ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It could have been mistaken for the finish of a sprint final — except for the fact that almost 10 skiers were in the hunt until the end, most of which were distance specialists.
As it were, the last 100 meters of the men’s 30-kilometer classic mass start at 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships on Sunday involved eight men double poling in four lanes. Two of those men were past national classic-sprint champions.
“Honestly of all the people in the race, I did not want to be sprinting against Tyler Kornfield and Eric Packer to the finish because I know they’re really good sprinters,” Kris Freeman, of Caldwell Sport, said after the race. “That being said I also didn’t expect to be sprinting against them.”
Given their track record — Kornfield, who races with Alaska Pacific University (APU), has a 2012 national classic sprint title and Eric Packer, also from Anchorage and APU, has one from 2016 — not many skiers would want to find themselves up against either APU skier, let alone both, in the final 100 meters of a classic race.
But as Sunday’s six-lap men’s race progressed, and athletes continued to ascend Elliott’s Climb, it became more and more clear that the off chance of that happening was actually, fairly high.
Clipped into his race skis, Kornfield, 26, towers above many of his competitors, at close to 6-foot-2. Given his stature, the Anchorage, Alaska native is hard to miss on Kincaid Park’s ski trails.
Yet when he raced toward the front of the pack in the first lap of Sunday’s mass start, wearing bib 126, it went fairly unnoticed. There were still five laps to go and most figured the charge would come later, from APU’s Scott Patterson (who had won the 15 k freestyle race earlier in the week by almost a minute), or from 2014 Olympian and three-time national champion Noah Hoffman.
“Honestly I was expecting Scott and Noah to break away,” Packer said during a post-race interview. “My goal today was to hang with them. They pushed the pace the first three laps and were putting in effort to break away. But right around Lap 3 or 4, when we were still grouped together, I think I started realizing personally that it was going to be a tight finish.”
While Packer’s enlightenment may have come at the same time for many of the spectators at Sunday’s event, Kornfield might have saved them the suspense had he been given an opportunity before the start of the race.
“I was looking at the course yesterday and in my mind I was picturing how I was going to win it,” Kornfield said after the race.
With Saturday being an official training day without any races, Kornfield took the time to learn every curve of the 5 k loop that made up the men’s course, the map of which was released Friday evening. Having grown up skiing and racing at Kincaid didn’t hurt the Service High School graduate’s confidence either.
“I’ve done that hill so many times in sprint racing,” Kornfield said of Gong Hill, which was also featured in Friday’s freestyle sprint and was about 3.5 to 4 k into the 5 k loop.
“So at like 2 k out I thought, ‘You know what? I feel fresh. If I don’t go, I’m going to regret this for the rest of my life,’ ” Kornfield reflected.
Many who had ventured to Anchorage for U.S. nationals awoke Thursday morning, poured a cup of coffee and proceeded with the championships’ first official training day/off day. Some, perhaps, even slept in.
When Packer, a 27-year-old former Dartmouth skier who attended South Anchorage High School, arose Thursday morning, it was to grave news: he learned his grandmother had unexpectedly passed.
He, his family and mother were shaken as they mourned their loss. The pull of commemoration was also in tow.
“It’s really interesting to be in the middle of the Olympic trials, you’re in the pressure cooker and then you have family come up and it helps remind you what’s important, and that’s the people and your family,” Packer said.
“On the skate sprint day, I was skiing for her and today on the start line, I said to myself, ‘This is for my grandma,’ ” he continued. “I think that just helped keep it in perspective, that the race isn’t for me, it’s for my family and community and everybody.”
With unseen weight, but light feet and a fire within him, Packer started Sunday’s mass start in bib 118, racing toward the back of the lead pack for the first two laps and moving to the middle for the next two.
“The pack was churning the whole time,” Packer said. “The entire time I was telling myself to just relax. Stay in contact and relax.”
That lead group consisted of Packer, Kornfield, Freeman, Hoffman of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), and Patterson (APU), as well as APU’s David Norris, Kevin Bolger of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), Ian Torchia of Northern Michigan University (NMU) and the U.S. Ski Team, Norwegians Dag Frode Trollebø and Eivind Romberg Kvaale of the University of Denver (DU), Adam Martin and Ben Lustgarten (last year’s 30 k classic champion) of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), Tad Elliott (SSCV) and Brian Gregg (CXC/Loppet Nordic Racing/Team Gregg). Each time they reached Elliott’s Climb, the lone A-climb on the 5 k loop, those in front would accelerate.
Often the acceleration came from Hoffman, who paced most of the uphills and often Elliott’s.
“Noah Hoffman, I feel like he was up there trying to push the pace all the way,” Kvaale, a 23-year-old DU sophomore, said after the race. “He’s not the fastest sprinter so I guess that natural for him, but the downhills are so long and you draft so well here, so it’s hard to get away.”
“I was thinking, ‘When is this going to break up?’ ” Hoffman reflected on Sunday, the day before his 29th birthday. “I kept pushing the pace. I tried to make it hard at times, but not only was it coming back together, it was also a massive group. I mean, it’s one thing if you go and three or four guys come with you, but it was way more than that.”
The group remained a pack of 14 through five and half laps, with the lead exchanging from Hoffman to Kvaale, to Martin and Norris.
“It didn’t really matter how fast people climbed, it always came back together,” said Norris, a Fairbanks native, who sat out Wednesday’s distance race due to illness and was still feeling under the weather on Sunday. “You could tell early that Noah was trying to break away. If anything it looked like he was working harder, but not doing damage.”
While at the top of Elliott’s Climb, gaps would form that Freeman described as being up to five seconds between him and Hoffman and the rest of the pack. But when the group reached the bottom of Gong Hill, all 14 racers were continually rejoined.
The Sprint Finish
By the time the group began descending toward back toward the stadium for the last time, apprehension filled within the spectators standing behind the colored flags lining the course and the athletes corralled on the inside.
A gap had parsed out a few skiers, though eight still remained within range of the win.
“I was debating the entire last lap, ‘When do I go? When do I go? When do I go?’ ” recalled Freeman, a 37-year-old four-time Olympian from New Hampshire. “Then Tyler went and I reacted rather than dictating.”
The group had been climbing the final hill together when Kornfield made his move. He pushed around to the outside edge to the front leading into the descent and through the tunnel. As all eight rounded the final corner to the finish, Kornfield put his head down and did what he did best, double poling in an outright sprint to his first-ever U.S. nationals distance win.
“I knew the only way I could win as a sprinter was to conserve energy and try to stay with pack and wait for the final push,” Kornfield said. “In the finish I just kept pushing and watching that finish line come closer and closer. I’ve never had emotions like that after a race. ”
Kornfield crossed in a time of 1:21:43.6 for the overall win. Packer crossed 0.7 seconds back in second and Kvaale crossed 1 second out of first for third overall. Freeman, 1.6 seconds back, was the third American in fourth overall.
“We have a group of guys who are training as much as or more than anyone else in the country and sometimes it takes a while for that fitness to come around,” Packer said. “I think we were a little bit nervous in West Yellowstone and Silver Star [at the December SuperTours] and didn’t have our best races, but it’s great to have things come together at the right time.”
Finishing out the top 10 was Trollebø in fifth (+2.0), Norris in sixth (+2.5), Hoffman in seventh (+2.6), Patterson in eighth (+3.6), Martin in ninth (+14.7), and Lustgarten in 10th (+14.9).
“I had very good glide on my skis so I knew I was able to gain a lot on the other guys,” Trollebø said after. “But it was only two tracks at the end so, it’s almost like in a bike race, you have to stay well positioned to be there at the end.”
In terms of the U.S. Olympic points list, Patterson is ranked first, followed by Kornfield, Hoffman, Packer, and Gregg (Gregg finished Sunday in 11th, 16.1 seconds back).
“We’ll see what they do for naming a team. It’ll be interesting,” Hoffman said.
“I haven’t seen the math yet, but I have not figured many scenarios where I could be third and still make the Olympic team,” Freeman noted. “So it’s a bittersweet day.
“But that’s what happened and I’m happy for those guys,” Freeman continued. “They’ve been working at this for a long time. I’m not sure that they’re going to make the team but if they do, good luck to them.”
Wonders Wins Junior Race
A junior men’s 10 k classic mass start was also run on Sunday, with APU’s 19-year-old Hunter Wonders claiming the win in a time of 26:07.1. Stratton Mountain School (SMS) skier Ben Ogden finished second, 0.6 seconds back, and Canyon Tobin (APU) placed third (+23.4).
“I’m extremely thrilled I was able to hold my bib position,” Wonders said after the junior’s race. “I crashed going down roller coaster on the first lap and lost some time, then I was fighting to get back to where I was, so I hammered until I was back with that lead pack. I felt good so I just kept trying to go for it and it paid off.”
Racing continues Monday for the final event of 2018 nationals, the men’s and women’s classic sprints.
— Gavin Kentch contributed