Gregg (bib 17), were starting their first laps. Though she was ahead of Gregg, Patterson received what she called “backwards splits”: Gregg’s pace on laps that Patterson had already completed.
“I could see Caitlin [Gregg], see how the gap was progressing, and I also got some splits … how her first and second lap were comparing to my first and second, and I think I was running a few seconds down at that point,” Patterson recalled.
Gregg was also getting splits off Patterson, most of which informed her that the two were on par. It was in the final kilometer and half that Gregg learned she was losing time.
“I was getting splits and I was pretty even for it seemed like three and half laps,” Gregg said after. “Then that last little bit she put a bit of a gap on me.”
Patterson’s final half lap was fast enough to put close to 20 seconds on Gregg, and Gregg finished 19.7 seconds back in second. Having felt like she put in a solid race effort, Gregg was slightly surprised by the time gap, though quick to acknowledge Patterson’s strength on course.
“I thought it was going to be really close there, but obviously she skied super strong,” Gregg said.
Gregg, 37, who earned an individual bronze medal in the 10 k skate at 2015 World Championships and is aiming to qualify for her second Olympics (after making the Olympic team in 2010) holds high regard for the current women’s U.S. race circuit. Even after 19 years of U.S. nationals racing, the veteran skier is not immune to competition-day nerves.
“I still get nervous,” Gregg said. “The weight of these races are super high and I think we have a lot of really fast domestic women right now, I mean Chelsea Holmes has been top 30 on the World Cup and last year Caitlin Patterson was in the top 30, so I’m really hoping that we get a good domestic representation at the Olympics.
“We’re doing our part; working hard and skiing fast,” Gregg added. “Hopefully that gets recognized.”
Rounding out the women’s podium on Wednesday was APU’s Chelsea Holmes, 24.4 seconds back in third. Holmes raced World Cup Period 1 this season, with a season-best of 29th in the 10 k freestyle last month in Davos, Switzerland.
“My body didn’t have quite what I wanted today, but that’s OK,” Holmes, 30, who grew up just south of Anchorage in Girdwood, Alaska, wrote in an email. “I actually don’t mind the short course, the race felt like it blew by and it was fun to get to lap by friends and family.”
Also a hopeful for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team, Holmes indicated she would be leaving no race unanswered at this year’s U.S. nationals. She plans to compete in both sprints over the next week as well as the 20 k classic mass start, which she won last year.
“I’ve been working on my ‘Klaebo’. It’s pretty legit,” she wrote.
Pressure can encroach upon many athlete’s performances this week, especially with Olympic spots on the line. Processing that pressure, for Holmes, came in the form of the season’s preparation.
“As for the pressure, for sure it is there — even if it’s only from myself. How could it not be? Certainly I care immensely and I will do my best when the time comes to race, but between now and then I won’t be doing anything special,” she wrote. “I’ve prepared the best I know how and hopefully that is good enough. If not, I’ll still be me.”
Finishing in fourth (+41.7), 17.3 seconds off the podium, was Frankowski.
“I am definitely satisfied with my result today. Honestly, the new snow played into my hands as I like mushy, soft courses,” Frankowski wrote in an email. “On the other hand, a course with no A climbs and only two uphills that take 30 seconds to a minute, is not a course I’d tend to excel on. So I was quite surprised with being that close to a US Nationals podium, especially when the podium is made up of three ladies who I believe could score World Cup points on any given day (as Chelsea proved multiple times in Period 1).”
Frankowski, 26, who was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, indicated that her next target would be the 20 k classic (though she also maintains a ritualistic “season-long goal” of being in the top four of the SuperTour rankings to, as she puts it, “get free race entries.”)
“In all seriousness, I do hope they can find a way to add some longer and more grinding climbs to the 20k classic course with all the fresh snow Anchorage received today,” Frankowski wrote. “I believe it is important to have a race that is even slightly comparable to the Olympic or a World Cup venue, and although the organizers did a good job with what Mother Nature dealt earlier last December, I hope the priority is on utilizing the new snow to create a course that challenges racers who will be representing our country on an international level.”
Also in the top 10 were three University of Colorado Boulder (CU) skiers, with Petra Hyncicova of the Czech Republic in fifth (+56.7), Norwegian Christina Rolandsen in sixth (+1:02.4) and Swedish freshman Hedda Bångman in 10th (+1:37.8). Erika Flowers of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team placed seventh (+1:26.0), the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Hailey Swirbul placed eighth (+1:30.2), and Becca Rorabaugh (APU) finished ninth (+1:36.5).
U.S. nationals continues Friday with classic sprints at Kincaid.
Swirbul Top Junior in Eighth
Hailey Swirbul, a U20 skier for the University of Alaska Anchorage, led a strong showing by several junior girls in eighth overall. Hannah Halvorsen (U20, APU) was 14th overall, with Novie McCabe (U18, Methow Valley Nordic) one spot back in 15th.
“I’m really pleased with how my body felt today,” Swirbul wrote to FasterSkier after the race, “and the result I was able to pull off with the help of fast skis (thanks to my coaches) and pacing from the skiers around me. I think the key today was to not stress about whatever the weather was doing and be light and quick through the slushy sections. It was important to pace the race well for me, because the conditions were slower than what we all were expecting after skiing on the race course the previous few days. My main goal was to qualify for World Juniors, and shoot for notable results compared to the western NCAA Division skiers. Overall, I can’t complain about how my first race of the week went!”
Swirbul almost wasn’t on the starting line in UAA green and gold. 14 months ago, she called it “ridiculous” and “outrageous” that the college ski team in Anchorage had been cut when U.S. nationals were on the horizon, and lamented that no UAA race suits were going to be at the starting line. But the decision was ultimately reversed, the ski team was reinstated, and six UAA skiers raced on Wednesday.
— Gavin Kentch contributed