ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It turns out that Caitlin Patterson does have a weakness: Swedes. The 27-year-old Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) skier was denied her first outright victory of the week when she crossed the finish line second to Hedda Bångman, a former member of Sweden’s U23 National Team who now skis for the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), in the women’s 20-kilometer classic mass start at the 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships on Sunday morning at Kincaid Park. But as the first American, Patterson captured her third national title in as many races.
Rosie Frankowski, of Alaska Pacific University (APU), was the third athlete across the line and second American. She was followed by Jessica Yeaton, who competes domestically for APU, but is an American-Australian dual citizen and competes internationally for Australia. Kaitlynn Miller, also of CGRP, was the fifth athlete across the line to round out the domestic national championship podium.
Bångman crossed the finish line of the four-lap, technically 22-kilometer course in 1 hour, 55.3 seconds, 15.9 seconds clear of Patterson in second. It was the first time all day that Bångman had enjoyed such an edge.
The field of 42 skiers left the Kincaid Stadium at 10 a.m. on another perfect race day, the temperature around 16 degrees Fahrenheit and an approaching sunrise about to reveal mountains shimmering in all directions.
Wednesday’s fresh snow had allowed race organizers to come up with a compromise between the snowmaking loop and the full International Ski Federation (FIS) distance courses, a 5.44-k loop that began with an A-climb up Elliott’s Climb, descended most of the way back to the stadium, covered all the hills on the snowmaking loop, then traversed the 1.5 k Lekisch Loop before finishing in the stadium. The hills on the course were relatively front-loaded, with the single largest climb coming in the start of the loop and smaller (but still steep) hills over the final four-plus kilometers. The final kilometer was predominantly downhill from the high point of the 1.5 k Lekisch into the finish.
Snow coverage off of the manmade loops appeared to be good to very good, albeit with a relatively abrasive and icy base in the bottom of the tracks.
The first time up Elliott’s, Frankowski led a large group of 30-plus women (effectively the entire field) up to the top of the A-climb roughly 1.3 k into the race. She was closely followed by APU’s Chelsea Holmes to her left, and Bångman and Miller to her right.
The second time up Elliott’s, little had changed. Frankowski led a group of 10 women, with Bångman, Yeaton, and Holmes immediately behind her, and Patterson a few strides farther back.
The third time up Elliott’s, it was yet again Frankowski in the lead, followed yet again by Bångman, Yeaton and Holmes, with Patterson yet again appearing to lag back slightly on the uphill.
“Rosie Frankowski definitely deserves a shout-out for leading the train a whole lot out there and really pushing the pace,” Patterson told FasterSkier in a finish-line interview.
Four kilometers later, the athletes lapped through the stadium a final time as they headed out on their fourth loop. At this point, Frankowski, Bångman and Patterson, in that order, were still within one second of each other, with Yeaton around seven seconds back in fourth and Miller in fifth 12 seconds behind Yeaton.
If the lead pack was going to avoid a three-woman sprint to the finish, something was going to have to give. And the final time up Elliott’s, it did.
“The fourth lap is where it really splintered apart,” Patterson said. “At the top of Elliott’s, that last really kicker hill, the herringbone hill.”
At that point, Patterson, who grew up in Anchorage, recounted that Bångman had “really good skis, like stay-in-the-track that whole way up good. All the rest of us were running outside [the tracks] flailing around a bit, so she gapped us there. And she skis the downhills very well, so she closed a gap there across the World Cup [start area] flat out there, and we never closed that down. Frankie and I were chasing her on Rollercoaster, but I think she held her gap about the same from there all the way to the finish.”
As Bångman, 22, told FasterSkier after the race, “I didn’t have a plan before [the race], but I knew I was the strongest. So when we went out on the last lap, then I realized, ‘I can really make this race.’ So in the first hill on the last lap, I started to push harder, and then I left the others behind me. And then it was just to push as hard as I can to the finish line.”
By the time the three-woman lead pack came around the edge of the stadium again, midway through their final lap, Bångman had a significant lead, roughly 12 seconds. She stretched it to 15.9 seconds by the finish, finally allowing herself to slow slightly, look around, and celebrate in the final meters before crossing the finish line.
Behind her, a battle for top American was shaping up between Frankowski, who had never stood on a national championships podium, and Patterson, who had been there twice already this week.
Coming through the edge of the stadium, Patterson held a lead of two to three seconds over Frankowski as the two of them approached the wall-like climb up the Gong Hill for the final time. Patterson began heading up on the left side of the trail, Frankowski a few meters behind her on the right, herringboning with stunning alacrity for being 20 kilometers into a 22-kilometer race.
Then Frankowski caught a pole tip on her ski and fell into the sugar snow on the uphill. It took her several seconds to get up. While she extricated herself, Patterson skied away and up and over the top of the Gong Hill.
“The real cool thing that came out of that fall,” Frankowski told FasterSkier after, “was that I actually had my pole stuck under my ski, and I had to literally think, ‘Relax, and figure this out and stand up.’ While in the past I would have been so frantic I probably would have dropped more places than I did.”
“So I basically was just trying to get up,” recalled Frankowski, a 26-year-old Minneapolis native. “And when I got up someone yelled, ‘Don’t give up.’ And immediately I felt like, well, I am going to try to catch Caitlin, and if I could I would, but I didn’t. She is so strong right now; I tried and got close, but I didn’t do it.”
Frankowski’s travails were news to Patterson when told about this after the race.
“I had no idea,” Patterson said of her fall. “But that makes sense because it confused me because I was certain that as I ran up on the wall on the left side I was certain that there was someone just by me on the right side. But then I could hear on the downhill that there was no one close and then people were cheering for her 10 meters back, so I didn’t see that during the race.”
Frankowski’s fall came midway through the last lap, roughly 2.1 kilometers before the end of the race. After giving chase over the Lekisch Loop, she made up roughly the time she had lost in the fall before running out of real estate, crossing the finish line 3.7 seconds after Patterson for third overall and second American.
Yeaton, 26, who was born in Perth, Australia, and moved to Alaska at age 12, skied into the finish alone 24 seconds later for fourth overall. Miller followed another 29 seconds later for fifth overall and third American. Alayna Sonnesyn, a University of Vermont junior, was the second college skier and second U23 skier in the top six.
“I felt so strong today,” said overall first-place finisher Bångman. “It was a so-good race, I’m so happy. My skis were perfect, and my body felt so good.”
Patterson is now three-for-three for national titles this week, but this one didn’t come easy.
“I am pretty excited about this third one, but it was the toughest of them all,” she said.
“It was a real struggle to hang with the people who were pushing the pace today,” she added, crediting Frankowski for her work at the front.
“I know especially how I am racing right now that I just need to hang on and the end can be good, and it was fairly good today,” Patterson added. “So I am really happy with the national title.”
Patterson said that she had opted to prioritize glide over kick on Sunday in light of the course profile, “because I feel like a lot of those walls are steep enough where I would be running anyway.”
“I probably erred a little too much on the glide side,” she continued. “Which is my fault with some testing … so I was herringboning like every single one of those technique zones, every kind of big hill, just had to keep moving. And luckily because the skis were so fast and I know these downhills so well, I was able to catch up on a lot of the downhills when I did get gapped on several uphills, almost every lap.”
Each lap featured three of the technique zones that Patterson had mentioned, in which doublepoling was forbidden. For the Anchorage readers, or anyone else familiar with the Kincaid trails, one was at the top of Elliott’s Climb; one was at the southern end of Dark Alley, approaching the lower tunnel; and one was the entire climb up to the Gong Hill from the north/back side of the snowmaking loop just a few hundred meters later.
(There had been a fourth zone marked during Saturday’s course preview, Patterson recounted, in the first uphill on the Lekisch Loop, which features a stair-step climb with a slight saddle or depression between the two steps. “There was a technique zone that they tried to put there,” she said, “and it literally had a downhill in it, but luckily the coaches protested that and they took it out.”)
After 22 k of skiing and 12 careful trips through each technique zone, Frankowski finished 3.7 seconds behind Patterson. It was the first national championships podium of her career.
Her sole strategy coming into the start of the race had been to “push every uphill,” Frankowski explained. “I have raced at Kincaid enough to know that you recover at every single downhill, and so for someone who doesn’t have a sprint at the end, I needed the pace to be hot at the beginning. So right when we started, immediately out of the start I realized that our skis were incredibly fast, and honestly comparable to or better than anyone else’s in the field, and so I felt, well I am going to doublepole as much as I can and then every downhill, especially the ones I struggle on, just tuck behind and try to be relax and know that I can catch back up.”
Frankowski made clear that, like Patterson, she had gone thin to win when it came to choosing how much kick wax she wanted. “The course here,” she said, “except for maybe Elliott’s, all these hills are running hills so you really had to Klæbo it up or herringbone and just know that you are not going to have perfect striding today, and if you do, your skis are going to be too slow through the stadium to be in the mix.”
Frankowski, whose public social media profile frequently features paeans to the consumption of Thai food, also clarified, “I would say the key to success is that last night I had Tom Yum soup and Pad Thai for dinner, and lots of cookies, so I think that helped also.”
Fellow APU skier Yeaton was the fourth skier across the finish line, 24.5 seconds behind Frankowski and 44.1 seconds back from Bångman.
Yeaton pulled no punches when asked if she had been expecting this result.
“No,” she said. “Not even close. Nowhere in the ballpark. … I was hoping, like on a great day, maybe I’d get top 10. I never thought I’d get fourth.”
Yeaton’s fourth wrapped up a strong week of domestic racing for the Australian-American dual national, who is known more as a sprinter rather than a distance skier. Indeed, her next races will be Dresden, Germany, to compete for Australia at next weekend’s sprint-centric World Cup stop. Yeaton is presumptively qualified for the Australian Olympic Team in the latest FIS Olympic Points List simulation.
29.4 seconds behind Yeaton came Craftsbury’s Miller in fifth overall, but the third American across the line after Patterson and Frankowski. She had been “in contact with the lead group until about the third lap when a gap formed on Elliott’s [Climb] that I was unable to bridge,” Miller wrote in an email to FasterSkier after the race.
“I’m very pleased with my race and it was very exciting to see my teammate, Caitlin Patterson, place second,” she added. “I was very impressed with the 5k course that the organizers put together for the event. It was a fun course to race on.”
Sunday marked Miller’s fifth time on a national championships podium, and second in this week, following a second on the American podium in Friday’s freestyle sprint.
Sonnesyn filled out the rest of the top six. The 21-year-old Vermont college skier identifies as a distance skier and had been hoping for a better result in Wednesday’s 10 k skate, she told FasterSkier at the finish.
“I was excited for that, but unfortunately I didn’t have the race I was hoping for,” Sonnesyn said. “But I came back with a really strong sprint, which kind of surprised me. And I was feeling so great that I came into this race today pretty confident. So I was excited for it this morning, and I’m really happy with the way it went.”
Hannah Halvorsen Wins Junior Race
While junior women (U20 skiers and under) raced alongside the senior/master field in Wednesday’s 10 k freestyle individual start, Sunday saw the juniors get their own starting time and course for the 5-kilometer classic mass start race. One lap, 92 starters, 5.5 kilometers, go!
Before long, a pileup ensued. But “I only heard about it from quite a few girls,” junior winner Hannah Halvorsen, of APU and the U.S. Ski Team, told FasterSkier after. “I was right in front of it; I got lucky.”
Halvorsen, 19, covered the one-lap course in 15:07.8. Second place went to Hailey Swirbul, a University of Alaska Anchorage sophomore, 10.4 seconds back.
Third place on the all-Alaska podium went to an athlete with four years’ less experience and one fewer Junior World Championships medal to her name, U16 athlete Kendall Kramer. Kramer, who finished 4.4 seconds behind Swirbul, skis for the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks/Fairbanks XC (NSCF-FXC), as well as West Valley High School. She had competed in only one other FIS race in her life before this week.
Halvorsen was second on the junior girls podium in Wednesday’s distance skate race, and third overall among American women in Friday’s sprint race. Swirbul was the top junior woman on Wednesday and reached the quarterfinals of the senior women’s sprint on Friday.
Halvorsen had high praise for Sunday’s race course: “Super-fun course, up and down, kind of rolling,” she said. “Good places to find speed and carry momentum, time to rest and do different transitions. Just, like, a fun course.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that she won. “It felt good,” said Halvorsen, who grew up in Truckee, California. “I was tired this morning, but it doesn’t really matter how you feel, you just get out there and go for it. I had really good skis, really good support; my dad’s here, my brother’s here. It’s a beautiful day to be racing; really fun racing out there.”
— Gabby Naranja and Ian Tovell contributed reporting