U.S. Distance Nationals (Fairbanks, Alaska): Co-ed mixed relay
On Friday, two dozen teams from close to 10 different clubs hit the Birch Hill Recreation Area trails in Fairbanks, Alaska for the co-ed mixed 4 x 5-kilometer (5 k classic + 5 k classic + 5 k freestyle + 5 k freestyle) relay event.
In the first classic leg, it was Sophie Caldwell skiing for the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team and Kikkan Randall skiing for Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) first team who set the pace. Though, as Caldwell explained, she led many of the technical downhills during her first lap, Randall began to push the charge into their second lap and through the exchange zone.
“My skis were fast and there were some technical turns on the downhills, so I led the downhills the first lap and then hopped in behind kiks and hung on for dear life the second lap,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “She gapped me a bit over the top of the last hill, but I was really happy with my leg.”
Randall tagged off to Erik Bjornsen, giving him a 4.3 second lead over Caldwell’s hand-off to Ben Saxton.
“I felt better than I’ve felt in the other races this week and my goal was to come in as close to the lead as possible,” Caldwell said.
Not wanting to let Erik out of his sight, Saxton charged the first lap.
“My leg started out great thanks to Sophie who skied an incredible first leg and hung tough with Kikkan,” Saxton wrote. “I was chasing Erik from the get-go and we started out pretty hot, so I knew we’d be hemorrhaging time on the second lap, but knew I had to stay as close as I could.”
Saxton hung tight, tagging off to Jessie Diggins within six seconds of Erik’s hand-off to Sadie Bjornsen.
“I think every team wanted to win so that was certainly in the back of our minds, but our biggest goal was to have some fun out there,” Saxton wrote. “This is an incredible team to be a part of and so fittingly, yesterday was a team effort from the starting gun to the finish line.”
Within firing range of Sadie, Diggins wasted no time latching back onto the APU skier and making her move into the front before the final exchange.
“We have only about 40% of our team healthy right now, so we were all feeling super lucky to get to race!” Diggins wrote. “We had a lot of fun putting on “braveheart” face paint and goofing around, and we took that work hard but have fun mentality to the course today. I caught up to Sadie and Caitlin after maybe 1.5km, and then made my move with about 2km to go. I was so proud of how my teammates skied, and it was so fun cheering them on!”
Diggins came through the exchange first cushioning the SMS anchor leg, Simi Hamilton, with a more than 20 second lead over APU’s final leg, Scott Patterson.
Ultimately, SMS took the win in a time of 50:02.8 minutes, with Jessie Diggins and Simi Hamilton skiing the final to freestyle legs.
” It was certainly a team effort today and I probably played the least significant role,” Hamilton wrote. “Sophie and Ben skied amazing, maintaining contact with the lead pack through both their legs. And Jessie skied an incredibly smart race, bridging the gap to Sadie and then making a move and creating a gap before the exchange. I was certainly nervous when she tagged off to me with a ~15 second lead because Scott is incredibly fit right now, he’s had a great season, he’s a very impressive skater, and this was kind of a home course for him.”
Hamilton, however, managed to hold off Patterson for his entire leg, though he had initially expected company from the APU skier.
“I focused on just skiing a relaxed first lap thinking that he was going to bridge the gap at some point in that first 2.5 km and I would focus on staying with him until a sprint a finish,” Hamilton wrote. “But when I came through the lap lane and realized that he hadn’t put any time into me, my tactic changed from that to charging the second lap as hard as I could without blowing up on the big climbs.”
Hamilton ultimately crossed first in a time of 50:02.8, while Patterson crossed 10.3 seconds later for second place.
“After dealing with a stomach illness most of the week, my batteries definitely weren’t at 100%, but when you are just one part of a relay team of four it becomes much easier to dig to an uncomfortable place that you seldom experience during an individual race,” Hamilton wrote. “I pretty much emptied everything I had in the tank today, and am really psyched that I could bring the win home for our whole team.”
Rounding out the podium was another APU team, with Rosie Brennan, Eric Packer, Chelsea Holmes, and David Norris comprising the team and finishing 1:35.4 off of the winning time in third place.
“We have a great friendly rivalry with APU so to come out on top after they have beat us the last three years was amazing,” Hamilton added.
Athletes return Sunday for the final event of U.S. Distance Nationals, the women’s 30 k and men’s 50 k freestyle mass starts.