ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – A first-time racer and a former champion returning after a long absence skied to convincing victories in the Anchorage Tour Festival 30-kilometer race, née Tour of Anchorage 50 k, at Kincaid Park on Sunday. David Norris, last seen coming out of a group sprint to win the American Birkebeiner two weeks ago, and Holly Brooks, previously seen in two Olympic games but not at this race since 2009, each won by roughly three minutes on a sunny morning at Kincaid.
The Tour of Anchorage is traditionally a 50-kilometer, point-to-point race, ranging from the Chugach foothills on the east side of town to Kincaid Park at the west edge of the Anchorage metropolitan area. In between, racers traverse ski trails, city greenbelts, and bike trails until they reach the Coastal Trail multiuse trail, at which point they cover 15 k along the shores of the Pacific Ocean before ascending a hill to finish at Kincaid. It is truly a tour through the heart of Anchorage.
This year’s race, like every other race held under the auspices of the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage (NSAA) in this snow-sparse winter, occurred exclusively on the snowmaking loop centered on the Kincaid Stadium. This year’s Tour presented 10 laps around a 3 k course, making for a 30 k freestyle race. It was more a Tour of the Snowmaking Loop than a Tour of Anchorage. Conditions on the course were very good at the outset, with recent fresh snow mixed into a solid base of manmade snow, though the steepest uphills and downhills broke down into sugar snow over glare ice by midway through the race.
Norris, who skis for Alaska Pacific University (APU) and who won the men’s race by nearly three minutes in 1:14:51.0, seemed undeterred in his first time racing the Tour of Anchorage. In an email, he wrote, “This would have been my first year to do the actual Tour. … Due to the low snow year I was glad to have the Tour Festival 30km race on the manmade loop. I am glad the NSAA hosted the event even though we couldn’t do the formal course.”
The men’s podium was all APU blue. Jack Novak was second in 1:17:32.9. Andre Lovett followed roughly a minute later in 1:18:27.9.
Norris skied most of the race by himself, after breaking away from Novak late in the first lap. Norris wrote of his race strategy, “I went out hard from the start to practice that kind of effort. Jack stayed with me for almost the entire first lap before settling in.”
Norris had no other immediate competitors for the remaining nine laps and 27 k.
But with a field of 148 skiers on a 3 k loop (60 racers for the 30 kilometer race and 88 for the contemporaneously held 15 kilometer race), Norris had plenty of company out there. As Norris graciously wrote, “I thought I skied steady and was able to re-accelerate through corners or after congestion due to all the different levels of racers on a short 3km loop. I really apologize if I ever startled anyone while making a pass. I tried to be really careful not to be a jerk while making passes today.”
“I tried to be really careful not to be a jerk while making passes today.” — David Norris, after winning 2016 Anchorage Tour 30 k
While Sunday was the first time in this race for Norris, a Fairbanks native, the 2016 Tour marked a homecoming of sorts for Anchorage’s Holly Brooks. Brooks won the flagship 50 k Tour in both 2008 and 2009, at a time in her ski career when she was an APU coach first and a competitive skier second. Better results, a spot on the U.S. Ski Team, and nomination to the 2010 and 2014 U.S. Olympic teams famously followed. Brooks then spent last winter traveling the world, competing in the FIS Marathon Cup/Worldloppet series on three continents. She is now pursuing a degree, buying a house, and likely training somewhat less. But she is still winning ski races.
Brooks, who remains affiliated with APU, finished first among the women in 1:24:46.1. Her main competition came from fellow APU skier Lauren Fritz, who finished slightly less than three minutes back in 1:27:39.0. Citizen racer Sally Hokanson was third in 1:40:21.4.
While Norris went out hard from the start and gapped Novak early, Brooks and Fritz skied together for a majority of the morning. Brooks started to pull away about three quarters of the way through the race, she recounted in an in-person interview.
“It might have been on lap 7 of 10. It was on [the downhill on] the backside [of the course], because my skis were running pretty well,” she said. “I noticed I had a little bit of a gap. I just put a few extra strides in and a good tuck and a big push, and opened up a little bit of a gap.”
Brooks kept her lead to the finish, aided by her own observations and splits from others.
“There’s a little out and back, where you can kind of get an idea if someone’s there or not, so I saw her there the first time after I’d made the move,” Brooks said. “And then I got a couple of back splits after that that I had a little bit of a gap.”
Brooks appreciated the chance to be back racing on home soil, after many winters spent skiing anywhere but in Alaska.
“It’s nice to be home,” she said. “I had my husband out here giving me feeds, so that’s always fun, and a lot of local people out there on the course too. There was a lot of traffic out there today, the 30 k and the 15 k on the same loop, and some of the downhills were a little sketchy with the traffic, but it was manageable.”
A Kincaid lap race may not be particularly exciting, but it was certainly a change of pace from Brooks’ schedule last spring. When asked where she had been one year ago this month, the peripatetic Brooks had to think for a while before answering.
“Last year I wasn’t home for another five weeks,” she finally said. “Let’s see… I was at the Engadin this weekend last year I think. And then after that I think there was the Norwegian Birkie. And then, I can’t remember if there was something between that and going to Siberia. So, a much different year.”
While Norris was racing the Tour for the first time, the rest of the day’s podium finishers were no strangers to this race. Among the men, second-place finisher Novak won the race in 2015 (when it held as a criterium with a 50-minute time limit), and was third in 2014. On the women’s side, second-place Fritz was also second in 2014. And third-place Hokanson was second in the 2015 criterium, and (as Sally Johnson) won the 25 k classic race in 2008.
So what are the winners’ plans for the rest of the season?
“I will be training in Fairbanks until I leave for Spring Series in Vermont, which will conclude my season,” Norris wrote. “My season has progressed and I think I have made a good step forward. My goal at the beginning of the season was to earn a spot on the Canadian Tour World Cups, but with just average races in December and November I wasn’t able to secure a position.”
Meanwhile, Brooks had upcoming spring marathon racing goals, including either the Kachemak Bay Nordic Ski Marathon in Homer or the Sonot Kkaazoot in Fairbanks. But as of early Sunday afternoon, standing in the Kincaid parking lot, the March sun finally taking the chill off what had been a brisk morning, she had more immediate plans. “Oh, and I’m anxious for that sauna to get nice and hot,” she observed, gesturing toward a portable sauna that had been towed into the parking lot next to the beer garden. “And the barrel hot tub.”