HOUGHTON, Mich. — Kaitlynn Miller took charge of every heat she raced in during the women’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint on Saturday, and in doing so, earned her first national title in the final race of 2016 U.S. Cross Country Championships.
Miller, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, started the day with the fastest qualifying time of 4:19.42 minutes, 3.5 seconds faster than teammate Liz Guiney in second. The 24-year-old Miller went on to win her quarterfinal and semifinal en route to a commanding victory in the final over Anne Hart of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team and Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation), respectively.
Earlier this week in the freestyle sprint at nationals, Bender had edged Hart for the win, Craftsbury’s Caitlin Patterson placed third, and Miller finished 0.7 seconds off the podium in fourth. Not all was lost: Miller had finished second to Patterson in the 10 k classic the day before for her first-ever podium at nationals.
But on Saturday, the 24-year-old Miller seized the opportunity to stand one step higher on the podium, made possible by a no-nonsense strategy.
The classic sprint was held on the same 1.5 k course as the freestyle sprint on Monday, featuring a descent at the start, followed by a punchy climb and descent and then a long uphill grind to the finish.
Miller’s strategy was to take it out hard so she could lead and have more control of her race.
“I really like to be able to pick my line on the downhills and choose my track on the way up,” she explained after the final. “It keeps me away from some of the mayhem.”
Her aggressive approach was rewarded as she won both her quarterfinal and semifinal, first by 0.17 seconds ahead of Patterson and then by 1.09 seconds over Bender.
“I figured if it worked in the quarterfinal and the semifinal, I would do it in the final,” Miller said.
Again in the final, Miller took it out hard from the line while Hart tucked in behind her. Together they gapped the field, making it a two-woman race for the title.
“I knew Kaitlynn Miller was having a really great day so my tactic was to get right on her and hopefully pull it off in the end,” Hart, 23, said.
Behind them, Bender, Patterson, Becca Rorabaugh of Alaska Pacific University (APU), and Natalia Naryskina of Central Cross Country (CXC) jostled for the remaining places.
Bender found herself in last heading down the first hill after picking a slow track off the start.
“I actually got gapped a bit down that first hill and had to work a bit harder to catch up, but I charged the last hill to get into third,” she explained.
Bender’s surge wasn’t quite enough to catch Miller and Hart, and she finished third, 4.19 seconds off Miller’s winning time of 4:16.53.
As the two race leaders sprinted up into the stadium and into the finishing straight, it was all Miller.
“We came to the finishing straightaway together and I swung out to try and pass her, but I just didn’t have it today,” Hart said. Miller held her off by 1.24 seconds for the win.
For Hart, it was her second runner-up performance in as many sprints this week.
“I really wanted to win, but if you would have told me a year ago that I would have been disappointed with second, I wouldn’t know what you were talking about,” she said. “It’s a great, competitive group of women and U.S. skiing is really taking off, especially on the women’s side, so any day you can be second is a good day.”
Following a freestyle sprint title on Monday, Bender achieved her second podium of the week in third.
“I am always hoping one of these years I’ll get a double-win in the sprints, but considering my classic sprinting has been touch and go, I’m happy with third,” Bender said. She has won two U.S. nationals skate sprints (2016 and 2014) as well as a classic sprint (2013) in her career.
Patterson had to recover from some tactical missteps when she found herself boxed out after a slow start and lost momentum when she was forced wide on the icy and washed-out downhill corner.
“At that point I had a free track in front of me, but not so much momentum or energy,” Patterson recalled. “I tucked behind Jennie and almost covered that move, but she had a little more energy than me coming into the final stretch.”
Patterson placed fourth, 2.28 seconds short of her fourth podium in four races this week after winning both distance races (the 10 k classic individual start and 20 k freestyle mass start).
Rorabaugh finished nearly 10 seconds after Patterson in fifth (+16.25). Like Patterson, she also said she made some sub-optimal tactical decisions in the final, which kept her from fighting for a podium.
“The course is more tricky when it is not as slow as last year,” Rorabaugh explained, referring to the heavy snowfall that made last year’s classic sprint at nationals in Houghton feel like an endurance race. “This year you need to make decisions about when to kick and when to double pole.
“In all honesty, I think people skied really well in the final,” she added. “People made good moves in the right places and I was just on my heels a bit.”
Naryskina followed in sixth (+29.94) after advancing to the final based on time, as a two-time “lucky loser” out of both her semifinal and quarterfinal.
Bender also attested to the strength of the field. “The other two girls [Miller and Hart] were striding really well,” she said. “I’m happy to be on the podium. It was a fight out there for sure.”
Patterson was thrilled for her teammate. “I could see her up ahead on the finishing straightaway ahead of Anne and even though I was suffering and trying to maybe catch third, I was so excited for her,” she recalled.
For Miller, this was the pinnacle of a week of personal bests.
“I am really excited. I was surprised, but I was looking forward to this race and I just went out there and gave it all I had,” she said. “I carried my momentum from my qualifier, through the heats and to the final.”
Miller’s results at 2016 nationals have elevated her to second in the overall SuperTour standings behind Patterson. As the overall leader, Patterson plans to race Period 3 of the World Cup and will depart for Europe in late January.
Period 2 SuperTour action will resume January 30-31 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
— Gabby Naranja contributed reporting