ANCHORAGE, Alaska — So how cold was it at Kincaid Park Sunday morning for the last of four Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA) races held in the Anchorage area this week?
“It’s f—ing cold,” said women’s winner Merete Myrseth of the University of Utah. “It was cold,” said men’s winner Moritz Madlener of the University of Denver. “Now we fly back to Denver and get warm.” [Unavailable for comment] were the two skiers who required an ambulance for cold-related injuries following the women’s race.
For the record, temperatures were consistently at or above zero degrees Fahrenheit all morning, so readily FIS-legal. (The International Ski Federation, which sanctioned all of this week’s races, has a temperature cutoff of -20° C, or -4° F, in order for a race to be held.) The real problem was the wind, which blew steadily from the north at around 10mph all morning.
Unless the real problem was the humidity. The city of Anchorage is, well, a natural anchorage, bordered by Cook Inlet to the north and Turnagain Arm to the south. The Kincaid stadium is well under a kilometer away from the shores of the ice-choked Pacific Ocean; athletes were within 150 meters of the Turnagain Arm beach at one point on Sunday’s race course. Humidity was over 90% all morning. By any measure, conditions were somewhere between “raw” and “brutal.”
At least atmospherically speaking. The ski trails were in superb shape following 30″ of snow in the month of January, if slow due to temperatures below zero Saturday night into Sunday morning.
The first race of the day, the men’s 20-kilometer freestyle mass start, saw its start moved one hour later due to cold conditions. In that time the temperature rose from -2° F to zero.
When the race started, Denver’s Madlener quickly moved near the front as the field of 42 racers headed north out of the stadium to make their way up Elliott’s Climb. (For Anchorage readers, or anyone else familiar with Kincaid: the course went up Elliott’s and down Rollercoaster; up and down the Gong Hill; through the lower tunnel out to Mize’s Folly; take the first right onto Hairpin; take the first left at the top of Hairpin onto the 2.9 k Lekisch. Men did two laps of this, for 15 k, then a final 5 k lap that cut out Elliott’s. Women did two laps of the 7.5 k course for 15 k total.)
“I was in the front pack pretty much the whole race,” Madlener recounted in an in-person interview with FasterSkier. “Tried to, you know, set the pace every now and then to get rid of people. Which worked pretty well; I think four of us got away after maybe 12 [kilometers]. And then we stayed together for the rest of the race, and then the last couple hills we kind of separated.”
Madlener ultimately crossed the line in 52:39.2, edging teammate Dag Frode Trollebø by 2.6 seconds. Martin Bergström of the University of Utah followed in third (+10.4). “That’s a great feeling” to share the podium with a teammate, Madlener told FasterSkier.
Madlener recalled that he had “a really good start” to his season at U.S. nationals – he earned two podiums there, second in the classic sprint and third in the 15 k skate – before he got sick “and had to catch up. And the races so far here in Alaska weren’t that great,” he continued, “so I was very happy to win today.”
This week marked Madlener’s second time racing in Alaska; he previously competed in the last RMISA race series held in Anchorage, in early 2015. That week was marked by warm weather, rain, and shortened courses.
Madlener is a fan, of Alaska in general and particularly the full courses that athletes got to race on this year.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Madlener said of Alaska. “It’s like – I would say it’s like a big theme park; people are surfing and flying around and fishing. I really enjoy it. And the courses – again, two years ago, were not so great, but this year there’s a lot of snow, they’re pretty amazing courses. Like a rollercoaster.”
Sunday’s race course featured a total of eight A-climbs for the men in 20 k, and six A-climbs for the women in 15 k. There was an average of 34 meters of climbing per kilometer on the main 7.5 k loop.
Four racers, roughly a tenth of the field, were DNFs in the men’s race, likely due to a combination of the hills and the cold. Two skiers did not finish the women’s race. An additional eight opted not to start.
The first words out of Madlener’s mouth when asked about his race were, “It was – first of all it was cold, obviously.” Myrseth, the women’s winner who skis for Utah, voiced similar sentiments: “It was cold, really cold,” she began her race summary. (By the time of the women’s race start at 12:30 p.m., temperatures had climbed to 1.6° F.)
“I was unsure if I would start the whole race because it was so cold, actually too cold for me,” Myrseth told FasterSkier in a brief in-person interview while shivering in the windy stadium soon after her finish. “But it went really easy in the first half of the lap,” she continued, and she felt good. “So I decided to speed up when I came to hills”; there Myrseth created a gap that she kept all the way to the finish.
But not without difficulty. “I didn’t feel good,” Myrseth said. “My feet, I couldn’t feel my feet, it was so cold. So I had to just, like, double pole over the hills, I was so tight in my feet and lost my balance, it was just so hard to keep balancing. But I made it to the finish line. And I am so happy that Guro took the second place.”
Myrseth crossed the finish line in 46:28.3 for 15 k, double poling the last few meters to the finish. As she noted, she was followed by teammate Guro Jordheim in a close second (+0.5). Christina Rolandsen of the University of Colorado was not far back in third (+1.8). There was then a 30-second gap to a chase pack containing places fourth through sixth. 32 skiers finished the women’s race.
This week marked Myrseth’s first time racing in Anchorage or even visiting Alaska. So what did she think? “I love it,” said the native of Øverbygd, Norway. “It’s f—ing cold, but it reminds me of Norway, my home. I’m used to it. But it’s so nice; I really like it here.”
Sunday’s race marked the fourth race of the week in the Anchorage area for RMISA athletes. Recaps of the first three races follow below.
1.4 k freestyle sprint
On Tuesday, February 7, RMISA athletes, plus a handful of skiers from Alaska Pacific University (APU) with sterling sprint credentials, raced a 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint at Kincaid. Conditions were impeccable, with pure blue skies, temperatures in the high teens, and last month’s fresh snow mixed in with the base of manmade snow covering the sprint loop.
In the women’s race, Merete Myrseth of Utah posted the fastest time in qualifying, 3:25.77, followed by Becca Rorabaugh of APU (+2.14) and Utah’s Guro Jordheim (+3.65). All three skiers made the A-Final, where Myrseth took her first victory of the week. The overall podium, which was also the college podium, was Jordheim in second and Anika Miller (Montana State) in third. Casey Wright (UAA), Rorabaugh, and Jasmi Joensuu (Denver) were fourth through sixth.
Times were not available for any of the heats.
In the men’s race, Dag Frode Trollebø (Utah) set the pace in qualifying in 2:48.80. He was followed by APU’s Logan Hanneman (+1.52) and Utah’s Martin Bergström (+3.33).
Three of the six skiers in the men’s A-Final were locals (in the broad sense of being from Alaska; the Hanneman brothers are from Fairbanks, not Anchorage). And it was the Hanneman show in the final, as the elder Reese Hanneman took the victory over his younger brother Logan. Trollebø was third. Kevin Bolger of Utah, last seen winning the classic sprint national championship at Soldier Hollow, Bergström, and APU’s Forrest Mahlen rounded out the final finisher spots in that order.
The collegiate podium for the men’s race was Trollebø, Bolger, and Bergström. (APU is not an NCAA-affiliated athletic program.)
While sprinting may be on the horizon for NCAA skiing in general, it had yet to make an appearance on the RMISA circuit.
“This was the first sprint that I know of in my, what – 10 years of RMISA coaching now and we’ve never had just a straight invitational sprint,” University of Alaska Anchorage Head Nordic Coach Andrew Kastning told FasterSkier in person following Sunday’s distance skate races.
Kastning said that the addition of a sprint in Anchorage stemmed from a desire for a change of pace, and to avoid repetition in a single week with four races. “So when we sat down last spring and were deciding the schedule,” he said, “we’d been hearing for a few years now from our athletes that the fives, 10s, 15s, and 20s [kilometer race format] every weekend just kind of got boring, and we wanted to mix it up. So we counted the qualifying round as an invite at U.S. Nationals, and then we ran the full sprint [this week] and counted that. … So we just wanted to mix it up a little up here. Especially with four races in a short period of time, you don’t want to be doing all the same distances and the same courses.”
So did the college athletes appreciate the chance to contest a sprint race in the middle of the RMISA race season? “Some of them do,” Kastning said. “There’s always a sprint specialist in the crowd who gets to shine. And I know there were kids on the podium, or in the top-10 at least, that aren’t normally in a distance race. So it allows some athletes to play to their strengths and shine a bit when they maybe wouldn‘t in a 20 k race, they can in a sprint.”
On the non-collegiate side, APU skier Reese Hanneman, a sprint specialist, was thrilled to have a mid-season sprint race with high-level competition on his adopted home course. “I wish there were more sprint races in the middle of the season,” Hanneman told the Alaska Dispatch News.
4 x 5 k classic relay
The next day, Wednesday, February 8, skiers made the 45-minute drive down Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Girdwood for a classic relay race. Girdwood is perhaps best known in ski circles as home to the Alyeska Resort alpine area, which boasts an average annual snowfall of 669″ and (when it’s clear) sweeping views of the mountains and glaciers overlooking Turnagain Arm. Publications as diverse as Powder magazine and National Geographic have lauded Girdwood as a quintessential locals ski town (“Best For: Off-the-beaten-path powder hounds with an aversion to glamour”).
Girdwood also has a proud nordic heritage, though you have to look a little harder to find it. It is home to APU skier Chelsea Holmes, who will be competing at World Champs in Lahti later this month. And it hosted the 1969 Junior Nationals, on trails cleared from the continent’s northernmost coastal rainforest for this purpose.
As discussed in more detail on former U.S. Ski Team member Tim Kelley’s invaluable blog, Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project, the trails faded back into the woods at some point during the 1970s. High-level nordic skiing in Girdwood then languished for over thirty years, until the early part of this decade, when the Girdwood Nordic Ski Club oversaw construction of a new 5 k loop. The reborn nordic trails have since hosted a handful of local high school races in periods of poor snow conditions in Anchorage, but it is safe to say that Wednesday’s relay was the most significant cross-country ski race held in Girdwood since 1969.
Athletes raced in a mixed-gender 4 x 5-kilometer classic relay in the epochal event, man/woman/man/woman. It was once again APU leading the way, as the team of Reese Hanneman, Rosie Frankowski, Logan Hanneman, and Rorabaugh crossed the finish line for the victory in 57:33.7. Second overall, and first among collegiate teams, was Colorado (Mads Ek Strøm, Jesse Knori, Petter Reistad, Christina Rolandsen), 25.6 seconds back. They were followed by Utah (Bergström, Jordheim, Bolger, Myrseth) (+1:02.6). Fourth overall, and third for the NCAA podium, was Denver (Trollebø, Linn Eriksen, Moritz Madlener, Joensuu) (+1:25.4).
“Everybody was psyched on a new format and a new trail in a beautiful location,” Kastning told FasterSkier of Wednesday’s race.
Kastning added that the relay, like the previous day’s sprint, was new territory for RMISA racing. “We’ve never had a relay that’s counted for anything,” he said. “I think the relay captures college skiing well, with the mixed gender and the team aspect, men and women working together to try and reach the podium.”
5/10 k classic individual start
Three days later, Saturday, February 11, skiers were back in Anchorage for individual start distance classic races, 5 k for the women and 10 k for the men. Race time was moved forward from 10 a.m. to noon, which allowed temperatures to rise from 2° F up to 8°.
Saturday’s course was by some measures the hilliest of the week, clocking in at a healthy 39 meters of climbing per kilometer of distance. The upper limit for FIS homologation is 40 m/km. (The course covered the final two-thirds of Sunday’s 7.5 k course – notably Gong Hill, Mize’s Folly, Lekisch.)
Rorabaugh started near the end of the field in the women’s 5 k classic, which had 39 starters. Two A-Climbs later she crossed the finish line in 15:47.0, which held up as the fastest time of the day. Colorado skier Knori was second (+4.2), followed by her teammate Rolandsen in third (+8.2). Jordheim of Utah (+13.8) was fourth overall to round out the collegiate podium, just ahead of APU’s Frankowski in fifth (+15.0).
It was Rorabaugh’s first 5 k classic FIS race in this country in over five years.
The men raced two laps of the same course for a 10 k classic. Denver’s Trollebø was again on the podium, posting the day’s fastest time of 26:51.60. He was followed by Utah’s Bolger in second (+15.0) and Colorado’s Reistad in third (+19.3). Utah skier Bergström (+29.2), immediately followed by Denver skier Madlener (+29.4), rounded out the top five.
Overall team results
The week’s four races were technically scored as parts of two college invitational race series. In the Seawolf Invitational, encompassing the sprint and relay from the first part of the week, plus two alpine races held at Alyeska in January, the University of Utah took the overall team title with 665 points. The University of Denver (569 points) and the University of Colorado (549 points) followed. The order was the same if the standings are broken out by exclusively nordic results: Utah, Denver, Colorado.
The weekend’s distance races combined with two other January alpine races to make up the week’s second race series, the UAA Invitational. Combined standings were unchanged here, as Utah (661 points) took the victory over Denver (636 points) and Colorado (544 points). On nordic results alone the ranking was the same: Utah, Denver, Colorado.
RMISA racing continues with the RMISA Championships/NCAA West Regional in Colorado in late February, then (for qualifying skiers) NCAA Championships in New Hampshire in March. Nordic races will be held at Jackson Ski Touring Center.
Kastning explained that RMISA schools take their biennial trip to Alaska in years when NCAA Championships are set for the East Coast, “because it’s lower elevation. So other teams like to get some sea-level racing,” he said. “And so it helps our whole region do better I think at NCAAs, because you get some tempo racing, a different kind or style of racing than you do when you’re racing at 9,000 feet.”