MIDWAY, Utah — During the men’s 30-kilometer classic mass start on Tuesday at U.S. Cross Country Championships, the eastern slope of the Wasatch was wrapped in a blanket of snow that came periodically throughout the championship week. Beyond the white, race-time skies were slate gray, the leafless limbs of Soldier Hollow’s scrub oak the only sign that during spring and summer, this high-desert place could be verdant.
Green: the most impressionable color during eights laps of the men’s 30 k.
For the first three of those laps, Ben Lustgarten of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), David Norris and Scott Patterson of Alaska Pacific University (APU), Brian Gregg (Team Gregg), and Kris Freeman (Team Freebird), and Canadian Knute Johnsgaard (Alberta World Cup Academy/National U25 Team) were off the front. The lead skier changed periodically, maybe a calculus of nobody wanting to work through the considerable wind, or a testament to the prowess of the group. For a time, no one seemed to dare expose themselves as not belonging.
In a classic race such as this when the kick is solid, the skis running speed smile-worthy, the fitness at an apex, there’s nothing else to do than eventually take a risk.
“I just went out easy, I wanted to stay near the front,” Lustgarten said about the first half of the race. “I didn’t want to lead as much as I did, because there was a pretty strong wind out there, so I was kind of going easy over the hills to let them catch me and stay behind them, tactically.”
For a time the 24-year-old Lustgarten said his nerves kept him from pushing the pace.
“I didn’t want to lead,” he added. “I know those guys would come in strong, I didn’t want to be too cocky, go out too fast and get caught, I really wanted to avoid that. Those guys are fast, I knew that any one of us could have won. I was nervous.”
The Burlington, Vt., native clad in a green-highlighted suit stole the 30 k classic show, winning in 1:21:06. Lap by lap, his performance became one of staying with the leaders to one of simply listening to his body and exploiting his good skis and eventually lighting out on his own.
Lap 6 was decisive.
“David Norris was kind of with me for a little bit, Lap 6, and I kinda gapped him a bit over some climbs, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna try to go for it, I’m feeling good, I don’t want to get it down to a sprint,’ and I just sent it.”
Norris hung on. Lustgarten’s move broke the others in the group but simply turned the screws slowly on Norris. At the start of the seventh lap, despite Lustgarten’s accelerations, Norris could be seen three meters arrears of Lustgarten.
Come the eighth lap, it was Lustgarten’s race. Norris finished second, 37.5 seconds later, and Freeman placed third, 1:42.6 minutes behind Lustgarten. Patterson, Gregg and Johnsgaard finished in fourth (+1:55.4), fifth (+2:03.7) and sixth (+2:43.8), respectively.
“I was kinda struggling the first two laps,” Norris told FasterSkier after the race. “But my skis were really fast, and no kick, but I could run the hills and kinda keep catching back up on the downhills and flats, just with the speed of my skis. At that point, once the things kind of settled in, I was struggling on the hills, but my skis continued to be fast.”
Norris didn’t fold with less-than-ideal kick, but he had other ambitions.
“I was hoping to win. That was my goal,” Norris said. “I’ve been on the podium several times I was hoping this year was the year to finally win.”
In fact, if Las Vegas ran odds on distance classic events at U.S. nationals, Norris’s name would be a wise bet: Tuesday’s second place for Norris was his fifth national podium and his third in the 30 k classic.
At 36, Freeman remains a skiing force. But by the sixth lap, the four-time Olympian was 17 seconds behind Lustgarten, but still jousting with Patterson and Gregg. The trio remained together until the eighth lap when Freeman gambled.
“Scott just had great energy, his skis were really fast, but he was slick,” Freeman said of his podium-making move. “And then I was skiing with Brian, who also had really good kick and Scott who had terrible kick, so I actually tried to drop Brian on the second hill, which I saw him struggling on the last lap. And then I tried to drop Patterson on Hermod’s [hill] when he didn’t have any kick. I was suffering, and I was definitely strategizing. I was really glad that Patterson didn’t have any answer on Hermod’s, because my move was partially a bluff.”
Freeman’s bluff was just enough for third. The four time Olympian had his eyes set on 2017 World Championships beginning in late February in Lahti, Finland.
“The ultimate goal for my season this year was to race the 15 k at World Championships. You know, fourth and third at [this year’s] nationals, it’s going to be a real long shot to get selected for that,” Freeman said. “In that respect, I am disappointed. For how I felt in these races, I felt strong, I felt I skied well. I think the field is competitive, we’re definitely getting better as a nation. Still in it, I’ll be back next year and hopefully make the Olympic team.”
For as much as Freeman has been an icon on the U.S nordic ski scene and consistent podium threat, Lustgarten was a dark horse.
“It’s a surprise,” Lustgarten said of his win. Considering SuperTours, NorAms, and U.S. nationals, it was his first win. His first podium came last month at the SuperTour 15 k classic in West Yellowstone, Mont.
SoHo’s course is cut into an open side of a mountain, where much of the 30 k course was visible from a single vantage point. On this blustery, monochromatic day, it was all Green.
— Gerry Furseth, Ian Tovell, and Gabby Narajna contributed